How We Made a Gingerbread House Zoetrope

Video documentation of our gingerbread house zoetrope. Video: Liz Chiang

As preparators at The George Eastman Museum, we spend most of our time working behind the scenes to make sure that the museum’s collection objects and exhibits look their best. But this year, a few of us decided to get together over a couple of weekends and make an object of our own that combines two things for which The George Eastman Museum is well known: moving images and gingerbread houses.

Visitors to the museum are likely to have already run into a zoetrope on the second floor of the mansion, where a few of these Victorian era animation devices –designed to create the illusion of motion from a sequence of still images– are on display. And those who have visited the museum around the holidays have almost certainly encountered the plethora of gingerbread houses in the annual Sweet Creations display.

Simply titled Gingerbread Zoetrope, our contribution to this year’s Sweet Creations display is a functional zoetrope made from gingerbread, which features an animation of a gingerbread house being constructed and decorated just in time for a little gingerbread person to come home and get cozy by the fire.

An interior view. Photo: Allan Phoenix

There are practically unlimited possibilities when it comes to creating a zoetrope animation in gingerbread, but here’s a brief description of how we made ours:

Materials:

  • Gingerbread ingredients
  • Baking parchment
  • Royal icing ingredients
  • Food coloring
  • Various candies
  • Cardboard
  • Craft paper
  • Paint or markers
  • Record player
  • Glue
  • Cling wrap
  • A circular piece of plywood or heavy duty foam board

Tools:

  • Oven
  • Baking sheet
  • Mixer
  • Mixing bowl
  • Utility knife
  • Cutting mat
  • Hot glue gun
  • Frosting piping bag and tips
  • Chef’s knife
  • Cutting board
  • Cookie cutters (optional)

Step One: Make a Mock-Up Zoetrope

Cutting out mock gingerbread house cookies for each frame of our animation. Photo: Andrew Salomone

Making a zoetrope out of anything is a project in itself; so we spent some time experimenting with various designs and animations before starting on ours. One of the perks of working with gingerbread is that it looks similar to cardboard, this means the materials you will need to create a functional mock-up are readily available and probably free!

We used a hot glue gun to put our full-scale cardboard mock-up together and test our animation. Keep in mind that you may have to take your mock-up apart when you’re done so that the cardboard pieces can be used as templates for your gingerbread pieces. The less glue you use, the easier the overall process will be.

We chose to make our animation an odd number of frames, placing the viewing slits at the corners of each panel. After some experimentation, we settled on seven frames and tested our animation by placing it on a record player and watching it spin.

An animated GIF of our mock-up in action! Video: Andrew Salomone

Step Two: Cut Out the Gingerbread

A row of cut-out gingerbread person cookies! Photo: Allan Phoenix

After mixing and rolling out our gingerbread dough, we used one of our cardboard panel walls as a template for our gingerbread panel walls. We cut out the gingerbread around the template and baked the pieces until we had enough to make our zoetrope (and we made a few extra, just in case!).

In order to keep our animation consistent, we used a template to create at least seven identical gingerbread house cookies, as well as five little gingerbread person cookies. Be aware that the moisture and fat in your gingerbread dough will be absorbed by your cardboard templates, so it will work better if you cover them in cling film or aluminum foil before placing them on your dough. Depending on the recipe you use, your gingerbread may spread or warp slightly in the oven; you can use your templates again when you take the pieces out of the oven, so that you can make any additional cuts using a chef’s knife while the gingerbread is still warm and pliable.

A cardboard template for the walls of our gingerbread zoetrope. Photo: Andrew Salomone

Step Three: Decorate the Animation

Putting the finishing touches on a decorated panel. Photo: Allan Phoenix

After we had our gingerbread pieces baked and ready to go, it was time to decorate. This is where the animation began to take shape. We first centered each gingerbread house cookie on each gingerbread panel wall of our zoetrope and cemented them in place with royal icing. After letting the icing set-up for a few minutes, we loaded our piping bags with frosting and began to decorate each panel of our zoetrope to match the corresponding frame in our mock-up.

The decorated, but unassembled panels. Photo: Andrew Salomone

Step Four: Assemble the Zoetrope

The foam board base with the placement of the panels marked on it. Photo: Andrew Salomone

Putting the zoetrope together may have been the trickiest part of the whole process. This is where our circular foam board base came into play. Using the base from our cardboard mock-up as a reference, we marked on our circular foam board where each gingerbread panel should be placed so that they would all line up evenly when we attached them to each other with icing. We also decorated the top of our base before putting up our panel walls.

We started putting our zoetrope together by holding the first two panels where they line up on our foam board base and applying a bead of royal icing along the joint where they met. Royal icing sets fairly quickly, but we still had to hold each connection between panels for a few minutes until the icing started to hold it together.

Assembling our zoetrope was a team effort! Photo: Andrew Salomone

We continued adding panels and icing the joints, and by the time we’d finished, the icing was set well enough to hold it together while we reinforced the joints with more icing. We wrapped a strip of cling wrap around the zoetrope at the point in the panel where the slits were, so that we wouldn’t disturb any of the frosting, and left it to dry.

Piping the final details. Photo: Allan Phoenix

Step Five: Display Your Gingerbread Zoetrope

When our gingerbread house zoetrope was finished and had been left to dry for at least one day, we were ready to put it on display by spinning it on an a record player. We simply placed a few layers of cardboard onto the turntable of the record player to lift our zoetrope up over the arm of the stylus. Each record player may require slightly different modifications in order for the zoetrope to spin freely. Once the zoetrope was spinning on the record player, we were able to look through the slits and see our gingerbread house animation come to life!

Video: Liz Chiang
George Eastman Museum preparators Bonnie Hodul, Andrew Salomone, and Emily Phoenix with their “Gingerbread Zoetrope.” Photo: Allan Phoenix