How one animation company is fighting AI by returning to the roots of motion pictures

We’ve all seen the new Toys R’ Us spot, and many of us are horrified by its implications and the increasing rise of AI. Animation studio Tentacle Media has decided to remind us of the wonderful human touch of creativity with the launch of its first physical product.

Tentacle Media, a UK-based animation studio, has launched a handheld animation device called the Mini-Mutoscope. Based on the 19th-century motion picture technology of the same name, it’s a modern reimagining – essentially a mechanical flipbook with 36 still frames that loop to create the illusion of movement.

With a passion for sustainability, the Tentacle team ensured the mechanical elements were as simple and locally sourced to their studio as possible. Working with The Laser Hut, they created all of the mechanics from plywood.

The Mini-Mutoscope is sold as a kit, perfect for those with a passion for crafts but easy enough for anyone to build. To celebrate the origins of the original mutoscope, the initial run of mini-mutoscopes includes a choice of one of five custom animations of vintage movie monsters. You can also order a version with a blank sheet of frames and make your own animation. Magical.

So why their first product? “It’s been a difficult year for the whole animation industry, I think, and that’s partly what made us pursue this idea to diversify our business,” explains director James Wilkinson. “But that’s definitely not the only reason, as we started developing the idea two or three years ago when the industry seemed to be a much more robust place.”

Tentacle’s original goal was to create a way to view its animations without a screen. “As animators, we spend most of our lives looking at screens, and you can begin to feel a certain amount of digital fatigue,” says James. So, the mutoscope addresses this and creates a much more tangible way to experience animation.”

One could view this new product as a way to fight back at AI and the impact it’s already having on the creative industry, but that wasn’t at the forefront of the team’s minds when they developed the gadget. “Their analogue nature certainly offers people a physical and tactile way to experience animation that simply wouldn’t be possible with AI,” adds James. “And as you say, they help remind us of the human touch in animation by giving people a more direct connection with the artist.”

The design process presented a challenge, although Tentacle’s experience in stop-motion animation helped equip them with a certain level of knowledge of materials and manufacturing processes. “We originally 3D printed the mutoscope, which helped refine the design, but the finish felt, well, 3D printed, and they were very labour-intensive to make,” says James. “So we designed the wood and card version to allow us to offer them as a kit.

“The design process for both the wooden and card parts took quite a long time. In particular, finding the right finish on the printed parts was difficult. But we eventually teamed up with Typoretum, a letterpress printer in the UK who helped steer us on the designs and created some beautiful prints using coloured cardstock and white foiling.”

On their decision to include vintage movie monsters as the initial custom animations for the Mini-Mutoscope, James says it’s a nod to the original mutoscopes of the late 19th and early 20th century. “We’ve tried to hint at the mutoscope’s origins in the designs on the side of the device, so vintage monsters seemed like a fun and interesting choice. But we have lots of ideas for themes we could do in the future.”

Speaking of what’s next, James hopes their Mini Mutoscopes inspire people’s creativity. “I know from having several sat on my desk that they are irresistible to fiddle with when you’re stuck for ideas. They’re also a unique challenge to create animations for. They contain only 36 frames and roughly three seconds of animation. So it’s very accessible for beginners but offers a real challenge for more experienced animators to try and tell a story in those limited frames.”

The long-term plan is to expand the Mini Mutoscope brand, offering more animators a unique way to display their work and potentially create a new revenue stream for their animations. “We’d also like to work with museums and galleries who might be interested in creating custom mutoscopes featuring their exhibits,” says James. “It’s also a great educational device for showing the principles of animation, so we’d love to work with educators who might have a use for the mutoscope.”

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