Masters of animation

Masters of animation

‘From the very beginning of cinematography, moving pictures were admirably placed to visually express new ideas and explore technical innovations. Consequently, these two aspects developed simultaneously (…)’ (Halas, 1987:9).

I think when working in any subject, it is important to know its foundations before you can comprehend it. Animation has always been a passion of mine. I have always considered myself lucky lucky to grow up in such an innovative and drastically changing period of animation: I got to watch the artform evolve from hand-drawn to two-dimensional, manipulated computer graphics, and witnessed the bridge from 2D to 3D as it was being built. Most of the cartoons I watched growing up are still being aired today, but the production of handdrawn features seem to have come to an almost certain stop in the industry. I think this is sad, not only because I find hand-drawn films more visually appealing, but because there is no longer any real traces of individual artistry in big-scale productions. Certain exceptions manages to survive, but in general, as productions digitalize, there is very little left of the style of animation that I grew up with.

Last year I visited the National Media Museum in Bradford. I discovered something there that I had never seen before: the zoetrope. It was a revelation to me, and I began to wonder what generations before me grew up with, and: how animation actually came to be what it was when I first came to be. I always imagined the flipbook to be the start of it all. In his book, John Halas traces the process of animation technology and development, explores the lack of critical appreciation for the animated medium, and takes a look at how newer technology puts animation at the very forefront of the development of a contemporary art movement. As Halas admits, animation was a relative newcomer within communicative arts at the time this book was written, which is why his predictions for what the medium could be, – and what it in fact is today -, become incredibly valuable to the development and history of animation.

Image source. Accessed on [22/01/2015]

The building blocks…

The invention and development of animation was bound together from many different factors, amongst which the study of optics and the development of cinematography. One of the earliest discoveries that play in is the ‘persistence of vision’, where the eye’s retina holds on to an image for a brief instant after the object of vision is gone. Thus, because the eye won’t notice the sudden shift in frame, a series of still pictures shifting in a rapid pace will blend in to one continuous image. This illusion was first discovered by the early Egyptians, and used to create children’s toys.

In the thirteenth century, an English monk named Roger Bacon (c. 1214-1292) was the first person to analyse the optical effect of shadows. At the time, light was considered to have infinite speed, whereas Bacon acknowledged it to have a quantifiable speed. Bacon’s studies of mirrors, lenses and light effects, along with his experiments and speculative mind, laid the foundation for scientific research and progress within the development of modern optics.
Bacon is often regarded the inventor of the ‘camera obscura’ (Latin, meaning ‘dark chamber’), although Ibn Alhazen (965-1040) technically described one 250 years earlier. The camera obscura’s concept dates back to Aristotle’s description of how light waves behave when projected through a small opening. Bacon translated this description into a large, darkened room with small, circular openings in one of the walls which light could shine through. An inverted image of the exterior scene would appear on the opposite wall.
Leonardo da Vinci took the camera obscura a step further through practical application. He is said to have used the device to study light, mirror reflection, and how images were formed, as well as to establish principles of the mechanism of seeing. His theoretical application on how to use the camera in relation to the human eye was a great contribution to the development of the motion picture.

Image source. Accessed on: [22/01/2015]. Da Vinci’s camera obscura method.

In 1825, Dr. John Ayrton Paris’ (1785-1856) Thaumatrope was put on the market. The Thaumatrope was a disc of card with a picture on each side, one side showing a bird, and the other a birdcage. The disc was attached to two pieces of string. When twirling the strings quickly between ones fingers the two images appeared to blend into one another, creating the illusion that the bird was in the cage.

Image source. Accessed on [22/01/2015]. Thaumatrope technical chart.

In 1832, the Belgian physicist named Joseph Plateau (1801-1883) invented the Phenakistoscope. This invention used a spinning disc with a series of sequential images in different stages of motion spaced around it. When viewed through a mirror, the images appeared to blur into one moving image. Similar devices were developed around the same time in different parts of the world. In 1834, William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877) began his photographic inventions which led to the possibility of permanent recordings of the camera obscura.

Image source. Accessed on [22/01/2015]. Phenakistoscope.

1838, Sir Charles Wheatstone (1802-1875) came out with the Stereoscope, a device which by depicting left-eye and right-eye views of the same image, gave the illusion of a single three-dimensional image.

Image source. Accessed on [22/01/2015]. Stereoscope.

In 1861, American Coleman Sellers (1827-1907) patented his Kinematoscope: a stereoscopic viewer using a paddle-wheel action to create an illusion of continuous motion, with images illustrating different key moments of the same scene mounted onto blades. The pictures were visible within a cabinet. Arguably, this was the first true photographic animation device.

Image source (image 2 of 2). Accessed on [22/01/2015]. Kinematoscope.

Edward Muybridge (1830-1904) began his photographic experiments in 1872, but his most important contribution to the moving image took place in 1880, when he laid 24 still cameras linked to trip wires onto a racetrack. Each camera would go of at the time when the horse broke through it, creating perfectly timed, still images of moving action.

Profile and rear views of elk galloping animation reference using muybridge plate 695 from animal locomotion

Image source. Accessed on [22/01/2015]. Muybridge.

Inbetween the years of 1833 and 1934, British William George Horner (1786-1837) invented the Zoetrope. The device used a strip of pictures placed around the inner surface of a spinning cylinder. Emile Reynaud (1844-1918) invented the Praxinoscope, the successor of the Zoetrope. Reynaud replaced the narrow viewing holes of the Zoetrope with an inner circle of 12 mirrors (one for each image), which allowed a less distorted view of the moving image. This allowed people to watch the motion as a group, instead of one by one.

Image source. Accessed on [22/01/2015]

By 1892, Reynaud had evolved his Praxinoscope into what he called ‘Théâtre Optique’: a larger and more elaborate version that could present content lasting up to fifteen minutes. A mirror and lens system allowed the images to be projected onto a screen. The actual images had been hand painted onto long sheets of transparent celluloid. To keep the pictures steady, Reynaud punched holes into the centre of the strips which were held up by a metal claw as they rotated in a loop.

Image source. Accessed on [22/01/2015]. ‘Théâtre Optique’.

Three years later, in 1895, the brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière successfully managed to project live-action motion pictures onto a screen. They named their invention the Cinematographe. The Cinematographe projected animated photographs of real people doing everyday things. The Lumière brothers are often regarded the first actual filmmakers, their first film being la Sortie des Usines Lumiére, which showed workers leaving a factory at the end of the day.

Image source. Accessed on [22/01/2015]

For a long time, there was little separation between animation and live-action. The common essence was movement, but from this essence emerged three categories: straight cinema (live-action), animated films and cartoons (stop-motion technique) and trick photography (live action with animated optical effects added).

 

Early filmmakers

The French Georges Méliès was a show man who recognized the moving image’s potential as an entertainment medium. His films Voyage to the Moon (1902) and The Conquest of the Pole (1912) reaches for the impossible and surreal, using special effects and dissolves to entertain his audience.

1) Image source. Accessed on [22/01/2015]. Voyage to the Moon (1902).

Image source. Accessed on [22/01/2015]. Conquest of the Pole (1912).

 

The British James Stuart Blackton experimented with the animated medium, and greatly advanced special effect technology. His first film, The Thief on the Roof (1897), started a process of bridging the gap between stop motion technique with a fixed camera and continuous motion photography with a mobile camera.
In collaboration with the expert camera operator, Albert Smith (1875-1958), he constructed the Vitagraph: a camera custom made for trick photography. The camera would first film the background for a sequence, then, the exposure for this would be wound back to the beginning to shoot the action in stop motion. For the second exposure, the objects to be photographed would be adjusted in accordance to the sequence. By controlling the amount of light allowed in, the second exposure was superimposed and layered onto the first.

Blackton’s second film was titled Humorous Phases and Funny Faces (1906). This film combined live action with animation and trick photography techniques. The film starts by showing Blackton’s own hand in live action, drawing a man and a woman on a chalkboard (assumably). When Blackton’s hand is removed, the cartoon characters reacts by rolling their eyes, made in stop motion. The male character is given a cigar, and puffs out a cloud of smoke onto the female character. The smoke was filmed in live-action, and then superimposed over the drawings. The film took over 3000 drawings to make, and footage had been exposed many times over to get the desired effects.

Image source. Accessed on [22/01/2015]. Humorous Phases and Funny Faces (1906).

This drawing-on-chalkboard[ A term I use for referral. As far as I know it is not an actual theoretical term] style of entertainment was most likely inspired by Tom Merry, a London-based newspaper cartoonist, who as we know was, in 1895, the first one to present something in this style with his portrait of Kaiser Wilhelm. The drawing-on-chalkboard style was a popular formula where the artist would speed draw something onto a chalkboard in live performance. The room would then be darkened, and the characters would appear to be brought to life as the animations were projected.

 

It is presumed that Emile Cohl (1857-1938) might have watched and been inspired by the work of Blackton. Cohl developed a light-box as an aid to the problems of accurately matching each frame to one another. What really made him stand out as a cartoonist was his sense of timing for animation. By drawing eight individual figures per second where each second consisted of sixteen frames, and organizing his frames to serve a sense of time, Cohl achieved a sense of  realistic movement and fluidity which set a standard that still applies to the film industry today. Cohl followed the conventional standard of applying white lines onto a black background, or vice versa. His early works were extremely easy and comfortable to follow, however, as he became more interested in the subconscious, of nightmares and hallucinations, his works appeared incoherent (which was probably his intention[ My own suggestion, not a statement from the author.]). Cohl’s work pretty much marks the transition of animation from a subcategory under cinematography, to a separate art form.

 

A new medium up and running

By the 1920s, the animation medium had become well established as an entertainment medium. Gertie the Dinosaur (1914) by Windsor McCay became the world’s first animated character, featuring human characteristics that allowed the audience to empathize with her. Gertie established a link between the comic strip, the vaudeville stage and animated cartoons.[ A typical vaudeville performance consists of separate, unrelated acts put together as one performance.] In 1915 McCay presented the first animated documentary film, The Sinking of the Lusitania, composed by over 25 000 drawings and far ahead of its time considering the perspective and scale of the production. Though few others were to produce detailed animations like this for another decade or so, McCay gave a strong statement of what the new medium was capable of, and all in all: something to reach for.

Image source. Accessed on [22/01/2015]. Gertie the Dinosaur (1914).

Image source. Accessed on [22/01/2015]. The Sinking of the Lusitania (1915).

It was not until this point that the technological difference between European and American animation became apparent. By 1920, animators such as John Randolph Bray (b.1879-1978, founded Bray Studios), Raoul Barre (b, 1874-1932, employed at Edison Studios) and Otto Messmer (1892-1983) were already well established in America. Felix the Cat was introduced by Pat Sullivan and animator Otto Messmer in 1919, under the title Feline Follies. These cartoons featured visual gags that were said to appeal to the ‘more intellectual’ members of the audience (Halas, 1987:22).

John Randolph Bray

Image source: A False Alarm (Bray Studios, 1920) [2:15]

felix the cat, 1925, 2;53

Image source: Felix gets the can (Pat Sullivan and Otto Messmer, 1925) [2:53]

The Out of the Inkwell series by Max Fleischer played on similar strings as Felix, but combined live action with animation. Here, the clown protagonist is animated and is born out of a live-action inkwell. A live-action artist works on him on his canvas.

0;46, out of the inkwell, 1921, 'modelling'

Image source: Modeling (Out of the Inkwell series, Max Fleischer, 1921) [0:46]

In 1933, E. C. Segar introduced Popeye the Sailor Man, produced by Max Fleischer. The character, Woody Woodpecker, was introduced seven years later by Walter Lantz (1899-1994) in the short film Knock Knock produced through Walter Lantz Productions. The Betty Boop character had her debut in Dizzy Dishers (Talkatoon series, Fleischer) in 1930, appealing to an older audience. Her debut could be seen as an early kick-off on animation age rating, as it created a differentiation in content.

i yam what i yam, popeye, 1933, 1;22

Image source: I Yam What I Yam (Popeye the Sailor Man series, E. C. Segar, 1933) [01:25]

Meanwhile in Europe, little had happened to develop animation into an industry. The Swedish animator, Victor Bergdahl (1878-1939), had a career similar to that of Windsor McCay. His animations were ahead of his time, and although his work was not given the honor it deserved at the time, he set the bars high for animation development. Bergdahl created the series The Adventures of Kapten Grogg. His first cartoon was titled Trolldrycken (‘Troll’ = ‘magic’, ‘drycken’ = ‘the drink’, translates to a magic potion or witch’s brew) which featured the effects of alcohol. The films did surprisingly well for the small market they were offered on, but the Swedish ‘high era’ of animation lasted only for a few years at this point.

Imported American animation is said to have overshadowed local production outside of the USA, simply making it too expensive for animators to compete.

‘Social changes in the USSR, for instance, stimulated their live-action film industry to become one of the leading lights of motion pictures, but conditions were not favourable for animation and that part of their film industry did not get started until the mid-twenties’ (Halas, 1987:24)

During the mid twenties, animation in Europe began to brew back up. The sisters Valentina and Sinaida Brumberg expanded Sovjet animation with a minimum of one film per year, the first one being China on Fire (1925). The Sovjet Ivanov-Vano, these days known as the Patriarch of Sovjet animation, assisted in the Brumberg sisters’ first film, and released his own in premiere in 1927, titled Ice Rink. Russian animators began animating their own cultures tales and fables.

 wonderful journey of kapten grogg, 196,  2;55

Image source: Wonderful Journey of Kapten Grogg (The Adventures of Kapten Grogg series, Victor Bergdahl,  1916) [2:55]

ice rink, 3;55

Image source: Ice Rink (Valentina Brumberg and Sinaida Brumberg, 1927) [3:55]

The difference of development in animation between Europe and the USA might be separated as the technical and the aesthetic. Europeans applied a theoretical approach, whereas Americans applied a practical one. The Europeans wanted to present new ideas based on an aesthetic approach rather than a technical one. The Bauhaus Design Institute’s ambition was to unify the disciplines of architecture, design, theatre and film. This, and the contemporary influence of the abstract art movement, as well as the discovery of the montage and development of cross-fades and dissolves, all added up to the birth of the non-figurative, abstract cartoon. Among the artists in this genre were the Swedish Viking Eggeling (1880-1925), the French Francis Picabia (1879-1953) and the German-American Oscar Fischinger (1900-1967). The focus in their films were motion dynamics.

motion dialogue, viking eggelund, 1;21 motion dialogue, viking eggelund, 1;22 motion dialogue, viking eggelund, 1;23

Image(s) source: Motion Dialogue (Viking Eggeling, 1922) [1:21, 1:22, 1:23]

 

In spite of being behind on cartoon technology, Europeans were early in creating full animation features. The Italians Segundo de Chomon and Giovanni Pastrone made several films combining animation, puppetry and live-action. The Italian-born cartoonist Quirino Cristiani produced El Apastol (1917). The German art student, Lotte Reiniger, used paper cut-outs to animate her figures as silhouettes, creating a greater contrast than by drawing them. In 1926 she released The Adventures of Prince Achmed, her first full-length animated feature.

 

The difference of development in animation between Europe and the USA might be separated as the technical and the aesthetic. Europeans applied a theoretical approach, whereas Americans applied a practical one. The Europeans wanted to present new ideas based on an aesthetic approach rather than a technical one. The Bauhaus Design Institute’s ambition was to unify the disciplines of architecture, design, theatre and film. This, and the contemporary influence of the abstract art movement, as well as the discovery of the montage and development of cross-fades and dissolves, all added up to the birth of the non-figurative, abstract cartoon. Among the artists in this genre were the Swedish Viking Eggeling (1880-1925), the French Francis Picabia (1879-1953) and the German-American Oscar Fischinger (1900-1967). The focus in their films were motion dynamics.

 

In spite of being behind on cartoon technology, Europeans were early in creating full animation features. The Italians Segundo de Chomon and Giovanni Pastrone made several films combining animation, puppetry and live-action. The Italian-born cartoonist Quirino Cristiani produced El Apastol (1917). The German art student, Lotte Reiniger, used paper cut-outs to animate her figures as silhouettes, creating a greater contrast than by drawing them. In 1926 she released The Adventures of Prince Achmed, her first full-length animated feature.

Meanwhile in America, The Golden Age of animation was in full bloom. The invention of a synchronized soundtrack offered an ideal way of improvising characteristics. Rather than being powered by science, it was powered by the desire for entertainment. In 1923, The Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio was founded, which by 1929 became the Walt Disney Productions. The studio worked exclusively with shorts until the start of pre-production for their first animated full-length feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). Disney’s main character, Mickey Mouse, received a popularity level reaching even higher than Felix the Cat, and established Disney as synonymous with popular and reliable family entertainment.

The Disney studio was not the first to produce an animated feature, but it was the first fully animated, hand-drawn film, and the first animated feature in colour. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs raised the bars for animation to a whole other level, employing timing from live-action rather than for cartoons, and with a sophisticated soundtrack. Another aspect was that each character was given a trait. One trait, of course, as one-sided stereotypes were still widely in use. Many other American companies followed to produce full-length animations, and it is argued that the main drawback from reaching the level of popularity that Disney got was not lack of artist skills or technology, but of storytelling.

One speculates that a major reason between the Disney studio’s success was the careful planning and pre-production work for each cartoon. Although historians speculate whether Windsor McCay might have invented the storyboard, Disney was the earliest on record to apply it in production planning.
Another, more evident reason, for the studio’s success, was the combination of Walt Disney’s skills in storytelling, Roy Disney’s business skills, and the artistry and skills of their Chief Animator, Ub Iwerks. Iwerks was the one who figured out how to extend the multiplane photographic technique to, for the first time in animation history, produce three-dimensional backgrounds for animated films. This technique was tested out in The Old Mill (1937) and then applied to the full-length feature, Fantasia (1940).

By the 1950s, the Disney studios had developed a recognizable style for their productions, with the visual emphasis leaning towards ‘cute-but-realistic’ (Halas, 1987:28).

By the 1950s, animation had become a real profession. Animation proved to function as a psychological relief where the audience could disappear into a world without consequences: Characters could hurt or be hurt, but there would be no real impact. Another successful studio established at the time was the Van Beuren Studio (1930), which in 1934 became the Warner Studio. The studio produced a range of extremely popular series, such as Tom & Jerry (1937-1962) and Looney Tunes (1930-1969).

During World War II, both American and European studios was appointed to create propaganda films for their sides. The Disney Studio produced instruction videos for the Navy, and the feature, Victory Through Air Power (1943) to boost American morals. Britain’s Ministry of Information recruited the studio, Halas & Batchelor, to produce films that would focus on aspects of war effort, such as recycling scrap metal.

The full feature boom

In 1940, Disney released Fantasia, highly inspired by European influences at the time. The British studio, Halas & Batchelor, produced Animal Farm (1954), based of George Orwell’s same-titled written work. The tackling of such a serious story was new to full-length features, and was potentially as big of a step as McCay’s 1915 documentary mentioned earlier.

Another, more evident reason, for the studio’s success, was the combination of Walt Disney’s skills in storytelling, Roy Disney’s business skills, and the artistry and skills of their Chief Animator, Ub Iwerks. Iwerks was the one who figured out how to extend the multiplane photographic technique to, for the first time in animation history, produce three-dimensional backgrounds for animated films. This technique was tested out in The Old Mill (1937) and then applied to the full-length feature, Fantasia (1940). By the 1950s, the Disney studios had developed a recognizable style for their productions, with the visual emphasis leaning towards ‘cute-but-realistic’ (Halas, 1987:28).

Personally, I would have loved to experience the era when all the ‘tropes’ were invented. It seems similar to when cell phones were first introduced. I remember being shocked the first time I saw someone talking into a phone with no charging station in sight. Then, text messages came, then games, then the colour screen, and the camera, and then wifi, and skype, and applications, and it keeps going! Imagine seeing all these new inventions coming to life in the golden age of animation. I think, as well, in relation to marketing, that maybe it would be an interesting idea to market new films with Zoetrope toys and such. Once something gets so outdated that it fades from our minds, I think it will seem new and exiting when revived.