A Brief History of Animation

The separation between fantasy and reality has been clear throughout history, but even when creating unimaginable worlds, from the Forbidden Forest in Harry Potter to the Death Star in Star Wars, writers and filmmakers always find a way to pull us in. As years pass actors come and go and movie stars rise and fall, but through all of that the field of animation  has consistently improved, evolved, and cast viewers into the future. Jurassic World, Inside Out, The Polar Express, and so many other movies have used the technological advancements in graphics like Computer-Generated Imagery (CGI), Augmented Reality, Automated Video Generation, Data-Driven Infographics, and Live Character Animation to enhance visual appeal. Year after year, as limits are broken and the lines between fantasy and reality blur, advances in technology have allowed for animation in movies to become more fluid and realistic. However, the world of animation was not always this bright and the pioneers of the very technologies that drive today’s entertainment industry were not nearly as famous as they deserved to be. Let’s shed some light on how the early visionaries of animation paved the way for the box office hits of today.

1887 – Creation of the Film

H.W. Goodwin, an avid learner and inventor, created the first celluloid film, capable of holding images. This first celluloid film was constructed using gum cotton and gum camphor.

1892 – The First Theater

A French science teacher, Emil Reynaud, used turning mirrors to reflect images and create a 10 minute “moving scene”. Reynaud called his invention the Praxinoscope, but in retrospect this mechanism was the first movie projector.

1893 – Edison’s Contributions

By using Goodwin’s celluloid film and rolling it over a series of wheels, Edison was able to create and project the first moving picture. Edison called this the Kinetoscope and created animations using multiple pictures taken at different moments to simulate motion.

1899 – Connecting the Audio

Using a magnetic recording device, a new technology  invented by Danish scientist Valdemar Poulsen, the sound of a motion picture was recorded for the first time. At the time, the use of the magnetic recording device was crucial for all animation enthusiasts and quickly grew to become the most advanced technology in the world of motion pictures.

1900 – An Animated Sequence

The first animated sequence in film was part of a documentary which pioneered the process of drawing characters for fictional plots and stories. James Stuart Blackton used animation techniques from Reynaud and Edison to create characters that walked, moved, and danced across a chalkboard. This is widely regarded as the first animation ever created, and Blackton is recognized as the father of animation.

1908 – The First Animated Movie

French Caricaturist Émile Cohl created a short film called “Fantasmagorie”. This was the first fully animated movie as no real human beings were featured in it. Over a century later, “Fantasmagorie” is recognized as the first animated film ever created. Cohl demonstrated elements of magic in his film as he made characters morph into other beings in the blink of an eye. He demonstrated the power of animation and introduced it to the world.

1915 – Patenting Animation

After years of innovating, copying, and improving on frameworks for the animation process, John Bray created and patented a fluid process to animate films. Despite his hardwork and years of dedication, Bray was never able to convince major production companies to use this patented method, but he laid the groundwork for many of the processes used in animation today.

1922 – Walt Disney’s First Debut

A twenty year old Walt Disney created his first animation studio, called Laugh-O-Grams. However, almost immediately the concept failed and the studio closed down.

1928 – Steamboat Willie

Despite the failure of Laugh-O-Grams, Walt Disney continued to pursue his passion for animated films and created the short film, “Steamboat Willie”, which starred Mickey Mouse. Due to its revolutionary animation, comic tone set, and starring character, “Steamboat Willie” became an instant hit.

1930 – Creation of Warner Bros. Studio

The 1930s featured the rise of the Warner Bros. Studio, creator of “Looney Tunes”, “Silly Symphonies”, Popeye the Sailor, Daffy Duck, and so many other TV Shows and characters. 

1933 – King Kong Wreaks Havoc

The history of animation would be incomplete without mentioning what is perhaps the most iconic vintage animated movie: “King Kong”. “King Kong” featured the leading animation technologies of the time, providing the most realistic and convincing stop motion characters seen until then.

1937 – Disney’s Comeback

After the failure of Laugh-O-Grams, Walt Disney resurfaced to create the groundbreaking film “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”. Using labor intensive yet visually appealing animation, this full-length animated film cemented Walt Disney’s reputation as a creative story teller and set the bar for full scale animated productions. “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” is considered to be the first full-length animated movie.

1961 – One Hundred and One Dalmatians

“One Hundred and One Dalmations” was another animated full-length Disney film, but this one came with technology that set the industry standard. This specific animated movie used xerography, which eliminates the laborious hand inking process on each celluloid cell and allows for the outline to be printed directly on the cells. This technological advancement improved efficiency exponentially and allowed for longer and more elaborate animations.

1972 – The Foundation of CGI is Laid

Ed Catmull from The University of Utah used a scripting language to create computer generated films. His research on fractals and the use of programming in graphics is the foundation of the CGI still used in movies today.

1993 – Realistic Animation, The Next Level

Using animatronics, stop motion, and CGI, “Jurassic Park” created the most photo realistic dinosaurs ever seen up until then. Due to the laborious process of creating these animations, the studio behind the visual effects of “Jurassic Park” spent over a year working on 4 minutes of the movie. The production of “Jurassic Park” was a milestone in animation history and set the standards for realistic CGI for years to come.

1995 – Toy Story

To this day the world of animation is still dominated by Pixar and Disney. Pixar’s most prominent contribution to the field of animation was “Toy Story”. Being the first entirely computer generated movie, “Toy Story” secured Pixar’s position as the studio to beat. Pixar used full model articulation and motion control programming to bring the toys in this movie to life.

2009 – The Development of CGI

Avatar” became an important milestone in animation history for one reason – it used CGI to bring real actors into an artificial, computer generated world. Using advanced Computer Generated Imagery and Motion Capture Techniques, “Avatar” surpassed the record for best CGI of all time, previously held by “The Lord of The Rings: The Twin Towers”.

2020 Onwards – The Future of Animation

Where does this leave us? From the chalkboard motion pictures of Edison’s time to the data driven machine learning models and computer generated imagery of today, over the past century humans have made extraordinary leaps forward in the film industry through animation. From now, as our technology progresses, and as we become more intelligent, the wondrous field of animation will continue to evolve. As British author Arthur C. Clarke put it, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Editor at The City Voice | MIPA Honorable Mention Award Winner

Hi! My name is Vishnu Mano and I am an editor here at The City Voice. Apart from writing/editing articles, my hobbies include music, speech and debate, and coding.