A History Of Animation: From Cut-Outs To Computers

Arts & EntertainmentTelevision / Movies

  • Author Alex Belsey
  • Published March 16, 2021
  • Word count 2,082

Even before the days of traditional animation methods, humans attempted to visualise stories by using moving images and props, for example, shadow puppet theatres and thaumatropes (two-sided discs on a string with different images on each side, creating an illusion of movement when spun).

The ‘Magic Lantern’, invented in 1659, was one of the earliest forms of visualisation that resembled what we now know as animation today, and was essentially an early image projector that was initially used for entertainment, and then for educational purposes in the 19th Century.

The Invention Of Animation In Film

When modern animation was first invented, it was primarily used by independent artists. The first feature film containing animation was created in America in 1900 by British artist J. Stuart Blackton.

It was entitled The Enchanted Drawing and consisted of little more than a man occasionally changing expressions, with an actor creating some effects using props.

He then went on to make another similar ‘expression-based’ animated movie, pioneering cut-out animation styles in 1906, and later, a stop-motion picture in 1907 entitled The Haunted House.

In 1908, the French artist Émile Cohl created the animated film using traditional animation methods: Fantasmagorie (1908), which starred a ‘stick figure’, which walked around and came across morphing objects. Cohl later worked for French Studio, Éclair in New York, and helped to bring the French animation style to the States.

During the 1910s, animation started to move away from the independent arts scene to become the industry that it is today. One of the first pioneers of film-making studios was Winsor McCay (1866-1934).

McCay used hand-drawn illustrations to create his animations. His feature film Gertie The Dinosaur (1911) was also one of the first animated films to feature extensive character development. The original Vaudeville act starring ‘Gertie’ involved McCay asking a series of questions, and the animated dinosaur responding with gestures.

But when it was made into a feature film, McCay used a combination of live-action and animation techniques - for the first time in film history. McCay later released How A Mosquito Operates (1912) and The Sinking Of The Lusitana (1918).

Refining The Animation Technique

The founder of Barré Studios, Raoul Barré, invented the ‘peg technique’ in 1913, which helped to reduce time aligning illustrations by pinning each slide together. His ‘slash and tear’ technique also helped to reduce time spent animating by simply cutting away the foreground from the background.

By doing this, he could repeat the background without having to redraw it for each slide. This also helped to keep continuity between each slide and gave a more ‘seamless’ appearance.

Barré’s work on simplifying the animation process was continued in 1914, when John Bray Studios invented and patented the ‘cel technique’. This simplified Barré’s ‘slash and tear’ technique by using clear celluloid paper for the animated foreground over a stationary background.

They also incorporated the assembly line production method recently developed by car manufacturer Henry Ford, enabling them to produce animations more quickly and with more ease.

As a result of these developments, Bray Productions developed the first animated series, Colonel Heeza Liar. Bray Studios was the base point for many famous animators, including Max Fleischer (Betty Boop, Popeye) and Walter Lantz (Woody Woodpecker).

The ‘rotoscoping’ technique was developed in 1915 and patented (1917) by Max Fleischer. This process involved using live-action film as a reference point for sketching animations. This technique was also used by Bray Productions, and later popularised by Disney Studios.

Growing Popularity

Between 1915 and 1916, a film company named The Cartoon Film Company by founders Buxton and Dyer, released 26 cartoons based around the efforts of WW1, including the Scarborough bombing by German airships. In 1916, Buxton and Dyer became integrated with Kine Comedy Kartoons.

The first-ever animation to be merchandised was Felix The Cat, by Paramount Studios in 1919. It had a large fanbase, making it one of the most well-known cartoons in animation history.

The Introduction Of Sound

Between 1919-1920, Phonofilm patented their ‘sound-on-film’ technology, which allowed music to be played during films. Prior to this, all films were silent and accompanied by live music and/or voice actors in the movie theatre.

‘Sound on film’ was later used by Fleischer’s Inkwell Studios in Song-Car-Tunes, a 19-episode cartoon, which also used the ‘bouncing ball’ for a sing-along for the first time. Dialogue was later introduced to the films in Paul Terry’s Aesop’s Fables series.

Changing Audiences And The Rise Of Disney

Although nowadays, most animated films are often created for kids, the concept of animation for children was not widely popular until the 1950s.

Up until then, animated films were primarily targeted at adult audiences, and while some children may have been attracted to the bright colours and simple shapes, the content often contained adult jokes and material that was not easily understood by kids.

Disney Studios were one of the first to make animations targeted at younger audiences, but unbeknownst to many, they were not always a children’s animation studio.

Originally, Walt Disney started out doing satire, advertisements, and newsreels, but never quite hit the ground running. As a result, the Disney studios initially went bankrupt. Disney eventually moved to Hollywood and struck up a relationship with Margaret J. Winkler, the first woman to produce and distribute films, and the distributor of Felix The Cat and Out Of The Inkwell.

Many other well-known animation professionals also joined the team to make the Alice Comedies series, which was popular enough to last for 57 episodes.

Disney briefly pursued experimentation with a series called Oswald The Lucky Rabbit (1927), for which he failed the continuation negotiation and was eventually replaced with partner and Winkler’s husband, Charles Mintz. Disney lost most of his staff and the rights to the character over the dispute.

His success eventually came with Mickey Mouse, which was pioneering in the use of soundtrack, for example, the noise of a steamboat in Steamboat Willie (1928). When Donald Duck eventually overtook Mickey in popularity in 1938, Mickey was redesigned, and from 1938-1940, Mickey Mouse became the most popular animated cartoon character in history.

The first two-strip technicolour animation was a segment in The King Of Jazz (1930), and was also used in Fiddlesticks, released at the same time.

The ‘two-strip’ was short-lived, however, as in 1932, Disney released the Flowers and Trees, alongside the Technicolour company. This was the first-ever animated feature film to be released in full colour, using Disney’s new ’three colour strip’ technique.

Disney struck a deal with the Technicolour company; for a limited time only, Disney would have exclusive rights to use Technicolour’s ‘three-strip’ full colour technique. The deal lapsed in 1935, and shortly after, full colour became the standard in animation.

Introducing Depth: Creating The Illusion Of 3 Dimensions

The Multiplane Camera

Disney’s early animations used what became known as ‘the Multiplane Camera’. This was a large camera stationed above several glass slides which could be moved to create a ‘zooming’ effect and the illusion of depth. This also helped animations to flow more smoothly. Characters would move between the layers to give the impression of coming ‘closer’ or going ‘further away’.

The Set-Back Camera

Fleischer’s Set-Back camera, invented in 1933, worked similarly, but instead of using drawings on panes of glass, it was based around a three-dimensional set, which was built up in layers. The celluloid layers with the characters on them would then be moved between the set layers to make it appear as though the character was moving through the image.

Animation Worldwide

It’s a popular misconception that the first animated feature film was Snow White and the Seven Dwarves in 1930. However, the first animated feature was The Adventures Of Prince Achmed in 1926 by German, Lottie Reisinger.

Whether this fact has been erased from history as a result of Disney’s success, the conflict of WWI and WWII, or as a result of misogyny is unclear, but the American Disney was highly influential and dominated much of the animation market.

Up until World War II, most of the biggest animation studios were based in the United States or France. But with the start of World War II, the US faced more conflict - and as such, difficulty trading abroad. As a result, in the early 1940s, significant progress was made in animation in China and Japan.

The first Chinese animated feature film in 1941 was Princess Iron Fan by the Wan brothers; Laiming, Guchan, Chaochen, and Dihuan.

The film was very labour intensive; using rotoscoping techniques to save money and create lifelike movement, and using 237 artists over 3 years to create. It was enormously popular and was promptly exported to Japan, where it was also a hit.

Shortly following this in 1944, Japan released their own feature-length animation, Momotaro: Sacred Sailors, which was highly influenced by the Second World War, and portrayed Japanese paratroopers in animal form, fighting to take the island of Celebes from British rule.

It finishes with an image of children pretending to parachute onto a drawn ‘United States’ on the ground. As this feature was highly political, for some time it was believed to have been destroyed by American troops, however in 1983, a copy was discovered and the film was re-released in 1984. In 1960, Japanese anime was first broadcasted on domestic television.

It took off very quickly, and by 1963, anime hit Astro Boy, based on manga by author Osamu Tezuka was released. It was a huge hit, and is still one of the most well-known anime to date, also being exported globally.

During the 1980s, the US animation scene was slow and unimaginative, and Japanese anime saw a rise in popularity with the influence of highly influential Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki (Nausicaa Valley Of The Wind, My Neighbour Totoro).

Russia was also very successful in creating their own film industry. Its studio Soyuzmultfilm employed up to 700 animators and produced up to 20 feature-length films per year.

The films were predominantly targeted at children, and during the war period mostly focused on anti-fascism, but moved to a pro-Soviet approach following World War II. Soyuzmultfilm initially used similar cel animation techniques to Disney, but as the US and Russia began to form conflicts after the Second World War, the Russian industry moved away from using Disney’s animation technique and their own style began to emerge.

The first animated film in Africa was created by Jewish brothers David and Shlomo Frenkel in Cairo in 1927. However, it was destroyed in a fire. Their first successful film was released in 1936 and was entitled Mafish Fayda, starring the first central Arabic cartoon character.

Many African animation studios were limited by a lack of funding, among sociopolitical, economic, and colonial issues, but in recent years, have begun to take off. South Africa and Egypt now output a large number of animated movies, with 29 production studios in South Africa, including Clockwork Zoo Animation, Triggerfish, and Sunrise Productions.

Simplification And Cutting Costs

There were many changes between the 1950s-1960s which led to easier, more cost-effective production of animations.

Firstly, in the 1950s, the development of limited animation techniques allowed animators to re-use certain parts of a frame instead of redrawing the frame. Secondly, the introduction of xerography in the 1960s got rid of the step of having to ink each drawing.

The first film to use computer animation was The Little Mermaid in 1989 with Disney and Pixar’s Computer and Animation Production System (CAPS). The film broke box office records, and this helped to put Disney back on the map after several mediocre movies.

The CAPS system enabled animators to ink and colour digitally, instead of colouring cels by hand, reducing production time significantly. However, it was not until Toy Story by Pixar in 1995 that a film was produced that was fully computer-animated.

The 2000s saw the rise of 3D CGI with movies such as Tangled (2010), and Frozen (2013), which became the highest-grossing animated film of all time. Whilst immensely popular, the rise of 3D and computer-aided animation saw the decline of traditional, hand-drawn styles. Disney attempted a resurgence with The Princess And The Frog, but following the film’s lack of popularity, ceased producing 2D styles.

Where Will Animation Go Now?

Arguably, the similar style and repetitive content of Disney’s ‘fairytale’ films may be becoming monotonous. There has been a recent trend in the rising popularity of animation from countries outside the US; notably Japan, India, and France.

With the increase in remote working over the past few years, it will be interesting to see if animation becomes more accessible to a global market, and what stylistic and cultural influences this brings to the field.

Written by Holly Jackson for Digital Puppets https://digitalpuppets.co.uk/

Article source: https://articlebiz.com
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