Cartoons & Animation
Before the 19th century, the word cartoon meant a drawing or sketch made in preparation for a larger artwork, such as a painting. Today, a cartoon is a funny drawing with stylized characters. It can be a black-and-white drawing in a newspaper making fun of political people; a colourful strip of pictures in a magazine or comic, which tells a story about a character; or images of captivating personalities on a TV or film screen. This last type of cartoon is an example of animation, which literally means “brought to life”. Animation techniques can make three-dimensional models seem alive on-screen, as well as flat drawings. Animated cartoon characters are among the most famous images across the world today, including Mickey Mouse, Snow White, Popeye and Olive Oyl, Buzz Lightyear and Simba the lion cub.
To make an animated cartoon, an artist first draws a character on a clear plastic page called a cel, painting in the colour on the back. The artist makes a new drawing of the character for every tiny stage of each movement. The artist also paints a background on a separate cel, which can be laid behind each drawing of the character. When the cels are photographed in the right order and shown on film at the right speed, the character seems to move. The artist has to create 12 drawings of a character to produce just one second of movement. This means that for a feature-length animated cartoon such as Disney’s The Jungle Book, around a million drawings are needed. Whole teams of artists are employed on creating all the necessary cels.
The technique for animating models is the same as for animating drawings. The animator moves a model through tiny stages of every movement and photographs each stage. When the photographs are shown on film at the right speed, the model appears to move.
Today, animated films are sometimes created entirely on computer. The characters, such as Woody from Toy Story, have the same appeal as flat drawings, but look as solid as models.
THE BEGINNINGS OF ANIMATION
People knew how to make drawn characters appear to move long before film-making began in the 1890s. For instance, the Victorians had a toy called a Zoetrope, which spun round pictures of a character inside a revolving drum so fast that the character looked as though it was moving. Not long after the invention of film cameras and film projection people began to experiment with animating drawings and models. The first animation was done by by Edwin S. Porter in 1905 and appeared in films called How Jones Lost His Roll and The Whole Dam Family and the Dam Dog. Porter photographed cut-out letters and made them appear to move around the screen until they arranged themselves into a correctly spelled message.
In 1906, James Stuart Blackton of a film company called Vitagraph, experimented with the technique. He made a series of simple drawings move in a film called Humorous Phases of Funny Faces, and also made toy dolls come to life in a film called A Midwinter Night’s Dream. The following year, Blackton developed the idea further in a film called The Haunted Hotel. He sculpted objects in modelling clay and, by gradually moving them and photographing them, made them appear to change into other objects on-screen.
From 1908 to 1910, a European film-maker working for the Gaumont company, Émile Cohl, concentrated on developing animation. He produced the first regular series of animated cartoons. They featured line drawings of people who jumped and tumbled about, and did astonishing things that real people could not do. Around the same time in the United States, a famous comic-strip artist called Winsor McCay created individual cartoons such as Gertie the Dinosaur and Winsor McCay Draws Little Nemo, which were wonderfully detailed and had smooth, natural movement. In Europe, a Polish director called Wladyslaw Starewicz used puppets to make elaborate animated films such as The Cameraman’s Revenge (1912).
The cel technique for making animated cartoons was invented by John Bray and Earl Hurd in 1914. Until then, artists drew not just the figure but also the entire background for every single shot. Another animator called Raoul Barré came up with an idea to make sure that all the cels were in the right position when they were filmed to create the effect of flowing movement. He punched holes in each cel and slotted them over pins fixed to a table under the camera. These inventions made animation much less laborious. Bray began to produce the first series of animated cartoons in America with Colonel Heeza Liar, and Hurd followed with a series of great stories called Bobby Bumps. Barré directed an animated version of a popular comic strip, called Mutt and Jeff. All these early cartoons were in black and white and had no sound.
Through the 1920s in Germany, film-makers experimented with other types of animation, such as films that featured moving abstract shapes. In 1926 a German called Lotte Reiniger used jointed silhouette figures to produce the first-ever feature-length animated film, The Adventures of Prince Achmed. The first animated cartoon character to win widespread popularity with the public was created in the 1920s in America by Otto Messmer—Felix the Cat. And the 1920s saw another important discovery in animation. The American Fleischer brothers invented a device called a Rotoscope, which could project live-action film on to paper, camera shot by camera shot. This meant that the outline of a moving human figure could be traced on to paper, to provide a guideline for drawing the cartoon character. It also meant that films could be made in which animated characters appeared to interact with human actors. These were not only exciting to watch, they were also cheaper to produce than entirely animated films. Models were animated to contribute some of the action to fantasy films, such as dinosaurs in The Lost World (1925) and a monster gorilla in King Kong (1933).
FROM DISNEY TO TODAY
An artist from Kansas, Walt Disney, set up an animation company at the centre of American film-making, Hollywood, in 1923. He had some success with a series called Alice in Cartoonland, in which a girl actor explored an animated cartoon world. But Disney’s first big hit came in 1928 with the creation of entirely animated films about a cartoon character called Mickey Mouse. In the same year, Walt Disney’s company was the first to add sound to cartoons, in Steamboat Willie. From then on, the Disney studios led the way in animated cartoon films. In the 1930s, Disney organized his animators into skilled teams, each working on various aspects of the animation process, rather like factory workers on different parts of a production line. His organization speeded up the film-making process and enabled him to create cartoons with even more characters and detailed movement. Disney’s films The Old Mill and the feature-length Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs stunned audiences in 1937. They had scenes shown from different angles, just like real-life films, and filled cinema screens with a blaze of colourful personalities who danced and sang. The Disney studios went on to create many stunning feature-length cartoons that have since become classics, such as Fantasia (1940) and Pinocchio (1940).
There were several rival animators working at the same time, including the Fleischer brothers, who created the characters Betty Boop and Popeye the Sailor. Tex Avery at Warner Brothers invented characters such as Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. An American studio called UPA developed a modern, stylized approach to cartoon drawing. In the 1940s the Hungarian George Pal ran the only studio in Hollywood producing animated puppet cartoons, and after World War II (1939-1945), the Czech animator Jiři Trnka also concentrated on puppet animations.
From around the 1950s studios looked for other ways to impress audiences rather than increasing the visual spectacle of feature-length cartoons. Disney explored improving the soundtrack of cartoons with more densely packed speech and sound effects, such as in One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961). Later, the studio had blockbuster hits with a combination of animation and live action in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988). Jurassic Park combined animation of model dinosaurs with computer-generated sequences and live action. Toy Story, produced by Pixar in 1995, was the first feature-length film to be composed entirely on computer. It was hugely popular and has since led to several more computer-generated animated films, such as Antz (1998) and Finding Nemo (2003).
An outstanding model animator working today in England is Nick Park. He has created hilarious stories around modelling-clay characters who have enormous appeal, such as Wallace and Gromit. His films, such as The Wrong Trousers (1993) and Chicken Run (2000), have won several major awards and been shortlisted for many more.