Evolution of Animation: Part One – The Early Years

While I do love reviewing films, I must admit that my motivation to do so from home has started to sag, resulting in me branching out into writing more about other subjects within the film world, the success of my Harry Potter and Robin Williams list formats tells me that there is an audience for that, but I thought I’d mix it up this time, to differentiate myself from every other ‘list’ site on the world wide web.

Animation is a subject I’ve gone to bat for on many an occasion, and subsequently, it’s a subject I have studied closely over the last few years, both academically and in my free time. It’s a subject with many layers and interesting stories surrounding it, and in this series, I aim to cover the basics, the stories of how the genre came to be, and its trials and tribulations over more than a century. It will not be exhaustive, firstly because an exhaustive account would take many months if not years, and may not be interesting to read for a casual reader, and secondly, and most selfishly, I may one day write about this subject in my studies, and I don’t want to be accused of copying old work.

Nowadays, it is not uncommon for an animated film to pass one billion dollars in box office revenue, to date, ten films have made it into the nine-figure revenue ballpark. Which with the hindsight of where animation started is remarkable, as for many years, the animation was merely a side-show, a short feature before the main feature, not to say they weren’t successful, and indeed, many people went to the cinema to see these shorts just as much as the features after them, but we get ahead of ourselves.

Drawings made to portray movement have been around for as long as there has been art, tracing right back to palaeolithic cave drawings there have been examples of sequential artworks arranged in such a way that mirrors the process of movement, animals would be painted with multiple limbs as if to represent its fast movement, so it can be argued that the primordial soup that birthed animation has existed for millions of years. This is, of course, an arguable point, as these drawings have very little in common with how animation is actually drawn, but it shows the earliest human attempts to simulate lifelike activities through drawing.

There are many early ancestors to what we now know as animation, from rotating Chinese lamps that portray shadows of galloping horses to the ‘Magic Lantern’ invented by Christiaan Huygens, which incorporated drawings on slides of glass to give the illusion of people, or objects, moving.

The earliest example of what we would now recognise as an animated film was first publically shown by Charles-Émile Reynaud (who had previously invented a device called a ‘praxinoscope’ which could also be considered an early form of animation) titled Pauvre Pierrot, it was shown using a device called Théâtre Optique, an invention that used hand-painted slides of glass, in a much similar way to how animation would be made for many decades to come.

A big name in early animation history is one Winsor McCay, a vaudeville performer and cartoonist, whose film Little Nemo (no relation to Disney/Pixar’s clownfish character) added a lot more depth to animation, he would later further exemplify his abilities with films such as Gertie the Dinosaur, which he would use in his vaudeville act, seemingly interacting with the titular dinosaur, in what must have been a revolutionary innovation at the time.

Arguably, McCay’s most historically significant work was his 1918 propaganda film The Sinking of the Lusitania, possibly the first animated documentary, it portrays the titular ship being sunk by a German u-boat, the event that was the catalyst for America’s involvement in the First World War.

It was one of the longest animation works of its time, clocking in at twelve minutes, at a time when the average was 5-7 minutes, the film took 22 months to complete and utilised the new cel-based method of drawing that would be prevealnat in animation for many years, it is arguably the earliest animated work of historical importance beyond the sphere of film itself, as an early example of how animation can be used as propaganda, something that would be taken advantage of the next time the world was at war.

It was around this time that some of the studios that would become synonymous with the art form started to pop up, most significant of which was Fleischer Studios, headed by Max Fleischer, from whom the studio took its name.

Max, and his studio, were most significant to the over-arching narrative because of his invention the Rotoscope, which allowed live-action recordings to be easily used as reference point for more realistic animation, an early success of Rotoscoping was the Out of the Inkwell series that ran between the years of 1921 and 1925, and also the character of Koko the Clown, portrayed by Max’s brother Dave.

As the 20’s rolled on, animation was typified by a series of tentpole recurring characters, chief among these were the aforementioned Koko, as well as Felix the Cat, and Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.

Felix in particular is one of the best examples of early animation, at one time one of the most recognisable characters in the world, and the first animated character to be merchandised, he belonged to Pat Sullivan Studios (and were distributed by Paramount) and is an example of an early lack of regulation when it came to character authorship.

You see, at this time, no matter who originally drew the character (in the case of Felix, it was Otto Messmer), the studio head got the credit for the work, and inevitably, the rights of the character, this proves a key catalyst for introducing arguably the biggest player in animation history.

In Hollywood, another character was gaining popularity, a character I mentioned earlier as an example of ‘tentpole’ cartoon characters. His name was Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, and unbeknownst to anyone at the time, his disgruntled creator who had just lost the rights to his creation, and much of his staff, would go on to build an empire of such proportions that his name would be forever linked with the genre of animation.

After a deal to continue the Oswald series fell through, Charles Mintz took ownership of the character, leaving its creator without his most familiar character, and all but one of his key co-creators. This mans name? Walter Elias Disney…


Next time in ‘Evolution of Animation’ I’ll take a look at the rise of Walt Disney, Mickey Mouse, and the first feature-length animated films…

2 thoughts on “Evolution of Animation: Part One – The Early Years

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 )

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

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.