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From Magic Lanterns to ToonBoom: The Outstanding History of Animation

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When I was a kid, I used to consume a whole lot of animation. Disney was my favoured choice to fill a boring evening, but I would not disdain Looney TunesPingu (big one for me) or the occasional Matt Groening stuff. To me, animation was a given. Incredibly fascinating for sure, but when you are still a young boy, you don’t always stop to focus and reflect on how things are actually made.

Most of the people my age (Gen Y/Z) and certainly a lot of the previous generations will think of animation as a constant in their childhood. Colours or not, moving drawings have always had a certain appeal for kids, and as technology progressed, we reached new ways to tell stories and new techniques to paint fascinating fantasy world. The potential of animation is endless. But where did all of this start?

Surprisingly, as early as with Neanderthals.

First Attempts: Cave Murals and Burial Chambers

I mentioned Looney Tunes a few lines above. Interestingly, as I was carrying out some research to assemble this piece, one specific piece of animation jumped at me from the farthest recesses of my brain – Bugs Bunny, speaking to me in Italian through my cathode-ray tube television, and telling me how cinema, animation, comedy and chases ever got started.

I think he will be able to explain this way more eloquently than I:

Essentially, in the beginning, the world was a very boring place. Humans and Neanderthals (later confirmed to be two separate species) would entertain themselves through hunt, quarrels and wild love, but most importantly they would rely on the power of stories. It has been proven that early humans would gather around the fire sharing stories with their contemporaries – possibly even before that language was invented.

After a while, these stories would transfer onto the walls of their caves. Rupestral art and cave murals would act as the perfect canvases to tell stories through primitive drawings, a first display of motion art and a rudimentary push towards animation. If it is true as they say that the human brain hasn’t changed much in the past 300,000 years (since the early Sapiens), I suppose it makes sense that we started being drawn towards animation at such an early stage of our evolution.

Of course cavemen were not the only ones to paint stories and moving pictures upon certain surfaces. Somehow, humans have always been attracted by the prospect of connecting drawings with one another in a sequential order. A bowl from the Burnt City in Iran, dating back to the late half of 3rd millennium BC, depicts five sequential images that seem to show phases of a goat leaping up to nip at a tree. An Egyptian mural approximately 4,000 years old features a long series of images that depict the sequence of events in a wrestling match. This mural was found in an ancient tomb in the Beni Hassan cemetery and is an integral part of the burial chamber.

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Source: Wikimedia

The list goes on and on. A page of drawings by Leonardo da Vinci shows anatomical studies with four different angles of the muscles of shoulder, arm, and neck of a man, which can be read as a rotating movement. Even the Parthenon Frieze has been described as displaying analysis of motion and representing phases of movement.

Before mankind even had the means to delve into the animation we know today, we have always tried to find new and creative ways to display movement and dynamism in our works of art. In other words: we were looking for new ways to tell our stories.

The Magic Lantern and other devices

Humans would have to wait until the 17th century before new ways of presenting animation were introduced. Shadow play and shadow puppetry, for example, are believed to have been popularised in China as early as in the 1st millennium before the Christian Era, but they did not reach Europe until the 1600s. Shadow play had much in common with animation: moving figures on a screen, storytelling with dialogue, sounds and music, and even incredibly detailed figures.

The very first step towards modern animation was however at the time of the Magic Lantern, invented by Christiaan Huygens in 1659. The Magic Lantern was an early type of image projector that used paintings, prints or photographs, one or more lenses and a light source. The magic lantern used a concave mirror behind a light source to direct the light through a small rectangular sheet of glass.

The pictures were originally painted on glass slides, and thanks to a game of physics (which I won’t bore you to death with), these pictures were then projected onto a large screen. The Magic Lantern was often used for educational purposes, as entertainment and to scare the audience, and it experienced a brief moment of popularity in the 1800s, until the introduction of movies by the Lumière brothers in the 1890s.

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Source: Wikimedia

Contemporary to the Magic Lantern were a number of devices that were invented all throughout the 19th Century. In 1825, the first Thaumatrope was published by W. Phillips; it employed affixing pictures on either side of a small cardboard disc connected to two pieces of strings. When rotated, the Thaumatrope would give a rudimentary impression of movement, blending the two images with an optical illusion. It was a popular toy, though still far from animation as we know it today.

Then came the Phénakisticope in 1833, by hand of Belgian Joseph Plateau and Austrian Simon von Stampfer. The device used pictures spread radially around a disc, usually connected to a handle, with small rectangular openings on the rim of the disc. People looking through the openings as the disc spun were able to see a sequence of connected images alternating swiftly, again suggesting the illusion of movement. The gap between images would trick the eye into believing that the drawings were connected. This was an interesting attempt at modern animation as we know it, as it indirectly employed a rudimentary concept of “frames per second”.

Later came the Zoetrope (1833/1866), the Kineograph or Flip Book (1868) and the Praxinoscope (1877). These three devices were all building on the concept of the Phénakisticope, with the Zoetrope being a cylindrical rendition of the original device, the Flip Books built on the concept of alternating images to trick the eye, whilst the Praxinoscope placed a mirror at the centre of a Zoetrope-like cylinder to reflect the images on the inner walls. The Praxinoscope guaranteed a much clearer view on the moving images by getting rid of the space in between slits that were a key part of the Zoetrope.

The popularity of these devices deflated fast as the cinematograph was popularised, but nevertheless, they offer a window into the attempts of an industrialised society at harnessing technology and science to make fantasy come true.

Cinema and the Earliest Filmed Animations

In 1895, the Lumière brothers made history by filming a group of employees leaving a fabric with their very first cinematograph. The rest is history. The brothers were able to popularise and commercialise cinema, kickstarting the age of films and motion pictures. Between 1896 and 1913, George Méliès (Le Voyage dans la Lune) got incredibly close to animation with his stop trick effects, a first attempt at stop motion which would make the history of visual effects.

Soon enough, animation moved to film. Between the 1900 and the 1930s, the United States and France saw the widespread beginning of theatrical showings in cartoons and many animators started to found studios, such as Bray Studios in New York. In 1914, John Bray revolutionised the way animation was created.

Earl Hurd, one of Bray’s employees, patented the cel technique. Animators would paint objects on transparent celluloid sheets, then photographed them over a background image to generate the sequence of images. Backgrounds were usually static and always worked on a separate layer, enabling the animators to work directly on celluloid with their characters. The first animated series, Colonel Heeza Liar, was created.

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Felix is still so famous today that it influenced a number of gadgets and collections, including in fashion. Image source: Funko

Many famous cartoonists and animators started their career at Bray Studios, including Walter Lantz (Woody WoodpeckerPaul Terry (Heckle and Jeckle) and Max Fleischer (Betty Boop, Popeye). The latter then patented a whole new technique called rotoscoping, which would involved using live-action film recordings as a reference point to create realistic animated movements. It was the beginning of a rudimentary form of motion capture, which is still used in games and 3D animation to aim for the highest possible level of realism.

In 1919, Felix the Cat was introduced by Musical Mews and Feline Follies. He is considered to be the first animated movie star – but things were still getting warmed up in the animation scene. All of these early animation movies were silent, and just like with live-action movies, music was often played live in theatres to add to the entertainment factor.

In 1928, things were destined to change forever.

The rise of Disney and synchronised sound

In 1920, an 18-year-old Walt Disney worked with Ub Iwerks and Fred Harman at the Slide Company, an animation studio which produced cutout animation commercials and was much averse to innovation and risk. Disney loved animation and would therefore spend days experimenting new techniques and studying the craft. In 1921, he managed to sell Newman Laugh-O-Grams to the owner of the three local Newman Theatres, as a series which satirised local topics. He started gaining local popularity, but still not enough to rise to national success.

Disney loved fairy tales and started working on his own Kaycee Studio on the side, experimenting with animation and crafting seven-minute long modernised fairy tale cartoons.

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Steamboat Willie was not Mickey's first appearance, but it was the first to find a distributor. It was also the first animated film to feature synchronised sound.

The history of Disney will probably deserve an article entirely by itself, but for now, know this: After a few successes, Disney left his job and started working on a series of projects with his employees. In 1923, he founded the Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio, then moved to Hollywood to seal a deal with New York film distributor Margaret J. Winkler, former owner of the rights to Felix the Cat. Disney worked on the Alice Comedies series for a while, then, in 1927, he introduced Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, who soon became a cartoon star. Just one year later, after failed negotiations, Charles Mintz took control of production and Disney lost his rights to Oswald.

It is said that a certain mouse was born out of a scribbled sketch during a train trip. Hard to say if that story is true or just a pleasant novelisation, but soon enough, as he developed the last Oswald cartoons for Mintz, Disney started working on Mickey Mouse in secret as a replacement to Oswald. Contrary to popular belief, Mickey’s debut was not with Steamboat Willie; the Mouse was introduced with a test screening of the cartoon short Plane Crazy, on May 15, 1928, but it failed to impress the audience. A few months later, on 18 November 1928, Steamboat Willie was released in New York, co-directed by Disney and Iwerks, who served as the head animator. It was the third Mickey cartoon produced, but the first one to find a distributor. It was the first film to feature perfectly synchronised sound design and soundtrack. The golden age of animation was born.

The Golden Age of Animation

With the rise of synchronised sound, theatrical cartoons became a key part of popular culture. Mickey Mouse and other characters all joined together in the Silly Symphonies, while companies other than Disney all tried their hand at creating popular characters for the general public. These included Warner Bros’ Merrie Melodies and Fleischer, who popularised Betty Boop and Popeye.

It was only around a decade later, in December 1937, that Disney released Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the first hand-drawn animated feature film. The soundtrack, the jokes, the quality of animation and the plot were state of the art, and employed techniques such as rotoscoping to ensure maximum realism. Over 1.5 million cels were used to create Snow White. It became a worldwide success and kickstarted the era of animated feature films.

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Fun fact: it was Tolkien who popularised the "Dwarves" spelling in his books. Until then, the plural of the word "Dwarf" had only been formed by adding an -s – which you can see in the full title of Snow White.

Soon the Second World War took its toll on animation, with many critically acclaimed films failing to perform well at the global box office. Animation was used for wartime propaganda, especially in the US, UK and Japan. Warner Bros. was contracted for several shorts to boost troops morale, and many popular characters promoted war bonds, such as Bugs Bunny and even Minnie and Pluto. It must be noted that, while these films marked a rather dark era for stories in animation, they were much appreciated at the time, and even Disney’s Der Fuehrer’s Face with Donald Duck won the company its tenth Academy Award for cartoon short subjects.

Nevertheless, animal characters remained the norm and, with the rise of TV, animation made its way into people’s houses as well, with the first animated series specifically produced for TV in 1949. TV animated series, however, only boomed in the 1960s and remained strong for two decades, with series such as The Flintstones and Scooby Doo being released, alongside Fritz the Cat in 1972. This was also the time when adult-oriented animation started making its appearance, not necessarily in the form of pornography or erotic animation; series such as Schultz’s Charlie Brown had philosophical and sociological undertones which well resonated with adults.

This was also the time when Anime started rising in the west. Titles such as Astro Boy, Kimba the White Lion, Heidi and other stories from the East all became popular in the 1960s-1980s decades. But it was only in 1985, when Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli was founded, that anime had a true golden age: Miyazaki’s films featured watercolour backgrounds and beautiful stories, most of which are still widely beloved today.

CGI and the advent of computers

As computers came along in the 1980s, animation went through a revolution yet again. Computer-generated imagery (CGI) enabled animators to experiment with new ways of doing stop-motion, which until then had been used sparingly for some isolated episodes or experiments. In 1984, a division of LucasFilm released The Adventures of André & Wally B, the first film to ever feature complex CGI with motion blur and 3D backgrounds, as well as rudimentary particle systems. The studio at work on this film, named The Graphics Group, would then be renamed as a much more popular Pixar Animation Studios.

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Image source: Pixar Animation Studios

In the meantime, Disney was still steadily producing feature films and cartoons, despite having gone through a dark age after the death of Walt in 1966.

The late 1980s were the decade in which a number of masterpieces of animation were released to the public. These included The Land Before Time, Who Framed Roger RabbitThe Simpsons in 1987 and the much successful Little Mermaid in 1989. The Little Mermaid in particular kicked off a time that is commonly referred to as the Disney Renaissance, lasting a full decade, during which Disney released some truly beautiful masterpieces of children animation – such as The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, Hercules, Mulan and Tarzan.

The success of Disney prompted many other studios to follow in their steps, and so other companies such as Warner Bros and Fox Animation Studios tried to replicate Disney’s success by producing their own feature films. South Park (1997), Family Guy (1999) and Futurama (1999) were all born during the Disney Renaissance period, and so were other TV shows such as Dexter’s Laboratory (1996), Johnny Bravo (1997) and The Powerpuff Girls (1998).

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TV shows such as Dexter's Laboratory (one of my personal favourites as a kid) contributed to the rise of Cartoon Network in the Nineties. Image source: Syfy Wire.

The Era of 3D and present days

1995 marked the turning point for computer-processed animation. To widespread critical and popular acclaim, Pixar released the first Toy Story, marking a milestone in the era of contemporary animation. It was the first film to be created entirely using CGI and featured masterwork-level character design and storyline. During this time, Pixar and Disney began using their own proprietary RenderMan software produced by Pixar themselves. The company is still using RenderMan today. The software is responsible for cameras, geometry, materials and lights and supports open shading language to define textural patterns.

Following the success of Toy Story, DreamWorks Animation released Shrek in 2001, launching computer animation as a widespread approach in the US and overseas. Disney started moving increasingly towards 3D-style animation with some feature films such as Dinosaurs (2000) and Chicken Little (2005), but remained largely focused on traditional animation with a new string of stable releases. The Emperor’s New Groove (2000), Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001), Lilo & Stitch (2002) and Treasure Planet (2002) were all somewhat successful in their own right, though there were some shortcomings in the figures of Brother Bear (2003) and Home on the Range (2004).

Following the release of The Princess and the Frog in 2009, Disney switched to 3D animation almost completely. The next Disney Princess movie in the line was Rapunzel, released in 2010 and entirely produced in CGI. From there, Frozen soon came along in 2013 and became a monumental success for the company.

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DreamWorks' Shrek had great success in 2001 and prompted a new era of CGI animation in films, following along the trail of the first Toy Story. Image source: Britannica

Meanwhile, outside North America, there was at least someone who was still reluctant to give up traditional animation in favour of computers: Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli kept releasing a number of films in the past few decades, from the beautiful Spirited Away in 2001 to The Secret World of Arrietty in 2010 – all grossing more than $100m worldwide.

Outside of cinema and feature-length films, Japanese animation TV shows are still as popular as ever, with the advent of masterpieces such as Fullmetal Alchemist (especially Brotherhood in 2009) and Attack On Titan (2009), though these shows are often adaptations from existing mangas.

Despite shifting focus to live-action remakes in later years, Disney is still very much in love with animation and its latest feature-length film, Raya and the Last Dragon, has grossed $122m worldwide. Pixar meanwhile keeps producing high-quality movies, such as the latest Luca this year, and other studios such as DreamWorks Animation have found their success in either TV or by sticking to powerful franchises.

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Studio Ghibli rose to great success in the west thanks to the beautiful storylines and stunning artworks in each of their films. This frame was captured from Princess Mononoke, 1997.

What’s next?

Hard to tell what is soon to happen in the animation scene. Certainly Covid and social-distancing restrictions were somewhat beneficial to animators or aspiring professionals in the field, and we are likely to see another boom in animation in the following years.

Most animators now use software such as ToonBoom to manage their creation, especially when designing 2D characters and scenarios. In the 3D space, Epic Games promises to cover the needs of animators with its next-gen Unreal Engine 5, which was released in Early Access in May 2021 and features an unparalleled level of detail for all creative professionals out there.

It would be a large understatement to define the history of animation as fascinating. It is something outstanding and riddled with incredible milestones, all trying to cater for our innate desire to see drawings take life and moving pictures on a screen. But most of all, animation covers the most basic need of all: the exquisitely human need to tell, hear, feel and consume stories.

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