Hey, Kickstarter! I’m Pablo. You may know me from my NeoLucida campaign. I’m an enthusiastic backer of Sha and Rachel’s utterly charming gifpop!. And since I clearly have a passion for resurrecting dead media, they have invited me to give a little art-historical context for their fabulous lenticular enterprise.
Why should gifpop!, a web service combining two well-tread novelty media, raise over $30,000? We’ve all seen gifs before—perhaps you’ve even passed your saturation point for the ubiquitous low-res looping animations. And lenticular technology? Fun times in Cracker Jack boxes and advertising images for generations.
But together? Sha and Rachel’s system for turning digital GIFs into handheld animations via little plastic ridges is charming and beguiling . Why? Perhaps it’s that special “ooh!” that happens digital material pops into the real world. Or maybe the resurrection of old (dead) media holds a special seduction for us in the 21st century. Or maybe this fundraising campaign taps into a much deeper fascination with optical phenomena.
Could gifpop! be more than a novelty? Could it be tapping into a much deeper fascination with optical phenomena? One that goes back centuries?
Gifpop! uses lenticular technology to make short, handheld animations. How does it work? Let’s say you have two images you want to animate. Image 1 and image 2 are split into strips and interlaced—strips from image 2 are spaced in between the strips of image one in an alternating pattern. This interlaced image is mounted to the rear of a clear glass or plastic sheet with corrugated ridges on the front:
When viewing the image from one angle, the linear lenses focus your vision only to the strips from image 1. Pivot the image, or change your viewing angle, and the lenses now focus your gaze onto the strips from Image 2. Done precisely, and with multiple images, you interpret this shift as a smooth animation.
But long before gifpop!, and even before those novelty postcards popularized after WWII, lenticular technology was developed for a slightly different application.
When Charles Wheatstone demonstrated stereopsis—the mechanism of binocular, three-dimensional vision—in 1838, he launched a mania for 3D images. Constant improvements to stereoscopes and 3D imaging technology sustained interest for nearly 200 years (James Cameron knows what I’m talking about). At the end of the 1800s, cinema was fast becoming the next big thing, so 3D movies seemed an inevitable step. This is where stereoscopes ran into a problem. The stereoscope used fixed-focus lenses to combine a left- and right-eye image pair. That was probably fine for the individual peep-show style movies popping up in 1895. But that limited focus just wouldn’t fly with theaters with movie projectors. Inventors looked for autostereoscopic—glasses-free—solutions.
Enter John Jacobson. In US Patent No. 624,043 (Filed April 11, 1899), Jacobson proposes the lenticular sheet Sha and Rachel are using in gifpop!: “The present invention relates to a stereograph… a transparent mount therefor having one of its surfaces corrugated or formed in parallel grooves and projections… the images being matched, but each being divided into a series of parallel lines and spaces of equal width, the lines of one lying in the spaces between the lines of the other and being complimentary thereto.”
Jacobson’s lenticular sheet is a form of parallax barrier. Our eyes see from slightly different vantage points—parallax—which our brain interprets as 3D vision. You don’t necessarily need lenses to reconstitute an interlaced image; Frederick Ives used thin black vertical strips on glass to selectively reveal interlaced stereopairs.
From these humble beginnings, inventors developed more sophisticated materials, cameras, and printing processes, just so you can get a novelty 3D postcard of the Grand Canyon. Or, more likely, of a bikini model at the Grand Canyon. Yawn. But holy GIF Sha and Rachel will restore honor to all those inventors!
If you’ve stuck around this far, let’s broaden our conversation a bit. Call it the Grad Seminar in Art Optics.
Marcel Duchamp’s masterpiece The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) is an intensely complex art work, infused with a lifetime of art ideas by the master of 20th Century Art. Duchamp knew his piece was a bit confounding, so he produced The Green Box, a companion piece to The Large Glass. In it, hundreds of pages “annotate” the original Large Glass with references and sketches.
Buried in the box is this one (in English translation):
Duchamp refers to the folded construction as the “Wilson-Lincoln System.” He doesn’t draw it, so maybe this helps:
From the left, you see President WIlson. From the right, President Lincoln. It’s a simple effect you can try yourself with a folded piece of paper. Art historians have long connected Duchamp’s very modern antics with his passion for long-forgotten technologies. Wilson? Lincoln? Try two St. Francises and a St. Peter:
St. Peter is in the middle; St. Francis of Paola and St. Francis of Assisi on the left and right, respectively. Painted by an unknown Neapolitan painter in the 17th century, this is a 350-year old gifpop! Using vertical slats, this painter manages three frames in one painting. Efficient!
Optical effects were all the rage in the 1600s. The master of these effects was mathematician, artist, and friar Jean-Francois Niceron, who published the remarkable La Perspective Curieuse (The Curious Perspective) in 1638. Niceron goes into painstaking detail demonstrating linear perspective, anamorphosis, and other incredible optical illusions. This one might look familiar:
Using triangular wedges of wood, Niceron paints the portrait on one face, and text on the adjacent prismatic face. Using the racks (Fig. LIII, upper right), you can assemble the portrait (Fig. LIV). Laying them flat on the table and setting up a mirror (Fig. LV, upper left), you can simultaneously see the portrait and the hidden message. Sneaky.
This seems simple enough. But Niceron developed incredibly sophisticated optical illusions using refracting prisms, much like lenticular technology.
OK. Prepare to have your mind blown. On the left page, Niceron depicts two faceted glass “jewels”, and how to mount them inside a hollow tube, like a telescope or kaleidoscope. Below, he depicts the installation: the tube sits fixed on a stand, facing what appears to be a series of twelve portraits. This image is reproduced on the right-hand page. The prism refracts light at specific angles, isolating select pieces of the portraits. An eye from one, the sideburn of another, shirt collar from another. As seen in the lower right, the jewel cobbles together a new portrait from the fragments of the other twelve! Imagine seeing this in 1638: You see this large painting and when you look through the tube, a completely new painting appears! Maybe this should be a new Kickstarter…
As whimsical as the name sounds, I don’t think gifpop! is merely a little gimmicky toy. By marrying GIFs with lenticular tech, Team Hwang-Binx are recontextualizing two seemingly disparate media—digital animated GIFs and analog lenticular screens—as part of a longer narrative of illusions in art history. Their complex calculus is: join 25-year old digital tech to 100-year-old lenticular material to make something decidedly new yet connect us to centuries of our visual heritage. Is gifpop! fun? Hell yes. But it’s also a window into a forgotten history of illusions: the exploration of the limits of our vision, disguised as a frivolous pastime. That is serious fun.