The Evolution of Animation

Source: *Order isn’t chronological*

Mickey Mouse, Pink Panther, and Toy Story. These are just some of the most adored cartoon films that have shaped the childhoods of children across the globe. Their similarity: they are all animated films.

The animation market, which includes everything from animated films to VR technology, has surpassed all initial expectations. Starting as a side hobby for early artists, animation has grown tremendously in the last decades generating a projected revenue of $270 billion in 2020. But how did a series of drawings lead to this multi-billion dollar industry? The answer lies in its science.

The Optical Illusion that Gave Rise to Animation

In theory, animation is “the art of making inanimate objects appear to move.” Though animation might appear to be a recent achievement, its initial development had nothing to do with the films we are familiar with today. The first recorded animator is Pygmalion, “a sculptor who created a figure of a woman so perfect that he fell in love with her and begged Venus to bring her to life.”

Nevertheless, interest grew in 1824 when British physicist Peter Mark Roget coined the term “persistence of vision” to describe the optical illusion of a series of images that when seen at a certain speed appear still.

Within years, Belgian physicist and mathematician, Joseph Plateau, developed the phenakistoscope, a disk with drawn-on characters at different movements that when spun give the illusions of animation. He used persistence of vision to describe the opposite: the idea that when a series of images is played at a certain speed, they appear as moving.

An example of the phenakistoscope.

Plateau claimed that successive images were being stored in our retina, and due to the speed, they combined to indicate motion. Plateau's explanation consisted until the 20th century when physiologist Max Wertheimer claimed that this illusion was due to the processing of visual input after the retina.

This explanation grew vastly popular, and thanks to modern science, we know that Wertheimer was right. When an image is retained by the brain, specifically the visual cortex, different parts of it are interpreted by different areas of the brain. For example, the pathway that is responsible for color is different than that of depth. When images are played at a certain speed, these pathways are pieced together in a way that creates animation.

Scientists coined the term “frame” to describe individual images that make up the animation and the term “frames per second” (fps) as a measurement of how many of these images are played in a span of one second. At around 10fps, we begin to lose awareness of individual frames, and at 24 fps the illusion seems completely real.

Eventually, the possibility of harnessing resistance of vision as a form of entertainment commenced in 1839, when British mathematician William George Horner invented the zoetrope; the zoetrope is a cylinder with pictures on its inside, and cuts on its sides, that when spun, the user can see the pictures move.

Examples of zeotropes from different perspectives

In 1876 when Émile Reynaud, advanced this design to form the praxinoscope, a cylinder with typically 12 frames around its inside, and mirrors at its that reflect the moving images.

An example of the praxinoscope in action

These achievements paved the way for the 1906 first historically recognized animation called Humorous Phases Of Funny Faces, a standard motion film.

Early artists such as Winsor McCay, creator of Little Nemo in Slumberland and Dream of the Rarebit Fiend, evolved animation. It was only until Walk Disney created his first major characters, Oswald, and Mickey Mouse, and eventually started The Walt Disney Company, that the area of cartoons as we know it began.

How The First Disney Animations Were Made

Disney’s goal was to use animation as a medium of storytelling, placing the focus on the messages and characters of each film and creating a relationship between the viewer and the characters. To do so, they started with four main aspects of animation: sound, color, depth, and character behavior.

Up till this point, the majority of animations were silent. Instead, Disney decided to focus on synchronized sound to character's actions, such as footsteps, and voices. Sound and music brought animations to life and established personality for each character.

Along with this came color. Technicolor was developed in 1932, and it is a system that was used to produce color out of motion picture film strips. Technicolor transformed the world of television and cinematography with the realism that it brought. To seal the technicalities, Disney also developed their own multiplane camera built to establish a sense of fluidity and depth for each shot.

Walt Disney demonstrating the blueprints for the multiplane camera

Lastly, Disney’s artists took classes tailored towards realism and used live reference footage to advise their drawings. Everything from the character’s facial expressions, to posture, and their cloth movement was paid attention to.

The Process

To create a movie, artists would need to hand-draw each picture; these drawings would be traced to a cellulose gel sheet and inked by a myriad of paints; each image would be considered a “cell”, and 24 cells would be used to create a second of the movie to give the illusion of movement. Then, the cell would be photographed with the multiplane camera. Often, animators would draw the background separately and place the gel sheets on top of it, or if a multiplane camera was used, on a computer different level, to limit the number of drawings.

Taking a picture of Mickey Mouse moving where the background is separate from the character, not using a multiplane camera.

All these advancements led to Disney’s first fully animated feature American film in 1937: Snow White. Snow White took three years to produce and required a $1.5 million budget. This feature pushed the boundaries of what animation could do by winning an Academy Award and, to this day, ranking as the highest-performed animated film ever.

The Original Snow White Lobby Card

The Multiplane Camera

The Mupliplane Camera used by Disney

All animations were created by a series of 2D drawings; unfortunately, 2D drawing had their own setbacks, such as object ratios. The famous example Walt Disney used to describe their motivation to develop this camera was that of the moon. In a series of shots that zoom in the moon from a view of the forest, the moon grew proportionally the same in size as a tree that was closer to the point of view. In real life though, objects that are farther in distance, don’t enlarge at the same rate as those nearby.

To combat this problem, Disney developed the multiplane camera that allowed parts of the landscape and characters to be stacked in distance away from the camera. The distance (up, down) and direction (left, right) of each plane could be controlled. This allowed animators to have much more accuracy over background depth and movements.

How Animation Has Progressed Throughout Time

On today’s big screens, movies such as Muana and Coco live to tell the story of fantastical lands beyond imagination. Yet to get where we are today, animation underwent an immense turn with the integration of technology. For this, we will look at Pixar’s evolution.

The realism of Disney's features such as Snow White, Pinocchio, and Bambi enthralled audiences, but the process was complicated. Achieving the detail in expression and movement was time-consuming and still lacking. This is why Pixar turned to technology to create 3D animation.

Modeling Environment

It took close to a decade for Pixar to develop the Modeling Environment (Menv), a software that allowed illustrators to create 3D models of characters or isolated frame parts on a computer.

They developed a “Rigging” department whose role was to add a computer-coded inner skeleton to each character. Then, controls called animated variables (Avars) were applied to the skeleton to pose characters. The rest was up to the computer to compile and connect to form entire scenes and eventually the film.

Why Toy Story

The plotline of Toy Story, a movie with animate dolls and toys beings the main characters, was advantageous for the stage animation was at. Even though Menv had given animators authority over textures and expressions, it was not perfect. The characters still didn’t look lifelike, with plastic-like skin, and geometric clothing. Toy Story enabled animators to embrace these shortcomings, and avoid human characters.

Toy Story was the first full-length computer-animated movie, released in 1995. Pixar’s Toy story won an Academy Award for Special Achievement and had a box office of $373 million.

Its success, however, was just the beginning. In 1999, Pixar invented Gapetto which later became Presto. Presto allowed animators to reuse and adapt rigs for every character. This meant that every 2 legged, and 4 legged structure could be adjusted to create a completely different character.

Pixar also added more control points and began connected multiple. For example, a control point of the eye might be connected to the cheeks and eyebrows to result in a realistic expression.

In 2004, Pixar tackled the animation of humans in “The Incredibles”. For this, they developed Goo, a software that gave animators control over the muscles and skins of a character, and not just their skeleton.

In 2006, Pixar developed Ground Locking designed for their movie “Cars.” Ground locking programmed characters to move along certain contours of the background without using frame-by-frame animation.

These all lead up to one of the most interesting advancements for Pixar Simulation. Simulation used the knowledge of forces such as gravity and velocity to predict objects’ movements. Animators could now manage the angles of objects during movement which revolutionized the ease of animation. An earlier version of this was developed in 2001, and developed in more depth until 2013.

A GIF of Sully in Monster’s University whose fur was programmed using Simulation.

Simulation is famously used to control the fur on James P. Sullivan (Sully)for the film Monsters in 2001, and eventually Monster’s University in 2013 where Sully had 1 million hairs. Since then, Pixar has continued to perfect its technique through 3D cloth modeling, fizT, a physics tool used to simulate how clothes would look when moving, loom technology which helps with shading on clothes, and many more.

Toy Story 24 years Later

An image of Woody from the 2019 film Toy Story 4.

All these developments were made in the span of fewer than 3 decades, leading up to the final film of Toy Story in 2019. With each character having up to 1000 Avars, and each shot taking up to 8 weeks to complete, Toy Story 4 was the pinnacle of Pixar’s evolution at the time. Toy story 4 generated a box office of $1.073 billion, leaving original fans and younger generations content.

Popular Of Animation Today

Types of animation in order: Traditional Cel Animation(Original Mickey), 2D (Tom and Gerry), 3D (Coco), Stop Motion (Wallace & Gromit) Credit:

Applications and Future Potential

Animation is found everywhere around us. From movies to video games, TV, Virtual Reality, apps, movies, video games, tv, VR, apps. Surprisingly, the discoveries that have been made in animation have also been adapted to fields that have no direct connection to film and entertainment. For example, animation has proved key for scientific visualization. Graphing and interacting with animated biological structures has increased our understanding of the body and its interactions.

Animation has also helped with situation stimulations that can be used in medicine to train students for medical procedures and replicate stressful situations on fake patients. Furthermore, the army also utilizes animations for military training such as piloting without investing in expensive machinery and fuel. Animation has also transformed visualization used in engineering and architecture through 3D concept modeling.

All this is to say that the power of animation goes beyond the screens and the memories that shape our childhood, into progressing our world as we know it. All thanks to the illusion that started it all.

Key Takeaways

  1. Animation is due to an illusion called the Persistence of Vision
  2. Initial animations were created frame by frame. To construct a single second of the animation, 24 hand drawings were drawn, inked, and photographed.
  3. As initial animations advanced, sound, color, and depth were added.
  4. Toy story was the first full-length computer-animated film.
  5. Computer software such as Modeling Environment, Presto, Simulation, and fizT have been developed to animate realistic computerized animations.
  6. Applications of animations are found in entertainment feels such as video games, marketing, military training, and engineering.

Hi there! I am Andri, a super curious and passionate young researcher who loves biomedical and computer sciences. I love to read, write, and debate!