1

Origins

OPTICAL PRINCIPLES

The beginning of film history is the end of something else: the successive stages of technological development throughout the nineteenth century whereby simple optical devices used for entertainment grew into sophisticated machines which could convincingly represent empirical reality in motion. Both toys and machines were dependent for their illusions upon interactive optical phenomena known as persistence of vision and the phi phenomenon. The former is a characteristic of human perception, known to the ancient Egyptians but first described scientifically by Peter Mark Rogêt in 1824, whereby the brain retains images cast upon the retina of the eye for approximately one-twentieth to one-fifth of a second beyond their actual removal from the field of vision. The latter, whose operation was discovered by the Gestalt psychologist Max Wertheimer in 1912, is the phenomenon which causes us to see the individual blades of a rotating fan as a unitary circular form or the different hues of a spinning color wheel as a single, homogeneous color. Together, persistence of vision and the phi phenomenon allow us to see a succession of static images as a single unbroken movement and permit the illusion of continuous motion upon which cinematography is based. Persistence of vision prevents us from seeing the dark space between the film frames by causing "flicker fusion" when the frequency with which the projection light is broken approaches fifty times per second; without this effect, our eyes would perceive the alternation of light and dark on the screen as each projected image succeeded the next, as, in fact, was the case in the earliest days of the movies, which became known colloquially as "flickers" or "flicks" for this very reason. The phi phenomenon, also known as the "stroboscopic effect," creates apparent movement from frame to frame at optimal projection speeds of 12 to 24 frames per second (fps). This much is known, but perceptual psychologists still understand very little about the neural and cognitive processes involved in the perception of motion.

The frames of a strip of film are a series of individual still photographs which the motion-picture camera, as it was perfected by the Edison Laboratories in 1892 and as it exists today, imprints one at a time. The succession of frames recorded in the camera, when projected at the same or a similar speed, creates the illusion of continuous motion essential to the cinema. (Individual frames are actually held longer before the projec-

1.1 The Thaumatrope.

-1-

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A History of Narrative Film
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