Animation has a long and illustrious history. The earliest forms of animation date back a couple centuries before the advent of film. Its roots come from a desire to tell stories to an audience through the illusion of motion. The motion alone can convey more than just narrative. It can convey emotion. When used with characters, animation can bring out much stronger emotions in an audience than a normal film or theatrical performance.
Computer animation is just the newest form of animation. The techniques and knowledge gained in the last century of animation can be applied to computer animation. A good knowledge of what has come before will be very valuable to animators who want to be part of the future.
The Magic Lantern In the 17th century, a Jesuit priest named Athanasius Kircher invented a device called the Magic Lantern. It was a box with a lantern, and glass discs with images; essentially a slide projector. By late 17th century, Johannes Zahn mounted the glass slides on a revolving disc which gave the illusion of motion. These devices were used to entertain the royal courts in Europe.
Eventually, Magic Lanterns were used in public halls to entertain large audiences. They remained popular through the 19th century, and were still used in Vaudeville shows.
Persistence of Vision In 1824, Peter Roget published a paper called “Persistence of Vision With Regard to Moving Objects.” This paper describes the phenomenon that occurs in human vision where an image lingers even after the light from the source has ceased. If this did not occur, we would see a pronounced flicker in all films and on all televisions and monitors. This phenomenon makes animation possible.
This led to numerous “philosophical” toys during the 19th century. These include the Zoetrope, and the Flipbook.
The Zoetrope consisted of a spinning cylinder with slits in it, and a strip of paper with frames that you place inside the cylinder. When you spin it and look through the slits, you see the images animate. This could be used for cycling animation like running and jumping.
The Flipbook is familiar to most of us. Sequential images are stacked in a small book, and when you flip through the pages with your thumb, you can see the images animate. When I was in Middle School, we had to read a few Shakespeare plays. The best part about it was that they had huge margins, so there was plenty of room to draw flip book animations. When you’re 13, it’s not always easy to make Shakespeare interesting and relevant.
Early Photography The first photographs were taken in the 1820’s and ‘30’s. They tended to be very static, and be mainly still life and portraits, because of the exposure times.
This changed with Eadweard Muybridge. In 1873 he conducted an experiment to try to resolve a friend’s wager about whether when a horse trots, there’s a point at which all four legs are off the ground. Muybridge set up a row of cameras and was able to trigger them sequentially so that each camera captured a single frame of the motion. The images could be flipped like a flip book to see the motion, and studied a frame at a time to see the details of the motion.
This led to two folio sets of sequential photographs, “Animals in Motion” published in 1899, and “The Human Figure in Motion” published in 1901. Both of these volumes are still considered standard references today.
In 1888, Thomas Edison produced a device for recording sequential images. The resulting images are then shown on a Mutoscope, which is a device somewhat like an automated flipbook. Mutoscopes were very popular in penny arcades. There is an old penny arcade in San Francisco where you can still see these.
Also, in 1888, George Eastman patented roll film. The combination of these two technologies made the motion picture camera possible.
The Invention of Cinema In 1895 in Paris, Auguste and Louis Lumiere showed the first public motion picture projections. The scenes were of everyday life, and Louis Lumiere predicted audiences would quickly bore of seeing images of things they could easily go outside and see for themselves. He declared “cinema is an invention without a future.”
Back in America in 1896, J. Stuart Blackton, a newspaper writer and illustrator was sent to interview Thomas Edison. In return for writing the interview, Edison used his Kinetoscope to film Blackton doing a sketch in a film called “Blackton, The Evening World Cartoonist.” Blackton was enthralled with the new process and quickly made his own Kinetoscope. The following year, Blackton was one of the co-founders of the Vitagraph Company, which later was later sold to Warner Brothers. If you watch some of the old Warner Brothers cartoons, you can see the Vitagraph name in the opening credits.
In 1906, Blackton and Edison joined forces again and produced the first stop motion animation, of Blackton’s drawings on a chalkboard and called it “The Humorous Phases of Funny Faces”. Meanwhile in France, Emile Cohl created a series of stick figure animation.
Animation Evolves In 1911, Winsor McCay burst onto the animation scene with his first animated film. McCay was a well known cartoonist and illustrator for work such as Little Nemo in Slumberland. McCay’s first films were actually hand-tinted after they were printed so that they were projected in color.
In 1914, McCay’s film “Gertie the Dinosaur” revolutionized animation. The reason this film is so significant is that until that time animated films were essentially moving comic strips, and the characters had very little personality. McCay brought a sense of life and self-awareness to Gertie through the animation. Nobody had ever seen anything like it before. Today animators still study his films to get insights in subtleties of character animation.
Animation Technology Advances Several innovations in animation technology helped foster the new animation industry. First, in 1913, peg registered drawings started being used. With holes punched at the bottom of the pages, and mounted on a peg bar when animating, and also when the animation is shot under the camera, it was much easier to create steady animation.
That same year, several animation studios were founded in New York. These studios were the spawning grounds of many influential animators that later became the backbone of the industry.
In 1915, Earl Hurd patented the clear celluloid sheet, also known as the cel. This was significant because it made it possible to draw the background only once, and animate characters on top of it. Not only did this greatly reduce the work of retracing a background frame by frame, but it later led to the “cartoon” look of black outlines filled with color that we are used to today.
Also that year, Max Fleischer patented the Rotoscope. The rotoscope used a technique that involved filming live actors in costume, projecting the film frame by frame onto a glass plate, and tracing the figure adding other embellishments to create the final animated character. The result is very realistic motion. This technique is still being used, and is used in 3D animation software packages like Animation:Master.
Early Animation Studios As people started going to movies, the demand for short animated films grew to a point where a real industry could develop, and animation studios could grow. Fleischer Studios was one of the successful ones. The period from 1916 through 1929 they produced the very successful “Out of the Inkwell” series featuring the character Koko the Clown. These films combined animation and live action.
Sullivan Studios had even more success at the time with Otto Messmer’s Felix the Cat films. While many other animated film of the day were not much more than moving comic strips, Messmer made Felix much more expressive. This led to Felix being the first real cartoon “star”. Not only were the Felix films very popular, but so was the Felix merchandise. This was the first time that an animated character garnered as much or more attention than a movie star. The power of animation was really beginning to take shape.
Despite their initial popularity, the Felix films made by Sullivan Studios never adapted to sound. This may have been a reason why their popularity waned. When the head of Sullivan Studios died in 1933, the studio shut down and the Felix films stopped being made.
Disney Enters Picture The history of animation that most people are familiar with is the Disney version. You can clearly see that to this point, there were many people and studios that came before Disney. But, the influence of the Disney animated films should not be understated.
In 1920 Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks started the Laugh-O-Gram company and began making the Laugh-O-gram series in Kansas City. They got some distribution, but had trouble getting the distributors to send the money back to the studio. During the end of this time, they produced the first “Alice in Cartoonland” film. But, they had lost so much money with the earlier films that they declared bankruptcy in 1923.
Disney then moved to Hollywood, and continued making the “Alice in Cartoonland” series. He was later joined by Ub Ikerks. The Alice films incorporated a live action girl in a cartoon world. Disney produced 57 Alice comedies between 1923 and 1927.
Oswald and Mickey As the Alice films wound down, Disney started in a new direction with a series of cartoons with a new character called Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. In the period from 1927 through 1928, they made 26 silent Oswald cartoons. The were distributed by Universal, and in a contract dispute, Universal got the rights to the character. They continued to make Oswald cartoons with Walter Lantz.
Disney had to move on without Oswald, so Disney designed a new character called Mortimer Mouse. He later changed the name to Mickey. They produced two silent films with Mickey, but it was their third that was actually released first. The third film was “Steamboat Willie”, which not only made Mickey a star, but also was the very first sound cartoon.
Disney Dominates The decade from 1928 through 1937 witnessed a remarkable transformation of animation innovation at the Disney studio. Animated films went from silent, black and white cartoons with simple characters and simple motion cycles to a full color feature films with rich characters, music, and animated effects. During this time Disney produced a series of cartoons called “Silly Symphonies”.
In 1932 Disney released “Flowers and Trees” the first cartoon made with Technicolor. For those of you unfamiliar with the Technicolor process, not only is it color, but the colors, particularly the reds are rich and vibrant and a real treat for the eyes. “Flowers and Trees” also became the first film to win the Oscar for Best Animated Short.
Disney followed up in 1933 with “The Three Little Pigs”. Not only was it hugely successful, but was also a breakthrough in animation because the three pigs were essentially identical, but you could differentiate them because they had distinct personalities in the way they were animated.
Disney Gets Deep In 1937 Disney introduced another technical innovation to animation in the film “The Old Mill”, which won the 1937 Oscar for Best Animated Short. This film used the Multiplane camera, a new device patented by Disney. This device placed a camera at the top a tall rack, which then shot downward towards multiple layers of glass plates. Each of these plates could move independently, in three dimensions. This not only produced many layers of detail, but the camera could rack focus from foreground elements to background elements. It added a level of three dimensionality to cel animation. This concept continues today and is used as a feature of Animation:Master.
Other Studios Despite Disney’s domination, other animation studios were also going strong. The Fleischer Studios started making “Betty Boop” cartoons, which were very popular. And Universal continued making “Oswald” cartoons with Walter Lantz instead of Disney.
The Disney/Oswald split had other side effects. Hugh Harmon and Rudolf Ising were two animators that worked with Disney in Kansas City, and then in Hollywood on the Alice and Oswald films. They split with Disney when Walter Lantz took over the Oswald films and started making “Bosko” cartoons for Leon Schlesinger who sold them to Warner Brothers. Schlesinger became the head of the animation studio, which turned into Warner’s animation studio. They soon split up into two divisions. Harmon went to direct “Looney Toons”, and Ising went to direct “Merry Melodies”. The Looney Toons continued to star Bosko.
In 1933, Harmon and Ising left Schlesinger when he refused to switch to color, and went to MGM. There they produced “Happy Harmonies”. They were there till 1937. Tom and Jerry got their start in an Ising produced film.
3D Animation Another very important development was 3D animation and stop motion animation. The man considered the grandfather of stop motion is Willis O’Brian. He used a combination of soft rubber, clay, and armatures with 3D sets. His first film was in 1917 and was called “The Dinosaur and the Missing Link”. After several less successful films, “The Lost World” in 1925 broke new ground. But, he is probably best known for “King Kong” in 1933. With this film, O’Brian gave Kong a real personality, and was able to get audiences to really feel for him. Many years later in 1949, O’Brian animated another giant Ape in “Mighty Joe Young”. One of the other animators on this film was a young Ray Harryhausen, who later became legendary for the Sinbad films of the 1960’s. “Mighty Joe Young” went on to win the first Oscar for special effects in 1950.
Animated Features In 1937 Disney broke new ground by releasing Snow White, their first animated feature film. It proved an audience could sit through long form animation and led to a long list of high quality Disney animated films. It also led to a great deal of research and development at Disney in the mechanics of motion and animation. A greater sense of weight, momentum and motion of humans and animals added to the quality of animation not only at Disney, but other studios as well. Unfortunately, despite its success, Snow White lost money.
The films that followed Snow White like Pinocchio and Fantasia in 1940, Dumbo in 1941 and Bambi in 1942 contain what is still considered some of the best animation produced at Disney. If you are serious about learning animation, you should get these films on DVD and single frame through them. You will learn a lot.
Also during this time, a group who were to become known as the Nine Old Men came together at Disney. They are largely responsible for the quality animation at Disney and worked a lot with younger animators to develop and encourage the techniques that created great animation. Two of the Nine Old Men are Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnson who wrote the book “Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life”, which is considered the bible in the animation industry. If you don’t have it, get it.
Fleischer Features Disney was not the only studio making animated features during this time. Fleischer Studios did their best to compete. In 1939 they released “Gulliver’s Travels”. Gulliver was animated using the rotoscope process with the rest of the characters being more cartoony. It was more rushed than Show White, so the animation quality is less consistent.
Then in 1941, they released “Mr. Bug Goes to Town”. This film has some interesting similarities to Pixar’s “Bug’s Life”.
Animation’s Golden Age The Golden Age of animation is generally considered to be the period between 1937 and the late 1950’s. During this time the studios produced some of the best and funniest cartoons of all time. If you are like me, you grew up on classic Warner Brothers, MGM, and Disney cartoons. If not, you need to go back discover these gems.
The major studios of the Golden Age are Warner Brothers, Disney, MGM, Fleischer, Terrytoons, and Walter Lantz.
Warner Brothers was going strong with their stable of cartoon stars including Porky Pig, Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd, and the Road Runner.
Terrytoons, owned by 20th Century Fox produced Mighty Mouse and Heckle and Jeckle cartoons in the 1940’s and 50’s.
Disney continued to make animated features, but also short cartoons with Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy, and Pluto.
MGM produced the hugely successful Tom and Jerry, Screwy Squirrel, Droopy, and Barney Bear.
Fleischer studios whose films were distributed through Paramount, produced Popeye cartoons, and the amazing Superman cartoons. If you have never seen the Fleischer Superman cartoons, go out and get them. They are simply amazing.
Walter Lantz started his own studio after leaving Universal and made the very successful Woody Woodpecker cartoons.
The Directors Animation directors during the Golden Age had a huge influence on evolution of the cartoon. Today’s animators will probably tell you which of these directors influences their style and tastes. After years of watching cartoons, I can tell who directed a particular cartoon just by its style. If you are serious about animation, it’s worthwhile to study the films of these directors. I will briefly touch on my favorites and the ones that I think were most influential.
Bob Clampett was one of the first to run his own unit at Warner Brothers. He was one of the first to produce “wacky” cartoons, and is one of the originators of the extreme cartoon “take”. This became a staple of the Warner Brothers cartoons, and others. Clampett’s cartoons also tend to be the most adult oriented humor. Trust me, if you go back and look at some of these cartoons, you won’t believe what he got away with.
Tex Avery, who is my personal favorite, started at Warner Brothers, and is credited for inventing Daffy Duck, and Bugs Bunny. He made “A Wild Hare” in 1940, which wasn’t the first cartoon with Bugs Bunny, it was the first one with the classic Bugs personality, and the Bugs and Elmer chase scenario. Soon after that he left Warners, he went to MGM. This is where he made his best films. Tex was the master of slapstick, and has rarely been surpassed. Tex also was one of the most prolific anti-Disney directors. Not only did he often spoof Disney in his early films, but he brought a rough edge that was a stark contrast to the sugary, kids oriented Disney films.
On a personal note, I am such a big Tex fan that I have been collecting Tex Avery original production animation art for the last several years. For those of you interested in collecting vintage animation art, I have some advice. Animation art galleries are very overpriced. I have found some amazing original production art on eBay. You can find some real bargains there if you are careful.
Chuck Jones, is another god of animation. Chuck’s attention to detail, and fine-tuned sense of comedic timing transformed mere cartoons into high art. One of his rules for Bugs Bunny was that Bugs was never the instigator. He was always provoked. Which inevitably led to the line “Of course your realize, this means war!”
Friz Freleng, also had his own style. He had particular skill with Porky Pig, Yosemite Sam, and Sylvester, all of whom he invented.
Bill Hanna and Joseph Barbera had huge success at MGM with Tom and Jerry. They were not as innovative as the Warners directors, but did learn from the others and it shows in their cartoons.
UPA’s New Look In 1941, the Disney studio was rocked by a strike by animators who wanted to unionize. Many animators got laid off. In 1943, they formed United Productions of America also known as UPA. Chuck Jones directed the first UPA film, which was a political ad for Frankin Roosevelt. The UPA films were a departure from the traditional cartoon style. They tended to be more political in nature, and ushered in a new style that was defined by stark colors, less realistic character motion, and very graphic look. It was a very anti-Disney look that caught on throughout the industry. The opening credits for Monster’s Inc. are very much in the UPA style.
UPA later went on to produce Mr. Magoo and Gerald McBoing Boing cartoons.
The Decline of the Studios By the late 1950’s, the cost of producing animated shorts was getting prohibitive, and there was a drop in the movie theater audiences. These factors combined to make the major studios shut down or significantly scale back their animation units. The Golden Age was over.
Television Takes Off One of the big reasons movie theaters were seeing a decline in audiences was that television had finally emerged as a mass medium. People were staying home more for their entertainment than going out. This created a new demand, but required a new kind of studio, one that could produce a lot more animation in much shorter time.
Bill Hanna and Joseph Barbera left MGM, and started their own studio, called Hanna-Barbera. They produced their first made for TV cartoon series in 1957. In order to produce the volume needed for a series, they took the stylized UPA look and cut it down even more. They reduced the number of frames per second, and economized with cycled backgrounds and restricted the character motion even more. This became known as “limited animation” and is commonly used to this day. In 1960 they premiered “The Flintstones” as a prime time animated series.
Jay Ward was also a big player in early TV animation. His first animated series “Crusader Rabbit” in 1949. It was sold city by city, and not directly to a network so it isn’t always recognized as the first animated TV series, despite being broadcast earlier. “Rocky and Friends” debuted on NBC in 1959. Though the animation was very limited, it managed to appeal to kids, and to adults because the scripts had a lot of word play that the adults could pick up on. They later went on to produce “Rocky and Bullwinkle”, “Dudley Do-Right”, “George of the Jungle” and “Fractured Fairy Tales”, as well as commercials for Captain Crunch and Quisp.
World Wide Animation In the 1960’s as animation production in Hollywood declined, animation studios started to thrive around the world. The National Film Board of Canada financed a number of films in Canada, many of which were very experimental and really pushed the medium. The library of great Canadian animated films is vast and definitely worth exploring.
Eastern Europe and Russia also experienced a boom in animation. Despite the tight control the Soviet government had over filmmakers, animators seemed to have much more leeway because they often got around the censors with symbolism. Stop motion also became quite popular there.
Another part of the world that saw an explosion of animation was Japan. This was the true birth of Anime. Anime grew to encompass not only animated entertainment for children, but ultimately covered drama, comedy, action, and even x-rated films. It is definitely, not just for kids.
Ray Harryhausen No summary of animation history would be complete without talking about Ray Harryhausen. He had a huge influence, not just on the field of stop motion animation, but also animated special effects in films. He was influenced at an early age by Willis O’Brian and even became friends with him. After high school, he worked with George Pal on a series of stop motion films called Puppetoons. George Pal went on to do the special effects for the original “War of the Worlds”.
A few years later, in 1949 Harryhausen got to work with Willis O’Brian on “Mighty Joe Young”. He then went on his own to do the animation for a series of 1950’s Sci-Fi films from “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms” to “20 Million Miles to Earth”. He specialized in fantastic creatures and brought life to them in a way that surpassed what Willis O’Brian had done. This is why he is considered the “Father of Stop Motion”.
During the 1960’s and 70’s he moved into fantasy films with the Sinbad movies and “Jason and the Argonauts”. If you haven’t seen this movie, go rent it. The battle with the skeletons still holds up today, and it is truly amazing. I still get goose bumps when I watch it. It’s even more amazing when you consider that did all this animation alone!
As a tribute to Harryhausen, the restaurant in the film “Monster’s Inc.” is called “Harryhausen’s”.
The 1970’s During the 1970’s the bulk of animation was on Saturday morning and dominated by Hanna-Barbera and Filmation produced kid-oriented fare. Disney continued to make animated features, but they had dropped in quality and popularity.
But, the 70’s also saw the rise of independent animators that wanted to shake things up. Ralph Bakshi was one of the most prolific. After getting his start at Terrytoons, he produced the first R-rated cartoon with “Fritz the Cat” in 1972. Many of his films had a “gritty” New Yorker urban feel including “Heavy Traffic”, “Hey, Good Lookin” and “American Pop”. He also delved into fantasy with “Wizards” and “The Lord of the Rings”. All of his films after “Fritz the Cat” used the Rotoscope technique, so they had a stylized live action feel mixed with the animation.
In 1977, the world changed with “Star Wars” came out. This really ushered in the age of the special effects movie. Phil Tippett was the lead animator and did the animated chess game between C3PO and Chewbacca.
The 1980’s Hollywood movies heavy on animated special effects really took off after Star Wars. With the Star Wars films, Indiana Jones films, Close Encounters, ET, Poltergeist, and countless other blockbusters, animation moved towards effects. Industrial Light and Magic, founded by George Lucas, dominated this field. Much like Disney did in the 1930’s, they invested a lot of energy and money into R&D, and greatly improved the quality and quantity of animated visual effects.
Computer animation also took off. The original CG studios did animation for commercials, and flying logos for network TV. And as the computer hardware dropped in price, newer CG studios came to take their place. Studios like Pixar, PDI, and Blue Sky began during this time. Also, in the late 1980’s personal computers were becoming more capable, and the first desktop CG animation tools started coming out, like Hash’s Animation:Apprentice. Most of today’s 3D tools can be traced back to these programs.
The end of the 80’s also saw some new animated features that breathed new life into the industry and inspired a whole new generation of animators. These were “Roger Rabbit” in 1988, and “Little Mermaid” in 1989. There was a measurable boost in interest of CG animation tools, and many young animators that got started learning animation on personal computers are now the animators at the top animation studios.
The 1990’s To Infinity and Beyond As the 90’s began, the animation world was rocked by
“Ren and Stimpy”. The man behind this was John Kricfalusi. In the late 80’s, he was director of animation on Ralph Bakshi’s “The New Adventures of Mighty Mouse”. His influence in that series was clear. Clearly there was a level of humor that was not directed at children, but more towards teenagers and adults. Ren and Stimply ushered in the “sick and twisted” cartoon. Kricfalusi combined a strong graphic style with Bob Clampett animation sensibilities and teenager level humor. Most of today’s cartoon series are influenced by this show.
In 1995, Pixar proved that a CG feature film was not only possible, but could be profitable. Taking a lesson from the early Disney days, story is the most important element to an animated film. It’s a lesson that Disney also seemed to relearn when they released “The Lion King”. It was the most profitable film they ever made. Many of their previous films had actually lost money.
But, Pixar opened the door to many other CG feature film, not just from them, but from studios like PDI/Dreamworks, and Blue Sky.
The Local Animation Scene The animation scene here in Portland has actually been quite active over the last 20 years. The best known studio here is Will Vinton Studios, which is best known for popularizing Claymation with the California Raisins. In the early ‘90’s they started working with computer animation with the help of Hash, Inc. Their first CG commercials and a piece for Sesame Street were done with Animation:Master.
Portland is also well known for other independent animators.
Jim Blashfield has produced a number of well known music videos for Michael Jackson, The Talking Heads, and Tears for Fears using his color cutout animation technique.
Joan Gratz it well known for her clay painting technique, which uses clay mixed with oil, painted onto a backlit glass plate. The animation happens by smearing the clay around. Her film “Mona Lisa Descending a Staircase” features an animated history of 20th century painting from Vincent van Gogh to Andy Worhal. It won the Academy Award in 1992.
Joanna Priestley has animated many award winning films and is very active in the local animation community.
Rose Bond, another award winning animator has become well known through her direct animation films. Her films are created not through film, but by taking a clear strip of 16mm or 35mm film and carefully drawing directly in the frame. The amount of detail she has gotten at such a small scale is remarkable.
All of these animators are well known in animation circles around the world, and all live and work right here in Portland.
If you are interested in getting involved with local animators and studios, the best way is to join the local ASIFA chapter. ASIFA is the International Animated Film Association, and is chartered under the United Nations. The ASIFA/NW chapter was founded in Portland in the late 1980’s, and sponsors animation screenings, and sometimes guest animator speakers. Guests such as Ray Harryhausen, Peter Lord of Aardman Studio, and Bill Plympton of Plymtoons have been featured. ASIFA is a great place to make contacts and learn from other animators.
To Infinity and Beyond Today’s personal computers are so powerful, they are faster than the $16 Million supercomputers of the 1980’s. And the software capable of “high end” CG effects and character animation is as low as a few hundred dollars. Animation had always required prohibitively expensive equipment like 16mm film cameras, animation stands, and many people to do inking, painting, and in-betweens. This can now all be done for a few hundred dollars on a personal computer.
The world of animation is open to you. You could be the next Tex Avery or Ray Harryhausen. It’s up to you to take the challenge and show the world what you’ve got.