On sunny days, sharp-eyed residents of the French town of Billom will spot an unusual piece of animation art wandering through their streets. They’ll be looking at an umbrellotrope — a parasol designed as an homage to the optical toys that paved the way for animation. Underneath it will be Marie Paccou, the prolific independent animator and inventor of this ingenious device.
Paccou is an artist with a do-it-yourself spirit and a genius for working with found objects. In her long-running Flip-Books series, she wittily animates the plots of famous novels, drawing on the books themselves. More recently, using paper plates and other kitchen gizmos, she’s experimented with a kind of pseudo-animation. She draws images around the edge of the plate, which is then filmed in constant rotation; the camera’s frame rate interacts with the spinning drawings to create the illusion of animated movement.
This technique, which has been dubbed the “phonotrope” (by its creator Jim Le Fevre), harks back to principles of the zoetrope and other such proto-animation devices. It also underlies Paccou’s latest project: the umbrellotropes. In August 2020, she started drawing on the canopies of parasols after growing frustrated with the limitations of paper plates. Six months later, she’s made around a dozen umbrellotropes, each with a beautifully intricate design that comes to life when filmed.
Along with her other spinning devices, the umbrellotropes are due to be shown at an exhibition Paccou is preparing to hold in February in Clermont-Ferrand, France. The event has already been delayed twice because of the pandemic, but Paccou is hopeful that it will happen eventually. In the meantime, she will continue to show the residents of Billom what it means, as she puts it, to “dress in animation.”
Below, Paccou talks us through how she creates an umbrellotrope:
Paccou: I’ve patented this invention — the first time I’ve done so in my life as an artist. But that doesn’t stop me from describing the creative process. There are two parts: the drawing and the filming. I start with parasols that have clearly been assembled by hand, with a bamboo pole, ribs that open via a system of simple cotton strings, and a canopy made of tissue.
I draw with permanent markers, in the hope that I can prevent the lines from fading even after repeated exposure to sunlight. I sketch a few reference points on the folded parasol with pencil or light felt-tip pen, according to whether I choose to lay out the animation phases in a spiral or in concentric circles. Then I get working directly on it with the marker. As I have around one square meter of surface area to fill, it takes me a day or two to draw the canopy.
For the filming, I wait for a day that’s sunny and not too windy. My partner films on a smartphone while I turn the parasol with one hand as steadily as possible. With my other hand I hold the pole to keep the axis more or less fixed.
I recently started experimenting with a brush and acrylic inks (which are supposedly resistant to light). I hope to achieve a finer, more supple line, but I haven’t got there yet. Reconciling the meticulousness of animation with the freedom of the brush is not easy — not for me, anyway.
There are many factors behind my choices of designs for the umbrellotropes. The first one I did (see below) was not ideal: the mass of small, finely drawn motifs became unreadable once it started moving. Given the large format, the distance from which we were filming, and the inconsistency of the rotation, I understood that I needed simple, strong forms — things that could be very easily read.
By this point in my research, I’d say the motifs that read best when animated include a smiley face, eyes that open and close, and geometric shapes that turn, grow, or move around. I’ve occasionally drawn walk or dance cycles on my umbrellotropes, but these “finer” kinds of animation are more disrupted by the inconsistency of the rotation than others, in my opinion.
Another factor to take into account is the length of a rotation and thus of an animation cycle, which is less than a second. This limits the range of things that can be animated, although we can fortunately draw a lot of inspiration from pre-cinematic optical toys, which played with the same constraints: looping and short length. Joseph Plateau’s phénakistiscopes, for example, are wonderful!
Discover more of Paccou’s umbrellotropes on her Facebook page. You can also read her tutorial on making phonotropes out of kitchen materials.