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. 

Sources:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s