Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Examples
Animated Films are ones in which individual drawings, paintings, or illustrations are photographed frame by frame (stop-frame cinematography). Usually, each frame differs slightly from the one preceding it, giving the illusion of movement when frames are projected in rapid succession at 24 frames per second. The earliest cinema animation was composed of frame-by-frame, hand-drawn images. When combined with movement, the illustrator's two-dimensional static art came alive and created pure and imaginative cinematic images - animals and other inanimate objects could become evil villains or heroes.
Animations are not a strictly-defined genre category, but rather a film technique, although they often contain genre-like elements. Animation, fairy tales, and stop-motion films often appeal to children, but it would marginalize animations to view them only as "children's entertainment." Animated films are often directed to, or appeal most to children, but easily can be enjoyed by all. See section on children's-family films.
Also see this website's related sections on Pixar-Disney Animations, Visual and Special Effects Milestones in Cinematic History as well as AFI's 10 Top 10 - The Top 10 Animated Films.
The inventor of the viewing device called a praxinoscope (1877) , French scientist Charles-Emile Reynaud, also created a large-scale system called Theatre Optique (1888) which could take a strip of pictures or images and project them onto a screen. He demonstrated his system in 1892 for Paris' Musee Grevin - it was the first instance of projected animated cartoon films (the entire triple-bill showing was called Pantomimes Lumineuses), with three short films that he had produced: in order:
To create the animations, individually-created images were painted directly onto the frames of a flexible strip of transparent gelatine (with film perforations on the edges), and run through his projection system. The three animated films lasted about 12-15 minutes each. Depending upon one's definition of terms, some consider Pauvre Pierrot the oldest-surviving animated film ever made and publically broadcast.
The predecessor of early film animation was the newspaper comic strips of the 1890s. Historically and technically, the first animated film (in other words, the earliest animated film ever made on standard motion-picture film) was Humorous Phases of Funny Faces (1906) by newspaper cartoonist J. Stuart Blackton, one of the co-founders of the Vitagraph Company. It was the earliest surviving example of an animated film. It was the first cartoon to use the single frame method, and was projected at 20 frames per second. In the film, a cartoonist's line drawings of two faces were 'animated' (or came to life) on a blackboard. The two faces smiled and winked, and the cigar-smoking man blew smoke in the lady's face; also, a circus clown led a small dog to jump through a hoop.
This was soon followed by the first fully-animated film - Emile Cohl's Fantasmagorie (1908, Fr.), which consisted solely of simple line drawings (of a clown-like stick figure) that blended, transformed or fluidly morphed from one image into another.
Winsor McCay ("America's Greatest Cartoonist"):
New York Herald comic-strip animator and sketch artist Winsor McCay (1869-1934) produced a string of comic strips from 1904-1911, his three best being Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend, Little Sammy Sneeze, and Little Nemo in Slumberland (from October 15, 1905 to July 23, 1911). Although McCay wasn't the first to create a cartoon animation, he nonetheless helped to define the new industry. He was the first to establish the technical method of animating graphics. His first animation attempt used the popular characters from his comic strip (and became part of his own vaudeville act): Little Nemo in Slumberland (1911) (with 4,000 hand-drawn frames), followed by How a Mosquito Operates (1912) (with 6,000 frames).
His first prominent, successful and realistic cartoon character or star was a brontosaurus named Gertie in Gertie the Dinosaur (1914) (with 10,000 drawings, backgrounds included), again presented as part of his act. In fact, McCay created the "interactive" illusion of walking into the animation by first disappearing behind the screen, reappearing on-screen!, stepping on Gertie's mouth, and then climbing onto Gertie's back for a ride - an astonishing feat! It was the earliest example of combined 'live action' and animation, and the first "interactive" animated cartoon. Some consider it the first successful, fully animated cartoon - it premiered in February 1914 at the Palace Theatre in Chicago.
McCay's 12-minute propagandistic, documentary-style The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918), an animation landmark, was the first serious re-enactment of an historical event - the torpedoing of the RMS Lusitania by a German U-boat on May 7, 1915, resulting in the loss of almost 2,000 passengers. It was one of the earliest films to utilize cel animation.
Soviet animator (W)ladislaw Starewicz created the first 3-D, stop-motion narratives in two early films with animated insects: The Grasshopper and the Ant (1911) and The Cameraman's Revenge (1911). And John Randolph Bray's first animated film, The Artist's Dream(s) (1913) (aka The Dachshund and the Sausage), the first animated cartoon made in the U.S. by modern techniques was the first to use 'cels' - transparent drawings laid over a fixed background.
Felix the Cat: First Appearance in 1919
The first animated character that attained superstar status (and was anthropomorphic) during the silent era was the mischievous Felix the Cat, in Pat Sullivan Studios. He was inspired by Kipling's The Cat That Walked By Himself in the Just So Stories published in 1902.
Originated by young animator Otto Messmer, the (unnamed) cat's first two cartoons were the five-minute Feline Follies (1919) and Musical Mews (1919), when Felix was known only as "Master Tom." Feline Follies was a segment of the Paramount Magazine, a semi-weekly compilation of short film segments that included animated cartoons. By the third Felix cartoon, The Adventures of Felix (1919), Felix took his permanent name. For the first few years, the Felix cartoons were distributed by Paramount Pictures, and then by M.J. Winkler. Messmer directed and animated more than 175 Felix cartoons in the years 1919 through 1929. Felix was the first character to be widely merchandised. The last Felix the Cat cartoon, The Last Life (1928), was due to the advent of the talkies and the success of Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse. Messmer continued with his comic strip (begun in 1923) until 1966.
First Color Cartoon:
Producer John Randolph Bray's (and Bray Picture Corporation's) The Debut of Thomas Cat (1920) has often been credited as the first color cartoon, using the expensive Brewster Natural Color Process (a 2-emulsion color process), an unsuccessful precursor of Technicolor. This was the first animated short genuinely made in color using color film. Drawings were made on transparent celluloid and painted on the reverse, then photographed with a two-color camera. However, some sources have claimed that the Natural Colour Kinematograph Company's In Gollywog Land (1912, UK) was the earliest, using Kinemacolor.
First Animated Feature:
The little-known but pioneering, oldest-surviving feature-length animated film that can be verified (with silhouette animation techniques and color tinting) was released by German film-maker and avante-garde artist Lotte Reiniger, The Adventures of Prince Achmed (aka Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed) (1926, Germ.), based on the stories from the Arabian Nights. Reiniger's achievement is often brushed aside, due to the fact that the animations were silhouetted, used paper cut-outs, and they were done in Germany. And the rarely-seen prints that exist have lost much of their original quality. However, the film was very innovative -- it used multi-plane camera techniques and experimented with wax and sand on the film stock.
Early Walt Disney:
A classic animator in the early days of cinema was Walt Disney, originally an advertising cartoonist at the Kansas City Film Ad Company, who initially experimented with combining animated and live-action films. The very first films he made himself at his own animation studio in Kansas City were short cartoons called Newman Laugh-O-Grams, such as Little Red Riding Hood (1922) - the first Walt Disney cartoon, and the Four Musicians of Bremen (1922).
His first successful silent cartoons (from 1923-1927), after relocating and setting up his own studio in Los Angeles (the Disney Brothers Studio) were a series of shorts (56 episodes) called Alice Comedies (or Alice in Cartoonland) that debuted in 1924 with Alice's Day at Sea (1924). Disney's Alice cartoons placed a live-action title character (Alice) into an animated Wonderland world. Soon after, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit became Disney's first successful animal star in a 26-cartoon series distributed by Universal beginning in 1927. Oswald was the first Disney character to be merchandized. Oswald appeared in a number of cartoon shorts, such as: Trolley Troubles (1927) and Poor Papa (1927). Disney produced about two dozen of the silent, black and white Oswald cartoons from 1927-1928 until forced to give up the character to Walter Lantz. He moved onto another memorable character - first named Mortimer Mouse - or Mickey Mouse (looking like Oswald with his ears cut off) in 1928.
The Debut of Mickey Mouse:
In 1928, Disney Studios' chief animator Ub Iwerks (1901-1971) developed a new character from a figure known as Mortimer Mouse, a crudely-drawn or sketched, rodent-like 'Mickey Mouse' - slightly similar to Felix the Cat. [Mickey Mouse was never a comic strip character before he became a cartoon star.] The first Mickey Mouse cartoon was released on May 15, 1928: Plane Crazy (1928) in which Mickey, while impressing Minnie, imitated aviator Charles Lindbergh. The second was Steamboat Willie (1928), first released (on a limited basis) on July 29, 1928, with Mickey as a roustabout on Pegleg Pete's river steamer, but without his trademark white gloves. The third was The Gallopin' Gaucho (1928) released on August 2, 1928. (These early films were soon re-worked and re-released with sound - with electrifying results.)
To help make Mickey stand out from other cartoon characters at the dawn of the talkies, the 7-minute Steamboat Willie (1928) was re-released on November 18, 1928 with sound and premiered at the 79th Street Colony Theatre in New York - it was the first cartoon with post-produced synchronized soundtrack (of music, dialogue, and sound effects) and is considered Mickey Mouse's screen debut performance and birthdate. Animated star Mickey (with Minnie) was redrawn with shoes and white, four-fingered gloves. [The character was a take-off based upon Buster Keaton's Steamboat Bill (1928). ] It was a landmark film and a big hit - the first sound cartoon to be a major hit - leading to many more Mickey Mouse films during the late 1920s and 1930s. Strangely, Mickey's first sound cartoon didn't include Mickey's voice -- he didn't speak until his ninth short, The Karnival Kid (1929) when he said the words: "Hot dogs!" [Walt's voice was used for Mickey.] Walt Disney was fast becoming the most influential pioneer in the field of character-based cel animation, through his shrewd oversight of production.
The Fleischer Brothers: Inventors, Cartoon Makers
At the same time, serious rivals to Disney's animation production came from the Fleischers (Max, Dave, Joe, and Lou). They were already making technical innovations that would revolutionize the art of animation. In 1915, Max Fleischer invented the rotoscope (patented in 1917) to streamline the frame-by-frame copying process - it was a device used to overlay drawings on live-action film. The Fleischers were also pioneering the use of 3-D animation landscapes, and produced the hour-long Einstein's Theory of Relativity (1923), the first feature animation (a documentary).
In 1919, Max Fleischer created a series known as Out of the Inkwell, which starred Koko the Clown (see further below). After working for John Bray for two years, the brothers left him and formed their own studio in 1921 - dubbed Inkwell Studios, and titled their short subjects and animations Out of the Inkwell Films. In 1923 when they expanded, Max founded the Red Seal Distribution Company to circulate their animated films (or cartoons) and shorts. One animation series was composed of 36 short, 3-4 minute films called Ko-Ko Song Car-Tunes (1924-1926). The Red Seal company and Out of the Inkwell Films only lasted for two years until 1926, when they went broke, and Paramount Pictures took over distribution. (In 1929, Max started a new studio on Long Island, named Fleischer Studios, and still in a relationship with Paramount.)
The Ko-Ko Song Car-Tunes were the first animated films (cartoons), some of which featured a synchronized soundtrack (the first animated films with sound) - the precursors to karaoke, that used the Lee DeForest Phonofilm sound-on-film process. They were the first talking cartoons - even pre-dating Disney's Steamboat Willie (1928) - see above. They were also the first audience participation films, with sing-along lyrics and a 'bouncing-ball' helper. The gimmick was a bouncing ball atop the lyrics on screen, to help audiences follow along with the song.
Nineteen of the 36 short films were released in both silent and sound versions. Sound versions are in red in the chart below. The first cartoon was Oh, Mabel (1924) - it began with Ko-Ko the Clown jumping out of an inkwell and running through a few hijinks before the song Oh Mabel. The songs ranged from contemporary tunes to old-time favorites. In My Old Kentucky Home (1926), an early attempt at synchronizing animation with sound, Bimbo said to the audience: "Follow the ball and join in everybody."
Fleischer Studios was also famous for the following characters:
Fleischer Studios' Two Feature Films:
Two feature-length animations with whimsical characters and advanced animation techniques by the Fleischers deserve mention, although the Fleischers are better-remembered for their shorts than for their only two features:
As a final footnote, the struggling and insolvent Fleischer Studios was acquired by Paramount Pictures in 1942. The studio was restructured and renamed Famous Studios, and returned to New York after being in Florida since 1938. Work continued on the Popeye and Superman series. The studio also produced cartoons based on Harvey Comics characters, including over two dozen Little Lulu (Moppet) cartoons in the 40s, and over 50 Casper the Friendly Ghost cartoons that stretched into the 1950s (Casper made his debut in Izzy Sparber's cartoon short The Friendly Ghost (1945)).
[Little-known fact: Max Fleischer was the father of Richard Fleischer, the director of Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), Fantastic Voyage (1966), Doctor Dolittle (1967) and Soylent Green (1973).]