from The New Book of Knowledge®


The word "animate" comes from the Latin word anima, or soul, and literally means "to give life to." In filmmaking, animation is a technique that makes inanimate (lifeless) drawings or objects appear to live and move. Animation is most often used to make cartoon movies and television shows. It can also be used in television commercials or in educational films. Animation is sometimes used in combination with live action in movies.

Animation is not limited to recording things that really happened. So it can show viewers many things that live action cannot, from the movements of a single atom to a view of an entire galaxy. An animated character can fly without wings, fall off a cliff without getting hurt, or be squashed flat as a pancake and pop back into shape. The only limits to what animation can show are the limits of the artist's imagination.

Animation Techniques

There are three basic animation techniques. One uses two-dimensional (flat) drawings. Another technique involves the animation of three-dimensional objects such as puppets or clay figures. The third animation technique is computer animation.

Before any animation is done, the artists and writers prepare a storyboard. This is an illustrated script. It looks like a giant comic strip, with sketches showing the action of the story and dialogue (the characters' spoken lines) written under each sketch. Next, the songs and the dialogue are recorded. Then the work of animation begins.

Two-Dimensional Animation

The animation of drawings is the technique most often used to create animated films and television shows.

To make this kind of animated film, a series of drawings is photographed, one picture at a time, by a motion picture camera. In each picture, or frame, the drawing's position is changed slightly. When the completed film is run, the drawings appear to move.

The animators follow a chart listing the length of time and number of frames needed for each word, sound, and action in the entire script. To look smooth and natural, a single action that takes one second of screen time may require as many as 24 drawings. For example, if a script calls for a character to raise his hand, the first picture the animators draw shows the character with his hand at his side. In the next drawing, his hand is raised slightly. A third drawing shows his hand still higher. Drawing after drawing is made in this way until, in the 24th drawing, the action is completed. Millions of drawings may be used in an animated feature film. Most television cartoons use fewer drawings per second. As a result, the characters' movements may not look as lifelike.

When the drawings are completed, they are traced onto sheets of clear plastic called cels. Colors are then painted on the reverse sides of the cels. Other artists paint the backgrounds in the film. The finished cels are laid over the backgrounds and photographed with a special camera that shoots one frame of film at a time. The camera operator follows a chart that tells the proper sequence of the cels and which background is needed for each frame. The operator takes a picture, removes the cel and replaces it with the next one, then takes another picture. The soundtrack is added after the photography is completed. The soundtrack contains the music, dialogue, and sound effects.

Some animated films are made without using cels. Instead, the drawings themselves are photographed. Pencil, charcoal, and colored pencil can produce subtle, shaded effects that are very different from the bright colors of the painted cels.

Today many studios scan the animation drawings into a computer. The drawings are then colored using the computer and positioned, one at a time, against backgrounds that have been scanned separately into the computer. The series of drawings is saved and transferred to film, creating the final cartoon.

Three-Dimensional Animation

Three-dimensional figures and objects can be animated using a process called stop-motion photography. Animators often work with special puppets. These are made of flexible plastic molded around a jointed metal "skeleton." Figures and objects made of clay are also used in stop-motion animation.

Using a special motion picture camera, animators film the figure or object one frame at a time. After each frame is photographed, the animators adjust the figure's position slightly. When the film is developed and projected, the figure appears to move.

Stop-motion photography has been used to make short films, feature-length films, and television commercials. It has also been used to animate imaginary creatures in live-action fantasy and science-fiction movies. The giant ape in King Kong (1933), as well as some of the creatures in the early Star Wars films (1977-83), were animated using stop-motion techniques.

This technique was perfected by the animator Ray Harryhausen. He was famous for the fantastic creatures he brought to life in films such as The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958) and Jason and the Argonauts (1963).

Computer Animation

The most recent, and perhaps most exciting, developments in animation are taking place in the field of computer graphics. In computer graphics, artists use computers to produce images and animate them. This kind of animation is commonly called computer-generated imagery, or CGI. It has provided animators with even greater freedom to bring fantastic visions, characters, and stories to life.

Computer graphics techniques vary. They depend on the kinds of software (instructions that tell the machine what to do) and equipment used. But most computer graphics systems have certain features in common.

The inside surface of a computer screen is coated with thousands of tiny dots of light-sensitive chemicals called phosphors. Each dot is called a picture element, or pixel. The pixels are arranged in clusters of three. Each pixel in a cluster is responsible for producing one of the three primary colors of light: red, blue, and green. These colors can be combined to produce all the colors an artist might need. Using a computer graphics program, the artist tells the computer which pixels to light up. The glowing pixels create the image on the screen.

The amount of detail in the image depends on the number of pixels on the screen. Most home computer screens have comparatively few pixels. Pictures drawn on them seldom show great detail. But a powerful computer may have millions of pixels on the screen. With these machines it is possible for an animator to produce highly detailed images.

Once the artist has produced an image and stored it in the computer, the machine can be instructed to calculate all the slight adjustments in position that are needed to give the appearance of motion. It can also make all the necessary changes in light, shading, and perspective. Each succeeding computer-generated image is photographed and used to make a single frame of film. When the film is run, the effect is one of movement.

Computer animation can create effects and images that would be difficult to achieve with traditional animation techniques. For instance, it can give surfaces of metal, glass, or plastic extremely realistic textures. It has also replaced many traditional special effects techniques. It has enabled filmmakers to create stunning sequences in historical dramas such as Titanic (1999) and in epic fantasies such as The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-03). Computer animation is also commonly used for video games. And animation programs are now widely available for use on home computers.

History of Animation

The first animated film was Humorous Phases of Funny Faces. It was made in 1906 by J. Stuart Blackton, an American newspaper illustrator. Blackton filmed a series of faces that had been drawn on a blackboard. He also used a variety of other techniques. Another early animated film was Gertie the Dinosaur. It was created by the American cartoonist Winsor McCay in 1914. In this film, for the first time, a character drawn of lines seemed to live, breathe, and display a personality on the screen.

Audiences liked these animated cartoons. Soon many American film studios were producing animated films. These were shown in movie theaters before the feature films. The Pat Sullivan studio produced one of the most famous characters of the silent-film era, Felix the Cat. The Fleischer studio produced cartoons featuring the character KoKo the Clown. It later created Betty Boop, Popeye, and Superman cartoons.

The first successful animated cartoon with sound was Steamboat Willie (1928). It introduced the character Mickey Mouse. This film was produced by Walt Disney, who was to become the most famous American producer of animated films. Disney's series of Mickey Mouse cartoons, and another series called Silly Symphonies, were very popular with audiences.

The success of his early cartoons enabled Disney to launch an ambitious training program for his artists. They studied anatomy, drawing, acting, and motion to improve their animation. The results of this training can be seen in Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). It was the first feature-length animated film made in the United States. Other important Disney films followed. These included Pinocchio (1940), Fantasia (1940), Dumbo (1941), and Bambi (1942).

By the end of World War II (1939-45), leadership in the field of animation had passed to two major film studios—Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) and Warner Brothers. At MGM, William Hanna and Joseph Barbera made cartoons featuring Tom and Jerry, a cat and a mouse. Warner Brothers cartoons were directed by Tex Avery, Chuck Jones, and Friz Freleng. They starred Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and many other characters. During the 1950's, United Productions of America (UPA) introduced a flat, modernistic drawing style in cartoons. These featured Gerald McBoing-Boing and Mr. Magoo.

During the 1960's, television networks began broadcasting children's cartoons on Saturday mornings. Some cartoons were shown in the evenings. The most successful television animation studio was Hanna-Barbera. It introduced the Flintstones, the Jetsons, Yogi Bear, and hundreds of other characters.

Beginning in the 1980's, animated films became popular again. The Disney studio produced such modern classics as The Little Mermaid (1989) and The Lion King (1994). Computer animation created the remarkably realistic dinosaurs of Jurassic Park (1993). It also made barnyard animals appear to speak in Babe (1995). Toy Story (1995) was the first of many feature-length films made entirely with computer animation. A distinctive style of animation from Japan, known as anime, has become highly influential. Japanese animators have expanded upon traditional animation techniques to create films that are commercially successful and artistically sophisticated. These include Pokemon (1999) and Spirited Away (2001). And animated television shows such as The Simpsons (1989- ) and SpongeBob Squarepants (1999- ) are as popular with adults as with children.

Charles Solomon
Author, Enchanted Drawings: The History of Animation

Reviewed by Jerry Beck
Author, Animation Art: From Pencil to Pixel, the World of Cartoon, Anime, and CGI


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