Now, let us start with the basics… What is animation?
If you try to read books about animation or ask Google what animation is, you will find the same or at least a similar answer – a moving image. More specifically, animation is a series of static images or drawings that “come to life” and create the illusion of motion.
The term animation itself comes from the Latin anima (not anime, to avoid confusion), which means “living force” or – life.
Now that we have cleared that up, here is a few words about the history of animation itself:
In the beginning
Some say that the origins of animation go back to the Stone Age, when our ancestors drew animals in various poses on the walls of caves to visually represent their movements. You could say that this is a similar technique to drawing comics, but that’s another topic…
Let us leave the Stone Age and move on, more specifically, to the 17th century. In Europe, in France, something called shadow play appeared. Shadow puppetry has its roots in Asia. According to Wikipedia, it is an ancient form of storytelling and entertainment that uses cut-out paper figures (puppets). The figures are placed between a light source and a transparent screen and then moved. This creates “animated” dark shapes (shadows) on a light background.
Skipping the 18th century and the so-called magic lantern, we jump to the 19th and early 20th century when various visual toys begin to develop and the illusion of movement is created. This is the starting point of film, that is, the film industry as we know it today. But we will exclusively talk about visual toys…
In 1825, a device called a thaumatrope appeared, developed by William Phillis. It was an extremely popular visual toy that had a cardboard disc with pictures on both sides. The disc was attached to a wire and was rotated, causing the two images to form a kind of animation.
A few years later, zoetrope appeared. This visual toy was introduced by Milton Bradley as a children’s toy and became extremely popular. The zoetrope was actually a slotted cylinder. On the inside was a strip of drawings, i.e. a series of drawings, and when the cylinder was rotated, the viewer could see the drawings in motion through the slits – creating the illusion of movement (animation).
Various versions of the zoetrope have appeared over the years, so much so that in 1977, French inventor Charles-Émile Reynau introduced the praxinoscope – a more advanced version of the zoetrope that differed from the original despite having the same principle – it had a mirror in the middle.
In addition to these three devices, there have been several other similar and not so similar visual toys over the years. We will just mention them: flipperbook, kinegram, zoopraxiscope and phonotrope.
First animated film(s)
Although Gertie the dinosaur by Winsor McCay (1914) is considered one of the first and certainly most famous animated films, it is not the first. Eight years earlier, in 1906, James Stuart Blackton made a short animated film titled Humorous phases of funny faces, in which he depicted various characters in various situations (blowing out cigarette smoke, twirling an umbrella, taking off a hat, juggling a hat, a dog jumping through a hoop).
It is interesting to note that Blackton made this 2-minute animated film using stop-motion, cutout animation, and chalkboard (school) drawing techniques, and it took him about 3000 drawings. For this reason, Blackton is considered by many to be the actual founder of animation and the first animator ever.
Just two years later, in 1908, French artist Émile Cohl created Fantasmagorie, the first animated film made using classical animation methods. Cohl drew the individual images on paper and then shot them on a film negative. He later moved to Fort Lee, New Jersey near New York, where he worked for the French studio Éclair and expanded his animation technique in the United States.
From Fleischer and Disney to Loony Toons… and further…
The early 1910s were the era of animation studios: Buxton and Dyer, Barré Studio, Bray Productions, Hearst’s International Film Service… But of all the studios founded during this time, Fleischer Studios, founded by Max Fleischer, was somehow the biggest success in the history of animation.
Fleischer Studios became famous for titles like Betty Boop, Popeye the Sailor (their most popular character), and Superman (which also earned them an Oscar nomination in 1941). In 1939, they made their first animated film, Gulliver’s Travels. Unfortunately, this was only one of two animated films they produced. The other was Mr. Bug Goes to Town from 1941.
In the 1920s, Felix, the Cat was published by two authors, Pat Sullivan and Otto Messma. Felix enjoyed great popularity in those years, and a comic strip of the same name was soon published. But with the end of silent movies and the beginning of talkies, Felix lost his popularity, “thanks” to Walt Disney and his whistling Mickey Mouse, who took Felix’s place, so to speak.
As you probably know, Disney became one of the leading animation studios in the years to come, thanks to the success of films like The Little Mermaid, Bambi, The Lion King and many others. Today, Disney is much more than that, but that’s another story.
Thanks to the development of computer technology, Disney also gave birth to Pixar (full name Pixar Animation Studio), which soon became the leading studio for computer animated films thanks to titles like Toy Story 1-4, Finding Nemo, Up, Inside out, Coco, Ratatouille and many others.
And along with Pixar, studios like DreamWorks Animation (Shrek 1-4, How to train your Dragon 1-3, Madagascar 1-3, Kung Fu Panda 1-3), Blue Sky Studios (Ice Age 1-4, Robots, Rio) have also found their place in the sun.
Besides Disney and their Little Mermaid, Bambi and The Lion King, many other animated titles, with the development of television in the 1950s and 1960s, TV animation has also developed over the decades: Tom & Jerry, Looney Toons, He- Man and many other cartoons we grew up with.
Finally, we will mention anime and Studio Ghibli, because it would just be wrong not to mention them. But that’s an incredibly broad topic that we may cover on another occasion.
We hope you found this brief history of animation interesting and educational.