The Case of Stop-Motion Part 2: What I LAIKA ‘Bout You


Welcome back to yet another week about animation! Last week, we covered the history of the stop-motion from The Humpty Dumpty Circus all the way to Wallace and Gromit. This week, we’re taking a look at a studio that stands on its own as the leader in stop-motion animation. 

Since its founding in 2005, Laika has been making a name for itself among the animation elite. Though stop-motion is not the most popular or cost-effective form of animation, they continue to stun audiences with their technical mastery with each new film they produce. 

Last week we talked about Will Vinton, the father of “Clay-mation.” This week we are picking up with the end of his story and the beginning of Laika. We will touch on each of their five movies, and what we “Laika” about them. 

  • Will Vinton

    • As you might remember from last week, Will Vinton was the Oscar-winning animator that created the singing California Raisins and “The Adventures of Mark Twain” in his signature Clay-mation style. Vinton helped popularize claymation in the late 1970’s and 1980’s, and without his influence we likely wouldn’t have films such as “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” 
    • When his short “Closed Mondays” won an oscar, it proved the credibility of animation as an art form for adults as well as the viability of claymation
      • He was only 26 at the time, and it was the first time a stop-motion film won an oscar for best animated short.
        • Vinton was quoted saying, “After being completely rejected at a local level, we were validated. It’s exactly what I had set out to do — prove that clay animation was still viable. Back then, 99% of animation was for children and families, or two-dimensional; this was neither — it was for adults, it wasn’t a kiddie film. So many people told us it wasn’t going to happen, just forget it. We validated the medium, and it opened doors.”
          • It’s important to remember how Vinton sought to make animation that was different from mainstream studios.
      • When Vinton brought on more people to his business, they made it their mission to push claymation as far as they could. They didn’t even want to pursue a project if it seemed too easy, and this led to some strange and beautiful animation.
    • Vinton spent 30 years building his studio and creating memorable characters. At one point, it was worth almost 30 million dollars
      • In the mid-1980’s, his studio was hired by California Raisins to animate their new commercial campaign. Vinton’s commercials were so successful, the company saw a 20% increase in sales, and suddenly ad agencies were contacting the studio left and right to produce more ads like it.
      • The studio grew to handle the volume of projects for M&Ms, Domino’s Pizza, KFC and more. They were also hired to animate two TV series, one produced by Eddie Murphy called, “The PJs.” 
        • As their project list lengthened, the studio incorporated CGI to keep up with the popular trends and also to quicken some processes. Vinton didn’t enjoy CGI as much, since computers weren’t as hands-on and he felt more like a programmer than an animator.
        • Vinton noticed that his veteran claymation animators were taking to CGI, since it also operated in a 3D space. Together they created a groundbreaking Chips Ahoy commercial that combined the techniques; It was CG that LOOKED like clay.
        • While Vinton worked on “The PJs,” he started to use foam and latex over ball-in-socket joints to make the characters move more freely; He called this technique foam-ation.
    • After all this success, the studio was forced to expand into a full company to take on the many projects coming their way. The only problem was that Vinton was more of an animator than a businessman, so they hired a new CEO named Tom Turpin.
      • Turpin sought outside funding, and Vinton’s legal counsel pointed them in the direction of Phil Knight, the co-founder of Nike. Knight invested 5 million dollars into Vinton’s studio.
      • Now owning 15% of the company, Knight approached Turpin and requested that they give his son a job as an intern. Knight’s son, Travis had been trying to make a career as a rapper named Chilly T. 
        • Even with his own record studio and his dad’s connections, Chilly just didn’t seem to find footing as a rap artist. 
        • Vinton Studios welcomed Knight’s son, even though he had no experience with animation. They started him off in the CGI department, teaching him how to render details on characters.
    • In 2001, the company took a few financial hits. First, the two shows that they were working on both were cancelled. Then, events of 9/11 caused a downturn in advertising. The company was in trouble and they hired a new CEO. This came with massive layoffs and a cultural shift in the company. The new CEO asked Phil Knight for more money, and Knight agreed. This time, though, he bought the company and brought in Nike coworkers as board members.
    • Phil Knight’s son, Travis had grown into an incredible animator after only a few years of production experience. Knight appointed him to the board. Six months later, Will Vinton stepped down and was fired from his office position. 
    • In his severance, Vinton lost the rights to his entire body of work including the trademark for Claymation. Later he sued Phil Knight. Vinton felt that he got pushed out of his studio solely because Knight wanted to give his son a company. The case was thrown out, even though Knight admitted that he bought the company with his son in mind. 
    • Will Vinton spent the last few years of his life working on independent projects and teaching at the Art Institute of Portland. He is still revered by animators today for breathing life into clay and stop-motion animation. 
    • His New York Times obituary quoted a 1987 People magazine interview, “There is a point in Claymation, where you can almost fool yourself into thinking that these things are manipulating themselves — that they’re alive.” Vinton passed away in October of 2018. 
  • Founding of Laika

    • In the years after Phil Knight acquired Vinton’s studio, he poured 180 million dollars into it. He used his influence to bring in animators from other successful studios like Walt Disney, Pixar, and Dreamworks. The company was rebranded to Laika. 
    • On July 20th, 2005, Laika was officially founded. 
      • In the beginning, there were two divisions. Laika House for commercial work, and Laika Entertainment to focus on feature films.
      • Both of these divisions existed until 2014, when Laika House broke off and created “House Special.”
        • They are an independent studio focused on creating art for any medium (according to their website.) 
      • In 2008, Laika ran into trouble when a planned animation feature fell through and they had to scale back their staff. Luckily though, their next planned feature did not fall through and Laika broke onto the scene with a major hit in 2009. 
    • On their website, they quote Travis Knight: “We’re an outlier. We work in an industry that is dominated by franchises and sequels and prequels and remakes and reboots, but we’re devoted to telling new and original stories. We live in a modern, glossy, high-tech digital world. But we make movies in the most moth-eaten, anachronistic way possible. By using our hands.”
        • It’s amazing that even though Vinton lost the studio, Laika still seems to hold onto the values that he placed in his works. Remember how he wanted to make films different from the mainstream? 
  • The Movies

    • Coraline

      • When Travis Knight was asked to reflect on Laika’s beginning, he chose to speak about their first film Coraline. He recalled how excited he and the team were because; 1. it was a solid team (they brought in Henry Selick, an acclaimed producer and director of Nightmare Before Christmas to direct), 2. an imaginative idea (best selling book by Neil Gaiman), and 3. a process that had room to grow in the future. 
        • His optimism was well placed but in the practical sense was difficult to portray as a winner to film studios. They all had their doubts and Travis Knight heard them all.
          • ‘Stop-motion is not a viable filmmaking medium.’
          • ‘Everyone knows you can’t have an animated film with a female protagonist, unless she’s a princess or a fairy, of course.’
          • ‘No boy’s gonna go see a film with a girl’s name in the title. No girls will see it either. The damn thing’s too scary.’
          • ‘Teens aren’t interested in animation.’
          • ‘Adults see animation as a babysitter. They don’t want their kids to be challenged.’
        • After hearing all of these sentiments on what stop-motion can and cannot be they finally found Focus Features and Universal to produce and distribute the movie.  
      • Coraline follows the story of an eleven-year-old girl  who discovers a door in her new house that leads to an alternate world. This world is much like the one she comes from, but the differences are fantastical. Coraline finds herself enjoying this new world, and returns often until the alternate version of her mother “The other mother” tries to get her to stay there forever. She must find a way to escape back through the door, and save the souls of other children who have been trapped there as well. 
          • It stars: Dakota Fanning, Teri Hatcher, Jennifer Saunders, Dawn French, Keith David, John Hodgman, Robert Bailey Jr, and Ian McShane.
      • Each character within the film had multiple puppets which were 3-D printed. Coraline’s character had 28 copies.  The facial features alone added up to 200,000 possible expressions. 
      • Coraline was shot in 3-D which typically calls for two cameras. One to shoot for the left eye and one for the right.  Since the scale in films such as Coraline are much smaller scale than that of Spy Kids 3-D or Avatar the team had to come up with a way to get two shots.  To resolve this they created an automatic slide mount for the camera that would allow them to take the shot for one eye, slide to take for the other eye, and then slide back to the original position.
      • Althea Crome
        • Althea hand knitted each of Coraline’s sweaters. She is a knitter that specializes in tiny knitted clothing, in this case to fit a doll that was not even ten inches tall. Each sweater took about two weeks to create 
      • This film took almost 4 years to create from script to screen with 150 stages/sets.
      • With a budget of 60 million, Coraline brought in a whopping 124.6 million dollars at the box office. In that respect, it is still Laika’s most successful film to date. 
        • The combination of Gaiman’s strong storytelling and the medium’s complex realism worked incredibly well for the film. The dark subject matter is perfect for clay, a material that can cover every range of emotion. The stranger moments of the film hearken back to Will Vinton’s “Adventures of Mark Twain” and we can see how the studios are related.
      • After the success of Coraline, the studio scaled back once again and decided to solely focus on stop-motion. With the next four major releases, Laika has continued to prove that it is an innovating leader in stop-motion. 
      • That same year, Travis (the artist formerly known as Chilly T) was promoted to CEO of Laika and has remained in the position ever since.
    • ParaNorman

      • Laika followed up Coraline with another hit, ParaNorman in 2012
        • It was Laika’s first original film, which was brought to life by co-director and writer Chris Butler. It follows a young, compassionate boy with the ability to talk to the dead. Norman learns that his town is under a curse, and that the dead will rise from their graves and wreak havoc on the town. Because of his unique ability, he is the only one that can stop it and he must summon his courage and save his friends and neighbors. 
          • It stars: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Tucker Albrizzi, Anna Kendrick, Casey Affleck, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Leslie Mann, Jeff Garlin, and Elaine Stritch.
        • This was the first film where a color 3D printer was used in order to reduce human error and the amount of time it would take to hand paint facial expressions. Laika continued to use this technology with all their later films.
        • It took 3 years from script to screen.
        • There were 60 cameras that captured 400,000 frames of animation.
        • 178 puppets were used, and compared to Coraline’s 200,000 expressions Norman had 1.5 million different expressions.
      • Grossing 107 million, it made less than Coraline, but earned an Oscar nomination.   
    • BoxTrolls

      • Boxtrolls is based on “Here be Monsters!” by Alan Snow which is an adventure book about magic, trolls, and various creatures. 
        • An orphan boy named Eggs lives with The Boxtrolls, a group of mischievous and unique creatures that live beneath the city. When an evil man devises a plan to exterminate the creatures, Eggs heads above ground where he meets a girl named Winnefred and they team up to save the trolls.
        • It stars Isaac Hempstead Wright, Elle Fanning, Ben Kingsley, Nick Frost, Richard Ayoade, Tracy Morgan, Dee Bradley Baker, and Steve Blum.
      • 20,000 props were hand made along with 70 sets. 
      • The main characters had just over 1 million facial expressions.
      • The 2 minute dance sequence took 18 months to animate. 
      • This movie contained 185 handmade puppets with interchangeable faces.
    • Technology Increased yet again
      • In an article by Dave Trumbore he states that, “the meeting point between practical stop-motion animation and computer-aided effects came ever nearer in The Boxtrolls. For example, one of Laika’s texture painters, Tory Bryant, used her traditional painting techniques to tweak the painting software into layering the available colors in order to produce blended finished pieces that were far beyond what the printer designers thought the software and their machines could do.”
      • The 1:5 scale puppet was 3D scanned and the expressions tweaked using a Computer Aided Design (CAD) Software before the new face is printed using a modified 3D systems printer.
    • A little tension rose when it was one of the films nominated for the Oscar for best animated feature over The Lego Movie.
    • Boxtrolls made just a little more than ParaNorman worldwide, grossing 109 Million.
    • Kubo and the Two Strings

      • It seems there is a pattern here, because with Kubo and the Two Strings we return to an original story idea by their character designer Shannon Tindle.  It was strengthened and enriched with the help of screenwriters Marc Haimes and Chris Butler.
        • Kubo is a young boy who loves to play his magical instrument and tell stories to the people in his town, while looking after his mother. After accidentally summoning a vengeful spirit, he must go on the run and join forces with Monkey and Beetle to help him unlock a secret legacy and battle The Moon King to save his family and discover the truth about what happened to his father, a great samurai warrior. 
        • It stars: Art Parkinson, Charlize Theron, Brenda Vaccaro, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Matthew McConaughey, George Takei, Rooney Mara, and Ralph Fiennes.
      • This is the first movie that Travis Knight makes his directorial debut.
      • Kubo and the Two Strings contains the largest creation that Laika has made, a skeleton character that stands 16 feet tall, wingspan of 23 feet, and weighs 400 lbs.
      • It took 5 years from script to screen.
      • Despite its critical acclaim, masterful storytelling, and stunning visuals, Kubo and the Two Strings grossed only 70 million dollars worldwide. 
        • lauded the film for giving its young audience credit and gave the film 3.5 out of four stars saying, Above all else, ‘Kubo and the Two Strings’ is fittingly about storytelling and its capacity to transform and connect us. The timelessness of the film gives it an overall feeling of cinematic grace, with obvious nods to greats ranging from Kurosawa and Miyazaki to Spielberg and Lucas. The resonance of the performances from its excellent voice cast gives it an immediate emotional punch.”
    • Missing Link

      • Mr. Link is an 8 foot tall friendly fur covered mammal who enlists the help of Sir Lionel Frost to escort him safely to his rumored relatives. He pursues the journey to the mystical Shangri-La trying to combat the loneliness of being the only one of his kind in the Pacific Northwest.  Joined by Adelina Fortnight the three travel together and find family where it is least expected. 
        • It stars: Hugh Jackman, Zoe Saldana, Zach Galifianakis, Timothy Olyphant, Emma Thompson, and Stephen Fry.
      • Often with stop motion animation the direction taken is dark because of art aspects like the rigid movements of puppets. Missing Link is the first film where Laika truly deviates from this formula, opting for a more colorful film and Sherlock Holmes meets Indiana Jones feel using the advances in technology, skill, and expertise picked up since Coraline.
      • There were 110 sets and the VFX team supervised by Steve Emerson used CG to increase believability in scenes.
        • When Chris Butler was asked about CG and its combination with stop motion for Missing link he said  “The innovations that we’ve come up with on the last four movies have enabled us to come up with solutions for the challenge of making a much bigger movie here. Everything comes from a physical asset and I think that’s how we maintain a believable co-existence of digital and practical.”
      • From script to screen this film took about 5 years.


The Case of Stop-Motion

93939748_1550399291786850_2616081802812456960_nIn the NBC sitcom Parks and Rec, there’s an episode in which Ben Wyatt attempts to make a “clay-mation” video. He has been working on the project for weeks, meticulously moving his clay subject and capturing stills with his camera. It isn’t until he shows the video to his friend Chris that he realizes the heart-breaking truth: the project he’s been working on for weeks has only yielded a 10-second video. 

It’s moments like this that teach us that stop-motion isn’t just a technique, it’s an art. We all know that animation takes patience, but none so much as stop-motion animation. Animators spend years meticulously creating hand-built sets and characters, moving their pieces millimeters at a time for at least 24 frames every second so the audience can watch it all come to life. 

Today we are taking a look at one of the most beautiful and painstaking animation techniques, and how it’s been winning the hearts of audiences one frame at a time. 

What is Stop-motion

  • Stop-motion is an animation technique that has been around as long as drawn animation, if not longer. It consists of an animator moving a physical subject and taking photos of each new position. When the images are played in sequence, it appears that the subject is moving. 
    • In an article by Focus Features, producer Travis Knight was quoted, “It’s a process that dates back to the dawn of cinema, with a charm and a warmth and a beauty that other forms of animation – wonderful as they are – do not have. And because you effectively get one opportunity to get it right, every shot is a high-wire act. Generations of aspiring animators have, and continue to, experiment with it in their parents’ basements or garages. It is a magical moment for you when something is brought to life.”
  • Directors create stop-motion with clay, puppets, dolls, or any physical object that they can manipulate, captured by a still camera
  • Just like regular film making, it’s a marriage of different art forms to create a new and interesting product. Stop-motion is more involved than drawn animation, and takes more time. And of course, it takes even more time than computer generated animation. Just like other types of animation, each frame must be considered individually and also as part of the whole. 
  • Before we talk about the history of Stop-motion and its evolution, let’s talk about photography and the role it plays in this process 

Photography and how it relates to stop-motion

  • Important camera pioneers that helped to make Stop Motion possible
    • Edweard Muybridge
      • Although we have mentioned Edweard in past episodes he is yet again very important. In his June 1878 horse experiment he demonstrated that one is able to show movement through a series of photographs taken in quick succession.
    • Louis Le Prince
      • He is now considered the Father of Cinema because he was the first to patent a design for a motion picture camera in 1888.  This was shortly before mysteriously disappearing from a train never to be seen again. 
    • Friese-Greene was the inventor of the Chronophotographic camera which took 10 images a second using a celluloid film.
    • William Kennedy Laurie Dickson who worked under Thomas Edison would create the kinetographic camera which was more dependable than past motion cameras.
    •  Charles Moissen was working as the chief mechanic under the Lumiere Brothers and in 1894 invented the Cinématographe camera which doubled as a projector.
  • All of these early motion picture cameras were important to developing ways to film not only people, but objects. 
    • George Méliès, whom we have discussed in past episodes is responsible for the famous short A Trip to the Moon(1902.) In an article by Jonathan Crow he states that “Through his experiments, Méliès discovered that magic happened when he turned the camera off and on. People suddenly disappeared into thin air. Objects appeared out of nowhere. A famed magician, Méliès knew he was on to something. His discovery planted the seeds for just about every cinematic technique in the book — including animation.”
  • Film vs. Digital
    • The cameras we just discussed were all film and so naturally through all these years stop motion was created using film cameras. The quality in film is fantastic but for stop motion there is one major drawback… In film you cannot see the finished product until you have developed and printed it. This along with lighting, timing, etc. could go wrong. In the new digital age it is faster to see if something went wrong within the take.
      • Imagine you had spent hours and hours in order for a few minutes of stop motion film.  In the midst of capturing this someone accidentally bumped the table. The entire film sequence is ruined and it must be done again with new film.
      • Kodak digital film
        • In 1975 Eastman Kodak created the first crude digital camera.  It was the beginning of a new age for photography and new possibilities for the art to come.
        • In 2005 The Corpse Bride was the first stop motion feature film that had been filmed with a digital camera.  It was shot on the Canon EOS-1D Mark II with an adapter to use Nikon lenses on it.

Stop Motion Process

  • Techniques
    • Object Animation: An example of this would be taking a simple child’s toy car and moving it frame by frame.
    • Clay Animation: Where the characters are able to be bended and are flexible.
    • Puppet Animation: This is when you have more complex characters that have more moving parts like arms, legs, eyes, etc.
    • Cutout Animation: This is when flat characters, props and backgrounds are used, typically made from cutout paper, stiff fabric, or photographs.   
    • Compositing: The act of combining stop-motion with a live action movie.
  • Typical Tools
    • Tripod: Keeping the camera steady is one of the most important aspects to stop-motion.
      • On this same note a nice sturdy table is needed as well, preferably one that would not move if bumped.
    • Consistent Lighting: Because stop-motion takes time while you are moving the characters or objects it is easier to keep the “time” within your video consistent if you can control the lighting. It is highly suggested you work inside with your own lights instead of the sun.
    • Surface Gauge
      • A surface gauge helps determine how much an object or character has been moved or how much it needs to move.
      • It helps you measure movements so that you can make smooth transitions between each photo creating a smoother animation output.

    • Rigging Systems
      • These would be used to hold your characters up when you want to make them jump, fly, etc.
    • Smaller pieces are moved with meticulous tools like tweezers and pliers.

Stop-motion history

  • There are fewer commercially successful stop-motion films than hand-drawn and computer generated animated films, but stop-motion has been around since the dawn of film animation. 
    • The first stop-motion animated film is believed to be “The Humpty Dumpty Circus” in 1898 by J Stuart Blackton and Albert E Smith
      • *Flash back to our episode on the history of animation, when was the first hand-drawn animated short produced?*
      • J Stuart Blackton created “The Humorous Phases of Funny Faces” in 1906, 8 years later! 
    • In his book, Enchanted Drawings, Charles Soloman finds Smith and Blckton’s claim to have created the first stop-motion animated film hard to believe. Smith apparently claimed that they didn’t patent the process after making the film because Blackton felt “it wasn’t important enough.” Soloman is quick to point out that Blackton was quick to patent any other process and no one can definitively prove that “Humpty Dumpty” was pure stop motion, since no piece of it exists. 
    • Two years later, Blackton teamed up with Thomas Edison to create “The Enchanted Drawing” which used stop-motion animation alongside live-action filmmaking. This would be how stop-motion would largely be used in the coming years–as a way to achieve special effects and alongside live-action instead of in place of it
    • Blackton was interested in the possibilities of frame-by-frame filmmaking, but he focused on other projects at the Vitograph Studio, which led to other innovations in animation
  • For years to come, stop-motion animation would be used as an effect in films such as A Trip to the Moon in 1902 and 1905’s El Hotel Electrico, in which magical carpet bags zoomed around the hotel on their own
  • Another pioneer worth mentioning is Wladislaw Starewicz
    • Starewicz was a Polish photographer and entomologist who made completely stop-motion animated films about the lives of bugs! These films demonstrated a new level of mastery that none had before
    • He used wire, wax, and dead bugs to create comedies and dramas. In 1912, he produced, “The Cameraman’s revenge,” a film about a married couple of beetles having extramarital affairs. He used common film tropes found in comedies of the time to create a hilarious piece of stop-motion art
    • He also created detailed miniature sets, and the anthropomorphic movement of the insects really brought a special life to his films, just as the characteristic movements of Gertie the Dinosaur set her apart from early animation
    • Starewicz works inspired many generations of filmmakers, including Wes Anderson and Tim Burton 
  • Willis O’Brien
    • By the 1920s, stop-motion was a reliable film technique, especially in short films. But, in 1925, a the first full-length film to make heavy use of the process was released: The Lost World
    • Animator Willis O’Brien brought stop-motion creatures to life in a way the world had not seen before. Although audiences had seen dinosaurs and other such creatures in 2D animation, this stop-motion allowed audiences to envision the subjects in the 3D world that they themselves inhabited. In other words, this looked real. 
      • O’Brien had been animating with clay for a while before The Lost World, but started to add more complex rubber faces to his models. 
      • Because this was relatively new territory, O’Brien had to create new techniques for this kind of animation. These techniques would be perfected for the next big project: King Kong 
        • O’Brien took a year to create the models for King Kong, spending days at the zoo studying the movements of the gorillas
        • The models were 18” high metal skeletons with ball-in-socket joints; he also attached a rubber bladder that gave the illusion that his model was breathing when he pumped air into it
        • The metal bones were covered in foam rubber and cotton and then covered in rabbit skin
        • Only a couple scenes featured a large King Kong bust or foot, the rest were miniatures. For years, the studio kept the secret behind how the creatures were made. Even as late as 20 years later, people still believed that King Kong was a man in a gorilla suit
        • The smooth movements of his models and the seamless integration of special and visual effects with live-action actors places King Kong at the very top in terms of early stop-motion film; some believe it is still the greatest use of stop-motion in film history
      • Because of this, O’Brien is considered to be the father of modern stop-motion. For the rest of his career he continued to innovate new stop-motion effects. 
  • Ray Harryhausen
    • O’Brien’s work inspired many upcoming filmmakers, including Ray Harryhausen, an animator who would become synonymous with movie magic. He created all kinds of creatures from aliens, to mythic beasts, to the skeleton army in “Jason and the Argonauts.” 
    • His creatures were referred to as Dynamation, which meant that they were so well articulated, it was easy to insert them into live-action film. He added personality to his creatures that made them feel real, much like how the world fell in love with King Kong because of his realistic character movements
  • Claymation
    • When we talk about stop-motion, we often hear the term, “Claymation.” This term is usually the generic word for Clay Animation, although it was coined and trademarked by animator Will Vinton and was meant to describe his particular style and techniques. 
      • Animating with clay became a popular choice because it’s easy to change facial expressions; there are a lot of issues though, like dirt and fingerprints
    • Clay Animation first started in the early 1900s, after the invention of plasticine, a clay-like material. The oldest surviving use of clay animation is believed to be “The Sculptor’s Nightmare,” a short that was meant to spoof the 1908 presidential election. 
    • Although claymation (lowercase) had been used in a lot of stop-motion animation, it became more popular in the 1950s with Art Clokey’s “The Gumby Show”
      • Gumby had a more cartoon-ish style in claymation. Instead of complex creations meant to imitate hideous monsters or real creatures, this was the stop-motion version of a silly Saturday Morning Cartoon
    • Animator Will Vinton (who we mentioned previously) popularized Claymation even more with more sophisticated techniques. Some of his most famous creations would be the singing California Raisins! 
      • Even as late as the 1970s, it was still fairly rare for there to be completely stop-motion animated films. Most often, this was an animation technique used as a special effect. Will Vinton’s work in claymation helped change that
      • Vinton won an Oscar for a short film called, “Closed Mondays” in 1974. He later would create more short films such as, “Rip Van Winkle,” and “Dinosaurs” before creating “The Adventures of Mark Twain”
        • This was an adventure through the tortured mind of Mark Twain, in the form of a full-length Claymation film
      • Vinton’s successful commercial campaigns and films popularized Claymation in the 70s and 80s and the demand for the aesthetic increased
      • In the early 2000s, Vinton was pushed out of his studio which was renamed to Laika. But of course, that’s a story for a different episode. 
  • Stop-Motion in the late 20th Century
    • Although it’s still not as popular as other types of animation, stop-motion has earned its place in popular culture and more studios are creating films with the technique
    • Aardman Animations struck gold in 1989 when they brought a British inventor and his lovable dog to life in “A Grand Day Out.” In this delightful adventure, Wallace and Gromit take a trip to the moon to fill up on cheese. Even since, these characters have been a staple at Aardman. 
    • In 1993, Tim Burton produced, and Henry Selick directes, an animation feature that has received cult status over time. The Nightmare Before Christmas is the perfect use of the creepy capabilities of the medium, mixed with the unique character design and quirky movements

It had always been clear to anyone who has attempted it, that stop-motion is a labor of love. It’s an art form that creates an on-screen magic for viewers and creators. There’s a special wonder in watching an object come to life, and thanks to stop-motion, we get to enjoy that wizardry again and again. 


The Historical Case of Pixar


Welcome back to our month of Animation! So far we have covered animation history, the Disney Exodus, and the beginnings of some of our favorite animation studios. But today we are going to focus on one particular studio that hopped into the animation world back in the mid-1980’s, and completely changed the game. 

Since its first feature film in 1995, Pixar has been a symbol of animation excellence. Not only that, it became known for rich, original storytelling that engaged audiences while pulling on their heartstrings. Although Pixar has been owned by Disney since the mid-2000’s, for the most part it still stands on its own under the mouse-ear umbrella.

Today we’re taking a long look at Pixar Animation Studios; and we’ll start, as always, from the beginning. 

Humble Beginnings

    • Our story begins in 1979, when director George Lucas had an idea.  He wanted to create a company that would work on creating new digital tools.  Among these goals were nonlinear film and sound editing systems, a laser film printer, and further advances within computer graphics.
    • His solution was to create a Computer Division of LucasFilm, dedicated to making these advancements in film technology. He hired Ed Catmull to head the team. 
  • Key Players

    • Ed Catmull
      • Ed wanted to be an animator so he drew a lot but he didn’t believe that he had enough talent. As a young man he went to The University of Utah School of Computing where he took a class.  It was Physics and Computer Science and he fell in love. It married everything he wanted; science, art, and programming all together. Here he would create a short computer animated film of his left hand which would be later featured as the very first use of 3D animation in a live action film.  The film was Futureworld, a science fiction film from 1976.
          • Futureworld is the sequel to Michael Crichton’s Westworld
        • After graduating he was hired by New York Tech to be the leader of a new computer graphics department.  Their goal was to create art using new computer tools and techniques. This is where he developed “Tween,” which gave the ability to draw and paint straight into the computer.
    • Alvy Ray Smith
      • Smith graduated with an M.S.E.E. and P.h.D. in computer science at Stanford University.  In the years 1975-1979 he would be the senior scientist at New York Institute of Science. 
      • In 1980 he was hired on to be the Director of Computer Graphics for the computer division of Lucasfilm.
  • Computer Division’s Graphics Group 

    • In 1982 the Computer Division’s  Graphics Group got to finally show what it was made of.  In Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan they put the first completely animated sequence in a feature film.
      • Each new project was a chance to challenge each other. To make both better art and better technology.
        • Lasseter in the 2007 Netflix documentary “The Pixar Story” says “The art Challenges Technology, the technology inspires the art.” 
    • John Lasseter
      • John Lasseter was attending CalArts (founded by Disney) where the teachers were those who came out of retirement to teach- yes some of “The Nine old men” such as Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas.  Some of his classmates were greats like Tim Burton, John Musker, and Brad Bird. The atmosphere was collaborative, fun, and creative. After graduating CalArts in 1979 he was immediately hired by Disney and helped with such films as The Fox and the Hound.  
      • Although there was a big opportunity for computer graphics within film at this time there was also a little bit of fear in it.  Would animators lose their jobs? Would this take away jobs? Lasseter was willing to take the risk and pushed forward to make it happen.
      • He was given the chance to put together (with his team) a storyboard for The Brave Little Toaster in which he would finally get to be a director.  In this movie he would also be able to show off the blending of traditional animation style with that of computer generation. As we talked about last week and before this would not come to be.  After pitching the movie to the head of the studio (Ed Hansen) and being asked how much it would cost, he was told there was no reason to do computer animation unless it cost less than their current methods or was faster.  Approximately 5 minutes after the pitch he was called into Ed Hansen’s office and let go, for his project had been completed. 
      • In 1983 he was asked to do freelance work for Lucas Films’ Computer Graphics Group.  By the following year he was hired full time as an Interface Designer. This title was meant to be looked over and to not draw attention.  He would be their key to character animation.
    • Early Achievements 

      • The Adventures of Andre and Wally B
        • Directed by Alvy Ray Smith, this was the first use of character animation within the computer animation realm. This new type of animation lent itself well to complex characters, hand painted textures, and motion blur.  Motion blur had not been a possibility with traditional animation, which made this computer graphics animation special.
        • When Lasseter conceived  this particular animation he remembered how geometric Mickey Mouse is and realized how well geometric characters would work within computer generated shorts.
          • Young Sherlock Holmes (1985) -Available on Prime Video
            • In this scene a stained glass man comes to life and readies a sword meant to murder the character of Vicar within a church.
            • This scene took a total of a year and a half to make a 31 second scene.
            • It’s Visual Effects were nominated for an Academy Award and many did not know how it was accomplished
    • In order to improve speed and resolution they created the Pixar Image Computer.  This was, at the time, the most powerful graphics computer of its day. It had the ability to convert high resolution imagery into 3D and because of this was implemented in medical imaging and satellite photo analysis.  
      • The team tried to sell this technology in limited markets to stay afloat but ultimately it did not sustain their needs or George Lucas’s attention.
      • Lasseter and Catmull were set on the ultimate goal of making animated films but the budget was just not there.
        • In order to keep the team together Catmull and Alvy Smith convinced Lucas to allow them to branch off from the graphics division and create a new department named after their graphics machine, Pixar.
          • What they needed now was an investor. 
  • Steve Jobs

      • Steve Jobs had been 21 when he co-founded the Apple Computer. By 30 he was a multimillionaire.  While he was still with Apple he met Alan Kay, who told him about Pixar– their history and potential.  They hopped in a limousine and went for a visit to Lucas Film. Jobs met Ed Catmull and believed in him and his dream.   
        • He was Pixar’s financial savior in 1986.  He invested $10 million to launch Pixar.  


    • Now that the team finally had the funding they needed, Lasseter suggested that they make a short film introducing themselves to the world. This manifested into what would become their mascot and symbol of optimism and determination.  It was of course “Luxo Jr.” 
      • Lasseter wanted to build upon the geometric ideas of The Adventures of Andre and Wally B and keep the integrity of an object’s movement.  As he was staring at a traditional Luxo lamp, he began to play around with it and thus the idea came.   
        • It was the first three dimensional computer animated film to be nominated for an Oscar and John Lasseter’s directorial debut.
        • After success with Luxo Jr the team starts to produce more shorts such as…
          • “Red’s Dream” about a unicycle that wanted to perform in the circus.
          • 1988’s “Tin Toy” where a wind up toy is victimized by a baby.
            • In 1989, it became the first 3D animated short film to win an Oscar
          • 1989’s “Knick Knack” about a snow globe snowman who essentially just wants to party.
      • Disney attempted to hire Lasseter back after each new short film he made. Lasseter suggested that he could just make a film for Disney while at Pixar, but Disney insisted that all Disney animated films will always be made at Disney.
        • What changed their mind was Tim Burton. Burton (while employed at Disney) developed an idea for The Nightmare Before Christmas. Burton went on to become a successful live-action director and tried to buy the idea back from Disney. They eventually asked him to simply make the film for them. This opened the door for John and Pixar to show what these niche animated films could really do.
    • Commercials
      • During the 1990’s in order for Pixar to make money they started to do what anyone would. Commercials.  Not for themselves but for companies such as Trident, Listerine, and Tropicana. In order to streamline this process they hired two recent graduates from CalArt: Pete Docter and Andrew Stanton, who would later go on to direct some of Pixar’s later films.
      • As they continued to produce commercials, they got their first agreement with Disney in 1991.  The agreement stated that they were “to make and distribute at least one computer-generated animated movie.”  Pixar then began to work on what would eventually become Toy Story.
        • Toy Story went on to be a huge hit, making over $363 million worldwide. As traditional hand-drawn animation was becoming less profitable, attention would quickly turn to Pixar as the future of the industry.
          • The next big step would be to figure out how often they needed to produce a film in order to sustain the studio. Lawrence Levy, whom Steve Jobs had hired as the Chief Financial Officer, said in his 2016 book that  “Another option was to release a film every eighteen months. We could still hit the two big release windows, a summer release one year, a winter release the next, although the financial numbers did not work as well as they would if we released a film every year. We would need big hits, and any disappointment would hurt more. But we could make a case that a film every eighteen months might work, and this is where we compromised.”
      • In 1996 after putting out Toy Story, Pixar announced that it would cease making commercials in order to focus on making feature length films. 


  • The Lunch

    • In 1994, Pixar was finishing up Toy Story. As the question of what would come next loomed above their heads, director John Lasseter and writers Pete Docter, Joe Ranft, and Andrew Stanton went out to lunch for a brainstorming session.
    • During this meeting, the men came up with the rough ideas and sketches for the Pixar films that would astound audiences for years to come: A Bug’s Life, Monster’s Inc, Finding Nemo, and WALL-E.
      • Those four movies made nearly 1 billion dollars, and were together nominated for 15 Oscars.
    • Andrew Stanton was quoted saying, “There was something special that happened when John, Joe, Pete and I would get in a room. Whether it was furthering an idea or coming up with something, we just brought out the best in each other.”
    • A Bug’s Life
      • Pixar’s follow-up to Toy Story was meant to be an epic about a small world; they specifically wanted a new story instead of a Toy Story sequel, because they wanted to be inspired by new characters and ideas.
      • It borrowed from the Aesop fable: The Ant and the Grasshopper. 
      • The movie was a critical and box office success and cemented Pixar’s status as an animation giant.
    • Monster’s Inc
      • In 2001, Monsters Inc brought storytelling at Pixar to a new level. They had shown audiences the perspective of our toys, and the point of view from the ants on the ground. Now, audiences got to see the world through the eyes of the monsters that hide in our closets.
      • The creator’s behind Monsters Inc were tasked with creating an entirely different world. This was the first Pixar movie to do this! 
      • Directed by Pete Docter, Monsters Inc also seemed to hold a new level of emotion that the other films had just touched on. When you ask someone who grew up with Monsters Inc, they often cite it as a movie that makes them emotional, something Pixar is now known for. 
    • Finding Nemo                   
      • Released in 2005 it included a re-mastered version of “Knick-Knack” at the beginning and was directed by Andrew Stanton.
      • The supporting characters were drawn with inspiration from classic movies.  Examples would be Gil had Clint Eastwood’s squint, Bloat was based on George Kennedy’s character in Cool Hand Luke, and the Tank Gang borrowed the neuroses of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. 
      • The drop off was both metaphorical and real.  It required Nemo’s dad to brave the unknown outside his home and the terrifying reality of how deep the ocean truly is.
    • WALL-E
      • Wall-E performs the entire first act of the film alone, a feat that no other Pixar character has been tasked with. The filmmakers gave him enough personality through pantomime that audiences fell in love with the little robot by the time more characters were introduced. 
      • Filmmakers used a Star Wars film veteran Ben Burtt to help with the sound design, because every noise was part of Wall-E’s language. 


  • We will cover more about Pixar and its evolution as a film studio some other time. Heck, we might even do some episodes about their specific films! *hint hint* 
  • But, until then, just remember that with hard work and 10 million dollars, you can make anything happen!


The Case of the Disney Exodus


Hey everyone, welcome back to our series on Animation! Last week, we ended on a high (ho) note with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. This week, we’re continuing to look at the development of other major animated film studios. 

There was a time when Walt Disney Studios ruled over all others in terms of animation. Even as other studios created valuable work, Disney was constantly thought of as the leader in animation techniques and innovation. It was THE studio to work for as an animator, and no other seemed to rival it. 

But, all fairy-tales must end, even for Disney. Today, we are talking about The Disney Exodus; an event that took place over the course of a few decades, but ultimately occured in the late-70’s and early 80’s, when animators left the studio to pursue other projects–taking their skills and ideas with them. Before we start discussing the Exodus, let’s take a look at The Disney Era. 

The time period of 1928 – 1941 is often known as The Golden Age of animation. To some, it’s also called “The Disney Era.” During this time, there were more technological advancements in animation than any other time period. To put this into perspective, this era starts with Steamboat Willie and ends with the breathtaking “Fantasia.” It only took Disney’s studio 12 years to make these advancements, and the world took notice. 

It’s important to recognize that part of this achievement came from Disney’s willingness to sacrifice profit to make his films the best they could be. 

  • One example of this is “The Skeleton Dance.” Disney could have easily stuck to making Mickey cartoons, but his ambition led him to show audiences a glimpse of what animated storytelling could be. This was a mood piece, vastly different from the thousands of cartoons that audiences were used to, and it planted the seeds for Fantasia and other films to come.     

While Disney was focusing on realism, other studios continued to animate in a more cartoonish style. Because animation is an incredibly broad topic, we will talk about the Studio cartoons some other time! 

Disney’s Silver Age

Throughout the 40’s & 50’s, Disney’s studio experienced its silver age, with classics such as Peter Pan, The Lady and the Tramp, and of course Sleeping Beauty. Even if the stories or characters seemed flat at times, it was the animation that lifted them up. In Charles Solomon’s book, “Enchanted Drawings,” he describes the scene of Maleficent’s dragon: 

  • “Maleficent hurls herself across the sky as a glittering pinwheel of fire, landing before him in a burst of flame. She shouts a wrathful invocation in her commanding voice, and the chartreuse fires that surround her explode into a mighty column of flame, higher than the turrets of the castle. The black form of the sorceress, darkly silhouetted against the fire, twists and elongates. The shadow waxes and solidifies, as if evil itself were coalescing in that inferno, and becomes an enormous dragon with a terrible horned head and glowing yellow eyes.”  
  • The mastery that Disney’s animators demonstrated in scenes like this is the reason that the studio became synonymous with animation over all the other projects they were attempting at the time.
  • Disney is responsible for elevating the standard of draftsmanship, and their realism in animation was unparalleled. No other studio came close to having their influence. For a while, Walt Disney Studios was the king of animation. 

The Disney Strike of 1941 & UPA

  • When we talk about The Disney Exodus, we often mean what happened with the studio in the early 1980’s. But, more studios were born from disgruntled Disney animators than we might realize.
  • Remember how we said that no one rivaled Disney’s influence? Well, one studio came very close. 
    • United Productions of America or UPA challenged Disney’s realism and incorporated social commentary. Not to mention, they infused experimental graphics in their work
    • Today we know of UPA for its most popular character–Mr Quincy Magoo. In the early 1960’s, UPA created the first animated Christmas special, “Mr Magoo’s Christmas Carol.”
    • In 1941, there was a strike at Disney among young men that were interested in the graphic arts, and they thought that animation could be used as a tool for social reform. They were unhappy with the restrictive, Academic style of drawing at Disney, with familiar fairy tales and an emphasis on humor. One member of this group–Bill Melendez–would one day be responsible for bringing Charlie Brown to life in A Charlie Brown Christmas! 
      • These animators eventually formed or joined UPA, which won an oscar for Gerald McBoing-Boing.
      • Cultural critic Gilbert Seldes described UPA, “Every time you see one of their animated cartoons you are likely to recapture the sensation you had when you first saw, ‘Steamboat Willie,’ the early Silly Symphonies, ‘The Band Concert’–the feeling that something new and wonderful has happened, something almost too good to be true.” 
      • UPA had its own style, but it’s important to note that it wasn’t as uniform as Disney. You could see the different influences from individual animators, and the varying degrees of light to heavy subject matter. They even did a short of The Tell-tale Heart!
      • Columbia shut down the animation house in 1949, and sold it to producer Henry Saperstein. He turned it into an TV studio.

The Death of Disney–an abrupt end to the Silver Age

  • The death of Disney caused a shift in the studio, as it would be expected. The films made by Disney leading up to that point were the work of many different creative people, but they all stemmed from Disney’s vision. The films were somewhat uniform, with a signature style and storytelling that animators were not able to vary from drastically. Variances started to appear in the following years, known as the bronze age or the dark age. 
  • Disney’s death ushered in new leadership that struggled to fill his shoes; the company and its films would never be the same. 
    • Walt Disney died on December 15, 1966.
    • Walt left behind future plans that carried the company for a few years under the supervision of Roy Disney. The Jungle Book and  The Aristocats showed that the company could still make great animation. However it was not the same dynamic company it once was. 
      • The Jungle book is considered to be the end of the Silver Age, mostly because it was the last film that Disney touched before he passed away 
    • Roy did make sure that Walt’s “Florida Project” would come to fruition in 1971, but EPCOT (Experimental Prototype City of Tomorrow) never came to be. EPCOT as we know it is not what Walt had in mind.
      • As for the movie business, from the late 60’s on, Disney survived in a lackluster way. There were even rumors that the company would be broken up and sold. 
      • Because the company had leaned so heavily into theme parks and live action films, when Walt’s creativity was gone, there was little “magic” left. This was the feeling for many for almost 20 years.

Don Bluth

  • In 1971, Don Bluth was hired as an animator at Disney. Disney had been gone for 5 years, and the studio had been putting animation on the back-burner so to speak. Live-action films were financially successful, and animation cost a lot of money to produce. Gone was the fearless leader that didn’t mind losing money for quality and new advancements.
    • Many of the animators didn’t question their work, but because he actually first started working for Disney in 1955, he had seen the way the studio worked before Walt had died, and longed for that leadership. 
      • Bluth said in an interview with Steve Henderson that  “Everyone was asking ‘What would Walt have done?’ Which is a strange thing for an artist to say.”  
      • Bluth worked on Robin Hood and The Rescuers and stayed on at Disney for 8 years. One detail that bothered Bluth while animating The Rescuers was that they were instructed not to paint the whites of their eyes because it would cost too much money. 
        • In the 1970’s, the 9 Old Men–the men known for animating Disney’s Golden Age films–were beginning to retire. There was no mentorship, and as these men left, so did their secrets of creating beautiful animation. 
          • This loss in trade secrets bothered Bluth, as the studio didn’t seem interested in re-learning them. Bluth and a fellow animator named Gary Goldman, knew that they would be expected to take leadership roles in the coming years. So, in order to get directing experience, they started their own project in Bluth’s garage called, “Banjo the Woodpile Cat.” 
          • Don Bluth described it, We would look at the old stuff, such as the beautiful water in Fantasia and ask Frank Thomas (one of the “Nine Old Men”) “How did you do that?” and he’d say “I can’t remember, did anyone write it down?” Little things like that would keep happening and we realized we were losing the war with art so we went out and pioneered again to see if we could discover what they had forgotten to tell us.
          • The men used their own equipment, and Bluth pulled animators from Disney for help. Some claim that this project caused a division between the animators at the studio, while Bluth maintains that the atmosphere at Disney was already toxic. He says that no matter how much he tried to bring the heart back to Disney Studios, the corporate side only wanted to make money. 
  • We left because the corporate structure was just too calcified and we couldn’t fix it, we knew they would be angry when we left, and call us traitors and everything else but we knew we had to, to try to resurrect what was beautiful and what Walt believed in and so that is why we left.”-Bluth
    • In September of 1979, Bluth and Goldman left Disney. They took 16 animators with them, delaying the animated studio’s current projects by a year. Their goal was to create a studio that rivaled Disney animation in such a way, that Disney would work harder to bring heart and soul back to their animated films
    • Bluth and Goldman’s first full-length animated film was The Secret of NIMH, an animated treasure that was tonally and visually darker than anything Disney had produced at the time. This film was a major success for the studio because it showed critics that this small, rival studio could compete with an animation giant such as Disney. It was, however, a commercial failure. 
      • A New York Times article said of the film: It’s just this ”old-fashioned” look -rich, fully detailed, opulent and painstakingly achieved – that Messrs. Bluth, Goldman and Pomeroy have sought to recreate, and in this respect, ”The Secret of N.I.M.H.” is something of a technical and stylistic triumph.
      • In the mid-1980s, Bluth teamed up with a man named Morris Sullivan who stepped in just as the studio went bankrupt, and they formed Sullivan Bluth Studios.
        • Sullivan saved the day by investing in the studio. Without him, we wouldn’t have films like The Land Before Time or Anastasia. 
      • Just as Sullivan Bluth was surging back, famed film director Stephen Spielberg approached the studio in the hopes that they could make an animated film. This was even worse news for Disney, as they were losing their place as the leader in animation. 
        • Together, Sullivan Bluth and Steven Spielberg made An American Tale, the highest grossing non-Disney animated film at the time. It even beat Disney’s current release, “The Great Mouse Detective”! 
      • Disney started working to get their footing back with animation, but nothing could stop Bluth and Goldman from making more successful films throughout the 80’s and 90’s. 
        • Spielberg’s success with Bluth also led him to create his own animation studio, Amblin, with releases like “We’re Back,” and “Balto.”

The Mouse-dom Strikes Back 

  • When we last left Disney, their animation studio was falling apart. Some of their best animators had quit, production was delayed, and some feared that this was the end. 
  • In came Michael Eisner (CEO)  and his partner Frank Wells (President)
    • They could see the untapped potential that Disney still had and set about revitalizing the company. 
    • Despite their initial efforts, Disney saw one of its darkest moments with “The Black Cauldron.” It was a financial and critical failure. Not only had the studio lost respect in the animation world, average movie-goers were looking at Disney a little differently.
      • Imagine how we feel right now about Disney animation. When we see a Disney movie is coming out, we all expect good reviews and box office records. This was not the case in the 1980s. 
  • While the studio was staging its comeback, a new film was set to go into production with animator John Lasseter to direct. Lasseter approached the powers in charge and pitched for a film that was a combination of computer and hand-drawn animation. According to Lasseter, they were not interested in this idea since it would not cost any less. They seemed to only want to use a new process if it increased the cost-efficiency of the project. 
    • After that meeting, Lasseter was fired. He was then hired full time at The Computer Division Graphics Group–an early name for PIXAR.
    • Much of the team that worked on The Brave Little Toaster would go on to work at PIXAR as well–some consider it to be a spiritual prequel to Toy Story.

Lack of Teamwork Makes the Dreamworks

    • In 1984, Michael Eisner hired Jeffrey Katzenberg to run the animation studios. During his tenure, Katzenberg put Disney animation back on the map and created what is known as the “disney Renaissance.” 
      • It’s important to note that animation was not the only thing that made the films of the renaissance so successful, but it appeared that the studio was returning to its roots. Before the release of The Little Mermaid, the studio was closer than ever to shutting down.
    • Producing what some call the best Disney movies of all time, such as The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), and The Lion King (1994). 
      • During this time Frank Wells kept the peace between Eisner and Katzenberg, being essentially their counselor as well as colleague.  
        • Disney was doing so well that Katzenberg naturally wanted to advance his career within the company. There was a back and forth as to whether Katzenberg would be leaving the company before the end of his contract or not. There was also a lot of discussion about the amount of money he would be given or giving up if he left.
        • Katzenberg has said that Eisner promised him the position of President if Wells ever left the position in pursuit of another job. According to Katzenberg he said “If for any reason Frank is not here … you are the number-two person and I want you to have the job.”
      • When Wells tragically passed away due to a helicopter accident, tension came to a boil between Katzenberg and Eisner.  
        • Eisner made the decision to eliminate the position of President and force Katzenberg into resignation. He hired two people to take his place; Joe Roth and Richard Frank.
        • Katzenberg later sued the DIsney company and cost them $270 million dollars.
      • Once he was let go from Disney he formed a studio called Dreamworks SKG  with David Geffen and Steven Spielberg. All of whom called Eisner “Machiavellian.” 
        • This is where the story gets interesting.  According to Steve Jobs and John Lasseter, of Pixar, they had pitched the movie concept for “A Bug’s Life” before Katzenberg left Disney. Katzenberg still claims today that he knew nothing about their pitch. His claim is a little hard to believe since Dreamworks’ first movie was “Antz” which had a very similar storyline and name. Recently some new light was shed by Chris Weitz, a writer behind Antz. In an interview with Huffpost he said “We didn’t know that there was that much of a race [to the box office] until late in the process,” he explained, “when it turned out there had even been a fake schedule, which had us completing after ‘Bug’s Life’ was going to be released. We’d been working on this accelerated pace without really knowing exactly why.”
          • Antz ended up beating A Bug’s life to theaters by just over a month in 1998 but made less in ticket sales worldwide.
        • While working on Antz, Dreamworks had also been working on what we would say is their crown jewel.  Released just a few months after Antz, The Prince of Egypt was a project Katzenberg had wanted to do for a long time but had not been able to undertake with Eisner at Disney. We discussed this amazing movie in our Top 10 Non-Disney Animated Classics.
        • Since its beginning Dreamworks has shown that it can and will compete with the Disney machine. They have produced such memorable movies such as Shrek, The Road to El Dorado, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, and Madagascar. 
          • Katzenberg  said in an interview that their mission statement is that they “make movies for adults, and the adult that exists in every child.”

If the Disney Exodus teaches us anything, it’s to recognize our own talent and worth. Imagine if these people never spoke out about their ideas? These men picked a battle with a giant, and because of that, we have a much more diverse catalog of animation today. 

In the fight of Disney VS Bluth or Katzenberg, neither side could be declared triumphant. Instead, the audiences that get to share in animation and storytelling are the winners. 


The Case of Animation History

92236614_530486834546536_8476213886750556160_nEver since humans have been able to record images, we’ve wanted them to move. From cave paintings and carved ivory on strings, to the blurred drawings of Da Vinci, humans have been obsessed with their art coming to life for thousands of years. Today we refer to this phenomenon simply as animation. Animated films today are the most lucrative kind in the business, earning the medium more respect with each passing year. This week, we’re taking a look at the history of animated films and their evolution throughout early cinema. So bust out your flip-books, pencils, puppets, and clay; it’s time to get animated!

The History of animation

  • What is Animation
    • Animation creates the illusion of movement through still images. In this sense, it has been around since possibly the beginning of history. Paleontologists have uncovered carvings meant to hang from strings that could cast moving shadows on the wall. 
    • The Magic Lantern
      • In his 1645 book, “The Great Art of Light and Shadow,” Athanasius Kircher described a new invention called “A Magic Lantern” which was a box containing a light source and curved mirror. Later, he explained that this could be used to tell a story to an audience. Even though some considered this witchcraft, scientists continued to experiment with the idea. 50 years later, it was used to create the illusion of motion and the first animated entertainments were born.
    • During Victorian times, animation devices were a popular form of entertainment for children and adults. For example, thephenakistoscope” aka the “Phantasmascope,” or “Fantascope” used images painted on a spinning cardboard disc, reflected in a mirror to create the illusion of animation
    • These devices are credited as the precursor to animation, and more recently are thought of as the first GIF! Eventually this toy was replaced by the Zoetrope, and then the Zoopraxiscope invented by Eadweard Muybridge. Muybridge of course was a pioneer in cinematography, which we talked about before. 
  • How is it different from regular film?
    • According to Charles Soloman in his book “Enchanted Drawings,” animation is different from live-action film in two respects: the image is recorded on film frame by frame, and the illusion of motion is created rather than recorded. 
      • Live-action film is exposed in “takes” that can vary in length, and it is projected at the same speed that it was recorded. In animation, each frame is exposed individually
      • He goes on to explain that everything in animation never happened until it was projected, while live-action takes place once when it is recorded and then happens again during projection.
        • By this definition, recorded puppetry isn’t considered animation, but stop-motion is.
  • What was the first animated film?
    • In 1906, J. Stewart Blackton released “Humorous Phases of Funny Faces”. It is a three minute silent short, made with chalk, in which drawings of faces and people were animated against a plain blackboard. 
    • Blackton’s film however, did consist of some small parts showing the artist’s hand in the process of drawing or erasing images. It wasn’t until 1908 with “Fantasmagorie” that we saw the first short comprised entirely of animation. 
    • After many shorts were made, finally in 1917, the first feature-length animation was created. It was a film by the name of El Apóstol. 
    • Originally shown to a South American audience, the film ran for 70 minutes at 14 frames a second, for a total of over 58,000 frames. 
    • Not only is it considered to be the first animated film, it is also credited as being the first profitable animated movie ever made. (Not to say it was a huge success.) 
    • Unfortunately, the only copy of the film was destroyed in a house fire. According to those who did see the film, it was a political satire. 
  • Winsor MCay
    • After J Stuart Blackton essentially invented animated filmmaking, Winsor McCay showed audiences it’s artistic potential and inspired generations of filmmakers.
    • A respected editorial cartoonist, he once said “I never decided to be an artist, simply I could not stop myself from drawing.”
    • McCay believed that he invented the animated cartoons as flip-books! The newspaper would print sequential cartoons on thick paper for children to cut out and bind together as flip-books. They called them “Flippers.”
    • Looking at his comic strips, it’s easy to tell that McCay was thinking about animation. He would make only slight changes from panel to panel instead of using one panel for an entire scene. 
    • His first animated film was “Little Nemo” (1911) based off of his wildly popular cartoon strip.
      • McCay made four thousand drawings for the film on rice paper, and times movements to the second with a stopwatch.
      • This was the first animated picture to contain fully rendered characters, and audiences had never seen any animation move so smoothly and realistically. Some even thought that he had used live actors and trick photography to make the film.
      • McCay’s animations are considered to be 70 years ahead of their time. Some believe his greatest achievement was in 1914 with “Gertie the Dinosaur.”
        • This landmark in animation history was part of McCay’s vaudeville act, and she would seem to respond to his commands.
        • This laid the groundwork for delineating a character’s personality through a unique style of movement. McCay might not have invented animation, but he invented character animation. 
      • This time, audiences understood that this was animation and Gertie still exists as a symbol of the prehistory of life and the prehistory of animation.
      • No one knows why McCay stopped animating, but many assume it was his displeasure with what animation was becoming in the 1920’s. At a dinner in his honor he was remembered saying, “Animation should be an art and that is how I conceived it…but as I see what you fellows have done with it is making it into a trade…not an art, but a trade…bad luck.”
      • McCay’s films survived only by mistake, his son gave them to a friend of his father’s and they sat in his garage for years until uncovered by his son. The men worked to restore the film and transfer it to safety stock. They’re now in the library of congress. 
  • The Cartoon Boom

    • McCay bemoaned the new industry of animation as the processes became streamlined and animated shorts were everywhere. The novelty of moving illustrations had worn off and people didn’t take the medium seriously anymore. This is an attitude that is still somewhat prevalent today. 
    • Thousands of cartoons were created between 1913 and 1928, though only about 200 remain in distribution. The records of their creation have long been destroyed, as studios were constantly merging or dissolving; and because of the lack of serious attention, no one thought to rescue the records. 
    • Many times, more than one studio would use the same characters, and credits were given casually.
    • Four years after Gertie, there were a dozen animation studios in New York alone. Techniques that McCay refined were used to streamline the process, and Raoul Barre created a peg system that would hold paper in place on every drawing board. This system is still in place today!
    • Barre created the first animation studio and was one of the biggest names in silent animation, along with John Bray (aka the Henry Ford of animation because of his assembly-line techniques and animation factory instead of a studio.)
      • Bray also realized that any innovations could be patented.
      • After Earl Hurd patented the use of clear cells in animation, he teamed up with Bray and they essentially had a monopoly on the animation process and forced other studios to pay licenses and royalties. Much of what he claimed to own really belonged to McCay.
    • The most popular and successful cartoon of the silent era was Felix the Cat. His true creator was unknown until the 1970s. Otto Messmer, a cartoonist-turned-animator created shorts for Paramount’s Screen magazine with the then-unnamed Felix the Cat. A producer later gave the cat his name, a play on the Latin words for Cat and Luck.
      • Felix is all black, because Messmer didn’t want to draw outlines. Originally he was angular and dog-like but another animator helped him refine Felix to the rounded shape we know today.
      • What set Felix apart was his facial expressions and his unique character movements, originally inspired by Windsor McCay.
      • In the 1920s, he was the most popular cartoon character in the world.
    • Because of these silent animations, audiences were accepting of the wild expressions and movements of cartoons to come. As Soloman wrote in his book Enchanted Drawings, “Without Dinky Doodle, Colonel Heeza Liar, Bobby Bumps, Oswald Rabbit, Felix the Cat, and KoKo the Clown, there could never have been Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, Donald Duck, Tom and Jerry, Betty Boop, and Wile E. Coyote.” 
    • Max Fleischer
      • He emerged in the 1910’s and was inspired by Winsor McCay’s Gertie the Dinosaur.
      • Unlike Disney, Fleischer’s cartoons were darker and showed the realities of living in the Depression Era. Although they were darker they also brought hope and laughs with them.
      • His philosophy was “If it can be done in real life, it isn’t animation.”
      • When asked about his art career he joked in his 1939 Biography that as he began art as early as when he scribbled on the wallpaper next to his crib.
      • He was so  willing and eager to learn about becoming a cartoonist, that in the early 1900’s he wanted to watch cartoonists work so badly that he was willing to pay $2 to sit and watch.  Luckily The Brooklyn Daily Eagle instead gave him the job of errand boy for $2 per week. This is where he picked up valuable information about photography and photoengraving. 
        • In just one year he was promoted to the Art Dept. where he would create one panel cartoons under the pen name “Mack.” He then began making multi-panel cartoons and became the youngest cartoonist as just a teenager, making two such as Little Algie and then also E.K. Sposher, The Camera Fiend.  Even at this time he was already planning on making moving cartoons.
      • Throughout his career he had the chance to patent inventions such as a non-yellowing touch-up paint but he never did.  His reasoning was to keep these things as a trade secret to make his work stand out and not be exploited for others’ use.
        • One item that he did patent however was the amazing Rotoscope which was simply described as a “Method of Producing Moving Picture Cartoons.”  The name of which is explained by possibly the literalness of the rotation of the projected film during tracing. It could also come from the name of an intaglio printing process called Rotogravure which Fleischer learned about at The Brooklyn Daily Eagle while engraving photos for the newspaper. 
      • Around 1918 Fleischer was hired by Bray as Production Manager, whom he had met while working for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle years before.  With Bray and his studio he worked on many projects but the most notable was Out of the Inkwell which consisted of shorts that were a combination of live action footage and animation.  His brother Dave was also involved and would direct these shorts.
        • In 1921 it was clear that Fleisher’s ideas were straying from the ideas of Bray and so when his brother Dave won $50,000 on a horse race he matched Max’s $800 in the startup of Out of the Inkwell Films, Inc.  This allowed them to pursue their own artistic innovations. Their other brothers Charlie and Joe also came in with helping with mechanics and electrics.
  • The Rise of Disney

    • Obviously the biggest name in animation is Walt Disney. But you already knew that. No one can question the impact Disney has had on animation and the film industry in general. 
    • It was all the way back in 1922 when Disney animated his first short film “Little Red Riding Hood.” 
    • The very next year Walt Disney arrived in California where he made a cartoon called “Alice’s Wonderland.” He would go on to use this as a pilot for a series called “Alice Comedies.” A distributor in New York, M. J. Winkler, contracted to distribute the Alice Comedies on October 16, 1923, and this date became the start of the Disney company. 
    • It was originally known as The Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio, where Walt and his brother Roy (who was eight years his senior) were equal partners. The name was soon changed to Walt Disney Studio, at Roy’s suggestion. 
    • Then in 1928, the one and only Mickey Mouse made his debut in a six minute short called “Plane Crazy.” However, the first short to be widely distributed was the famous “Steamboat Willie.” Critically acclaimed for its breakthrough addition of synced audio. 
    • The character was an immediate hit and a lengthy series of Mickey Mouse cartoons followed. 
    • With Disney not being one to rest on his laurels, he continued to innovate and succeed in animation with the release of “Silly Symphonies” in 1929. The series was crucial in giving audiences something to smile about during the Great Depression. 
      • “The Skeleton Dance” and “Three Little Pigs” are two notable entries in the series. The latter won the Oscar for best short film in 1933. 
    • Snow White
      • Toward the end of the 1930’s, Disney was motivated by a desire to reestablish his company as the leading animation studio. He believed that animation was strong enough to keep the attention of audiences for a feature length amount of time.
      • Brand new techniques were even used to create a realism in animation that hadn’t been seen before. They were first shown in “The Old Mill” which marked a defining moment in animation history and was at the time the most technically advanced short.
      • Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, was a huge risk and financial gamble for Disney. Many, including the New York Times, were skeptical that the studio could live up to the quality of its short films, some going as far as to call it “Disney’s Folly” and expecting a flop. 
        • Even his wife Lillian said “No one’s going to pay a dime to see a dwarf picture.”
      • Snow White cost over six times its initial budget as between 750 and 1000 animators were hired. The estimated budget was 1.7 million, and Disney even remortgaged his house!
      • Lucky for Disney, the film was an overwhelming success and set a new sky-high standard for all animated films to come. 
      • From then on Disney would continue to have ups and downs but never to the same worrying extent again. The next film “Pinocchio,” considered by many to be Disney’s masterpiece, would finally and truly solidify his place in animation royalty.