The Oxford History of World Cinema

By Geoffrey Nowell-Smith | Go to book overview


Tricks and Animation


Contrary to popular belief, the history of animation did not begin with Walt Disney's sound film Steamboat Willie in 1928. Before then there was a popular tradition, a film industry, and a vast number of films -- including nearly 100 of Disney's -- which pre-dated the so-called classic studio period of the 1930s.

The general history of the animated film begins with the use of transient trick effects in films around the turn of the century. As distinct genres emerged (Westerns, chase films, etc.) during 1906-10, there appeared at the same time films made all or mostly by the animation technique. Since most movies were a single reel, there was little programmatic difference between the animated films and others. But as the multi-reel film trend progressed after around 1912, with only a handful of exceptions, animated films retained their one-reel-or-less length. At the same time they began to be associated in the collective mind of producers and audiences with comic strips, primarily because they adapted already-existing heroes from the popular printed media and 'signed' the films in the cartoonists' names, although the artists generally had no involvement in the production. Until the First World War, animation was a thoroughly international phenomenon, but after about 1915 the producers in the United States dominated the world market. Although there were many attempts at indigenous European production, the 1920s remained the dominion of the American character series: Mutt and Jeff, Koko the Clown, Farmer Al Falfa, and Felix the Cat. Of all the ways in which the formation of the animated film paralleled feature production, the most notable was the cartoon's assimilation of the 'star system' in the 1920s, during which animation studios created recurring protagonists who were analogous to human stars.


The animated film can be broadly defined as a kind of motion picture made by arranging drawings or objects in a manner that, when photographed and projected sequentially on movie film, produces the illusion of controlled motion. In practice, however, definitions of what constitutes animation are inflected by a variety of technical, generic, thematic, and industrial considerations.


Animated images were being made long before cinematography was invented in the 1890s; as David Robinson ( 1991) has shown, making drawings move was a prototype for making photographs move and has a history that diverges from that of cinema. If we restrict our discussion to theatrical animated films, then 1898 is a possible starting-point. Although there is no acceptable evidence to verify either claim, the animation technique might have been discovered independently by J. Stuart Blackton in the United States and by Arthur Melbourne-Cooper in England. Each claimed to have been first to exploit an alternative way of using the motion picture camera: manipulating objects in the field of vision and exposing only one or a few frames at a time in order to mimic the illusion of motion created by ordinary cinematography. In projection, it makes no difference whether the individual frames have been exposed 16-24 times per second or exposed with an indefinite interval; the illusion of motion is the same. So the traditional technologically based definition of animation as constructing and shooting frame by frame is clearly inadequate. All movies are composed, exposed, and projected frame by frame (otherwise the image would be blurred). The defining technical factor seems to be in the intended effect to be produced on the screen.


It was not until about 1906 that the animated film became a recognizable mode of production. Humorous Phases of Funny Faces ( Blackton, 1906) depicted an artist's hand sketching caricatures which then moved their eyes and mouths. This was done by exposing a couple of frames, erasing the chalk drawing, redrawing it slightly modified, then exposing more frames. The impression was created that the drawings were moving by themselves. Émile Cohl 's Fantasmagorie ( 1908) also showed an artist's drawings moving on their own, achieving independence from him. Gradually these conventions were consolidated into characteristic themes and iconography which set this kind of film-making apart from other novelty productions. Before about 1913, the items that were animated tended to be objects -- toys, puppets, and cut-outs -- but slowly the


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