The History of American Animation

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by Zuzana Motalová


Animation. It is present everywhere, from advertisements and PC games to feature films. Some believe that its development has already reached its peak, many more expect that both the artform and the technology behind it will continue to develop. Sometimes, however, it is good to look back to the history as well.

From Pre-film era Animation Experiments to Early Film: An Introduction

The principles on which animation works are derived from the same concept as film in general:  from the rather imperfect motion perception of human brain which creates illusions of movement in situations, where no such movement occurs. For centuries, people have been aware of this physiological feature and using it as a source of entertainment. Even a drawing of a sequence of pictures sketched in the corners of pages of a book can seem like magic once the pages are flipped in fast pace, the pictures start to move as if they have come alive.

Mickey Mouse Poster Celebrity Productions, wikimedia commons, CC BY 4.0 

The true history of animation, however, begins with English photographer, Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904), who is mostly famous for his work in the field of motion capture: he created whole sequences of movement, photographed in real life using multiple cameras. Following Muybridge, two basic types of animation has emerged: “Frame by Frame” animation, which works with the exposition of 1/24 shots per second (cartoons, flesh, stop-motion, etc), and “Real-time Animation”, based on a puppet theatre, which includes “Motion Capture” (the movement is created by a real actor and transferred through sensors, for example Gollum from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, 2001) and “Rotoscoping” (a real movement is being captured by cameras, studied and redrawn into the animation – a hybrid technique). 

While in Europe, it is Émile Cohl who is usually celebrated as the first pioneer of animation (Fantasmagorie, 1908), across the Atlantic sea, more attention is given to James Stuart Blackton – the father of American animation (1875-1941).

James S. Blackton, originally a cartoonist for the New York Evening World, started to experiment with the film media and his Humorous Phases of Funny Faces (1906) are regarded by some as the oldest American animated movie. Much more credit, however, is often given to his earlier movie, Enchanted Drawing (1900), which, despite not being exactly fully animated film, is said to offer an early glimpse of what animation could become.”

Another American cartoonist, Winsor McKay, best known for his film called Little Nemo (1911) is sometimes defined as a father of “true” animation .

There are indeed many names which deserve a mention, such as John Randolph Bray and Earl Hurd, and many others, but the most significance is probably given to a younger and more universally known artist – Walt Disney. (1,7,8)

The Golden Era of American Animation

It is difficult to find a more universally famous motion-picture production company than Walt Disney Productions. In fact, for many people Walt Disney is synonymous with animation.

Walter Elias Disney (1901-1966), born in Illinois, spent most of his childhood and youth creating pictures and paintings, until he entered the Kansas City Ad Company, where he finally found his door to animation and started to create his own cartoons, called Laugh-O-Grams, on which he worked with other artists, who he knew from the company. Although the cartoons were popular, Disney still did not make enough profit  and declared bankruptcy in by 1923. Afterwards, he and his brother Roy moved to Hollywood, where the true Disney studio finally started. The first really important work turned out to be the first full-length animated movie: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), which won eight Oscars and was created using the technique of rotoscoping, but some critics put more significance on Mickey Mouse (1928) due to the character of Mickey. What is indisputable is Disney’s contribution to the craft itself. Disney pioneered many processes which are a vital part of  animated film creation and frequently introduced contemporary innovations, such as the use of Technicolor and the multiplane motion picture camera. In fact, the name Disney is even linked with the so called “Twelve Basic Principles of Animation” which, although originally intended for traditional hand-drawn animation, remain relevant to this day and animators are expected to be familiar with them. (9,10)

Walt Disney, known to be a perfectionist, based his work process on the relationship with his employees and for many years remained to be the top of the animation industry. However, while the first films are marked with revolutionary artistic value, corresponding to the political situation and public mood in the US, film experts often claim that the better Disney’s animation became, content itself suffered. (4)

All of this influenced the development of other studios, including Warner Bros and MGM animation houses. In any case, it remains clear, that Walt Disney received all of the attention from the public and was basically credited with all the accomplishments of the studio, despite the number of artists working there and their indisputable contribution to “his” creations. As a result, some of those artists chose to leave his studio. Looney Tunes (1930), distributed by Warner Bros, is the  work of two animators, Hugh Harman and Rudy Ising, who both started in the Walt Disney studio.  Harman-Ising studio had also groomed William Hanna, who later joined Joseph Barbera to form the Hanna-Barbera studio. Hanna-Barbera, despite being famous and popular to this day, did not make any major technological contributions to animation. There was however, another artist who made his own small film revolution – and who was not raised in Disney studio – Tax Avery. Frederick Bean Avery (1908-1980), known as Tax, is linked to the creation of many adored animated characters, from Daffy Duck to Porky Pig, but the most famous character which he helped to create was undoubtedly Bugs Bunny. All these characters could be, in fact, seen as a sarcastic reaction to those of Disney, who were usually cute and innocent. This helped to properly introduce slapstick comedy to animation, a step which proved to be so successful that all the studios adapted to the new trend as soon as possible – including Disney. (2)

Those times, however, were dedicated to hand-drawn animation and traditional use of the camera. Animation in the course of the 20th century has been influenced by development of another technology and this influence has been increasing ever since – computers.

New technology – Computer Generated Imagery, and its influence

“Computer Generated Imagery” (CGI), in other words the use of computer created images, has been present in filmmaking for many decades. Originally, it was used for special effects in otherwise live action movies, such as Star Wars (1977), Westworld (1973), or Tron (1982), but it spread to animation as well. It is important to note, that the technique of Rotoscoping – a CGI technique in 2D – is usually considered as an early form of Motion Capture (3D). The most famous work for Rotoscoping is probably Ralph Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings (1978), where the technique is used so extensively that it makes viewers uncertain whether they are watching an animation or a live action movie. Another technique, called “Flocking”, involves the simulation of behaviour of groups of animated creatures, inspired by real life birds and animals (Disney’s Lion King, 1994). However, when it comes to computer animation, the most prominent technique is 3D animation, whose history goes back to the 1970s.

Eadweard Muybridge – Athletes. Walking High Leap Eadweard Muybridge, wikimedia commons, CC BY 4.0


Similarly, as Motion Capture origins in Rotoscoping, 3D can be seen as a computer generated form of a technique known as stop-motion animation (favourite technique of Tim Burton). This technique involves use of puppets in 3-dimensional space, instead of hand-drawn or cut-out figures on a sheet of background. Perhaps due to the visage,  3D is mostly associated with a specific type of stop-motion animation: clay-animation. A great, if not the best, example of clay-animation can be found in the UK in Aardman studios, widely known for their Wallace and Gromit movies.

The true development of CGI animation in film, nevertheless, is mostly credited to Pixar Animation Studios. Although the studio was founded in 1986 by Edwin Catmull and Alvy Ray Smith, its roots date back to the year of 1974, when Alexander Schure, the owner of The New York Institute of Technology, established Computer Graphics Lab. Soon, the employees started to move over to Lucasfilm, in order to gain an experience in real film studio. Catmull and Smith were among the very first of them. As Lucas got into financial problems in 1983 due to his divorce, Catmull and Smith decided to protect The Graphic Group of Lucasfilm by making it into an independent company – which is how Pixar Imagery Computer came to be in 1986. Consequently, Steve Jobs, Walt Disney studio and others proved to be interested in buying the company, Jobs becoming one of the main shareholders, but the offers were too low and for some time, Pixar continued to struggle. In fact, it could be said that it was not redeemed until Toy Story (1995, Disney-Pixar), the first feature-length computer-animated movie ever. It has been considered by numerous experts and film critics as one of the best animated movies of all time. Despite the influence of other American animators and studios, Pixar (with Disney as a distributor) is the only studio in US which can claim to have created movies of such level, the other “best of all time” animated films feature Japanese (Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away, 2001) and Russian (Yuriy Norstheyn, The Hedhegog in the Fog 1975, and The Tale of Tales, 1979).

Since Toy Story, 3D animation has literally become an everyday thing. There are 3D animated movies, such as Shrek (2001), Finding Nemo (2003), Zootopia (2016) and others. At the same time, the 3D animation is commonly incorporated in the production of live action movies, along with other CGI techniques – notable examples are Star Wars I-III, Lord of the Rings, as well as the Hobbit trilogies. In fact, 3D animation can be expected in any movie which requires to use large numbers of figures, mass scenes and unreal creatures or inventions. This practice has become so popular, that in some movies, the emphasis on the use of CGI may be considered exaggerated, if not downright tasteless.  (3,4,5)

Animation has been present since the beginning of film itself and it went through many important creative and technological changes, and in fact – it still moves forward. If it is properly done, it does not matter what techniques are used. The most important thing is to fully enjoy it.

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11 “Walt Disney.” A&E Networks Television, 03 Dec. 2015. Web. 27 Mar. 2017.

12 “Welcome.” Welcome | Wallace and Gromit. N.p., 14 July 2015. Web. 27 Mar. 2017.

13 Whitaker, Harold.Timing for animation. London: Focal, 2009. Print.

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