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Karie (site owner) Written by Karie (site owner)
Dec. 7, 2005 | 9:36 PM

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Zoetropes Invade Culver City!


by David Starkman (Edited by Janet Leigh Foster)

“Heart of Screenland” is the motto on the Culver City seal, an apt moniker for the home of many of the biggest “Hollywood” studios, both past and present. Studios such as MGM, Desilu and Selznick made it their base of operations, and today it houses Columbia and Sony Pictures Studios. Its connection to the film industry aside, Culver City is in every respect a normal American town with its own City Hall, police department, and school system. Beyond the confines of film studios, it is not the sort of place where one would expect to encounter anything out of the ordinary. That is, until it was invaded by zoetropes in 2001.

The Zoetrope (pronounced Zoh-uh-trohp), invented in 1834 by the Englishman William George Horner, was an early form of motion image viewing device. Consisting of a drum with viewing slits, and containing a sequential set of still images, it turned in a circular fashion to create the illusion of motion.  Horner christened it the “Daedatelum”, but Pierre Desvignes, a French inventor, renamed his version the Zoetrope, derived from the Greek roots “zoo”, meaning animal life, and “trope” for things that turn.

The “Persistence of Vision” could be the title of a surreal painting, but it’s actually the phenomenon responsible for the Zoetrope’s magical effect. The basis of the device is a cylindrical drum, patterned by a series of slits cut at regular intervals around its surface. Strips of sequential drawings are placed inside the drum, so that each image is just below the slits. Peering through the slits to the opposite side, when the drum is rotated at the correct speed, the images seem to be a short animation. Like other motion simulation devices, the Zoetrope depends on the fact that the human retina retains an image for about a tenth of a second. If a new image appears in that time, it merges with the one retained, and results in an uninterrupted and continuous sequence.

This phenomenon, often called the Persistence of Vision, enabled frogs to play ball with their feet, girls to skip rope, and imps to descend into bottles, when viewed through Zoetropes, popular in British homes during the Victorian era. This early concept of animation spun its way into cinema, as we know it today. It sailed across the Atlantic, to ultimately settle in Hollywood.

Incorporated in 1917, Culver City has a long association with the film industry. Many “Hollywood” films were actually made there. Home of MGM from the 1930s to the 1990s, its Culver City studio produced many classics, including The Wizard of Oz, Singing in the Rain, and Some Like it Hot. The Selznick Studio, famous for Gone with the Wind, later became Desilu, the studio that brought us the popular television comedy, I Love Lucy.

When a four foot tall Zoetrope was recently discovered at the corner of a new parking structure on Culver City’s Main Street, it was as though the ghost of great-grandma cinema had suddenly appeared. A test spin revealed a series of dancing images inside of it, and confirmed that it was indeed an industrial
strength, working Zoetrope!

And, happily, it wasn’t alone! A walk around town disclosed five more, for a total of six, each of a unique design. A telephone call to City Hall quelled suspicions that the zoetropes might have made their way to Culver City of their own accord.

In keeping with Culver City’s history as one of the world’s centers of the cinematic arts, before a new public structure can be built, a certain amount of money must be donated to an “Art in Public Places” program. Culver City gives preference to proposals with a cinematic theme. The Zoetrope project “Moving Pictures”, proposed by artists Wick Alexander and Robin Brailsford, was chosen because of the Zoetrope’s role as a pre-cinema motion picture device.

Also called The Wheel of Life, the Zoetrope persists, spinning its way in to the hearts of the next generation. Culver City, the birthplace of The Wizard of Oz, continues to be a yellow brick road that leads to ingenuity in animated form.

Instructions for your own Zoetrope hunt:

Start at Main Street, just off of Culver Boulevard where it intersects Washington Boulevard. Find La Ballona Mexican Restaurant at 3843 Main Street. Just to the left is a little alley-like pedestrian walkway.

The first Zoetrope is on the left side of the walkway entrance. On the wall next to it is a plaque with an explanation and a map of all of the Zoetrope locations. Each Zoetrope stands 4 to 5 feet in height, and each has a uniquely designed base. Give the drum a good spin, and look into the slits, to see the motion of the images located inside! (Note: this should be done during daylight to best see the images inside the drum!)

Next walk straight down the pedestrian walkway to the parking structure straight ahead to the right. The second Zoetrope is at the first corner of the parking structure.

Walking westwards along the parking structure to Cardiff Street, you will find the Third Zoetrope.

Look across the street, slightly to the left, to see the 4th Zoetrope, on the sidewalk.

Continue west along the pedestrian walkway to locate the next two Zoetropes. One was recently moved onto the sidewalk near Honey’s Kettle restaurant at 9537 Culver Blvd. The other is at the end of the pedestrian walkway, at the corner of the parking structure.

In 2005 a seventh Zoetrope was placed in the plaza area between the historic restored Culver Hotel (reputedly this is where all of the Munchkins stayed when The Wizard of Oz was being filmed), and the beautiful retro Art Deco Pacific 12 movie theater building. It is close to the southeast corner of the hotel, with a black and white tile base, looking a bit like a 5 foot high lighthouse!. Recently, a plaque with a description and a map to the other Zoetropes has been added at its base. Another recent addition to the Plaza there is a Bronze sculpture of the Cowardly Lion, set in the center of a very kinetic interactive fountain!

On Tuesdays, near to where the walking tour begins on Main Street, there is a Farmer’s Market, and just a short walk across Venice Blvd. from Main Street you will find the very unusual & fascinating Museum of Jurassic Technology (see

A short walk west of Main Street on Culver Blvd. you will find the City Hall of Culver City. At the northwest corner is the facade of the original City Hall built around 1920. Just across the street is a glass sculpture with movie related themes on the glass. At night these are lighted. Also, from here you can see the back of the impressive Sony Pictures Plaza. It is worth a walk around to the front of the building.

From here you can also see the East entrance to the Sony Pictures Studios -formerly the MGM studio. This is one of the most historic film studio locations in the city. For more information on the studio, and about studio tours, see

For more information about Culver City, see

For more information about the Zoetropes, and the Artists, see and


  1. That four foot tall zoetrope is awesome! LOL - you look amazed btw, too funny.

    Posted by Martin on 11/15 at 04:08 PM
  2. Also, love your explanation of “persistence of vision” ... one of the better and more easy to understand explanations I have seen online!

    Martin from

    Posted by MArtin on 11/15 at 04:10 PM