Exhibition gets under the skin of cinema

Film is one of the most popular forms of entertainment and the underlying technology has gone through a dramatic evolution over the past 150 years or so. Nowadays the dominant mode is digital, but the history of film projection is like a multilayered canvas, each progression enabled by improvements in our ability to manually manipulate light and shadow.

"Plearn Pa-Yon" is the name of an exhibition currently underway at Bangkok's Museum Siam. Organised in collaboration with the Thai Film Archive, it traces the evolution of cinematic devices with the main focus being on late-19th-century film-projection machines.

The exhibition goes back to the very beginning when story-tellers would embellish a tale by contorting their hands in front of a naked light in order to throw shadows of the desired shape onto a wall. Later on, dried animal hides were cut into the outlines of people, animals and mythological creatures in order to entertain villagers at shadow-puppet shows. This is how the meaning of the Thai word nang _ originally "skin/leather/hide" _ came to be expanded to also signify "movie".

In 1841, a Belgian named Joseph Plateau invented the Phenakistoscope, a device consisting of a handle attached to a spinning disc, around the centre of which are drawn a series of images. Peering through a slit into a mirror, the user sees a rapid succession of images that appear to be a single moving picture. A well-preserved Phenakistoscope has been loaned to Museum Siam for this exhibition as has an example of another curious device called the Zoetrope. Invented in 1833 by William George Horner, a British mathematician and schoolteacher, this comprises a cylinder with slits cut into it and a strip of pictures attached to its inner surface; when the cylinder is spun, it creates the illusion of figures in motion.

The Flip Book was a novelty first commercially marketed in 1868. By flipping rapidly through the pages of this little book, one gets the impression that one is watching a moving image. Based on the same principle is the Mutoscope, which was developed in 1894 by Herman Casler and later improved on by Thomas Edison, the prolific US inventor who did a great deal of experimentation in this field, and mutated into a contraption called the Kinetoscope. All three devices can be see at the Plearn Pa-Yon showcase.

After Edison, two French brothers, Auguste and Louis Lumiere, gave birth to cinema as we know it today with an invention they dubbed the Cinematographe. The Lumieres held their first public film screening in Paris on December 28, 1865 and this date is now regarded as the official "birthday" of the movie industry.

The museum showcases the evolution of cinematography in a way that help visitors understand how mere tricks of the light, "magic" and optical illusions were developed into a powerful form of entertainment that continues to captivate people all around the world to this day.

_ Montira Rungjirajittranon

The exhibition continues until April 21 at Museum Siam, 4 Sanam Chai Road, Phra Nakhon district.