What was Walt Disney's first animated project

Animated film: history and technology

From thaumatrope to 3D computer animation: the history of animation film.

Definition of the term animated film

Animation is derived from the Latin animare (to bring to life) or anima (the soul). A moving image is created through several successive individual images. Exactly the same technique is used in real film. According to the film producer Thomas Meyer-Hermann, the animated film offers "all the great possibilities of real-life films and the director's absolute control over every single image".

The animator can let his creativity run wild, depict everything and even change laws. He is able to disregard space and time, determine new forms and movements and thus make things come true that are impossible in reality.

The origins of the animated film

The roots of animation can be found before the invention of film and the invention of photography. In 1825 the English physicist John Ayrton Paris invented the thaumatrope. This is a paper disc with different images on the front and back. If the disc is made to rotate with the help of two strings between the thumb and forefinger, the two images merge into one image. If, for example, a bird is depicted on one side and a cage on the other side, the impression arises that the bird is sitting in the cage.

In 1829 the Belgian Antoine Ferdinand Plateau published his research on the "retinal effect". It was about the ability of our eyes to capture the impression of an image for a fraction of a second after it has disappeared. Due to its inertia, the eye is unable to recognize the interval between two images shown in quick succession. If the individual images differ only slightly from one another, around 15 to 18 images per second are sufficient to give the viewer the illusion of flowing movement. With his findings, Plateau developed the phenakistiscope in 1831, a rotatable disc on which drawings of figures in various movement poses are arranged in a circle. So that only one drawing is visible at a time, the viewer has to see through slits on the edge of another disk that rotates parallel to the disk with the drawings. The change between slot and disc creates the impression of continuous movement.

The viewer of William Horner's Zoetrops must also look through slits. The slots are located at regular intervals on the edge of a rotating metal drum. Movement cycles drawn on strips of paper attached to the inner wall of the drum can be seen through the slots. A further development of the Zoetrops is the Praxinoscope, which was invented by Charles-Émile Reynaud in 1877. The slits were replaced by a mirror prism in the middle of the metal drum, thus enabling optical compensation that eliminated the dark pauses that could be seen through the slits when observing.

Eadweard Muybridge

The collections of photos by British photographer Eadweard Muybridge, which show animals and people in motion, are still used today by animation filmmakers and artists for their work. Muybridge was asked to prove the unsupported transit theory in horses. The theory says that all four legs of a galloping horse are temporarily in the air. To do this, he installed 12 cameras along a racecourse, which were triggered by the horse galloping past via pull wires, and his photos proved the theory. This project became the life's work of Muybridge, who in the following years produced many motion pictures, for example of flying birds, running animals and people demonstrating many different movements. In 1879 he invented the Zoopraxiscope, a variation of Reynaud's Praxinoscope, in order to be able to present his series recordings to an audience as a kind of film.

Winsor McCay

Although he was self-taught, Winsor McCay can be described as the first animated filmmaker. He was one of the most famous caricaturists and comic strip artists of his time, and according to his own statement, he traced the beginning of his work on his first animation film to a flip book that his son had brought him. In 1911 the seven-minute long film - a mixture of real film (McCay shows other cartoonists how he turned his cartoon characters into film) and animated film - was shown.

In 1914 McCay screened his film Gertie the Dinosaur. To do this, he performed "live" in front of the animated film projected on the screen and interacted with the female brontosaur Gertie from the film by offering her an apple that she ate from his hand. McCay breathed life into the dinosaur with his art of drawing and thus created the first artistic cartoon. While McCay is so important to animation film history, he made relatively few films. This is mainly due to the fact that he drew almost every single picture for his films himself and since animating with Cel foils had not yet been invented, the background had to be drawn on each picture. On his next film The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918) McKay worked for two years and made 25,000 drawings.

Walt Disney

In 1927 Walt Disney saw the first sound film The Jazz Singer. This convinced him of the need to add sound to animated films by synchronizing music and sounds with the action. The first Mickey Mouse film Steam Boat Willie (1927) was therefore specially designed as a sound film and was a sensational success. With the film, the golden age of American animation began, which lasted until the early 1960s. Walt Disney further developed the art of animation. Other animation filmmakers such as Winsor McCay or Max and Dave Fleischer had advanced the technique of animation, but the narrative style was repeated. Walt Disney showed his great narrative talent in the Mickey Mouse short films. Disney's partner Ub Iwerks was the graphic creator of Mickey Mouse, but Walt Disney was responsible for story development and direction. Other Disney Studio employees also introduced other Fundamental Inventions. Screenwriter Webb Smith invented the storyboard process. Before that, the stories were drawn up on loose sheets of paper. With Smith, each drawing was sketched on a separate sheet of paper and all the drawings pinned to a pin board. Individual actions in the course of the story were visible and drawings could be replaced or moved for changes in the course of the story.

2D animation

2D animation is the short form for two-dimensional animation and the collective term for all "flat" animation techniques such as animation film, flat figure film, silhouette film, cartoons, etc. The term stands for animation in the plane.

The animation film (also non-fiction film)

The animation film is the simplest and cheapest form of animation film. Only objects, a background and a camera are required. By manually intervening between each image - for example moving objects on the surface - a movement is simulated. The pioneer of the laying trick was the German cameraman Guido Seeber, who in his film The Mysterious Matchstick Box brought matches to life by repeatedly forming new formations with them. Seeber was mostly involved in advertising. He used the trick trick technique, among other things, to bring letters to life and to place them in the desired place after small movements. Flat-figure film and silhouette film developed from this technique.

The flat figure film (also sliding trick / cutout animation)

Flat-figure films consist of photos or drawn figures that are cut out and moved by shifting. Joints are usually attached to the figures to ensure better and faster movement. In the meantime, this technique has become very popular for depicting facts, among other things because of the inexpensive production. An example of flat-figure films are the animation sequences that Terry Gilliam produced for the films of Monty Python's Flying Circus (Great Britain 1969-74).

The silhouette film

The silhouette film or also colloquially silhouette film continues the old tradition of shadow theater. Various materials such as paper, cardboard, parchment or leather are used here. The shadow of the respective objects is projected onto a canvas, paper or glass and photographed again. A spatial look is achieved through the use of transparent paper, which is laid on top of one another in several levels. The silhouette film is often associated with the German animation film, as the well-known animator Lotte Reiniger worked with this technique. She became internationally known for her first feature film The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926), the first full-length animated film. With her dexterity, Reiniger created elegant, fairytale-like characters, which she knew how to perfectly stage in the mostly oriental stories. She also invented a system to adapt the movements to mostly classical music. She also invented a system to adapt the movements to mostly classical music. She created a score for each piece and the necessary number of images of each - like a choreographer in ballet.

The cartoon

With this animation technique, the creative possibilities are limitless. The animation filmmaker can work with the cartoon film both realistically and abstractly. Among other things, it is possible to show changes in elegant, fluid movements. This type of “shape change” is called “morphing”. One of the morphing specialists in Germany is Andreas Hykade. In his 2010 film Love and Theft, he blends famous comic and movie characters and other iconic portraits.

Animation technique

The cartoon consists of a series of drawn movement phases. Film is usually exposed at a frame rate of 24 frames per second. In animated films, phase doubling is used, which means that every phase of movement is recorded twice on the animation table. Production usually starts with an animator making drawings on a light table.

The worktop of the table consists partly of a frosted glass pane that is illuminated from below. So he can see through the top drawing and compare it with the other drawings in the sequence. In the past, the drawings were transferred to transparent foils, so-called cels, and colored on them. The cels were then placed on the background images and photographed individually. As a result, the backgrounds did not have to be recreated for each individual image. In large animated film productions, the chief draftsman (key draftsman) only draws the beginning and end phases of the movement and the remaining phases are supplemented by intermediate phase draftsmen.

This was the most common form of animation until the 1990s. Then it was replaced by 2D computer animation. The drawings are scanned in and supplemented with the computer, colored and combined with the respective background. Basically the same steps are carried out as in manual work - here too an artist has to draw the key phases and determine the colors. The work of the intermediate phase draftsman is done by the computer.

Despite computer technology, there are or still existed studios that only use computer animation to a very limited extent and mainly used classic animation technology. The best-known example of this is the Japanese studio Ghibli (Spirited Away). With the retirement of the studio founder Hayao Miyazaki in 2014, however, the studio is currently on an indefinite break in film production.

3D animation

Preliminary remark: The term 3D animation is mostly used in connection with 3D computer animation (see below). However, it is also used as an umbrella term to distinguish it from 2D animation for the following animation techniques:

Stop motion or object animation

This is the oldest and simplest form of animation and was used very often in the past to create realistic models of monsters etc., which were then used in real film scenes. Models (plasticine figures, dolls, Lego blocks, etc.) are recorded individually. They are moved slightly from picture to picture so that a fluid movement can be seen in the finished film. This technique is still popular today with directors and animators such as Tim Burton (Corpse Bride) and Nick Park (Wallace & Gromit).

Kneading animation or claymation

In the kneading animation, figures are animated in a stop-motion process, one frame at a time. The characters can act so expressively, go through metamorphoses and do the physically impossible. Most animation filmmakers use plasticine to build their models. The animated filmmaker Will Vinton registered the term "claymation" in 1976 to describe the technique he used for his clay animation films. The most famous clay animations were produced by the British production company Aardman, including Wallace & Gromit (1992-2005), Chicken Run (2000) and Shaun the Sheep - The Movie (2015).

The puppet film

In the puppet film, puppets, hand puppets and other models are brought to life. Compared to the theater, there are no longer any spatial or temporal restrictions. In principle, this form of animation works like a real film, with the exception that the main characters are only images of people. Because of this extreme resemblance to humans, great importance is attached to the scene image that appears as realistic as possible. The production costs of a puppet film are quite higher compared to the other animation techniques, since, as with real film, a studio is required and several people are involved in the film project. The difficulty with puppet cartoons lies in dialogue.

Most early animated filmmakers got around this hurdle by letting the puppets speak without moving their mouths, as they did in puppet theater before. In Germany, the best-known representatives of this form of animation were the Diel brothers, who began in the 1930s. To solve the problem, they developed dolls with movable mouths and rolling eyelids. These tricks made the characters look more alive. The Diehl brothers produced several short films and advertising films. They gained notoriety through the Mecki films.

Brick film

Thanks to inexpensive digital cameras and computers, the production of stop-motion films is now very inexpensive and easy. Films with Lego bricks, called brick films, are particularly popular with amateur animation filmmakers. A well-known brick film is the student film Die Helden von Bern (University of Applied Sciences Offenburg, 2002). The 11-minute short film shows the highlights of the 1954 World Cup final with animated Lego figures. A well-known commercial brick film is the award-winning music video for Fell in Love with a Girl (2002) by the band The White Stripes, produced by French filmmaker Michel Gondry.


Instead of objects or dolls, people are photographed individually in pixilation films. This gives your movements a time-lapse effect, making them look like slightly faltering figures in an old stop-motion film. Pixilation is widely used in music videos. The best-known example is the video for the song Sledgehammer by Peter Gabriel (Aardman, 1985).

Neighbors by Norman McLaren is the best-known pixilation short film. The film by the Canadian filmmaker is about two neighbors who get into an argument about a flower that grows between their properties, because each one claims it for himself. In doing so, they trample on the flower, destroy the house, kill each other's families and end up killing each other in a fight. For the submission to the Oscar in 1953, the scenes in which the killing of women and children can be seen were removed, but added again years later. Strangely enough, the film was accepted in the category of best documentary (short film) and even won an Oscar.

3D computer animation

John Lasseter's Toy Story

Toy Story is a milestone in animation film history. It was the first full-length animated film produced entirely with computers. With Toy Story, John Lasseter and Pixar Studios proved to the world that it is possible to create personable characters with human personalities using computer animation. Before Toy Story, most animated filmmakers were very skeptical of characters made on the computer. Lasseter and his team followed the principles of character development that Walt Disney and others had established in the first half of the twentieth century and applied them to their computer-produced characters.

“A character only becomes believable and convincing when it has a personality. If this personality is absent, it can do the strangest and most interesting things; the viewer will not identify with her, and then her behavior will seem implausible. The result is, in the end, that he also closes the story. "(Walt Disney)

Using toy figures as the main character was a good move because in 1995 the capabilities of computers were still limited.Computer-animated people and hairy animals could not yet be designed convincingly on the computer, but plastic toys were perfect for the plastic-like look and lack of flexibility that were typical of computer-animated characters at the time. 100 computers were used for approx. 800,000 hours for Toy Story to compute more than 110,000 individual images.

Production steps for 3D computer-animated films

Character design

For a 3D computer-animated figure, a reference must be created, i.e. a drawing that can then be made digitally as a 3D model. In order to define and understand every aspect and every point of view, the figure is drawn from the front, from the side, from behind and possibly also from above or below. This information is necessary to create a corresponding 3D figure in the computer. For a more comprehensive design, a model made of clay or plasticine may also be suitable. The model should be three-dimensional and stable so that it can be picked up and viewed from all angles. In the meantime, models can also be transferred directly to the computer with 3D scanners. In most cases, however, retouching work on the scanned digital model is still necessary. The main difference between 2D and 3D animation is that 3D animation has to work with all possible angles. When creating a 3D figure, the 3D modeler must therefore regularly check whether the figure is plausible from all angles.


The model of the figure is made up of polygons that define the boundaries of the surface. A polygon is a polygon, i.e. a geometric figure in which at least three corner points are connected to one another by straight lines. Any 3D model can be created by combining and modifying basic geometric shapes such as cubes, cones, spheres or cylinders. The backgrounds are also modeled. They differ from the figures in that they are fixed three-dimensional surroundings. Of course, these environments can also be animated, for example when it comes to tornadoes or volcanoes.

A finished model is initially a carefully worked out hollow framework that cannot yet move by itself. In order to be able to animate the model, it must be constructed accordingly. For this purpose, an articulated skeleton (rig) is placed within the model. The skeleton must take into account all joint movements such as those of the shoulders, elbows, hips or knees. Rigging determines how the individual parts of the polygon network can move. If the surface of a model is deformed by a certain joint movement, the polygon arrangement must be revised accordingly.

The last important step in modeling the figure is applying the texture. So far, the model has only been available as a grid or as an arrangement of polygons. Texturing, i.e. the application of a surface structure, can be imagined as if the surface, for example skin or clothing, is glued onto the wire frame model of the figure.


Once the models have been created, the animation can begin. Four work steps are necessary for this: blocking out, creating the key poses, inserting the inbetweens and the fine-tuning.

When blocking out, the static figure is inserted into all environments that are required during the movement. For example, if the figure is to run forward, the stationary figure must be positioned in all key positions that are required in the scene. Once the figure is positioned, the key poses can be added. First, the key points of the figure moving forward are determined and then the arms and legs are positioned. In the 3D animation, movements are recorded from different camera angles in the course of the film. Therefore, the key poses should always be viewed from different perspectives.

The inbetweens, which had to be specially created by intermediate phase drafters in classic animation, are generated by the computer in 3D animation. However, they still need to be refined and adjusted afterwards so that the movements look more natural.

At the end of a 3D computer animation, finished images are generated from the computer data during rendering. The more polygons the images contain, the higher the performance requirements. Lifelike fur or hair, for example, need a very high level of computing power.

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