Volume 3 : Cover Topic - Time and Cinema (2)

Animation in Hollywood

Amitava Nag


1. In self-defense

"What then, is time? If no one asks of me, I know; if I wish to explain to him who asks, I know not" —St. Augustine

Time "can reduce [us] to hopeless confusion" — Bertrand Russel

Human beings have been so far confused about the notion of time. From the linear 'arrow of time' of Newtonian Physics to the 'space-time' duality of Einstein or the validity of the Chaos theory, we have shifted paradigms without fully understanding it. In this essay, I am in no way trying to define, dictate or direct readers about the 'notion of time'. Linearity is an artificial way of viewing this world. Uncertainty Principle and the Post-Modern culture study taught us to think differently. Here, I will try to trace a history of animated films in Hollywood from its inception. This history is by no means complete or comprehensive. However, here I will try to put forward several events to trace the history, but not always, as a series of interconnected events occurring one after another like beads strung on a necklace.

2. Before the Beginning

Time immemorial, human beings have tried to capture a sense of motion in their art. From the drawings of animals with multiple legs in the Altamira caves in Spain to the sequential paintings or sculpting in Sumerian, Egyptian, Chinese and Greek cultures or the performance of shadow puppets in the Indian epics 'Ramayan' and 'Mahabharat' the eternal quest for capturing motion has been a persistent and intrinsic human desire. In 1645 Athanasius Kircher, a Jesuit priest published his book "The Great Art of Light and Shadow" where he describes the construction of a new invention — the magic lantern. In 1736, Pieter van Musschenbroek, using Kircher's techniques projected images in sequence using multiple projectors that became popular in Europe. However the most famous magic lantern show had been Fantasmagorie in 1794 by Etienne Robert in Paris. Flip Books (which first started in the 16th Century) and other optical toys also became popular in the 19th Century.

True animation cannot be achieved without understanding a basic principle of the human eye—the 'persistence of vision'. This was first demonstrated in 1826 by William Paris who invented Thaumatrope which having one image on each side of a disc, when spun very fast combine into a single image. Two other inventions that help to further the cause of animation are-

  • Phenakistiscope invented by Joseph Plateau and Simon Ritter von Stampfer in 1832-33. The device consisted of 2 discs mounted parallel on a single axle. In the disc closer to viewers' eyes slits were cut out for them to look through. On the second disc opposite each slit were a limited number of sequential drawings. When the discs were rotated the slits acted as shutter and the viewers saw a progression of image resulting in a moving object.
  • Zootrope invented by William Homer in 1834 that became popular only in the 1860's. The device was a drum with sequential drawings on its inside. When the drum spun there was an illusion of movement.

Variants of all these techniques were used throughout the later part of the nineteenth century. In 1853, Franz von Uchatius customized the Phenakistiscope by painting pictures on glass instead of paper and projecting them through lens. This was perhaps the first attempt to project animated image by projecting light. Twenty-two years later, Emil Reynaud invented the Praxinoscope — a theatrical Zootrope with mirrors, which became increasingly popular. By 1892 he could project 10 to 15 minute 'films' but the invention of films two years later drove him out of business. Subsequent 4-5 years saw the invention of Kinetoscope by Thomas Edison, the Cinematograph by Louis Lumiere and the 'birth of film'.

3. The Early Years

The earliest pioneers in film animation were perhaps Emile Cohl, a Frenchman who produced several vignettes and J Stuart Blackton, an American who is credited with the first animated cartoon in 1906 entitled "Humorous Phases of Funny Faces" which uses chalkboard sketches and cutouts. However, the first celebrated animator remain Winsor McCay, an American best known for his works Little Nemo and Gertie, the Dinosaur. McCay made between 4,000 and 10,000 separate line drawings for each of his three one-reel films released between 1911 and 1914. McCay was also the first to experiment with colour in animation. The notion of an onscreen live dinosaur in 1914 was astonishing and had a galvanizing effect on the audience. Even before McCay had shown the world the true potential of the animated cartoon in Gertie, the first animation studios were around. In 1913 Raoul Barre' opened the first animation house which produced some short satires of contemporary life based on Tom Power's newspaper comics notable among which are "The Phable of a Busted Romance" and "The Phable of the Phat Woman". By the 1920s birth of a new industry started to shape with the popping up of new studios in and around the New York metropolis. Winsor McCay who animated his films almost single-handedly (apart from his final films "Gertie on Tour" and "The Centaurs", both in 1921 where his son and John Fitzsimmons assisted him) from inception to execution, could never accept the studio-system for animation films and the grossly overdone commercial nature of it —

"Animation should be an art….what you fellows have done with it is making it into a trade….not an art, but a trade…bad luck".

Arguably the most successful and influential of these early studios was the John Bray studio starting in the 1910s.Out of Bray's studio came the likes of Max Fleischer (Betty Boop), Paul Terry (Terrytoons) and Walter Lantz (Woody Woodpecker). But the studio's most important contribution to the history of animation has been the introduction of translucent cels. This idea of inking the animator's drawings onto the cels and then photographing them in succession on a background (on long sheets of paper so that panning could be performed easily) was invented by Bray employee Earl Hurd in late 1914. The credit was swallowed by Hurd's more illustrious boss John Bray who patented this and charged royalties from other studios.

One of the first animated characters with an identifiable persona after Gertie was none other than Felix, the Cat by Otto Messmer that appeared in the early 1920s in Pat Sullivan productions. Like Hurd, Messmer also was deprived of the credits and this time again his boss Pat Sullivan earned millions of dollars in royalties over the years. Animation historian John Canemaker tracked down this genius in 1976 and only then the rest of the world came to know of Felix's legitimate father. Otto Messmer, with his brilliant work, established that true art is possible from the studios also thereby negating McCay's prophecy. But stories of Hurd and Messmers point to the rather ironic last part of McCay's quote—'bad luck'. So far, it seems, his saying holds true more for the studio artists rather than the art.

However till the 1920s the general trend of animation was based on primitive gags and violence as Dick Huemer pointed out— "Plots? We never bothered with plots. They were just a series of gags strung together." One character would beat another mercilessly only to leave his victim recover and return the favour much like the popular World Wide Wrestling television series.

From the mid 1920s the animation industry first felt the effects of a sea-change –
commercialization started seeping in the system as big studios started eating up smaller ones and animation standards were been set. Animators were given quotas on the number of drawings they had to produce a day. Cartoons had to be produced in bulk and that too, cheaply. This was evident since the production of general Hollywood feature films (non-animated) started from the 'Continuity System' thriving on standardization and the minute division of labour. Independent production started its backtrack apart from some notable exceptions in the United Artists in 1919 formed by such stalwarts as D. W. Griffiths, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and Charles Chaplin. Added to the external pressure, the animation studios of the 1920s felt a mounting internal one — audience started to become apathetic due to excessive rework of the same gags. The animation business started a nosedive and so were the studios. Came the late 1920s, they had to reckon with new forces: Sound and a man from Kansas City named Walter Elias Disney.
4. Birth of an era — Walt Disney, Warner Bros. and MGM

On November 18,1928 audiences in the Colony Theatre in New York experienced an achievement worth their lifetime — Mickey Mouse in "Streamboat Willie" and the Walt Disney studio became the most influential studio in the history of animation, a position it undisputedly held till its founder's death in 1966. However "Streamboat Willie" was not his first cartoon. While in Kansas City, Disney started producing short animated films in his Laugh-O-Grams Film Studio for local businesses notable being "The Alice Comedies" which was not complete as Disney went bankrupt. Undeterred by the failure, Disney headed towards Hollywood in 1923. By then, Los Angeles already became the centre of live-action filmmaking but the animation industry remained rooted in New York and few in the Mid-West. Along with Disney, two others also moved from Kansas City — men who would shape the future of animation. Hugh Harman and Rudy Ising were, like Disney, men with little success but as was proved, they had a destiny lying ahead — they eventually founded the Warner Bros. and MGM animation houses.

Coming back to the Walt Disney Studio, it must be admitted that like Otto Messmer and Hurd, a number of Disney animators like Vladimir Tytla and Freddie Moore remained overshadowed by the omnipresence of Walt Disney. However, unlike most studio heads, Disney was a cinematic visionary who introduced latest innovations in sound and colour (although not the first to use colour). Audience for the first time experienced animated cartoons moving in real way rather than in the 'rubber hose' style of the silent era (disregarding anatomy as if all limbs were rubber hoses). Disney's innovations included use of a storyboard to review the story, use of pencil sketches to review motion and multi-plane camera stand that allows parallax effect creating illusion of depth and zooming. In 1932 Walt Disney won the first of his studios Academy Awards for the film "Flowers and Trees". And in 1937 the first full-length animation musical "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" created history proving a worldwide market for animation. During the next 5 years, the Walt Disney Studio completed the animation classics such as "Pinocchio", "Fantasia", "Dumbo" and "Bambi".

Meanwhile in 1930, Warner Bros. Cartoons was born. "Looney Tunes" began the same year by Hugh Harman and Rudy Ising (both Walt Disney veterans) followed by "Merrie Melodies" the next year. Three years later in 1933, Harman and Ising left Warner Bros. to form the MGM Cartoon Studio. The real importance of the Warner Bros. animators like Fred "Tex" Avery and Bob Clampett is that they broke from the Disney tradition (which other studios imitated) and imbibed their films with highly exaggerated slapstick comedy. 1937 saw Daffy Duck in "Porky's Duck Hunt" (Looney Tunes) and it was first time that characters were distorted beyond physical perceptions for comic effects. And in 1940 the Warner Bros. gifted us the memorable, suave and wily comic hero Bugs Bunny in "A Wild Hare" and this started the supremacy in humour of Warner Bros. only to be matched by Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera at the MGM whose classical Tom and Jerry remains an all time hit. However one interesting aspects remains the reflection of contemporary society in animation films. The two devastating world wars had enormous effect on live -action films resulting in the birth of a 'war-genre'. However the link between these 'social' films with the general animation film (which puts the basic objective of animation films as sole entertainment into scrutiny) is an interesting as well as an intriguing area which is beyond the scope of this essay.
The 1950s saw the increasing popularity of television with the animation industry coming more and more in TV commercials. Soon animation was a hit and in 1956, in a bid to introduce Warner Bros. cartoons to new generation Americans, the company sells all pre-1948 colour cartoons to AAP for TV syndication. Four years later, "The Bugs Bunny Show" debuts on ABC in prime time and from 1962 it got its Saturday morning slot where it created history by becoming the longest-running children's shows in television history. One year later Ivan Sutherland's doctoral dissertation at MIT on Computer Animation opened up new possibilities that eventually governed the direction of the animation industry. In the two decades starting with 1960 animation finally leaped to television. Quality was soon on the decline trying to meet the increasing pressure of the 'prime time slots'. TV animation house moguls began to care more for the market rather than the quality and McCay's prophecy finally seems to be correct. Bulk production in a desperate attempt to conquer as much air-time as possible (that too in a quick time) forced the animators into imitating previous successes thereby stunting creativity. By and large, production of animation films was decreasing, as the animation houses couldn't cope with the pressures of television. However traditional animation and the first traces of computer animation started in a big way in live-action films — the increase in popularity of Sci-Fi films were based on different 'special-effects' animation techniques. The first major use of motion control animation was in Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968) and the first computer animation was used in the film "The Andromeda Strain" (1971). Two years back, in UCLA a silent revolution started — the Internet was born. This along with the digital revolution ushered the 'Information Age'. This transition from the 'Industrial Age' (whose effect was evident in the Assembly Line Production of the early animation films) to the 'Information Age' had enormous impact on this industry, but more so later.

Coming back to the decline in quality of animation films due to television, this time again like in the mid-1920s, smaller studios were swallowed by larger ones. However the situation improved when the two giants — Disney and Warner Bros. entered the market. The introduction of the Cable TV in 1982, the Disney Channel one year later and the Cartoon Network in 1992 were the artifacts of this change. Disney's "Duck tales" (1986) and Warner Bros.' "Tiny Toon Adventures" (1989) were far better than their competitors and were soon popular. However they were no match for their predecessors whose creative persona imbibed life to so many legendary characters. Back on television, new zeal came with the Warner Bros. production "Batman: The Animated Series" in 1992 for deep characterizations and strong stories. Parallely on the big screen with the advent television, production of animation 'shorties' were stopped completely by 1980s though the trend started in the late1950s. From the late 1980s a new generation Disney artists breathed life back into animation with films like "Who Framed Roger Rabbit", "The Little Mermaid", "Aladdin" and "The Lion King".

The glorious history of animated films had been made memorable by numerous genius, both heard and unheard, whose relentless work ensured that business logistics don't overwhelm the potential of the medium and the result attained will be the best of both worlds: a trade and an art.

5. In Lieu of a Conclusion: Computer Animation and a Digital Future

As already mentioned, computer animation gained prominence in the so-called 'Sci-Fi' films starting with Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey". The extensive usage of computer effects was first seen in George Lucas' "Start Wars" (1977) and also in Start Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" (1982) by Nicholas Meyer. And one of the most popular till date remains Ridley Scott's "Blade Runner" (1982). The first 3D digital character was introduced in "Young Sherlock Holmes"(1985) and three years later, in Ron Howard's "Willow", morphing was used for the first time to transform one form into another. But the landmark in most elaborate usage of computer graphics and effects remains Steven Spielberg's "Jurassic Park"(1993) and "The Lost World" (1997). In between Paul Anderson's "Mortal Kombat" was the first film to incorporate the latest computer games and John Lasseter's "Toy Story" was the first feature film wholly generated using computer animation. All these films have successfully carried out the simulation of digital actors consisting of a series of special effects — morphing into different shapes, exploding into particles and so on.

This brings us to a crossroad. In one place, we have a glorious history of 'live-action' feature films that can be broadly classified as 'lens-based' recordings of reality. On the other we can, given the time and money, simulate almost everything in a computer of which filming physical reality is just one option. And that too generating photo realistic scenes without actually filming them! This also blurs the distinction between special effects and editing as everything is controlled by the computer 'mantra' — 'cut and paste'. William J Mitchell reminds of the inherent mutability of a digital image that erases the distinction between a photograph and a painting — "The essential characteristic of digital information is that it can be manipulated easily and very rapidly by computer. It is simply a matter of substituting new digits for old…..Computational tools for transforming, combining, alerting and analyzing images are as essential to the digital artist as brushes and pigments to a painter". Film being a series of photographs in sequence, we can apply Mitchell's logic to digital films as well. (A point to note here is that this was not the first attempt to link cinema with painting since as early as 1935, Len Lye, a pioneer of abstract animation painted directly on film in an attempt to turn his films into abstract paintings.) And here, cinema returns to its 19th Century origins — the handcrafted images of magic lantern slides, the Phenakistiscope and the Zootrope mentioned earlier. Two important events worth mentioning here are —

  • Music Videos (which mostly have non-linear narratives), and
  • CD ROM games which incorporate actual movie-like scenes with live actors, realistic sets, complex camera angles, dissolves and other codes of traditional film making.

And the way by which the computer screen consciously emulates the cinema screen and with the development of commercial multimedia, we can safely comment that cinema has been reinvented on a computer screen after 100 years of its birth.

However, the entire nature of the relationship between the animated image and its real-world spectator is being renegotiated and redefined by technology and the Internet plays an important role here. The web blurs the distinction between the private and the public in a manner incomprehensible by our physical senses. One example of this loss of identification or rather, the identity sharing between the spectator and the hyper-real world created by the web is the case of BOTS or intelligent agents which are autonomous, human-like computer programs that can help in a variety of tasks including chatting with real person in a live Chat Room. These virtual creations, designed to pass as human beings are extremely sophisticated and people have been observed to develop emotional relationships with these BOTS, unaware of their virtual existence.

Ninety years ago, Winsor McCay had the freedom of drawing thousands of lines for his own creation. Now the corporate and commercial imagination is shaping our vision of reality. With pre-assembled, standardized editing and animation packages, full-length animation is again turning its wheel to a potentially individual's art with the distinction, that with the click of a mouse button, your world is being created. This complete cycle from an individual's art to one produced with collective effort and again to the possibilities of becoming an individual's art (though time and money remain, as often, the most critical and discerning question.) puts McCay's prophecy in question. Whether animation will be an art in future or will it be guided by only commercial interests or like Disney, Warner Bros. or MGM, whether it will balance both remains to be seen. The changing scenario in culture studies along with the new found cyborg consciousness and the change of animation position in respect to the meaning of representation forces us to take new stance.

We are in a confused milieu.


1. Film Art: An Introduction (Fourth ed.) by David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, McGraw-Hill, Inc.
2. A rather incomplete but still fascinating history of Animation by Dan McLaughlin http://animation.filmtv.ucla.edu/program/anihist.html
3. Chronology of Animation by Richard Llewellyn. http://www.public.iastate.edu/~rllew/chronst.html
4. Chronology of Animation before film by Dan McLaughlin http://animation.filmtv.ucla.edu/program/before.html
5. Chronology of Hollywood Cinema of Cyberspace & Digital Effects by Steve Napleton http://freespace.virgin.net/s.napleton/Research/chronology.html
6. Warner Bros. Animation Art: The Characters, the Creators, the Limited Editions by Jerry Beck and Will Friedwald, Hugh Lauter Levin Associates; (November 1997)
7. Chronology of the Walt Disney Company by Ken Polsson http://www.heise.de/tp/english/special/film/6110/2.html
8. Hanna-Barbera Cartoons by Michael Mallory, Beaux Arts Editions; (October 1998)
9. What's an agent anyway? A sociological case study by L. N. Foner, May, 1993, Agents Group, MIT Media Laboratory.
10. What is Digital Cinema? by Lev Manovich. http://www.heise.de/tp/english/special/film/6110/2.html



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