Animation works on the same basic principles as film: 24 images per second, flashing past you so fast you can’t percieve the transition from one image to the next. This time around, instead of a photograph, it’s a drawing. Traditionally, these drawings were transferred to clear plastic so the moving parts could be on one layer and the background on another, which is called cel (short for celluloid) animation. Today computers usually take that role (even for hand-drawn animations, which are scanned in). Alternately, puppets were sometimes created and moved piecemeal and photographed to create the illusion of movement in the final film. When computer generated images came along, people started using computers to generate images for film, typically working in a way that mimicked the puppet animation styles. A digital “puppet” is made and then animated.
Gertie the Dinosaur is often hailed as the first animated film, but I’m not really sure why. It wasn’t even the first animated film made by Windsor McKay, the director and animator of Gertie. The Humpty Dumpty Circus and The Enchanted Drawing by James Stuart Blackton are two of the earliest. The first being in stop motion, the other a more traditional drawn animation, although it’s rather crude. But that’s simply thinking of film as we know it. Animation techniques go back further to Victorian era toys such as the zoetrope or phenakistoscope created short animations, and I’ve heard it said that animation goes back as far as the cave paintings at Lascaux, where flickering candlelight would cause the superimposed images of several animals to look like they moved.
Gertie’s creator, Winsor McCay, was pretty influental in the animation business. He created the first color animated film in a time before color film stock existed by hand painting each frame of the film with ink. He also was one of the first to have really good character animation in his films. You probably know him better from his newspaper strip though, Little Nemo in Slumberland. McCay however drew each of his frames by hand, and when the cel animation technique came along in 1914, the pace at which animated films could be produced left him lagging to far behind to stay in the limelight. And then in 1915 Max and Dave Fleischer (who’s studio would go on to create Betty Boop and the Popeye cartoons) invented rotoscoping, a technique where filmed movements were used to reference the drawings for animations which became a popular way to add realism to animations. As for the big players Disney began his own studio in 1924, and the Warner Brothers opened an animation studio in 1930. Disney’s Flowers and Trees was the first Technicolor animated film in 1932. Tex Avery hit the scene in 1935. He created the main cast of the Loony Toons roster and really brought that high impact snappy cartoon physics humor to the forefront.
The first computer animated film was Hummingbird in 1968 by Charles Csuri. It isn’t much to look at, just some images of computer generated lines coming together to form the picture of a hummingbird, but there it is. And considering it was created in a time before computer monitors, not too shabby. In the late 70s and the 80s a feature length computer animated film called The Works was, if you’ll pardon the phrase, in the works at The New York Institue of Technology, but it was never finished, and in 1995 Toy Story became the first feature length computer animated film.
And the rest is what’s still happening now, really. There is a big push to use Motion Capture, but it, like rotoscoping in the past, is proving to have its limits with character animation. We, for whatever reason, like our animation to move more like an exaggeration of motion rather than exactly the motion itself, and so rotoscoping and mo-cap tend to look weightless and somewhat lifeless to us. People ask me if I worry that computers will take away animating jobs and I tell them to look at the list of names in the credits of an animated film, even one animated with computers. It’s long because humans are needed in the process no matter how much computers can do. Next week I’ll tackle animation’s twin sibling, special effects.