Monday, 21 May 2012

Elephant No. 232: Flip Book

A couple of times over the past few months, friends have asked when I was going to make a flip book. Since this is a holiday and I have a bit of extra time, I thought I'd make one for today's elephant.

The first known flip book appeared in September 1868. Invented by John Linnett as a "kineograph" ("moving picture"), it was the first type of animation to use serial images, rather than images in a spinning circle, as in a zoetrope or praxinoscope.

By 1894, Herman Casler had invented the coin-operated Mutoscope, which was a mechanized sort of flip book with images bound onto a rotating cylinder. Mutoscopes remained a popular feature of penny arcades and amusement parks until the middle of the twentieth century.

Flip books—sometimes known as "flick books"—rely on persistence of vision, just like movies. Although the images are not precisely continuous, the brain fills in the blanks, creating a sense of motion. This is the same principle that creates the strange optical illusion involved in a thaumatrope.

Because the pages must be flipped quickly in order for the illusion to work, a flip book is held on one side along the binding, then flipped with the thumb of the other hand. Interestingly, the German word for flip book—daumenkino—literally means "thumb cinema".

Although they started out as an intriguing visual delight for all ages, most flip books today are made for children. In my small collection of flip books, I even have a tiny version I received in a box of Cracker Jack years ago. In addition to the flip books made for children, however, sequences by film and photography pioneers such as Eadweard Muybridge have been turned into flip books—including one I have of a walking elephant. Flip books are also highly collectible, with some vintage examples selling for thousands of dollars at auction.

I made two flip books years ago as gifts for friends, so it's not a completely unfamiliar activity. The hardest part for me is figuring out a brief storyline or series of actions that can be effectively animated in 20 panels or less. More than that is a pain to draw and colour when you only have a few hours. It's also a bit hard to hold and flip through.

For today's elephant, I decided to tell a simple story of an elephant and a crocodile. I started by drawing a very rough storyboard in pencil on a sketchpad. Once I had broken down the general trajectory of the story into separate illustrations, I began drawing.

For the individual pages in the flip book, I cut a sheet of 96 lb (260 g) bristol board into 20 pieces, each measuring 5.5 x 8.75 cm (2.1 x 3.4 inches). It is important that they be small enough that you don't need to draw too much, and that they be longer than they are wide. For my previous flip books, I used ready-made blank index cards measuring 7.5 x 12.5 cm (3 x 5 inches).

I drew 17 individual panels for the story, as well as a cover page and an end page. I've done these with as little as 12 pages, so the number isn't important. The main thing is that you have enough illustrations to tell the story in a relatively smooth visual fashion.

When drawing the individual images, I wasn't slavish about making sure each image was identical to the previous one. For a flip book, I find that, as long as the image is more or less in the same place, or moving in the same direction, it will work. This is very rough animation, after all, so precision isn't essential.

Once I had finished all 19 drawings in pencil, I outlined them in black pigment liner. Because I wasn't sure if I was going to paint them or simply use coloured pencils, I heat-set the black pen with a hairdryer. This helps to prevent the ink from running when watercolour is laid over top of it.

Ultimately I decided to colour everything in with coloured pencils. I used water-soluble pencils, however, just in case I changed my mind about wanting a painterly look.

When all 19 images were coloured as much as I wanted them to be, it was time to bind them together. I don't know if there are other ways of doing this, but in the past I've simply used a heavy duty stapler to hold everything together. For this size flip book, one staple is probably enough. If the pages had been a bit wider, however, I would have used two staples.

The final touch—for me, anyway—is making the binding look nice. I personally like using wide hockey tape. This is a black cotton tape that is sticky enough to bond, but removes in the beginning if you don't like its placement. I like the clean, non-shiny look it gives to the binding, but any kind of tape would do.

I also find it helpful to crease the pages a bit to make it easier to flip through. I did this by laying a metal ruler along the binding and folding each page back. You could also score them lightly with a craft knife, but this may weaken the folds to a certain extent.

Making a flip book is actually quite easy if you storyboard it first. Even if you don't do that, as long as you keep the illustrations either in the same general area on the page, or moving in a specific direction, it should be fine. As you'll see in mine, I did both, to give you an idea of how it works.

It's a bit hard to photograph these in action, but the video below will give you an idea of what it looks like. It was a bit time-consuming at about three hours worth of cutting, drawing, colouring and binding, but I like the silly fun of flip books, so it's something I'll definitely try again.


Elephant Lore of the Day
Elephants in the West African nation of Chad are among the most endangered elephants in the world. A mere ten years ago, there were 4,000 elephants in Zakouma Park in southwestern Chad. Today there are 450.

Poaching of elephants for their ivory has been tragically common in this country riven by civil war, and it is only to be expected that the remaining elephants are extremely wary of humans. Surprisingly, a herd of about 20 bull elephants near Zakouma headquarters appears to have some residual trust in humans.

Perhaps sensing that there was safety to be had near the house of Park Manager Rian Labuschagne, the small herd had started coming to a small nearby waterhole. One day, when the elephants remained only 15 metres (50 feet) away, Labuschagne—knowing how elephants like clean water—started spraying them with water from the hose.

What followed was very unexpected. In a rather touching show of trust, a few of the elephants walked right up to Labuschagne and started drinking from the hose he held in his hand.

Zakouma's elephants are among the last remaining populations in the entire Sudano-Sahelian region, and their survival is considered crucial. They are also particularly difficult to protect. During the wet season, they leave the safety of the park, ranging over as much as 170 km (105 miles). Some of Zakouma's elephants have been fitted with satellite collars, allowing a well-equipped and well-trained patrol unit to follow the herds on a daily basis. In addition, there is an extensive radio communications system and a network of bush airstrips, allowing for rapid deployment of anti-poaching teams.

Despite such efforts, poachers still managed to kill seven Zakouma elephants in late 2011. This, however, is less than the 39 elephants killed by poachers in Chad the year before—and a far cry from the 450 elephants killed by sophisticated poaching operations in neighbouring Cameroon in early 2012.

Asian elephant drinking from a hose at Smithsonian Zoological Park,
Washington, D.C.

To Support Elephant Welfare
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information
on a number of sanctuaries around the world)


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. You should definitely try it! People love playing with these for sure.