3.9 Animation & illusion

The purpose of this exercise was to explore the connection between animation and illusion.

Key words from the brief:

  • Athanasius Kircher
  • Magic lantern shows combined the magic of theatre and legend with the illusionary quality of the projections
  • How has animation maintained this connection with the idea of the ‘illusion’?
  • Find examples

What is a magic lantern show?

The origins of the magic lantern go back to 1662 when Dutch Scientist Christiaan Huygens (1629 – 1695) project images onto a wall using optical lenses. This resulted in the Magic Lantern.

A magic lantern show was a type of early slideshow where images painted on glass were moved, combined and projected. Initially the projectors used candle or gas light as the light source and the invention of electricity meant that the much brighter electric light could be used which resulted in larger brighter and clearer projections.

The 1840s saw the arrival of photography, and galls photographic slides started to be produced and used.

With these advances in technology, magic lantern shows became very popular during the Victorian period with theatres packed with people being entertained by a slideshow with live narration to add drama and context to the event.

What is the meaning of animation?

The etymology of the word ‘animate’ is derived from Latin and means ‘instilled with life’. The job of an animator is to bring a series of images or ideas to life by creating an illusion of movement. This is the distinguishing feature of animation.

How has animation maintained this connection with the idea of the ‘illusion’?

For most of the last 400-years animation has ben used as a source of entertainment. whether delivered in a Victorian theatre as a narrated sound and light performance, Walt Disney feature film projected in a cinema or streamed onto a mobile phone. The motivating force has been to entertain, educate or challenge.

The illusion has almost always been the contract between the viewer and what is being viewed. However, there are increasingly occasions where the purpose of animation is to blur the line between illusion and reality in a way that is fraudulent or ‘fake’.

Jame Cameron’s 2009 film ‘Avatar’ was a key moment in blurring the lines between on screen action that combined the real and the animated by achieving photorealistic effects requiring the development of new technologies.

Avatar before and after.jpg
Fig 1 – A before and after comparison from Avatar (2009)

Recent technological advances have resulted in computer processing power that enables lifelike ‘deepfake’ rendering of images where the line between truth and reality are ambiguous and sometimes impossible to discern. Deepfake is a video technique where manufactured images are superimposed over real images to create something new.

In an online article ‘AI Altered Video Is A Threat To Society. How do we Stop The Harm Deepfake Can Cause?’ Robert Anzalone discusses the extent to which deepfake video is being exploited my misinformation campaigns in attempts to influence political campaigns and public opinion.

He explains the challenge by saying that ‘The average person cannot identify 40% of deepfake videos’, and ‘More than 3.6 trillion YouTube views per year are from fake video sources‘.

To illustrate this, the website https://thispersondoesnotexist.com/ generates a new synthetic image everytime you refresh the page. The results are photorealistic and illustrate the just how convincing AI synthetic images can be.

This person doesnt exist.jpg
Fig 2- A synthetic face generated by AI

So my conclusion is that from its humble beginnings using candlelight and lanterns through to the use of sophisticated AI computer technology, animation has always been about creating an illusion. The difference that has emerged over the last 10-years is that animation is now being used to blur the boundaries between what is real and what is fake.


List of images

Figure 1 – A before and after comparison (2009) [Film still] In: Avatar At: https://digitalsynopsis.com/design/movies-before-after-green-screen-cgi/ (Accessed on: 23.12.19)

Figure 2- A synthetic face generated by AI (2019) At: https://thispersondoesnotexist.com/ (Accessed on: 23.12.19)


Anzalone, Robert (2019) AI Altered Video Is A Threat To Society. How do we Stop The Harm Deepfake Can Cause? At:  https://www.forbes.com/sites/robertanzalone/2019/11/01/ai-altered-video-is-a-threat-to-society–how-do-we-stop-the-harm-deepfakes-can-cause/ (Accessed on: 23.12.19)


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