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A History of Animation

Investing art with the illusion of life is as old as language itself. From the ancient caves of Altamiri to the twenty-first century technology of Pixar, artists have historically endeavored to create the appearance life by giving their characters movement. In fact, “animate,” from the Latin “animatus,” means “to give breath” to or "to breathe." Fundamentally, to animate is to create the illusion of movement in an object, whether it is a person, animal, or inanimate object. While artists up until the eighteenth century ingeniously played with the idea of movement, it wasn’t until the advent of cinema in 1895 that animation in its technical sense was achieved. Cinema allowed artists to create the illusion of movement frame by frame through a variety of cinematic techniques, such as stop-motion animation, cel animation and, more recently, revolutionary computer-generated imagery (CGI).

Optical Toys and the Pre-History of Animation

Animation could arguably begin with a litany of precursors, extending back to cave graffiti, hieroglyphic friezes, Chinese scrolls, or even the Bayeux tapestry. A significant development of “breathing life” into art happened in the fifteenth century when Italian painters added the third dimension (perspective) to two-dimensional images. In 1645, Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher in The Great Art of Light and Shadow described a new invention called the Magic Lantern, a box with a light source and a curved mirror that projected sequential images. In 1763, Dutchman Peter Van Musschengroak developed a revolving disc with painted sequential images to create the illusion of movement called a Fantasmoriga. In 1824, Peter Mark Roget, a physiology professor at the University of London, published Persistence of Vision with Regard to Moving Objects in which he argues that the retina holds images for a fraction of a second before being replaced by the following images. If the images succeeded one another quickly enough, the viewer perceives motion even when looking at still images (Bendazzi 1994). A variety of optical toys followed, including the thaumatrope (“turning marvel”), phenakistiscope (“deceptive view”), stroboscope, and the Zoetrope (“life wheel”), which all required the viewer to peer through rotating slits (Crafton 1982).

Before Mickey

Belgian professor of mathematics and science Emile Reynaud (1844-1918) could perhaps be considered the “grandfather of animation” (Bendazzi 1994). Reynaud developed projecting capabilities which allowed the images of his praxinscope (essentially a more advanced “magic lantern”) to be projected on an appropriate screen. The pictures were not photographed but hand drawn on long strips of transparent, perforated celluloid. He used rear projection, hand cranked the film, and accompanied it with sound effects and music (Bendazzi 1994). Given these advances, Reynaud may be justifiably considered a forerunner of animation--but conceptually, his “animations” were not far removed from nineteenth-century lantern shows (Kanfer 1997). Reynaud perhaps realized his creation was becoming obsolete, particularly in light of industrialization and, in despair, threw his three threatres optiques into the Seine (Bendazzi 1994).

A more direct source of animation is the developments in cinema rather than the pre-cinematic optical toys. For example, Georges Méliès and his imitators capitalized on the selective recording properties of the camera. By stopping the film at carefully calculated moments, making planned substations, and then restarting the camera, they could produce illusions of metamorphoses (Crafton 1982). From this “stop-action substitution” technique, early animators evolved their own techniques. For example, James Stuart Blackton, a vaudeville chalk-talk artist, produced what is considered America—s first true animation, the Humorous Phases of a Funny Face (1906) filmed for the Edison Manufacturing Company. In his film, Blackton draws a face on a chalkboard, shoots a picture of it with a movie camera, and then redraws the face in a slightly different pose. Blackton repeats this hundreds of times. Encouraged by his success, Blackton co-founded the Vitagraph Corporation and later created the Haunted Hotel, which used the more sophisticated frame-by-frame technique (Kanfer 1997).

Between 1908 and World War I, animation continued to develop as a genre. Previously, it was merely a “special effect” and not a genre with narrative structures, iconography, and expectations concerning its content (Wells Genre 2002). The model of “regular” cinema also called for longer and more narrative complicated films, including animation. Furthermore, as newspaper circulation rose from 2.6 million to 15 million copies, daily comic strips such as Katzenjammer Kids, Mutt and Jeff, Krazy Kat, The Yellow Kid, and Little Nemo in Slumberland were natural subjects for animation (Smith 1980).

French animator Emile Cohl, inspired by Blackton, helped develop the genre by creating the first fully animated film, Fantasmagoria, in 1908 in which he borrowed from Blackton’s chalk line effect (filming black lines on white paper and then reversing the negative). Cohl later created the widely successful animated Newlywed series using hinged cut-out figures animated by stop motion. Often called the father animation, Cohl proved that animation could be commercially successful. Canadian Winsor McCay streamlined the animation process by tracing separate drawings on cards, each depicting a continuity of movement from the preceding card, and then photographing them frame-by-frame with a movie camera. However, Cohl’s cut-out method and McCay’s tracing method were arduous one-person jobs, often creating “jittery” effects (Bendazzi 1994). For animation to be practical, it had to become more efficient.

French Canadian Raoul Barre began to solve this problem in the early 1900s by creating a peg system to keep animation drawings aligned and by drawing characters and backgrounds on separate transparent frames. After him, Americans Earl Hurd (1914) and John Randolph Bray (1915), also known as the “Henry Ford of Animation,” transformed animation by patenting the cel process, which was revolutionary both in terms of animation’s commercial range and graphic qualities (Bendazzi 1994). In cel animation, after a background or scene is drawn on a medium, such as paper, a transparent sheet of celluloid is placed on top of it. Anything drawn on the cel becomes part of the scene. Cels can often be layered, which saves a lot of time because the background does not have to be redrawn while at the same time allowing for more perspective. All productions of big American studios (Disney, Warner Brothers, MGM, Hanna-Barbera) were based on the cel technique (Crafton 1982).

After 1918, the industry began to change. Production costs rose and small producers disappeared as three or four major producers vied for power. The market began to become saturated with comic strip gags, and the same narrative structure week after week began to lose the audience’s attention. Audiences began to want personal characters rather than stereotypes, and soon “continuity character series” became popular. Characters moved from caricature representations of humans to animals as in Paul Terry’s 1920 Aesop’s Fables, which likely influenced the Disney “animal universe.” The first animal to achieve superstar status, however, was Otto Messmer and Pat Sullivan’s Felix the Cat in 1919 (Bendazzi 1994).

The Dawn of Disney

Walt Disney was not an instant success. Originally an advertisement cartoonist, Disney was often turned down. He successfully convinced his brother Roy to invest $1200 to create the Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio, later renamed the Walt Disney Company at Roy’s suggestion (Kanfer 1997). Their first animations were a series of short films titled Alice Comedies which placed a live-action person in animated surroundings. Later Disney and Ub Iwerks created their first successful animation star, Oswald the Rabbit. However, in a dispute with his distributor Charles B. Mintz, Disney was forced to give up the character. Angered by the loss of Oswald, Disney learned his lesson in retaining full ownership of his characters and, together with Iwerks, went on to find immense success with Mortimer Mouse, later renamed Mickey Mouse. Disney created the first animation ever with post-produced synchronized soundtrack in Steamboat Willie, often considered Mickey Mouse’s first debut. Disney’s work in Steamboat Willy serves as a convenient end bracket, capping the silent period and heralding the golden 1930s and 1940s in which sound provided a whole new dimension for music and comic effects in animation. Indeed, it was the synchronization of sound and color of the Mickey cartoons that would launch the modern age of cartoon (Gifford 1990).

Disney also created Silly Symphonies, a series of shorts that won several Academy Awards and were played before feature films. The Silly Symphonies were important because they were the first animations to be filmed in full three-color Technicolor. Though arguably Otte Reinger’s The Adventures of Prince Achmed (Die Abebteuer des Prinzin Achmed) may have been the first surviving full-length animation, most people are instead familiar with Disney’s first full-length animated film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, released on December 21, 1937. This film was revolutionary because Disney used a new multiplane camera that allowed cels to be physically set apart at intervals, creating a sense of depth. Viewers could now see Snow White’s tears fall down a wishing well and splash at the bottom. Snow White took four years to make and cost $1.5 million. It earned $8 million at the box office, making it a top money maker in 1938 and kicking off Disney’s Golden Age (Bendazzi 1994).

Warner Brothers, MGM, and Challenges to Disney

The pastoral style of Disney was challenged by Warner Brother’s Looney Toons and Merry Melodies with more adult-orientated and urban themes, especially when Tex Avery joined Warner Brothers. Avery was responsible for much of the violent, crude characters and slapstick comedy in the Warner Brother’s cartoons. Together with greats such as Friz Freleng and Bob Clampett, Avery created enduring characters such as Daffy Duck, Bugs Bunny, Road Runner, and PePe LePew. Parodying Disney’s Fantasia, Warner Brothers created Rabbit of Seville (1950) featuring Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny as opera singers. They also created the critically acclaimed Duck Amuck which stars Daffy Duck battling an animator. Meanwhile, William Hanna and Joseph Barbera created Tom and Jerry for MGM, a success that tied with Disney’s Academy Award record (Kenfer 1997).

Animation Matures

During the 1970s, animation lost much of its innocence with Rob Crumb’s creation of Fritz the Cat (1972), the first X-rated animated cat who enjoys sex and drugs. And in his animation Lord of the Rings (1978), Ralph Bakshi captures much of J.R.R. Tolkien’s darkness using rotoscoping in which human actors are filmed and traced as cartoon characters. Other animations, such as Watership Down and Plague Dogs, treat mature topics such as death and dying in a much more sophisticated way than Disney’s framing of Bambi’s mother’s death off screen. Other complex animations include Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas, which offers a Gothic feel to traditional stop-motion animation (Wells America 2002).


No discussion of animation would be complete without mentioning Japanese animation, or anime. Influenced by kabuki (a form of traditional Japanese theater), woodblock prints, and manga (Japanese cartoons--particularly the way they suggest more than what is in the frame and emphasize aesthetic distance), anime makes use of worldwide animation techniques of the twentieth century, particularly Disney. The father of anime, Osamu Tezuka, notes the influence of Disney on his own work, but he developed animation in a very different direction, including more adult themes and more complex story lines. In fact, otaku (American fans) often compare anime disparagingly with Disney, noting that anime tends to be intellectually superior (Levi 1996). The most important date in Japanese animated history is 1963 with the premiere of Tezuka’s legendary Astro Boy (Tetsuwan Atomu) followed by Kimba the White Lion. Other anime series, such as the Vampire Princess Miyu, highlight anime’s preference for moral ambiguity as seen by the heroine’s pretty face and ribbons that hide her eerie nature. Another important series is Anno Hideakis’ bleak television series Neon Genesis Evangelion, which offers a type of overripe maturity with profound existential concerns. The popularity of anime in the United States, an audience it was never intended for, suggests that all viewers are ready for more challenging animation that makes use of complex imagery, emotions, and powerful symbolism (Napier 2001).

Emergence of Pixar and Digital 3D

Traditional cel animation process became largely obsolete in the twenty-first century with the advances in computer technology, and Pixar has been at the forefront of that technology. Pixar began when Steve Jobs purchased the computer graphics division of Lucasfilm Ltd and made it into an independent company, thus creating Pixar. Pixar corroborated with Disney to create the first-ever completely computer-generated animated feature film, Toy Story, followed by ANTZ, A Bug’s Life, and Finding Nemo, which won an Academy Award for animated feature film in 2004. In 2006, Walt Disney Company bought Pixar for $7.4 billion in stocks.

Upcoming films such as Disney’s A Christmas Carol (2009) and Toy Story 3 (2010) use the newest computer-generated animation techniques, including Disney Digital 3D in which all the digital elements are built in 3D. Indeed, as Pixar’ s success suggests, the versatility of computer animation is limited only by the creativity of its user. What makes Pixar successful as the leaders of twenty-first-century animation is its awareness that even the most visually astounding and technically awesome computer generated images can quickly pale if they have no more substance than technological wizardry (Bendazzi 1994).

-- Posted May 31, 2008


Bendazzi, Giannalberto. 1994. Cartoons: One Hundred Years of Cinema Animation. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Crafton, Donald. 1982. Before Mickey: The Animated Film 1898-1928. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Gifford, Dennis. 1990. American Animated Films: The Silent Era, 1897-1929. Jefferson: NC, McFarland and Company, Inc.

Kanfer, Stefan. 1997. Serious Business: The Art and Commerce of Animation in America from Betty Boop to Toy Story. New York, NY: Scribner.

Levi, Antonia. 1996. Samurai from Outer Space: Understanding Japanese Animation. Chicago, IL: Open Court.

Napier, Susan J. 2001. Anime: From Akira to Princess Mononoke: Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation. New York, NY: Palgrave.

Smith, Conrad. 1980. “The Early History of Animation.” The American Animated Cartoon. Eds. Danny Peary and Gerald Peary. New York, NY: E.P.Dutton.

Wells, Paul. 2002. Animation and America. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

---. 2002. Animation: Genre and Authorship. New York, NY: Wallflower Press.