Animation through the ages

From shadows on the wall to computer generated masterpieces, what's next for animation?
22 August 2016

Interview with 

Sean Cubitt, Goldsmiths, University of London


PhenakistoscopeAnimations have arguably changed more in over the years than any other kind of film genre, and they are closely linked to the technology of the time. Sean Cubitt is from Goldsmiths, University of London where he researches the history of visual technologies, and he took Chris Smith through a short history of animation...

Sean - I would say it's pretty much the oldest art form there is. If you think of casting shadows on the wall of the cave by firelight or being taken through the caves and looking at the paintings by the light of a flickering torch; you're talking about an animation of hands and of drawings.

Chris - So we think that's probably the origins of people getting to grips with the art form of moving imagery that's not real pictures and from there it's evolved since?

Sean - Absolutely! It begins, I think, in the very ancient past, it grows through almost universal fascination with puppets, and then it begins to turn into optical toys, first at the time of the Jesuits in the Baroque, especially in their interactions with Japanese and Chinese culture. And then with the invention of lots, and lots of toys of phenakistoscopes and thaumatropes all through the 19th century.

Chris - What are they?

Sean - These are often physical objects which rotate inside either using prisms or slats there's a way of making fixed images appear to move.

Chris - Oh, this is the idea where you had that big drum with the slits cut in it, and it looks like the horse is jumping over the fence because you get a series of snapshots of a picture and it makes it look like it's moving?

Sean - Exactly! That's exactly it and it helps feed into the birth of cinema. Although the first cinema animations were actually recordings of music hall artists who did lightning sketches. But very quickly they started to realise the same principle of stop motion in cinema, whether it was with line drawings or with objects such as a box of matches in a famous example from 1903. That you could make the appearance of life which is, of course, the principle of the anima, of the soul coming into objects and bringing life.

Chris - When did the cartoon, or the animation as I would probably recognise it as such in a cinema - when did that actually come in?

Sean - The first really recognisable ones are around 1903/1904, especially with a French artist called Emile Cohl. But by 1914, all the basic technologies were put in place for what became the major animation industries like Disney's and Warner Bro's. cartoons.

Chris - What sorts of things in 1903 were people going to the cinema to see of these animations - was it sort of Tom and Jerry-esque or was it something a bit more serious and sombre?

Sean - The one I just mentioned - the fabulous matches which come to life and make a little dance, or if you think of - perhaps some of your audience will have seen some of Méliès' films where Méliès animates his own body and arts of the scenery by using stop motion techniques, and that sort of a little bit later in 1906. But the big breakthroughs in line drawing animation really happened around 1914. Disney isn't quite in the forefront; he was a struggling late arrival into the business. But they had established the fundamentals that would then guide the cinema industry right the way through to the 1970s and all of its animation.

Chris - Now I grew up on a diet of Bugs Bunny, and Tom and Jerry, and that kind of thing. They were made the old fashioned way, I presume - people were literally sitting there drawing every single one of those frames by hand?

Sean - Absolutely!

Chris - How long did they take?

Sean. So an average seven minute animation would take anything between three to six or seven months, they became highly industrialised and highly organised. Your top artists would only do the key frames (the most important beginning and end of an action), and then you would have cheaper artists filling in the motion gaps in between; others to do colours; others to do lines, etc.

Chris - What about the music that went with them because there was a whole industry around making it sound good as well, wasn't there?

Sean - There was: Silly Symphonies, Merry Melodies - the music was fantastic but even more so was the sound effects which, by the time of say Snow White in 1937/38, were extraordinarily advanced and involved the most incredible, manic creativity in the sound studios.

Chris - I'm just seeing in my mind - and you can hear the sound if I just describe the scene of the person who goes over the cliff edge, and there's nothing underneath them, and their legs kind of grab at thin air and the go - ' duddle uddle uddle uddle' -  for a while before they go 'petewe' downwards. Anyway, that's another story. What about the transition into digital animation though - what actually has that done to the industry?

Sean - It's given us a whole range of new toys. Perhaps the biggest thing is that all cinema animation is based on stop motion but digital animation is based on creating genuinely three-dimensional objects in the computer which can move continuously. So, although we record them onto scanned screens, which then introduce a stop motion effect like any kind of cinema reproduction or any television reproduction, nonetheless the object themselves are continuously moving in real time. This has been insanely useful for two great things: one is you can navigate anywhere within the imagined world, and the other is that you can do this in real time nowadays which, of course, is the fundamental basis of the computer games industry which is, perhaps, the biggest consumer of animation nowadays.

Chris - Well, the consumer games industry actually turns over more than Hollywood, doesn't it? I mean it's a hugely, highly grossing industry. Just to finish - where's this going next, what do you see in the future for animations?

Sean - The first thing to note is that there's animation everywhere, from radar screens to seismographs. Scientists themselves are using animation as they have been, as major pioneers, right back to the Voyager II flyby videos from 1973. I think we're going to see a great deal more of motion capture...

Chris - This is where you film somebody and then superimpose what they did onto an inanimate creation?

Sean - Exactly, yes - like Gollum for example. We're going to get more augmented reality like Pokemon Go, but what I'm really looking forward to is really real, three-dimensional objects that wander around in the world. Robots are the future of animation.


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