The History of Animation

Animation, the technique of producing a sequence of images that create the illusion of movement, has been delighting audiences for centuries. Long before the likes of Disney and Warner Brothers, humans were experimenting with different techniques to convey motion in their art.

How animation began

The very earliest examples of animation date back over 5,000 years. A pottery bowl dating back to 3,000 BC discovered in Iran portrays a succession of images of a leaping goat. Similarly, a mural discovered in an Egyptian burial chamber consists of a sequence of images depicting a wrestling match. From the sixteenth century, Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous Vitruvian Man drawings imply movement through slight changes in the angles of the extension of the limbs.

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Animation devices

A number of different devices have been invented over the centuries to display images that move. Most of these will be familiar to you.

The earliest device was the magic lantern, which originated in the seventeenth century. It was a form of projector, which comprised a translucent oil painting, a lens and a flame. Some of these lanterns contained moving parts, thereby making the magic lantern the earliest form of projected animation.

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The Thaumatrope

In the early nineteenth century the thaumatrope became popular. This is a small disc with an image printed on each side – for example a parrot on one side and a bird cage on the other. This was attached to two pieces of string which, when twisted quickly between the fingers, caused the two images to combine into a single image.

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The Phenakistoscope

Invented in 1831 by Joseph Plateau and Simon von Stampfer, the phenakistoscope consisted of a disc with a series of images drawn around the edge, interspersed with evenly spaced slots. The user would hold the disc up to a mirror, spin the disc and look through the slots to see the reflected images which, when viewed in quick succession, appeared to depict a moving image.

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The Zoetrope

A popular development on the basic phenakistoscope, the zoetrope used a similar principle to create the illusion of animation. With this device the images and slots were printed around the inside of a cylindrical drum.

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Animation devices

The first flip book was patented by John Barnes Linnett in 1868 as the kineograph. This provided more freedom as it allowed the animation to develop on a linear basis, rather than being restricted to the circular repetitive sequence imposed by the zoetrope.

Later came the praxinoscope, which was based on the principle of the zoetrope but the images were drawn onto transparent film strip and a light shone through which projected the images onto a screen through means of a prism of mirrors and a lens. Inventor Charles-Émile Reynaud used the device to broadcast the first animation in public in Paris in 1892. Of the three films broadcast only one, ‘Pauvre Pierrot’, survives today.

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The first entirely animated film

The first entirely animated film was ‘Humorous Phases of Funny Faces’ by James Stuart Blackton in 1906. This film used the technique of stop motion. The first hand-drawn animated film, ‘Fantasmagorie’ by Émile Cohl, came two years later in 1908.

This marked the beginning of the cartoon industry. The most successful studio at the time was Bray Studios in New York. Producer John Randolph Bray and Earl Hurd patented the cel technique which enabled cartoonists to animate characters and objects by drawing them onto transparent celluloid sheets which were then photographed against a stationary background.

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The early 20th century cartoon characters

The early 20th century cartoons saw a significant rise in character development, with the creation of such memorable characters as Betty Boop, Popeye and Woody Woodpecker. Gertie the Dinosaur, drawn by Winsor McCay in 1914, is often considered to be the first example of true character animation.

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Walt Disney's LA studio

In 1923 Walt Disney opened a new studio in Los Angeles. In 1928 he produced the first cartoon with sound printed on the film, ‘Steamboat Willie’. Walt Disney also produced the first technicolour animation, ‘Flowers and Trees’, in 1932.

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Warner Brothers

Warner Brothers was founded in 1930 and started producing the animated series ‘Merrie Melodies’, featuring beloved characters Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck.

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Snow White

In 1937 Walt Disney released ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarves’, the first fully hand-drawn animated feature film.

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Colour television

Colour television became widely available throughout the second half of the 20th century and numerous cartoons were created especially for this ever-growing audience. In 1960 ‘The Flintstones’ became the first cartoon to air on prime time television.

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The evolution of animation

The animation industry has been revolutionised by the advent of CGI (computer-generated imagery) technology. The use of technology has facilitated the evolution of animation from 2D to 3D, with software that enables 3D modelling, rendering and lighting.

The first fully-computer animated feature film was Pixar’s ‘Toy Story’, released in 1995. Since then Pixar has exploited new technological developments to create ever more realistic representations in its subsequent films; for example, fur in ‘Monsters Inc’, water in ‘Finding Nemo’, and humans in ‘Ratatouille’.

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Computer animation

Computer animation has by no means replaced traditional animation techniques entirely, however, a classic example being ‘The Simpsons’, America’s longest-running animated series. Producers of The Simpsons recently made history with the show’s first live broadcast. The use of sophisticated facial recognition technology enabled the live animation of Homer with voice actor Dan Castellaneta’s dialogue and facial expressions. You can read more about this here.

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Conclusion

Animation has clearly come a long way since the leaping goat! Now, animators are really pushing the boundaries, producing animated content with breath-taking realism. New innovations in technology and computer software look set to continue this trajectory – who knows what will be possible in five years’ time? We look forward to finding out!

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