When you were in grade school, did you ever create a flipbook of stick figures? That first time I flipped the pages in my notepad and saw my drawings come to life was pretty magical. I’m by no means an artist, but still, the ability to take ordinary materials and turn them into moving pictures kind of blew my mind.
Today, we have a wealth of advanced technology to help us create animations and interactive content. But there’s still something special about flipbooks as a format. In this article, I’d like to take you on a brief excursion back in time. We’ll explore the inventions that paved the way for flipbooks; take a look at today’s digital flipbooks; and consider other modern storytelling formats that can help you bring your content to life.
Flipbooks: The Great-Grandpappy of GIFs
Before we talk about flipbooks, we have to rewind the clock to the Industrial Revolution. This era of rapid advancement paved the way for vast improvements in print media in the late 1800s. At the same time, visual media underwent a renaissance as photographic and animation technologies evolved. The interactive timeline below highlights some of the key inventions during this period.
While inventors dabbled with photography as early as 1816, it wasn’t until Louis Daguerre created the first practical photographic process in 1839, which he called daguerreotypy, that real-world image capture really began to take off. With daguerreotypes, storytellers could supplement text with pictures from real life instead of simple “plates” or line drawings.
Daguerreotypes were great for professionals who had the right equipment and setup to process images, but the technology wasn’t ready for consumer primetime. Not until Richard Leach Maddox’s 1878 invention of a heat-ripened gelatin emulsion did the masses begin to pursue photography. Maddox’s new process made “instantaneous” snapshot exposures practical and easily repeatable—the two keys to widespread adoption.
With these advancements in photographic technology, it was only a matter of time before flipbooks arrived on the scene. Flipbooks are essentially a rudimentary form of visual animation. The earliest flipbooks allowed the spectator to flip rapidly through a series of static images in booklet form. Later on, devices were created to do the “flipping” for the viewer. Think of them as super low-tech GIFs, without the computer to do the animation part.
How do flipbooks actually work? At a high enough speed, a sequence of pictures looks like they’re moving due to an awesome scientific phenomenon called persistence of vision. Essentially, our eyes blend images viewed in rapid procession so that the brain perceives them as one continuous visual in motion. Optics and neurology are pretty amazing, right?
The first flipbook appeared in 1868 when it was patented by John Barnes Linnett under the name kineograph (Latin for “moving picture”). This early flipbook looked like a booklet of images, kind of like the rudimentary grade-school example I mentioned before.
Later on, specialized devices such as the zoetrope and zoopraxiscope were created to emulate the same effect of a flipbook without requiring any work from the viewer.
Taking this concept a step further, Eadweard Muybridge worked closely with Thomas Edison to invent an early motion picture viewing device called a kinetoscope in 1895. This coincided with invention of the first motion picture camera by either Edison or Louis Lumière, depending on who you ask. (They both developed working motion picture cameras in the same year, so it’s kind of a tossup.)
Source: Film 110
Modern Flipbooks: Bringing Print Content Online
Flash forward a century or so to 2015. When you google the term “flipbook,” here’s what the search results look like:
Wait a minute! Flipbooks are still a thing? Didn’t we just say that motion pictures made flipbooks obsolete a hundred years ago? And don’t we have computer animation technology that can create “motion pictures” for us?
Both of those things are true. However, the flipbooks that appear in search results today aren’t the same as the flipbooks of old. Modern flipbook creators are PDF converters that take print content—whether it’s a magazine, catalog, or eBook—and turn them into digital assets that the reader can “flip” through by swiping or clicking from page to page.
While today’s flipbooks do have a teeny bit of animation—there’s an effect applied for each “page turn”—they don’t bear much in common with their historical namesakes. Most flipbooks are static pieces of content designed for passive consumption. Saying they “bring content to life” would be a pretty big stretch.
I know you might be feeling a bit let down. After all, flipbooks were at one point in time a revolutionary way to take static assets and create something dynamic and highly engaging with them. Today’s flipbooks don’t really inspire the same kind of excitement. So if digital flipbooks don’t share much in common with their namesake, is there any type of content out there that does?
Interactive eBooks: Recapturing the Spirit of Flipbooks
The closest thing I’ve found to the flipbooks of old, aside from GIFs (which are wonderful, but not very useful for conveying a complex narrative) are interactive eBooks.
Interactive eBooks capture the spirit of original flipbooks in that they bring discrete assets together to create one fluid whole that stimulates the brain in new and delightful ways. With a combination of text, images, GIFs, videos, audio, animations, and interactions, storytellers can engage their audiences in a way that’s novel and effective.
Incorporating animations and interactions that require the viewer to choose what content to explore and in what order provides an additional layer of interactivity. It’s not quite the same as requiring the viewer to flip pages manually, but it’s closer to that experience than clicking a button to scroll through pages.
The Bottom Line
Flipbooks were born during the transition from static images to motion pictures. Digital flipbooks were born during the transition from static print content to digital content. Both formats served as a stepping stone to the more sophisticated storytelling technologies that we have at our disposal today. Whether you choose to tell your story with HD video, animated GIFs, or other interactive experiences, keep in mind that flipbooks paved the way.