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,