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10 Revolutionary Breakthroughs in Animation History

These 10 breakthroughs changed the world of animation forever.

In rough chronological order, you will see how these ten animation breakthroughs were so revolutionary, that many of the techniques were still used decades later.

1. The First Traditional Animated Short

French artist Émile Cohl is credited with the first ever animated film – 1908’s Fantasmagorie. The hand drawn film follows a stick figure running into morphing objects. Cohl made the film by drawing each frame on a piece of paper and shooting it on film. There are a few scenes in the film where Cohl’s hands are visible while taking the photograph.

Here is a look at the animated short film from classiccartoon.

2. First Synchronized Sound and Dialogue

In 1924, brothers Max and Dave Fleischer released Oh Mabel, a seven minute animated short that used Phonofilm to sync sound and footage. It was the first animated film to have a talking character with synced dialogue – a dog shouting “Follow the ball, and join in, everybody!”

This short was released four years before Walt Disney perfected synchronization in the infamous 1928 Steamboat Willie cartoon, which introduced the world to Mickey Mouse.

3. The Multiplane Camera

To break away from the previously one-dimensional work of animation, Walt Disney (and his team led by William Garity) devised a new machine dubbed the multiplane camera. The device use a series of glass panes with individual elements painted on them. A camera was placed high above all the planes of glass and an image was taken. Then individual panes were moved – and another photo taken. This created a three dimensional world in which elements in the foreground would move separately from those in the background.

The device was first tested in the 1937 short, The Old Mill. The final product featured realistic depictions of animals and weather, as well as complex lighting and color effects. The stunning work earned The Old Mill an Oscar for Best Short Subject, Cartoons.

Here is Walt Disney himself explaining the technology in this short from Disney Family.

The team at Disney made modifications to the machine for work on the first ever feature length animated film – which leads to our next major breakthrough.

4. First Feature Length Cel-Animated Film

snow white and the seven dwarfs
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. SNAP/REX/Shutterstock.

You can’t write about animation breakthroughs without including the 1937 animated film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Produced by Walt Disney, the film was a massive critical and commercial success – which is incredible for a film that so many thought would bankrupt Disney. Using the multiplane camera used in The Old Mill, Disney and his small crew managed to get the film finished in time.

Late in 1935, when Dad began work on Snow White, he was backing away from short subjects. They were merely program fillers, so they couldn’t be worth all the money they were costing to produce. Costs kept rising. And it was easy to see that if cartoon rentals rose enough to meet production costs, theaters would use fewer and fewer of them. The trend was already. visible. Speaking of this period, Dad told me, ‘Your Uncle Roy was worrying about our getting our money back with a profit, and I was worrying about maintaining our quality and keeping production going. This caused some headbutting between us. To me, the way to get out of the fix we were in was to start competing in the feature-length field and aim for a big profit on a large production instead of a small profit on a short subject.’ – Diane Disney Miller

The bet paid off. What was once referred to as Disney’s Folly, Snow White has stood the test of time and remains one of the most successful and influential animated films ever made

5. First Primetime Animated Television Show

William Hanna Joseph Barbera
William Hanna and Joseph Barbera. Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock.

Hanna-Barbera brought countless characters into audiences’ homes with their impressive catalog of television shows. In the 1950s, they earned an Emmy for their work on The Huckleberry Hound Show, which also led to the Yogi Bear spinoff. However it was their work in the 1960s that truly changed animation.

From 1960 through 1966, Hanna-Barbera produced The Flintstones for ABC – the first ever primetime animated show. It was the most financially successful animated franchise until the debut of The Simpsons. The Flintstones had the perfect blend of stone age comedy and 1960s family life.

Hanna-Barbera would go on to produce a similar primetime series, The Jetsons, as well as other animated hits like Johnny Quest and Scooby Doo, Where are You!.

6. Xerography

One Hundred and One Dalmations
One Hundred and One Dalmations. SNAP/REX/Shutterstock.

In 1942, Chester Carlson developed an electrophotographic (or dry photocopying) technique later dubbed Xerography. (The term comes from the Greek xeros – dry and graphia – writing).

Disney legend Ub Iwerks adapted the technique for animation – first testing its use during the production of Sleeping Beauty and the short film Goliath II. It would be the 1961 Disney classic One Hundred and One Dalmations that truly utilized xerography for the first time in an entire feature length production. Xerography became the standard animation process at Walt Disney Studios up until 1989.

7. A Computer Animated Hand

In 1972, University of Utah researchers Ed Catmull and Fred Parke developed a computer animated short of Catmull’s left hand. A Computer Animated Hand used 350 triangles and polygons to create a 3D model. The model was then animated in a program created by Catmull himself.

The work was sensational. Never before had something like this been done. Catmull would find himself in front of Disney executives pitching his program and animation technique – but the studio had no interest in using computers for animated films. They asked if Catmull would use his program with Imagineers to develop Disney World rides like Space Mountain.

Catmull went on to develop the Computer Graphics Lab at the New York Institute of Technology, and later developed The Graphics Group at George Lucas’ Lucasfilm. That computer division was later sold to Apple Computer and renamed Pixar.

In 2011, the US Library of Congress dubbed the short animated film culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant – adding it to the National Film Registry.

Here is a look at A Computer Animated Hand from shieldsdundee.

8. First Live-Action and Cartoon Animation Feature Film

Who Framed Roger Rabbit
Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock.

Using live action actors interacting with animated characters had been used since the early days of animation. In fact, some of Walt Disney’s earliest short films were based on Alice in Wonderland – starring a real girl as Alice meeting animated characters.

However, it wouldn’t be until 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit that a live action actor and an animated character would share the screen the entire time in a feature film. The film was produced on a 30 million dollar budget – which was the most expensive animated film ever green-lit at the time. The film used blue screen technology to capture the actors, and the animated characters were added in using traditional cell animation techniques. Post-production lasted over fourteen months – with the film’s budget ballooning over $50 million. The animated footage was sent to Industrial Light and Magic for compositing.

Upon release, Who Framed Roger Rabbit was a critical success and box office smash. It was the second highest grossing film of the year. The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards, walking away with 4 – including a Special Achievement Award for Richard Williams‘ animation direction and creation of the cartoon characters.

9. Computer Animation Production System (CAPS)

Beauty and the Beast
Beauty and the Beast. SNAP/REX/Shutterstock.

The Computer Graphics Lab at NYIT first developed a scan and paint system for cel animation in the late 1970s. This was the beginning of a digital ink and paint program used to digitally color films in post production. The goal was to input an animator’s drawings into a computer. The computer would then recognize the individual lines, and allowed users to fill shapes with colors.

In 1989, the Computer Animation Production Systems, or CAPS, was tested on the finale of the feature film The Little Mermaid. CAPS was used to color the rainbow sequence at the end of the film. Following its success, CAPS was used to color the entire 1990 feature film The Rescuers Down Under.

CAPS would go on to develop 2D and 3D integration, allowing animators to color sequences that featured hand drawn characters in digital spaces like Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. CAPS was used up until the 2004, eventually replaced when Disney closed their 2D animation studio in favor of 3D computer animated films.

10. First Computer Animated Feature Film

toy story
Toy Story. Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock.

After creating the first ever CGI short film, The Adventures of Andre and Wally B., Pixar Animation Studios aimed to meet their original goal of making the first ever feature length computer animated film. With Ed Catmull’s technology and John Lasseter‘s art and storytelling, the leadership and work of Pixar would influence every animation studio worldwide.

The 1995 animated film Toy Story wasn’t only revolutionary in the fact that it was the first computer animated feature, it set up the computer animation workflow that has since been adapted for new technology – yet still mostly in place today. Catmull and Lasseter have continued to push the technological boundaries of their animated films – constantly created new software and hardware to handle the massive amounts of data — something they still do to this day as heads of Walt Disney Animation and Pixar.

Top Image: Walt Disney via Moviestore Collection/REX/Shutterstock

Read more about animation, from the influence of Hayao Miyazaki on Disney and Pixar, to the best animated voice overs of all time.

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