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Arts & Entertainment

A Guide to the History of Animation

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Dec 1, 2020 • 5 min read

Since its inception, animation has undergone radical change, from the zoetrope to the first animated feature film to modern CGI.



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Animation is a form of storytelling that dates back to Ancient Greece. From the pottery of the ancient Greeks, to the ocular toys of the seventeenth century, to the computer-generated imagery (CGI) of the twenty-first century, animation has existed in many forms, evolving into the technological feat we see today.

What Is Animation?

Animation is the process of bringing illustrations or inanimate objects to life through motion pictures. Animation techniques manipulate photos and drawings to give the illusion of movement and present a narrative to viewers on screen. Some consider early Grecian pottery as an early form of animation, depicting scenes of movement and expressions along its surface, like a comic strip.

What Is the History of Animation?

This history of animation extends far beyond the history of film, as early animators throughout the centuries found ways to create movies without cameras or recording technology. Before Oscar-winning CGI Hollywood blockbusters like Pixar’s Toy Story 3 (2010) and Academy Award-winners like Finding Nemo (2003), there was the first animated sequence captured on standard picture film—J. Stuart Blackton’s The Enchanted Drawing (1900)—which used a live-action actor, props, and stop-motion techniques to create a two-minute comedic scene.

Animation continued to evolve throughout the decade, with French cartoonist Émile Cohl’s two-minute stick figure animation, Fantasmagorie (1908), becoming one of the first cartoons. In 1914, Winsor McCay’s Gertie the Dinosaur broke new ground in the animation industry as the first animated film to use techniques like keyframing, inbetweeners, and animation loops, which laid the foundation for standard industry practice for future animation production. Later, Walt Disney’s short film Steamboat Willie (1928), marked the first time an animated film was fully scored, popularizing Mickey Mouse, and the use of sound in animated film going forward.

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6 Examples of Early Animation Devices

Throughout history, there have been numerous devices and toys capable of depicting active scenes of animated cartoon characters, people, objects, and events:

  1. Magic lantern: The magic lantern was an image projection device developed in 1603. This device used a mirror in the back of a light source (originally a candle) that would direct the light through long glass slides, projecting the slide’s illustrations. Placing the slides together formed movement, making the magic lantern the first instance of “moving pictures.”
  2. Thaumatrope: The thaumatrope was a nineteenth-century optical toy that featured a picture disk held by two strings. When the strings were twirled, they would spin the disk, moving images on either side of the disk into one by the “persistence of vision,” an optical illusion that tricks the eye into seeing movement long after the movement has stopped.
  3. Phenakistoscope: Also known as the Fantascope, and sometimes spelled “phenakistiscope,” the phenakistoscope debuted around 1833, featuring spinning, painted cardboard disks reflected in mirrors, which created the illusion of movement. The phenakistoscope’s innovative experience could only be enjoyed by one viewer at a time.
  4. Zoetrope: The phenakistoscope’s successor, the zoetrope was a spinning cylindrical version that presented images in sequential phases of motion that multiple viewers could watch at a time. The cylinder contained several vertical slits, which provided a mechanism for the eye to keep the spinning photographs from blurring together while in motion.
  5. Kineograph: Latin for “moving picture,” the kineograph (known as the flipbook) debuted in 1868. The kineograph is a small book of drawings, with each page conveying a different form of movement, so that when the pages are flipped quickly in sequence, they animate a scene.
  6. Praxinoscope: In 1877, the praxinoscope succeeded the zoetrope, replacing the latter’s narrow vertical slits with an inner circle of angled mirrors instead. These angled mirrors helped provide a clearer and more vivid animation than peering at the moving illustrations through slits.


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What Was the First Animated Film?

Émile Reynaud’s Pauvre Pierrot (1892) was created by using a longer image roll for the praxinoscope, allowing for a longer viewing time. Pauvre Pierrot is often credited as the first animated film because Reynaud’s picture roll was hand-painted with 500 individual images (rather than using photographs). However, film historians argue that Émile Cohl’s Fantasmagorie (1908), is the first instance of a film produced with traditional animation techniques, making it the first true animated movie.

Some consider Britsh-American producer J. Stuart Blackton’s Humorous Phases of Funny Faces (1906) to be the animation industry’s first film. Blackton used stop-motion animation to depict a series of animated characters changing movements throughout the three-minute movie. Humorous Phases of Funny Faces was the first animated film recorded on standard picture film, technically making it the first animated movie captured on real film.

What Was the First Feature-Length Animated Movie?

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The first animated feature film is Walt Disney Studios’ Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). This film used the traditional animation process of cel animation, which involved rendering two-dimensional visuals on a transparent sheet of celluloid. The cel animation process allowed transferring illustrations between frames, rather than having to redraw from scratch each time, speeding up the process, saving time and labor.

What Is the History of Computer Animation?

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People began to experiment with computer graphics as early as the 1940s, for science and research purposes. Composer, animator, and inventor John Whitney Sr. built a custom computer device from a converted Kerrison Predictor (a World War II-era anti-aircraft fire-control system). Using mathematics to control the device in more specific ways,they had the ability to produce precise lines and shapes. Whitney Sr., with the assistance of legendary graphic designer Saul Bass, animated the opening title sequence for Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 film Vertigo. The classic film is considered to be one of the first live-action films to use computer animation.

By the 1960s, innovative digital graphics boomed as more computers entered the mainstream, and by the 1970s, many people began using computer graphics as an art form. Graphic design tools and software for computers continued to evolve, and government funding allotted to the University of Utah saw an emergence in groundbreaking animation projects, notably one produced by Ed Catmull, Hand/Face (1972). The abilities of computer animation continued to expand, as more people discovered the capabilities of this new medium, eventually evolving into the CGI masterpieces that dominate our media today.

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