When did you start making?

My art career officially started with an MA in film and photography, Ohio State University, 1983. I liked documentary work, but it didn’t pay. Commercial work paid really well, but I really didn’t like it. I was working a job building scaffolding for bricklayers—always loved building things—when I heard about arts residencies.

William Muehlenhard - maker of the Collapsible Zoetrope

My first residency was with K-5th grade kids at a school in North Ridgeville, Ohio, 1984. The art teacher had a Super-8 camera, and an idea for an animated movie about the history of their town, stop motion animation using construction paper cut-outs. There are only a few simple rules for photographing flatwork, but they are hard to follow if you don’t have the right tools. So I built them a simple animation stand that made all that automatic. Another problem would be making sure the kids could shape their freely imagined ideas into actual pieces of cut paper, so I spent most of my two weeks with them planning doable vignettes—the kids could always elaborate later, but they had to start with something that I knew would work. Finally, we cut out rough drafts of a few vignettes, and practiced the production process with no film in the camera. I assigned three production jobs: movers (responsible for incrementally moving the cut-outs during filming); clickers (responsible for pushing the shutter button between moves); and monitors (responsible for keeping track of the moving and clicking). The art teacher spent the rest of the year talking about history, overseeing the drawing and cutting, and finally producing a twenty-minute, action packed animated movie. It worked, and it was wonderful and beautiful.

What inspired you to make a zoetrope?

I built my first zoetrope in 1985. Back then, most people were using either Super-8 or flip-books to teach animation. Super-8 has serious drawbacks as a teaching medium: There are lots of ways to make mistakes; you have to send the film out for processing, putting too much time between mistakes made and mistakes learned from; and even if nothing goes wrong, experimentation is expensive, both in money and time. Flip-books are cheap enough but, for me at least, an awful lot of work on a tiny little format for a quick little blip of animation. Some people did try using zoetropes to teach, but traditional zoetropes have all the animation on a single strip of paper, so tracing is impossible. I solved all these problems with a slot-paneled zoetrope that fit 4”x6” sheets of scratch paper.

That zoetrope let kids make a handful of comfortably-sized drawings, slip them into the slotted panels, and immediately study what they’d done, spinning it fast or slow, forwards or backwards, for as long as they wanted. I’d walk into a kindergarten class and hand out pre-numbered pads of scratch-paper. Then I’d tell the kids to turn to the bottom sheet and write their name; trace most of it on the second last sheet; a little less on the third last sheet; etc., etc., so that there’d be nothing left to trace by sheet number one. Five minutes later, kids would be lining up to check out their work. After their first success—and practically everyone had success—I’d suggest they add a pencil where their name ended on each sheet, or maybe a paint brush, or try whatever else they could think of. I’ve seen kindergarten kids complete three or four loops of animation during the very first hour they tried their hand at it.

How long have you been making?

I came to love sharing ways to play with loops of animation. Here’s one: Imagine a juggler with three dissimilar objects—most zoetropes don’t have enough frames to make that work. But if the three objects are identical, and follow identical paths, it effectively triples the number of frames you can use, e.g., after one spin, object #1 just has to be in position to replace object #2 in the cycle. That gives you forty-two frames of animation to play with in a fourteen-frame zoetrope. Here’s another: Trace the filmed image of a running cat such that there is one image of the cat for each frame of the zoetrope. Then add evenly spaced pumpkins in the background, one fewer pumpkin than there are frames in the zoetrope. Spin it, and it looks like the cat is running past a field full of pumpkins. There are lots of ways to play with loops. I’ve seen high-school kids work for weeks, lovingly perfecting elaborately detailed zoetrope animations.

When I was doing residencies, I liked to try something different each time. One of me favorite variations was the Giant Zoetrope Animation Project (1993). Kids, aged 5-12, attending summer programs in eight Philadelphia neighborhoods, made animated imagery addressing the theme, “things we like to do”. The animations were poster-sized, designed to fit a really big slot-paneled zoetrope. At 8’ in diameter, weighing over ½ a ton, with each panel lit from its edges by 40 watt fluorescent tubes, it was the least portable zoetrope I ever built, breaking down into twenty pieces (not counting hardware) for transport. At summer’s end, it toured all eight sites, and we had parties where the kids could check out the techniques/ideas of their peers living in other neighborhoods in the city.

William Muehlenhard - maker of the Collapsible Zoetrope

It wasn’t very long after the Giant Zoetrope project that it started getting more and more difficult do the kind of work I wanted to do, in public, at least. (I think it had something to do with the freedom I’d gotten used to feeling being vocal about the kind of work I didn’t want to do.) So I left that part of my life behind for a while, turning my attention to an idea I’d been toying with for almost as long as I’d been making zoetropes, and I patented my most portable design, the SEND IT AS A GREETING CARD, SAVE IT AS A BOOKMARK™ Collapsible Zoetrope. I’m more of a dreamer than an entrepreneur but, with the patent expiring this August 31st, I’m determined to do something public with my zoetrope, hopefully sooner rather than later.

The Mini Maker Faire, my official reintroduction as an artist, felt great…such wonderful feedback, so many good ideas. It confirmed for me the potential in this project, but I know I’ll need help in a few areas: 1) I’ve never been a natural business person, just the opposite, in fact—I shudder whenever I think about what’s involved in starting/running a business. 2) Though I appreciate the value of digital technology, I know next to nothing about using it, probably less than the average second grader. 3) Related to that problem, I’ve never used any modern social media other than email and texting. When an IP lawyer told me I should register a name that would work across several platforms, I had only the vaguest idea of what he was talking about. 4) A few other things, e.g., I’ve been working with people at NextFab, refining collapsible zoetrope prototypes on a laser cutter. When it comes to making lots of them, I think die-cutting would be best—quicker, cheaper, better score lines—but that’s about all I know about die cutting. Also, I’m sure there’s plenty yet to learn about things like paper stocks, printing, etc., and plenty I could learn about things I haven’t even thought of yet.

What’s next?

I just retired with a pension. I don’t have to look to get rich off of this project. Money’s nice, but what I’m really hungry for is seeing my ideas made real. E.g.: People seem to like the wooden zoetrope with the yellow wooden gears that was set up in the viewing station at Maker Faire. I’m working on a design for a similar zoetrope, one that would assemble from a kit, something like TinkerToys, and I’d love to see kids putting it together and playing with it. Another e.g.: I love finding connections between all kinds of subjects, from science to philosophy to history to math…Imagine a book full of little essays about motion, each essay approaching the subject from a different angle, each essay illustrated by an animation torn from the page edges and viewed in a blank collapsible zoetrope, included with the book. Also included with the book is a packet of cardboard drafting tools—things like squares, grids, stencils and rules—for working animation exercises on the flip sides of the animated illustration strips.

William Muehlenhard - maker of the Collapsible Zoetrope