Holy Flying Circus Phonotrope (A Q & A with Jim Le Fevre)

I am excited to share The Holy Flying Circus Phonotrope, a remarkable art piece by Jim Le Fevre, a freelance director represented by Nexus Productions. I’d written about some of Jim’s other work previously and was thrilled when he was in touch earlier this summer to share a sneak peak of the Phonotrope, which was designed for the title sequence of a Comedy Docu-Drama, Holy Flying Circus, written by Tony Roche.

Here’s a great “making of” video that also shows a rough cut of the title sequence. Below, read all about it, including a brief Q and A with Jim.

Jim describes the technique as follows:
“The Phonotrope is a technique I created about five years ago involving a record player spinning at a fixed speed (45 revolutions per minute) and a camera filming at a fixed speed (25 frames per second) and a sequence of pictures laid out around the circumference which, when filmed, would create the illusion of animation. Previously my experiments had been restricted to record sized discs (those of 12 inches) which, by the workings of maths, limited the ‘frame’ size to about 1.8 cm. And the length of the animated loop to 1.3 seconds. To create a sequence that would tell a story over 90 seconds I realised that we needed to build upwards and outwards.”

The Holy Flying Circus Phonotrope stacks multiple layers of revolving sequences on top of one another, resulting in a much lengthier and complex animation. The resulting object is stunning (a huge wedding cake-shaped stack of over 2000 animated images). It’s enormous at over two meters tall, and so heavy that it required a 14” ball-bearing ring to spin (plus 10 seconds from start up to get it to its maximum speed (as well as 16 seconds to stop). The piece’s materiality and experimental qualities seem so well aligned with the spirit of Gilliam’s work.

Jim was kind enough to answer a few questions about the Phonotrope and the process of making it.

What was the most significant challenge to work through or problem to overcome in the design and construction of the piece?

I’d probably say that even though the practical and physical challenges (spinning around a hundred kilogram two meter tall wedding cake thing at a fixed speed) might seem more obvious, I was fairly confident that the theory of how the Phonotrope worked would follow ‘neatly’ through and Gordon Allen, who pretty much built the entire structure, is one of those people who just loves that kind of challenge.

He tried some early tests using drills to revolve a few shorter tiers of wood and then went on to buy the ball bearing ring (a beautiful piece of simple engineering) and use what we call a Motion Control Rig, basically a computer driven series of motors, to get the Phonotrope to an absolutely fixed speed.

Technically I’d say one of the biggest problems we had to overcome is what happens between the Phonotrope and the camera. The whole process works because the camera is taking pictures at a fixed speed (25 fps) as the disc spins round at a fixed speed (in this case it was actually 33rpm) and each picture is taken so fast that the sensor on the digital camera goes from top to bottom which makes the entire image lean to one side. The further out you go from the center of the spinning disc the faster the images move past the camera and in the end the entire image was leaning about 12 degrees. Luckily we managed to fix this in post!

The other challenge was that each loop is only 1.8 seconds long and the title sequence was about 90 seconds long so it was obvious from an early point that we had to find a way to tell a story using more than this. In the same vein, all the Phonotrope experiments I had done before were on 30 cm discs which meant the “frame” that we were using was about 2 cm., far too small to be able to work in. Moving upwards and outwards was the obvious way to go although with each cm one expanded outwards it had massive implications on the budget (size of frames to be printed, cost of wood for discs etc).

The final frame size at the bottom was a very healthy 8.2 cm wide but equally the diameter of the disc was 1.2 meters. To create the feeling of a progressing story it was really useful to be able to use lighting to change during the slow camera movement. Indeed Matt Day, the DOP who shot the Phonotrope created such beautiful lighting for the whole thing, he?s the reason it looks so nice! (Thanks Matt!!)

Unlike nineteenth-century optical toys, which could typically only show one animated band or disc at a time (or, in the case of the zoetrope, one band and disc simultaneously), this latest version of the Phonotrope technique opens up the possibility to depict much lengthier sequences. What’s next in the development of the Phonotrope technique? What do you think the limits are for upward and/or outward expansion, and are you curious to experiment with other variations of the technique?

Actually, funnily enough, what I did isn’t anything different to what could have been done before! The only big variation that I have achieved is possibly the amount of frames (and therefore the length of loop) being increased, however that still could have been achieved right from the start as it’s really only the amount of slits on a traditional zoertrope that define the amount of frames. Any ambitious Zoetropist (is that a word?) could have created a really large drum and increased the slits and therefore increased the amount of frames.

Equally they could have worked upwards and in three dimensions too! Again, the only real twist that I have achieved has been that the viewport is controllable through it being a camera. If one were to do the same traditionally the viewer would have had to move themselves up and down to follow the story. I’d point people towards Peter Hudson’s work at the burning man festival (here’s his site) and Gregory Barsamian’s Zoetropes to show how people have been doing this for years! And brilliant they are too, very inspirational.

As for what’s next, during the process of working this one out I had a very nice idea about shifting revoltion speeds, which most definitely is something that traditional zoetropes couldn’t do, but I’ll have to keep that to my chest for now.

Do you have a favorite “layer” of the piece’s animated sequence that was particularly fun or challenging to design?

Absolutely! The layer which goes up the side of the BBC Tower (it’s layer 4) which has Terry Gilliam style windows pulling in and out like drawers in a desk and a cherub flying up and around them is definitely my favourite.

I love it because it properly shows what you can do with the physical dimensions and I’m only sad that you never saw it in its detail. Also what I love is that the cherub is by far the longest loop, containing four loops within its run. It was incredibly fiddly as they all had to be registered by eye on toothpicks and stuck on with superglue.

The Phonotrope (or most of it) is now on display in the foyer at Nexus Productions in Shoreditch. Are there currently any plans for a permanent place of display or inclusion in a museum collection or archive?

That is an interesting point! It’s such an enormous and fragile structure (a lot of the frames fell off during transit back to Nexus) that it’s a very hard thing to store. I’m hoping that Nexus is happy to have it there for a while (it is quite a fancy piece to have as you walk in so hopefully they don’t mind), but to be honest it’s hard to find a space for it. If there are any London/Uk based people interested in housing it I’d be more than happy to talk to them about it!

In actual fact that is a common and very pressing problem that has arisen in the animation world and is currently being addressed by Paul Well the head of ABAC, the Association of British Animation Archives, where everyone is realising that there is a lot of large (and small) scale bits of animation heritage that are beginning to drop off the face of the world purely for storage. If ABAC finally ever gets a home it’ll be straight in there, and hopefully with a turning mechanism and a stroboscope for all to see it working!

Read more about The Holy Flying Circus Phonotrope (as well as Jim’s other great work and his findings) on his website and his blog, where you’ll find much more documentation of the process.

Thanks very much to Jim!

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Holy Flying Circus Phonotrope (A Q & A with Jim Le Fevre)

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