Tanagra and La danseuse microscopique: Stage and Composite Images
Trick films have had a lasting impact on the history of cinema and very early on anchored the worlds of the strange and the wonderful. This paper explores the appropriation of the miniaturization effect in motion pictures.
In 1907, François Sallé applied for a patent to “place in a small puppet theater, the image of a real reduced human figure.” The principle of Tanagra’s theater makes it possible to produce, in front of viewers, a composite space that associates the reduced image of an actor with a real set. Certainly, “microscopic” or “giant” characters already exist in the motion pictures; it is precisely this circulation that seems singular. A vast part of the trick films’ effects draws its origin from ancient imagery, updated by stage illusionists. Most of these effects have been adapted, adjusted and then reinvented through new techniques specific to moving pictures.
Here, the transfer becomes more complex. Two aspects are to be noted. On one hand, the circulation is reversed: born on the screen, the visual pattern of the microscopic character is taken up in a new light in the theater. On the other hand, although Tanagra’s theaters disappeared after the First World War, their “optical combinations” were transferred to the cinema and are partially found in the principle of Simplifilm and its derivatives.
The case of the théâtre de Tanagra highlights the intense circulation of visual effects between the theater stage and motion pictures, as well as the porosity of the various technical inventions. More broadly, this case study allows us to question the constitution of the knowledge of the “optical trickster.”
Frédéric Tabet (Ecole Nationale Supérieur d’Audiovisuel)
Frédéric Tabet is a lecturer at the École Nationale Supérieure d’Audiovisuel of the University Toulouse 2-Jean Jaurès. He is the author of Le cinématographe des magiciens (Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2018) and co-curator of the exhibition “Au Royaume des illusions” (Fondation Jérôme Seydoux-Pathé, 2020). His research focuses on the origin and functioning of special effects, as well as on the crossovers between medias and illusion shows.