While Toy Story 3 has become the highest-grossing animated feature ever made, it belongs to a long tradition of an ever-expanding film genre. One cannot bring up this genre without mentioning one of the most famous: Walt Disney. The birth of animation was nevertheless even earlier. Here we shall go back over more than a hundred years in the history of animation.
What is a film? It is a series of static images that scroll at high speed enabling our brain to experience the illusion of movement. This is the persistence of vision theory. 24 pictures make up one second of film. When it comes to live-action films, things are not as elaborate, as the camera records every single movement.
When it comes to animated films, on the other hand, the technique is far more different. The draughtsman needs to draw the same frame several times with a slight difference to the previous one regarding motion (image A: the foot kicks the ball / picture B: the ball slowly rises / picture C: the ball rises higher / picture D: the ball rises even higher /…). This lengthy and tedious process is the basic foundation for all animation.
While cinema came into being in 1895 with the Lumière Brothers and the help of a camera, animation, on the other hand, had been in existence well before that.
The phenakistoscope was one of the first optical toys ever made. Invented by Joseph Plateau in 1832, this device included a disc that had slits in it and drawings on it. It was attached to a handle to make it spin. When you stood in front of a mirror or looked through the slits, the drawings came to life.
William George Horner invented the zoetrope in 1834. It was a cylinder consisting of two parts. The lower part was fixed and enabled you to hold it. The upper part was removable and had vertical slits cut in the sides. Inside this cylinder was a strip of paper with pictures on it. When you spun this disc and looked through the slits, you experienced the illusion of movement. It was named as such because the animations of the time often featured animals.
In 1868 John Barnes Linnet invented the flip book. How it worked was simple: when you flipped through the pictures that were drawn in a small booklet, the animation came to life.
In 1876 Emile Reynaud invented the praxinoscope. It worked on the same principle as the zoetrope, except that this time there were no viewing slits, and at the opposite side of each drawing (there were twelve of them) were mirrors. The advantage of this method was for one thing to allow much easier viewing, and enable several people to watch the animation at the same time.
Three years later he came up with the Praxinoscope-Theatre. This technique enabled a character to be brought to life against a static background. What moved was on one stand, and what stayed put was on another (so as not to have to draw it all over again each time). The viewer had to look through the lid of a box and through a set of glass plates and mirrors. He or she would then get the impression they were watching an animated character in the foreground and scenery in the background.
It took several years of research for Emile Reynaud to manage, in 1888, to reconcile the study of motion and the projection technique with his Théâtre Optique. Employing the same technique used for the Praxinoscope-Theatre, the animation could here be between 300 and 700 frames long. It could be watched by several people at the same time, and could be sped up or slowed down. One could say that this was the birth of the first animated film (then called Pantomimes Lumineuses). When he showed the Musée Grévin (Paris, France) this animation device on September 28th, 1892, he did not expect it to be such a success. Up until 1900, nearly five hundred thousand people were to attend this new entertainment show. Unfortunately, following the wear and tear on his machine, Reynaud was to burn his strips. Very few were to be saved. Among his works one should mention: Un Bon Bock (aka A Good Beer), Clown et ses chiens (aka The Clown and His Dogs), Pauvre Pierrot (aka Poor Pete)…
When cinema came into being with the Lumière Brothers in 1895, techniques started being developed.
In 1908, the first fully animated film was made by a Frenchman: Emile Courtet (also known as Emile Cohl). He screened Fantasmagorie in Paris before heading off to the United States. This cartoon is 1 minute and 40 seconds long (the reel was 119 feet long). Unlike his predecessors, Courtet did not use the technique involving a background that was separate from the character. He therefore drew the entire image each time. His short film was about a chalk-drawn clown set on a blackboard. He sometimes fitted his own hand into the film. This plot idea was seen in La Linea, which was created by Osvaldo Cavandoli in 1977.
The first major animation studios came into existence in 1913. Devices became more refined which enabled better rendering. Raoul Barré invented the peg bar, a tool that is very easy to use. All you have to do is hang perforated sheets on pegs for each sheet to be aligned exactly the same way – which makes it possible to draw a series of pictures far more accurately. To make sure the animation process is going smoothly, all you have to do is flip through the drawings and persistence of vision will enable the illusion of movement.
The quest for efficiency gained momentum in 1914. John Bray and Earl Hurd invented the cel animation process. They improved Reynaud and Courtet’s idea. Characters were from then on drawn on a transparent sheet and the background scenery was on a sheet of paper underneath. The fact they saved so much working time enhanced productivity. In 1920 Bray presented The Debut of Thomas Cat.
Dave and Max Fleischer came up with a new process in 1915 to improve the life-likeness of movements: the rotoscoping process. The sheet is laid out on a light table onto which scenes from the film are rear-projected. The draughtsman copies the contours of what he sees frame by frame.
When World War II broke out, the U.S. army was to prove a heaven-sent opportunity for John Bray. He was granted funds to improve animation and thus offer soldiers training through animated films. The studio system broke animation work down into several tasks (as in assembly-line work): first draughtsmen, then colourists… Fleischer Studios even produced a feature film: Gulliver’s Travels (1939).
It was in 1928 that animation was to undergo a revolution. A cult not to say iconic cartoon character came to light: Mickey Mouse. He was originally named Mortimer, and appeared in the animated short Plane Crazy. Audiences had to wait for Steamboat Willie to be released to get the final version of Mickey aboard his boat.
1933 was to be the year colour was introduced to the animation industry with Walt Disney’s Three Little Pigs. This work was to win an Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film.
As is the case with every visionary man, bigger and better things can always be dreamt up. On December 21st, 1937, a fairy tale written by the Brothers Grimm was adapted for the big screen. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was Disney’s first full-length animated feature. It required three years of hard work. But those three years helped improve many techniques, starting with the multiplane camera. With this tool, it became possible to create depth of field, which gave the image a more realistic effect. Colours were also to be enhanced with a much wider range and even textured colours. Crews were also to come up with processes to create effects such as running water or rain.
Disney continued to forge ahead by making many feature films which have become all-time classics. But the creator of Mickey Mouse was not the only one to have this kind of idea. Animated storytelling was to be endorsed all over the world with new techniques, another graphic design, new stories…
Hand-drawn animation came as a revolution in the film industry by offering a new genre. As is the case for everything, techniques change and computers were also to become an animation tool.
In 1978, Tron was released. Here was a feature film with real actors moving about in a setting that was entirely made out of computer-generated imagery.
But what would this feature be like if we failed to mention Pixar? These studios that specialize in animation were to start out by making commercials but mostly short films that regularly won awards. The strength of these studios lay in their ability to offer a novel animation technique. Gone were the days of making computer-generated imagery for films, their purpose was to henceforth make films that were solely computer-animated.
1995 signalled a new era in animated storytelling: Toy Story was the first feature film ever to be made with computer-generated imagery.
Only hand-drawn animation and computer-generated animation have been dealt with here. But one must not overlook the fact that there are other processes.
We can mention stop-motion, which consists in taking a picture of a scene and then moving an element a few millimetres along, taking another picture to get the next image and so on. The Nightmare Before Christmas was made that way.
As for Chicken Run or Wallace and Gromit, they too were made using stop-motion animation techniques, but the elements are made out of modelling clay.
Computer-generated animation grew in popularity until motion capture came along. An actor who has markers attached to him moves about on a film set and his movements are recorded and then transferred onto computer. The Polar Express, which is entirely made using computer-generated imagery, is a film that for instance uses this process.
Nowadays, animation studios compete with one another both regarding screenplays as well as from a technical point of view. Within more than 100 years, we have gone from a few hand-drawn images that had to be viewed through a slit to big-screen features that are made using computer technology. Be it by hand or with a mouse, animation is forever improving and filling us with wonder.