ByTom Cox, writer at
Staff writer for Moviepilot. Tweet me @thomascox500
Tom Cox

Zootopia is a visual marvel. They have created a world as alive as our own, with even more detail in some areas, from the hairs to the clouds. The tech formulated specially for the Disney feature has spiralled into abstract heights - the giraffe alone has nine million hairs. When you consider a human head has only 20,000 hairs on average, it's clear animators are pushing far beyond the boundaries of reality.

Number one for hairiness
Number one for hairiness

But where did the computer-generated animation come from? To best understand how animation works today it's helpful to consider the core historical landmarks behind non-photographic moving images.

Old as hell

Very old goats: Iran 3,000 BC
Very old goats: Iran 3,000 BC

Animation predates the dinosaurs. Almost. It may be defined as the illusion of motion of inanimate things - drawings, models or computer imagery. And it's really old.

The idea of making the inanimate move has existed for as long as humans have - it's embedded deep in our psyche. In literature there are ancient accounts of people fiddling with moving inanimate things. Pygmalion of Greek mythology got the hots for one of his sexy sculpture babes and tried to bring it to life. There are also some ancient Chinese records about contraptions that gave the impression of moving figures.

The first to appear physically were prehistoric cave paintings, which can be up to 2.6 million years old. These basic works try to convey motion by sketching animals with multiple legs.

The first remnant still in existence is believed to be a 5,200-year-old bowl in Iran. The pottery is painted with goats jumping in a circle. Then came Leonardo da Vinci's "Vitruvian Man" in 1500 AD drawing multiple limbs to imply movement.

17th century: The Magic Lantern

Lantern from 1870 | Source: Bukowskis
Lantern from 1870 | Source: Bukowskis

This 17th-century European creation bounced the light of candles off a mirror through painted glass onto a white wall. Mechanical slides changed between two images quick enough to create the illusion the image was moving.

They were also known as "lanterns of fright" as people believed these moving images to have been created by the devil. They were used by magicians or people pretending to be religious leaders to amaze and frighten.

1832-'77: You spin me round round baby right round

Phenakistoscope | Source: CC
Phenakistoscope | Source: CC

Three inventions came in relatively quick succession from 1832 to 1877, all using a spinning movement to give multiple images stuck around a wheel the illusion of motion. These were called the phenakistoscope (Belgium), zoetrope (Britain) and praxinoscope (France).

The essential component of animation, that multiple similar images seen quickly appear to move, was therefore invented. They predated photographic film by almost half a century - with the first movie being The Race Horse in 1878.

1868: The Flipper

Animation spread quickly with the advent of the flip book mass-producing moving images for the first time with in 1868 in England. From the outset animation was geared towards children, but they also catered for adults.

The first book was produced in Britain in 1868. It was so influential some Disney film begin with their production logo showing a flip book. They continue to be used for marketing today.

1906: 'Humorous Phases of Funny Faces'

This 3-minute cartoon by an American named J. Stuart Blackton uses chalk drawings to show scenes including a clown playing with a hat and a dog jumping through a hoop. The surrealist element to the warped faces in this first animation shows how animation naturally lends itself to fantastical stories.

The short movie used stop-motion and cutout animation, changing the position of pieces of card and drawing lines between each still. Its speed is 20 frames per second. The number in movies today is up to 300.

1908: 'Fantasmagorie'


French artist Émile Cohl created what is considered to be the first animated movie using now-traditional animation methods of hand-drawing each frame. A stick figure morphs into a series of objects. Cohl drew each frame onto paper then shot it with a negative film.

Cel animation

This process was patented by two Americans in 1914. It involved drawing on transparent sheets (cels) and overlaying them so some parts didn't require re-drawing for each frame.

1914: 'Gertie the Dinosaur'

Gertie is the grandmother of Animation. Though her creator had made two short films before, this was the first animated short film with a likeable character and detailed background. Created by newspaper cartoonist Winsor McCay, the silent film was used in his theatre act. McCay would pretend to command the playful dinosaur into doing tricks and throwing a mammoth in a lake.

McCay drew thousands of frames on 17x22cm rice paper. He was stringent with accuracy and detail: checking with museums how the dinosaur should move and making the ground sag beneath its feet.

Tracing over reality

The American Fleischer brothers invented rotoscoping in 1918, which enabled animators to trace over footage frame-by-frame. Originally, recorded live-action images were projected onto a frosted panel, onto which a new image could be traced.

The technique is still used today. Modern examples include the first three Star Wars films - where sticks held by actors were traced over to create lightsabers.

1919: Felix the Cat

This kitty was the first animated movie star, a figure whose surreal suituations and humorous activity earned him popularity that remains strong to this day as a pop culture icon. He debuted in Paramount Pictures in a short entitled Feline Follies directed by Otto Messmer. He was silent at the time, only beginning to speak in the 'talkie' toons in 1929.

1928: 'Steamboat Willie'

It wasn't until 1928 that cartoon giants Mickey and Minnie Mouse were unleashed on the world, debuting in this black-and-white movie for the first fully synchronised sound cartoon - including a recorded soundtrack.

Walt Disney had an audience viewing with live sounds to test whether animation could work with audio. The make-shift instruments included pots, pans, bowls, and whistles. Walt himself provided the dialogue. He later described the session:

The effect on our little audience was nothing less than electric. They responded almost instinctively to this union of sound and motion. I thought they were kidding me. So they put me in the audience and ran the action again. It was terrible, but it was wonderful!

Mickey was the first notable success for Walt Disney, which had been founded in Los Angeles five years before. Since then Walt has hauled in 22 Oscars and seven Emmys. Mickey ushered in 'The Golden Age' of American animation.

1930s - 1950s: The Golden Age

Shake ya ass
Shake ya ass

This glittering period introduced the big guns: Donald Duck, Bugs Bunny, Betty Boop, Tom and Jerry, Woody Woodpecker, and Popeye from studios including Warner Bros, MGM and Fleischer as well as Disney.

The 'storyboarding' process was invented by Disney around the time of Three Little Pigs in 1933: pictures planning out a motion picture. It evolved from pinning drawings up side-by-side on a notice board to show a story. The technique became fundamental to the development of animation.

Three-colour process

Three-strip camera
Three-strip camera

In 1932 Disney was an early adopter of a colouring, the 'three-strip' Technicolor process. The studio had an exclusive contract of the process for Silly Symphonies cartoon Flowers and Trees, scoring great success. Three-strip had been used earlier for films like The Wizard of Oz but never for animation.

1937: 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs'

This age-old fairytale was the first American feature-length hand-drawn animation. At the time it was an enormous gamble with critics predicting it would ruin the Walt Disney studio. Walt even had to mortgage his house to help finance the total production costs of $1.4 million.

However, it was a gigantic success - pulling in almost 300 times its budget worldwide with $418 million won from the story of the lonely princess and the wicked queen. It took four years to develop, and was entirely hand-drawn, using cel animation and lots of experimentation. Animating the 12 dwarfs simultaneously was particularly challenging.

1960s: TV generation

Fred doing his thing
Fred doing his thing

The birth of color TV in America enabled color cartoons for the first time. After Huckleberry Hound was released in 1958 by Hanna-Barbera, the studio let loose The Flintstones - the first animated series on prime time TV. However, having 'toons on TV sapped public demand for them in cinemas. It was the most financially successful TV animation for three decades until The Simpsons in 1987.

Yogi Bear came out of the woods on national TV in 1961, breaking out from the original Huckleberry Hound show. The collar on Yogi made it possible to slash the number of frames for a seven-minute 'toon from 14,000 to just 2,000, as only his head needed redrawing.

The Pink Phink of The Pink Panther by Californian studio DePatie-Freleng Enterprises gave the world a new appreciation of the capabilities of animation when it was the first animated short to win an Oscar in 1964.

The role of animation evolved further with Fritz the Cat in 1972, a saucy feline gaining the proud title of the first animated film to receive an X-rating in the USA. Fritz explores ideas of hedonism and left-wing politics. It remains the most successful independent animated feature - grossing $90 million worldwide.

1980s onwards: CGI and the dawn of the Modern American Era

'Tron' 1982
'Tron' 1982

The use of computer generated imagery (CGI) turned the capabilities of animation upside down. While it is still very time-consuming and labour-intensive, it enabled 3D modelling and crazy backgrounds like in the original Tron in 1982. It works like virtual stop-motion. It also made possible computer-aided animation, in which 2D computer drawings could be put in motion.

1984: 'The Adventures of André & Wally B'

These little guys were the first to walk out of a computer onto a screen for a fully CGI-animated short movie. They were created by a spunky young company named The Graphics Group, who were later renamed Pixar.

The two-minute short sees André chasing a bee named Wally B. It featured motion blur (streaking objects) and complex 3D backgrounds - though groundbreaking in 1984 obviously these effects look fairly rubbish by today's standards.

1995: 'Toy Story'

The first full computer-animated feature film wowed the world with this Pixar production distributed by Disney. Even back then the two behemoths of animation were working together. Director John Lasseter pitched the idea of a CGI feature to Disney - but they were so shocked by the idea they fired him! The antics of Woody and Buzz pulled in $362 million worldwide.

2001: 'Shrek'

Shrek claimed the first ever Oscar for Best Animated Feature. The PDI/Dreamworks movie was originally set to be a live-action/CGI hybrid, but when they previewed some scenes in this format producer Jeffrey Katzenberg said:

"It looked terrible, it didn't work, it wasn't funny, and we didn't like it.

While there have been numerous other landmark animations, this Academy Award invested animation with a new prestige that has since enabled boundary-breaking movies like Up and Inside-Out. It marked new territory by parodying classic Disney animation. And it's simply a wicked movie.

2009: 'Avatar'

The epic science fiction movie was delayed from until the caught up with the director James Cameron's vision. It broke 3D out of the bracket of gimicky IMAX shows to reveal a new horizon for CGI.

It took animation to a new level - at one point 900 people were working on the movie. Microsoft developed a new system to hold all Avatar's data called Gaia. A 10,000 sq ft server farm used 4,000 servers with 104 terabytes of RAM was used to render it.

But with each new movie comes new innovations. The hyperrealistic avatars and nine million hairs in Zootopia are just two of thousands of tiny forward steps nudging animation further into the stratosphere of imagination.

What game-changing animations do you love?

Sources: Brittanica, via History of Animation


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