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October 06
2021

ISSUE

Fall 2021

LENNY LIPTON: PROJECTING HISTORY THROUGH THE MAGIC LANTERN

By TREVOR HOGG

Images courtesy of Lenny Lipton, except where noted. 
Lenny Lipton, Author/Filmmaker/Inventor

The cover of The Cinema in Flux: The Evolution of Motion Picture Technology from the Magic Lantern to the Digital Era by Lenny Lipton (Springer).

Louis and Auguste Lumière invented the film camera known as the Cinématographe that also functioned as a photo developer and projector.

A poem left in the typewriter belonging to Cornell University classmate Peter Yarrow, who would in turn compose accompanying music, had a huge impact on Lenny Lipton, as the song royalties for “Puff the Magic Dragon” have provided a lifetime of financial security. “It’s a weird story but true!” notes Lipton, who spent a decade-long odyssey of researching and writing his homage to cinematic innovators, titled The Cinema in Flux: The Evolution of Motion Picture Technology from the Magic Lantern to the Digital Era. Lipton is a kindred spirit, being a pioneer of stereography and founding the StereoGraphics Corporation in 1980, which two decades later was acquired by Real D Cinema. The physics graduate developed the first electronic stereoscopic visualization eyewear known as CrystalEyes, which has been used for molecular modeling, aerial mapping, and to remotely drive the Mars Rovers. “I saw 3D movies and comic books as a kid in the early 1950s which got me interested in the stereographic medium. 

“When I approached Springer, I thought I had died and gone to heaven,” remarks Lipton. “I wanted a low-cost book that was one volume and had a lot of color. They sent me samples of their books that were beautiful. I found a great editor in Sam Harrison and we worked on the book together. I thought I was done, but you see the book differently when you’re starting to lay it out. No matter how smart you are there are things that you can’t envision. I kept finding things that I could fix and illustrations to be improved. 

During the 18 months of working with Sam and the production department, I made 9,000 changes to the manuscript that were big and little. I’m a much better copy editor than a proofreader!” 

Considered to be the inventor of special effects in movies, Georges Méliès is pictured in his studio located in Montreuil, France circa 1897.

“The Cinema in Flux calls upon my years of doing what I did. I became a self-taught filmmaker and an entrepreneur. I raised a lot of money for my company; I ran it, registered numerous patents, and had a lot of experience in product development. It was almost like I was training to write this. I do empathize with the inventors and their struggles. It is a book about inventors. I don’t know how anybody becomes an inventor. You’re probably wired that way at birth.”

—Lenny Lipton, Author of The Cinema in Flux 

Appropriately, a Hollywood icon known for developing and producing technology to improve the theatrical experience wrote the foreword. “I’m closer to Douglas Trumbull than most people in the world in terms of our careers. I wished that he lived in Los Angeles, but we do see each other often. We are a lot alike.” There is a personal connection to the subject matter. “That’s the beautiful thing about it. The Cinema in Flux calls upon my years of doing what I did. I became a self-taught filmmaker and an entrepreneur. I raised a lot of money for my company; I ran it, registered numerous patents, and had a lot of experience in product development. It was almost like I was training to write this. I do empathize with the inventors and their struggles. It is a book about inventors. I don’t know how anybody becomes an inventor. You’re probably wired that way at birth.”

A color frame from A Trip to the Moon by Georges Méliès is compared to a hand-colored Magic Lantern slide.

Part of the motive to write The Cinema in Flux for Lipton was to correct a misconception about the history of cinema. “There has been a tendency in the past for film scholars to think that everything before Thomas Edison’s camera and the Lumières’ Cinématographe is prehistory. But I didn’t view it that way. The real start of what today we consider to be movies occurred on 1659 with [Dutch physicist] Christiaan Huygens’ invention of the magic lantern. Very rapidly people learned how to produce movies and do shows. I would define movies as the projection of moving images on a screen.” The origin of the book occurred during the week of Christmas in 2009. “I got invited to do a talk on stereoscopic cinema at La Cinémathèque française in Paris and was lucky enough to arrive at a moment where they were having an exhibit in their museum about the magic lantern and had demonstrations of the technology. At that time, I didn’t know I was going to write about it.

“I had no idea what the outcome would be,” admits Lipton. “The text is about 400,000 words and the book is 800 pages. I didn’t have an outline. I just headed down the road.” The historical narrative is divided into three eras: Glass Cinema, Celluloid Cinema, and Television and the Digital Cinema. “It didn’t occur to me to use that classification system until I had been working on the book for five years. I had a single Word file that was gigantic. It became a good way to write a book like this because I was able to easily search the whole file to avoid redundancies and put things in a proper order. I had one slim notebook with notes in it. I bought about 400 books. I can’t say that I understood the subject well. I needed time to digest it. I had to keep making mistakes and correcting them. I went to the Margaret Herrick Library, which is part of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and was fortunate to have access to the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers digital library, in particular the journals that they began publishing in 1916. It’s a primary source, and every source has a bibliography where you get to more sources. The Library of Congress has about 50 to 60 years of motion picture periodicals. I also read about glass and celluloid.

By using his trolley camera for locomotion studies Étienne-Jules Marey pioneered the technique of performance capture.

Even the Lumière brothers were experimenting with 3D by creating viewing eyewear for their 35mm horizontal-traveling stereo format.

A Magic Lantern created by Ernest Plank circa 1990.

The ground floor of the West Orange, New Jersey lab belonging to renowned inventor Thomas Edison.

“There has been a tendency in the past for film scholars to think that everything before Thomas Edison’s camera and the Lumières’ Cinématographe is prehistory. But I didn’t view it that way. The real start of what today we consider to be movies occurred on 1659 with [Dutch physicist] Christiaan Huygens’ invention of the magic lantern. Very rapidly people learned how to produce movies and do shows.”

—Lenny Lipton, Author of The Cinema in Flux

“I understand this technology and tried to explain it in my own words to the reader,” notes Lipton. “The vast majority of quotes in the book have a historical importance that gives some insight into the inventor’s process and state of mind. Even when the inventor was lying, I thought that was interesting too.” The project provided an opportunity to recognize underappreciated contributions. “For the most part my account celebrates the best-known inventors who were by prior scholars attributed correctly.” There are certain controversial figures like Thomas Edison. “The problem with Edison is by inventing the phonograph, an electronical distribution system, a very good lightbulb, and the first motion picture camera, he invented modern entertainment, and there is no one who can take it away from him. The guy who is most overlooked is Theodore Case who essentially invented optical sound on film as it was used for almost a century. His technology was licensed to Western Electric which took the lion’s share of the credit.” 

An overlooked contributor to the technical advancements of motion pictures is Theodore Case who invented optical sound on film.

Inventor Erich Kästner with his prototype of the ARRIFLEX 35 in 1937

IMAX co-founder Graeme Ferguson operating a 15 perf 70mm camera.

Some of the significant inventions were not intended to be applied to cinema. “The guys who were working on celluloid for film were thinking about photography and snapshots,” notes Lipton. “The most interesting example of a serendipitous invention that profoundly influenced cinema is Joseph Plateau and the phenakistoscope. It is like a zoetrope. It is a contraption that you can spin and has slits. You look into a slit, then into a mirror and see a moving image. That was invented in about 1832, and it had nothing to do with cinema and the projection of images. But for the next 50 years, inventors applied that discovery of apparent motion and the phenakistoscope technology to the magic lantern. Celluloid cinema, which was with us for most of the recent history of cinema, is a hybrid of the phenakistoscope and magic lantern. You can produce the illusion of moving images by properly projecting or presenting frames that are incrementally different. Another curious aspect was that Joseph Plateau was going blind when he made the discovery.” 

The Cinema in Flux is an overview of the technological advancements in cinema. “It’s a sprawling subject,” observes Lipton. “Possibly any one of those chapters could have been turned into a book of this length, but I couldn’t do that. What we called cinema from the get-go included the projection of motion with sound and color. 

Stanley Kubrick and Garrett Brown shooting The Shining with a Steadicam.
Different ways to present movies to audiences, such as utilizing a geodesic dome rather than a traditional flat theatrical screen.

A phenakistoscope disc was used to create the illusion of motion from still images

3ality stereoscopic rig was used to shoot Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

“The vast majority of quotes in the book have a historical importance that gives some insight into the inventor’s process and state of mind. Even when the inventor was lying, I thought that was interesting too. For the most part my account celebrates the best-known inventors who were by prior scholars attributed correctly.” 

—Lenny Lipton, Author of The Cinema in Flux 

By 1790, reasonably bright and decent-sized painted color slides were being projected that had narrators, musicians and sound-effects people. Without getting into esoteric disciplines like costume design, makeup and visual effects, I thought that the broad characteristics of cinema that existed from inception were motion, color and sound. Therefore, I needed to explore the evolution of those technologies through 350 years.” The advances in technology have caused the cinematic language to evolve.

Picture editing literally went from being a cut-and-paste process to footage being digitally shifted around inside of a computer courtesy of software programs such as Avid Media Composer.
A restored autochrome portrait of Charlie Chaplin in Hollywood, circa 1917-1918. (Image courtesy of George Eastman House/Charles Zoller/The Image Works)

“The most dramatic thing that I can think of is the advances in digital cinema, which has had a profound effect on motion picture production and exhibition.” The next major stage for cinema may well be the shift from audience members being passive to active participants, much like video games and virtual reality. “In the long run [that] technology will become feasible. In the short run I don’t know.” 

As to whether inventors and their inventions are a product of the period in which they live, Lipton responds, “There is a current that runs through these inventors and maybe all inventors. There is an ornery tenaciousness to many inventors. Often when people invent something, their vision of how it will be deployed is different from the rest of the world. Edison gets credit for inventing the research lab, which is maybe one of his greatest inventions. The damnedest thing is after the research lab became part of corporate entities, they started calling inventors ‘engineers.’ In some cases, if a guy was highly qualified, he’d be called a scientist. Corporations would never call an employee an inventor, and there is a good reason for that. The term inventor implies ownership. Corporations don’t want inventors to have that. The idea of science as a separate discipline doesn’t occur until the mid-19th century. Most of the people I write about in the early days, which until relatively recently, I describe as autodidact, people who taught themselves, or polymaths or both. Polymaths are masters of many disciplines. The idea of a specialty is a new idea. There aren’t many maverick independent inventors in the world. 

“I have to tell you that if I wasn’t emotional and didn’t have strong feelings [about the subject matter], I couldn’t have written this book,” reflects Lipton. “I had to focus on the chemistry and the science because if you don’t have any of it then you don’t have movies. A lot of us in the motion picture industry don’t know the history of the technology, so I hope that the book will be a good read for them. It is a small contribution to humanity and human intelligence to be able to provide a book like this because I’m thankful of people who wrote the books, patents and articles; I believe in that tradition. I can only thank God that I had the wherewithal to do it. If we don’t support and help eccentric people who are working on strange projects then we will be less human.”


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