Animation Origins

There have been early images expressing “motion” since Prehistoric cave paintings, where the animals will have multiple ghostly legs to give a sense of the creature’s limbs in motion while running, or multiple ghostly heads as if it were moving in to bite it’s prey. Though people will interpret “animation” today as a series of moving pictures in film, which is a fairly modern invention thanks to camera technology. However, the oldest example of animation would actually be around 5,200 years old. The ancient Iranian earthenware bowl discovered in the 1970’s has a series of 5 images of a goat around the outside of the bowl, and when each picture is read as the bowl is spun around, the goat appears to be jumping and eating from a plant.

Latin for animation is “breath of life”. So what is animation? For every practitioner, there is an individual definition of what animation really is and it’s relation to culture. Steven Mill Hauser quoted in his book “Little Kingdom”, that animation is “a deeply ambiguous life, a conjurer’s trick, a crafty illusion based on an accidental property of the retina, which retained an image for a fraction of a second after the image was no longer present.” The retina captures and holds onto an image for one-tenth of a second, before even the next image presented is even registered by our brains. If a succession of images is flashed before our eyes, it creates an illusion of movement. This principle , the persistence of vision, was discovered by the Greek astronomer Ptolemy in 130 A.D. Throughout history we have been able to discover more about how the eye and the brain functions, and how we perceive light and darkness.

Early examples of animation are flick-books, where the pages “flash” an image and the speed is controlled by how quickly your thumb flicks through the pages. A thaumatrope (Greek=wonder turner) is a basic toy that consists of a card disk tied between two strings. One side of the disk (for example) will contain an image of a bird and the other a cage and twisting the two strings quickly together with your fingers will make the disk spin, creating an illusion that the bird is inside the cage. In 1834 the Zoetrope was invented by W. G. Horner, where a series of images are placed inside a drum with windows cut into the outer wall so that when you look into the drum and spin it around , a “flashing” of the images inside creates the illusion of movement. Modern examples of Zoetropes are the stunning 3D model zoetrope created by Studio Ghibli and by Pixar. Each model is created with a slight difference, just like how an image in a zoetrope would be, and are placed on a moving chandelier and spun around. The figures begin to “move” before your eyes when a flashing light is activated (one tenth of a second for the retina to capture), as if it were the windows of a traditional zoetrope.

When photography was invented, the ability to record a moment in time was massive. Being able to prove evidence of situations in moments of time to those who were not involved became possible. In 1872, Eadweard Muybridge was able to answer the question of whether all four of a horse’s legs lift off the ground at once while they run: “he wanted to prove that a horse lifted all four feet off the ground when it trotted – something that had evaded human perception for millennia” ( photographs of each individual movement were needed for the experiment to work, to give a sense of fluidity as the stage when a horses legs could all be lifted off the ground was unknown.

Funded by the governor of California, Leland Stanford, Muybridge set up an installation of 24 cameras in a row, with shutters that were activated by the horse itself as it ran past, creating a series of photographs showing the horse’s exact leg movements.

Many believed the images were nothing but a hoax. A zoopraxiscope (invented by Muybridge in 1879) was required to animate the sequence of photographs to prove the motion of a horse lifting all of its legs while running was infact true. The discovery was revolutionary. A zoopraxiscope is an early form of displaying motion pictures, similar to a Zoetrope but the images were on a transparent film and could be projected onto a screen, to allow more than one person to view the clip.

Tomas Edison invented the Kinetoscope in 1888 were the film displayed could go on for much longer (a projecting Kinescope was invented in 1912 to be viewed by an audience). The Kinetoscope camera opened the doors to the ability to film drawings. “Lightning sketches” was were an artist drew on an easel. The camera allowed this to be recorded and for little “tricks” to be performed that cannot be done in front of a live audience such as the artist interacting with the cartoon , for example taking a glass from the cartoon and drinking it himself, as seen in James Stuart Blackton’s “The Enchanted Drawing”(1900): “the artist rapidly draws on the paper a clever sketch of a bottle of a wine and goblet, and then, to the surprise of all, actually removes them from the paper on which they were drawn” (A quote from The Edison catalogue, from “Emile Cohl, Caricature and Film” by Donald Crafton) the paper is merely torn away to reveal a drawing underneath that no longer has the drawings of the bottle and goblet, but as this is not seen by the viewer, so it creates an illusion that the artist had taken them himself. A clichéd trick, but was successful at the time.

Émile Cohl is well known for being a film-maker and the father of cartoon films. The interest to record drawings was filling the gaps that live-action could not accomplish, such as “recording” imaginary dream-like scenarios that cannot be performed on a stage. The film “Fantasmagorie”(1908) is a great example of a cartoon dream sequence. This film was tiresome to achieve: “the film contained 1,872 drawings and had taken a year to complete” (Donald Crafton: “Emile Cohl, Caricature and Film”)even if the drawings took no longer than a few months to make, the production would have taken longer and without the technology of line testers and the slow process of early photography, the process would have been a long one.

However, the drawings are just stick-men characters and the physics of the characters movements are crude.  Winsor McCay appeared in the spotlight and was the first “Classical” artist to arrive in animation, whereas the artwork in animation until this point was not very inspiring. He had originally created illustrations in comics and posters. Vaudeville acts (more than one type of an act on a stage)were common during this time as sound in film was not yet possible, yet people wanted to experience the new film technology. McCay’s first animation experiment was “Gertie the dinosaur”(1914) were he stood before the audience in live-action and interacted with his animation of a dinosaur on the screen.  The dinosaur had its own personality, which was something previous animations failed to create. The vaudeville act was like a circus performance that would be done with animals, but instead with an extinct creature. Gertie would respond to commands and do tricks for McCay, which was creative as it appeared as if they were co-operating together. At the end of the film, he stands with a whip and is moved on top of the projector, creating an illusion that makes it appear as if he was riding the Gertie off the stage.

Most animations created were merely experiments with the new technology and were typically humorous in nature. However, as WW1 began, most animations from this time onwards were created for propaganda and training videos. For the first time documentaries made through animation allowed viewers to see reconstructed war-time events for themselves that were not filmed on sight and being able to see videos in this nature would have been very emotional for the viewer.



Crafton, Donald  (1990) Emile Cohl, Caricature and Film. Princeton University Press  (p121, p128)



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