Animation as technology

As I talked about a little last time, the term animation can point to both a style of production and a genre. The two are often, but not always, intertwined in industry discourse. But to understand the tem, it is helpful to dissect each separately, and to do that I am going to start with a discussion of animation as a style of production.

Examining the use of the term ‘animation’ over time helps to paint a picture of how American audiences have collectively decided to talk about animated film. Thus, I will start with some of the earliest mentions of animation in trade magazines. Here we see the idea of ‘animation’ as primarily a technical achievement begin to form.


Animation scholars inclined to the philosophical often cite the literal definition of animation – that is, that animation is “the act of giving life.” More accurately, animation is may be said to give movement to that which does not have life.

As lofty and exciting as this sounds, in point of fact this definition technically applies to all of cinema. Long before Edison and the Lumière Brothers worked to develop the first motion pictures, the first illusions of making images move began with the manipulation of drawings. The phenakistoscope, an optical toy in which viewers watched a rotating series of successive drawings through a slit in the cardboard, and the kineograph, or flip book, were two extrememly popular versions of pre-cinematic inventions that relied heavily on illustrations rather than photographs.

The popularity of the work of Thomas Edison and the Lumière brothers ensured that moving pictures would become the dominant form of ‘cinema’ proper. The practice of making drawings move, however, continued to be developed alongside the popular live-action film. Here, the ‘magic’ animated sequences acted as part of the spectacle created by the motion pictures.

Tellingly, the myth of the beginning of ‘true’ animation starts, not with animated drawings, but with animated objects in a live-action film. In 1907, audiences and rival filmmakers were stunned upon witnessing a sequence in the Vitagraph film The Haunted Hotel (James Stuart Blackton) in which a long, close take shows a table being set, a knife cutting slices of bread, and beverages being poured – all without showing human intervention and with no apparent wires.

Now, in reality it is highly unlikely that this film is a ‘first’ of any kind. As  Donald Crafton has argued, most cameras were capable of doing single-frame takes by the time The Haunted Hotel was released, and the technique of stop-motion was “almost as old as cinematography.” In reality, The Haunted Hotel was most likely just one of the more well-publicized reactions to this type of “trick cinema,” and – to be honest – it is a very nicely executed piece of early animation.

Early advertisements for films with animated sequences highlighted the astonishing tricks featured. Advertisements for The Haunted Hotel, for example, relied almost entirely on selling the “Startling! Puzzling! Bewildering!” effects, emphasizing that the tricks are done “All Without the Sign of A Human Hand!” – a pronouncement which draws attention to the fact that the trick is done so smoothly as to leave no trace of the mechanism.

The Billboard, March 2, 1907, pp33

The Billboard, March 2, 1907, pp33

However apocryphal, the myth of animation’s origins is useful because it shows how animation as a style of filmmaking was discussed. Unlike the genre of animation, the interest in animation as a style has focused on how effects are achieved rather than the narrative reasoning. That is, the story of animation as a style is largely a story of the technological developments that make wondrous illusions possible. Here, animation is discussed as a construction of modernity, the ultimate display of technological prowess.

The use of scientific and magical descriptors bleeds over from these early trick films into the discourse of animation. Winsor McCay’s Gertie the Dinosaur (1914) was advertised with a similar mixture of the miraculous (“She eats, drinks and breathes…Yet she lived millions of years before man inhabited this earth”) and the scientific (“According to science this monster once ruled this planet. Skeletons now being unearthed measuring from 90ft to 160ft in length!”).Gertie_Variety

The term ‘animation’ in both trade and popular discourse consistently pointed toward the technological developments that made the amazing images possible. From the advances in stop-motion techniques in the late 1890s to the development of celluloid and rotoscoping in the late 1910s, the discussion of animation was as much about the techniques of the animators and the patented technology as it was about the films they made.  The April 15, 1911 issue of The Moving Picture World advertises one of McCay’s earlier animation attempts, Little Nemo (1911), thus:

“At the club, Winsor McCay [says] that he feels positive he can produce drawings that will move, and wagers that he will make four thousand pen drawings inside of one month that will move as actively and as life-like as anything ever reproduced by the camera, and surpass in their performance anything ever seen.”

Here we see the method of production (the four thousand drawings required) and the accuracy of the film (the ‘life-like’ qualities) emphasized above and beyond that of the film itself. The title of the film is not even mentioned here until the second paragraph, where it becomes known that the subjects have been taken from his ‘Little Nemo’ comic series.

Eventually, many of the more popular animated cartoons began to advertise their shorts by relying on characters, popularizing characters like Mutt and Jeff, Krazy Kat, or Koko the Clown and paving the way for animation to develop as a recognizable genre in its own right. Yet, despite this, the discussion of technique and technology remains a common theme in articles that discuss animation in trade literature.

Today, animation studios for both television and film widely advertise their production methods. Audiences are kept informed about the various uses of CGI in animated films – for instance, Disney described the development of technology to make accurate snow for Frozen, and when Disney returned to hand-drawn animation with The Princess and the Frog, the production process was highly publicized. Moreover, the blurring lines between CG animated film and realistic CG visual effects makes sense when animation is seen as style and technology rather than a generic descriptor. Although ‘animation’ is now most popularly discussed a genre based around comical children’s films, the discussion of animation as a style based in technological developments has nevertheless left its mark.


For further reading see:

Giannalberto Bendazzi, Cartoons: One Hundred Years of Cinema Animation. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press (1994).

Donald Crafton, Before Mickey: The Animated Film 1898-1928. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press (1982).

Solomon, Charles. Enchanted Drawings: The History of Animation. 1st ed. New York: Knopf (1989).

Leonard Maltin, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons. Rev. ed. New York: New American Library (1987).


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