Monday, December 7, 2009

The Magic Lantern and Robertson

The Magic Lantern is the forerunner of the modern slide projector. It has a long and complicated history. No one can say for sure who invented the Magic Lantern. It's part of the marvelous world of optical projection and stands alongside the Camera Obscura, Shadow Shows and the Magic Mirror. Like them the Magic Lantern has been used to educate, entertain and mystify audiences for hundreds of years.

In the late eighteenth century several showmen used the lantern to produce horror shows. The magic lantern show by Paul de Philipsthal, in 1793, was one of the earliest known performers of such shows. These were known as "Phantasmagoria" shows. A variety of horrific images were projected to frighten the audience, examples being ghosts projected on smoke to give a frightening appearance and images that would move around the walls. Often the projector was behind a translucent screen, out of the view of the audience. This greatly added to the mystery of the show.

One of the most famous Phantasmagoria showmen was Etienne Gaspard Robert (1763-1837), often known by the stage name of "Robertson". He was also prominent Belgian stage magician.

Robertson developed a phantasmagoria show based around his projection system and the use of other effects and techniques. Robert scripted scenes that involved actors and ventriloquism alongside his projections, creating a convincing impression of the appearance of ghosts. Robertson used several projection devices in a variety of ways, including rear projection and projection onto large pieces of wax-coated gauze (giving the image a more translucent appearance). He also used smoke and mirrors to further disguise the mechanisms behind his show. His painting skills allowed him to create accurate depictions of famous French heroes such as Jean-Paul Marat, Voltaire, and French philosopher, writer, and composer Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Robertson appeared at the Pavillon de l'Echiquier on January 23, 1798 and performed his first show. His charisma and the never-before-seen visual effects left the audience convinced that they had seen real ghosts. Many left terrified by the performance.

After being investigated by the authorities, Robertson's show was shut down in Paris. He moved to Bordeaux and continued to perform. On his return to Paris a few weeks later, Robertson discovered that two of his former assistants had continued the performances without him. He refined his show, making it more elaborate and inventive and started performing in a more permanent location January 3, 1799. The Gothic surroundings of the crumbling Convent des Capucines gave Robertson the ideal eerie home for his show.

The shows began with the audience being shown optical illusions and trompe l'oeil effects on their way to the showroom. Inside the candlelit room the audience would be seated as audio effects emulate the sound of wind and thunder and an unseen glass harmonica plays unsettling music. Robert would then enter the room and start a monologue about death and the afterlife. He then began the show in earnest, creating smoky mix of sulphuric acid and aqua fortis(nitric acid) before projecting his ghostly apparitions.

Robertson used a special lantern on wheels, which he called a Phantascope or Fantascope. By moving the projector backwards and forwards he could rapidly alter the size of the images on the screen, much like a modern zoom lens. The device was very cleverly designed to keep the picture in focus and at a constant brightness as the machine moved back and forth.

Robertson's shows were performed at the Convent des Capucines for four years. He then went on to take the show around the world to Russia, Spain, and the United States just to name a few.

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