June 24, 2014

Animation Thesis: Art Imitates Life, Part I

ART IMITATES LIFE: An Exploration on the Advancements in the History of Animation Technology and the Effect on the Final Image is my college thesis submitted as part of the Visual Communication program at the State University of New York (Farmingdale).
The research had me read countless books and visit numerous animation galleries (which were plentiful in the early 1990’s) as well as speak to professionals in the industry. The galleries provided the opportunity to see examples of animation art produced by various studios through the decades and see first-hand the effects of the various technological innovations outlined below.
I also interviewed 2 animators to gain personal accounts of the artists directly involved in the craft. I visited Al Baruch in his Long Beach, NY home and spoke to him about his tenure at the Walt Disney Animation Studios in the 1950’s working on such notable films as Peter Pan and Lady and the Tramp as well as his time at Terrytoons Studios working on Mighty Mouse cartoons. I also interviewed Ruben Aquino from his office at the Walt Disney Feature Animation Studios in Orlando, FL while he was busy working on Mulan. These two individuals provided an insight to two different periods in animation history. Mr. Baruch’s interview offers a glimpse into the golden era of animation and my conversation with Mr. Aquino revealed the (then) current animation world at the time of his interview which was the beginning of the Disney Renaissance and while films like The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King were making the animators household names.
This thesis lacks coverage of the past 20 or so years in the technological advancements of the medium as it was originally written in 1996. We are now entering a phase in animation where the technology is beginning to exist as a facilitating tool. No longer are we looking at films which share that same generic CG look, but the artists are now pushing the boundaries to produce films which have an inherent style and personality. Disney’s Academy-award winning short ‘Paperman‘ is an excellent example of the marriage of style and technology. 
I’ve decided to break this into 3 postings: The text of the thesis, and the interviews individually.


Animation is derived from the fascination of light and motion.1 There were many precursors and experiments which eventually led to the form of animation that can be identified with today.

Since these experiments, people have been adding enhancements to the basic process of animation. From Winsor McCay and his assistants, where all the artwork was drawn by hand, to Walt Disney and his studio of artists who made the feature-length animated film a reality, to Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera and their studios which produced many television animated cartoons, and finally today with the influence of our current technology where animation thrives in almost every aspect of communication. Through these times (1900 with Winsor McCay and “Gertie the Dinosaur” until the present) technology has influenced and changed the look of animation. From the black and white silent films to the brilliance of color and the vibrancy of sound. From the illusion of dimensionality with the multiplane camera to the xerographic line process where the colors only need to be added. Finally the influence of the computer which eliminated the tedious work of inking and painting each individual cel and aided in the production of complicated scenes which would normally involve a large team of artists.

Animation is a task which includes the collaboration of many people: animators, assistant animators, inbetweeners, layout people, story people, background artists, voice talents, composers, musicians, camera operators, editors, producers, and directors. It is the creative collaboration of these people that make an animated film. Animation has appeared as entertainment in short and full feature lengths, television shows, commercial advertisements, educational productions and most recently in the use of interactive multimedia.

A Brief History

Animation and all film making is the result of the great interest with light and motion that man has had since the beginning of time. It is evident to art historians that artists have had an interest in motion. The great wall paintings of the Ancient Egyptians depicting processions in motion; the ancient Greek statue of the discus thrower; Bernini’s famous Baroque statue of David and Marcel Duchamp’s painting “Nude Descending a Staircase” are all examples of art from different cultures and time periods which are indicative of man’s involvement with the depiction of motion.2

The Impressionists understood that the human eye is capable of blending pure fragments of color placed side by side and early animators and film makers understood that the human eye is also capable of blending images shown sequentially at rapid intervals. Scientists call this the persistence of vision.

During the 17th century there was a great interest in the science of light, shadow and motion. Athanasius Kircher published his “Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae” (The Great Art of Light and Shadow) in 1645 in Rome.3 In his last chapter he described his invention of the magic lantern. Describing it as a box which contained a light source of either a candle or a lamp and a curved lens which projected images which were painted on a pane of glass and placed between the lens and the light source. This innovation was used a great deal for entertainment. Today, we use an improved version of this device known as a slide projector.

In 1671 this invention was improved by placing a revolving glass disc with a series of painted images that told a specific story. This was a popular trend through the late 1700’s found as entertainment during vaudeville shows, as a way to educate and eventually into the very popular Phantasmagoria, a type of horror show.

The weakness of these shows was the difficulty of rendering an image that would look convincing when projected.4 This is a problem still faced by animators today. In 1832, Sir David Brewster, the inventor of the kaleidoscope, wrote: “Even Michael Angelo would have failed in executing a figure an inch long with transparent varnishes, when all its imperfections were magnified. In order, therefore, to perfect the art of representing phantasms, the objects must be living ones, and in place of chalky ill-drawn figures mimicking humanity by the most absurd gesticulations, we shall have the phantasms of the most perfect delineation, clothed in real drapery, and displaying all the movements of life.”5

In 1824 Peter Mark Roget published “Persistence of Vision with Regard to Moving Objects”. Not all of his theories were correct but one theory presented has become the solid foundation that animation has grown on. He stated that the human eye will blend a series of sequential images into a single motion if the images are presented rapidly, with sufficient illumination, and interrupted regularly.6

Animation finally took form about a decade after the birth of the movie industry. Being that the beginning of the animation and movie industry are only a decade apart, many of the technological advances of the twentieth century are shared by both forms of film making.

Three important figures are associated with the beginning of the animation industry: J. Stuart Blackton, Emile Kohl and Winsor McCay.

Blackton was English-born and is best known for his short film entitled “Humorous Phases of Funny Faces”. This piece of work was exhibited at vaudeville shows where Blackton would stand next to the projected image of a face that would scowl or smile depending on the actions of Blackton. The filming of the faces was accomplished through use of a stop-motion camera where Blackton would add or remove elements of his drawing.7

Emile Cohl was a political cartoonist who in 1908 created a two-minute film called Phantasmagoria. This work required Cohl to render two thousand drawings. Cohl worked alone and is known to have created the first character who regularly appeared in animated films.8

Winsor McCay was also a cartoonist and is usually identified as “the father of American animation”. He regularly drew a comic strip dealing with a character called Little Nemo. Little Nemo was the first comic strip character who was actually transformed in an animated film. Perhaps the best known work that Winsor McCay accomplished was “Gertie the Dinosaur” released in 1914. McCay selected a dinosaur for his film proving to audiences that his films were not tracings.9 McCay created more than five thousand drawings for his films using India Ink on translucent rice paper. He hired an assistant, John Fitzsimmons, to retrace the background in each drawing. Finally the drawings were filmed. When presented, McCay stood beside the screen and gave Gertie directions and, amazingly to the audience, the dinosaur responded.

This film helped lay the foundations for an extremely important element in animation: character animation, where the character’s personality is expressed by movement. The film made such an impact on the public that it convinced the creator of Woody Woodpecker, Walter Lantz; Dave Fleischer and Dick Huemer to become animators.10

An original production cel from Winsor McCay’s “The Sinking of the Lusitania”.

His next film, “The Sinking of the Lusitania” (1918) a historical depiction of the liner which was sunk by a German submarine off the coast of Ireland, was the first film to use clear sheets of celluloid where the background would only need to be painted once and the active drawings could be placed on top and filmed in succession.11 The film also made use of a peg-hole system to help register the drawings. Winsor McCay went on to produce other animated films and not much is known about why he stopped producing films. It seems that he may have been overshadowed by the popular characters that were to come.

A Moment of Silence

“By 1927-28, audiences would groan when a cartoon came on. Animation had worn out its welcome. The novelty was gone. If sound hadn’t come in, the cartoon would have vanished.”
—Shamus Culhane

In the twenties, animation became commercialized with the founding of various animation studios who produced work not as a work of film art but work that could be sold to a theater company. Deadlines required that the animated films were completed as quickly as possible but still drawn with enough expression to tell the story. The greatest handicap for conveying personality during the first two decades of the animation industry was the absence of sound.12 The human character was hardly depicted because of the knowledge required to successfully animate a person that moved realistically. Personified animals were usually used and most characters were made up of spheres and rubber-hoses for arms and legs.13 The indication of elbows and knees was not necessary.

The studio owners began pressuring their animators to work hard. A certain number of drawings were expected each day. The films lost story development and the general public became apathetic.14 The cartoon industry struck a depression. Studios shut down and animators were jobless. Many of the brilliant ones, discouraged by orders of speed and simplicity, departed for other fields of endeavor.15 Many studios were using the technique that Winsor McCay initially used where the background needed to be retraced each time on each sheet of paper. This tedious process became very bland for the artists.

In December 1914, Earl Hurd patented the use of celluloid in animation.16 This process enabled the studio to produce only one background and use different cels for the changing area of the stage. This innovation eliminated the need to redraw the background and redirected the background artists to create more detailed backgrounds.

Animated stars of the silent era like Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, Koko the Clown and Felix the Cat were of the most popular. When Walt Disney created the first two shorts with Mickey Mouse, the general public and distributors were not interested in taking a gamble with the little known Mickey Mouse. It was in 1925 that Walt Disney Studios released “Steamboat Willie” starring Mickey Mouse along with the element that ultimately saved Mickey Mouse and Disney: sound.17 The film had been synchronized with the characters’ movements and two songs, “Steamboat Bill” and “Turkey in the Straw”. It is difficult to look at this film today and comprehend what it was that actually captivated audiences in its time.

The Disney Studio, being the largest animation studio worldwide during the “Golden Age of Animation”, is mostly to accept credit for the innovations that would occur to the relatively new art form.

The Brilliance of Color

One of the first innovations to the industry was color. Cels used to be painted with black, white and gray inks that would be washed off and reused two or three times until the cels were scratched. With the advent of color, paints had to be formulated to adhere to the slick surface of a cel which would ultimately stain the cels making it difficult to recycle and adding to the expense of a studio. The Disney Studio was exclusive for two years to the three-strip film process which was the basis to a color film in those days. After that, most studios struggling to maintain themselves in the public eye adopted the process.

Character development was another important innovation and remains what animators consider the most important element of a film today. Animator Frank Thomas in an interview with In Toon! Magazine states that character development is the most important thing in animation. If you don’t have strong, instant characters that the audience can identify with, they are not going to be able to get a hold of the film. The first thing you need to do when animating a scene is to portray that the character is thinking. Thinking is the thing that gives them the illusion of life.18

The Three Little Pigs from Walt Disney’s “The Big Bad Wolf” (1934) were the first characters that displayed difference in character by the way that each moved and acted as opposed to the general appearance of the character. All three little pigs were basically identical with the exception of their voices and clothing.

The Disney Studios engineered the multiplane camera.19 This camera consisted of different horizontal levels, one above another, that artwork could be placed on. The background was placed on the bottom level and different cels were placed on the levels above it. Each level was illuminated and the camera was at the top. Using this technology enabled the cameraman to focus on one element which created the illusion of depth. This innovation had very little effect on the outcome of the style of the film the way that sound and color did. Just the same, it is heralded on the same scale as color and sound.

This new ‘toy’ for the studio, the multiplane camera, was used in a test film, “The Old Mill”, which won an Oscar and gained critical acclaim.20 The time had come for the studio to embark on its greatest endeavor. The first full-length animated feature film. This was to be a project that lasted over a period of years.


An original production cel from Walt Disney’s production of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (1937). These cels were hand-inked and handpainted and rouge was applied to the cheeks of the character to make her appear more life like.


This original production drawing of Briar Rose from Walt Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty” exhibits the attention to detail and the preciseness required to successfully animate a human character.


These original production cels are indicative of the high level of craftsmanship of the era.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (1937) was the film that helped animation to climb the ladder of film history. No longer would animation be looked at as a short flick before the main attraction. Animation had become the attraction. The artists created a work of art that competed with live action films at the box office. Backgrounds were painted with extreme care and with every detail. Characters were developed to the fullest. Cels were inked and painted by hand with the care that has made each cel a genuine work of art collected by art collectors today. The use of one ink for the linework of a cel was changed to the use of hundreds of different colors and the film became the showcase for the next innovative step in animation history. The special effects used for the film helped to bring that extra spark of life to the characters and the story.

Disney Studios and the competition studios all worked in this manner, since the success of Disney with his first films. Animation had taken on a sophisticated, elegant look.


 Making Copies….

1961 and the release of 101 Dalmatians was the introduction to the first feature film that utilized the Xerox method.21 Once again, the studio had innovated the use of the Xerox copier to assist in the production of a film. The xerographic process is similar to the standard xerographic process used in offices today. The animator’s cleaned-up drawings were transferred, using the Xerox machine, to a clear sheet of acetate. The benefit of using the xerox process was the elimination of error that was a part of the hand-inking process. Especially with a film like 101 Dalmations where the film consists of over 100 dogs with spots that had to correspond from drawing to drawing, the elimination of error was critical to the success of the movie. The drawback was that the cels linework could only be printed in one color, usually black. The initial response from the studio was the reminder of early animated films from the 1920’s, which were thought to be crude looking and unsophisticated. Despite this one fact the cels were printed and then painted from the reverse.

Another drawback to the xerox process is the inability to successfully marry the flat look of the character with the traditional background painting. The solution to this problem, was pioneered by Ken Anderson.22 The backgrounds were painted in flat colors and the detail was added in a line drawing on a covering cel. The result was a perfect marriage.

When it was released, the general public embraced the contemporary look of the film. The success of the new technique was noted by the studio who continued to use the xerographic process and the animators who maintained a certain roughness in their linework to add to the styling of their films.


An original production cel from Disney’s “101 Dalmations”, the first film that used the xerographic process instead of inking cels.


This background from a Winnie-the-Pooh film illustrates the new style developed due to the use of the xerographic cel process. on the left, is the background painting and, on the right, is the addition of a cel overlay containing the inked linework.


Notice the difference in the line work of these two cels. The cel on the right, from Disney’s “Peter Pan” was meticulously hand inked and hand painted with an array of colors and tones. The cel on the left, from Disney’s “Robin Hood” uses the xerographic process. The use of various colors and tones in the inking is lost and the actual pencil lines from the animator’s drawing is reflected.

The xerographic process helped to create the television cartoon industry that demanded productions that were able to be produced cost-effectively and quickly to supply the weekly demand. Hanna-Barbera Studios is considered to be the leader when it comes to television animation.23 The hundreds of characters that have been created through their studios have become an important part of our culture. New companies following closely in the footsteps of these television pioneers are constantly appearing and surviving in this age where communication is capable in a variety of forms.


The Silicone Age

Today, computers play an integral part in animation. Computers usually assist in eliminating the immense amount of man-hours needed to create a complicated scene. Usually the scene is not an essential part of the film, but aids in creating a visually stimulating effect rather than using other methods to successfully depict the story and avoid the time-consuming scene. The initial drawings of the elements are usually scanned in and the computer can create a three-dimensional object.


This publicity drawing of Simba from “The Lion King”(1994) is similar to the animator’s production drawings which are digitally scanned into a computer
to be ‘inked’ and ‘painted’.

The use of computers in animation is constantly changing. Computers have helped to create backgrounds as in “Beauty and the Beast”, complicated scenes consisting of hundreds of moving elements like the wildebeest stampede in “The Lion King” , an actual character like Grandmother Willow in “Pocahontas” or the entire film “Toy Story”.

Probably the most effective use of the computer is the process currently employed by major studios. The use of cels and painters has been eliminated all together. The animator’s cleaned-up drawing today, is digitally scanned into a computer where the character can be digitally inked and painted.24 The hand prepared backgrounds are also scanned in and the entire film is composited through the use of computers. Finally, the film is transferred from a computer file to film. This process has enabled animators to achieve the sophisticated and elegant look that was used in the Golden Age of Animation. The use of sleek lines in abundant colors and tones, sophisticated special effects and the highly detailed and ornate backgrounds that were once used, without the great expense.


As there are no cels produced today in the production of a feature film, the only artwork created by hand is the drawings and backgrounds.



Technology has been the thriving backbone of this true American art. It has helped to changed it and shape it into an art form. Animation has become a rapidly growing industry that caters not only to the entertainment industry but, to educational, communicative and other areas. It is an industry which can not die down, yet what is to come cannot be seen.

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1. Charles Solomon, Enchanted Drawings: The History of Animation (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989) 3; 2. Bob Thomas, DISNEY’S Art of Animation: From Mickey Mouse to Beauty and the Beast (New York: Hyperion, 1991) 23; 3. Solomon, 4; 4. Solomon, 4; 5. Solomon, 4; 6. Solomon, 7; 7. Thomas, 24; 8. Thomas, 25; 9. Solomon, 17; 10. Solomon, 17; 11. Solomon, 18; 12. Thomas, 28; 13. Thomas, 28; 14. Thomas, 29; 15. Thomas, 29; 16. Solomon, 24; 17. Solomon, 40; 18. Phillip Giller, “A Man Dwarfed By None: An Interview with Frank Thomas,” In Toon! 4.2 (1993) : 14; 19. Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation (New York: Hyperion, 1981) 264; 20. Solomon, 58; 21. Thomas, 106; 22. Thomas and Johnston, 246; 23. Solomon, 242; 24. Stephen Rebello, “Pocahontas: Bringing History to Life,” Animation Magazine 8.5 (1995): 34-36, 48.


Aladdin: The Making of an Animated Film by John Culhane (1992)
The Animator’s Workbook by Tony White (Watson Guptill, 1986)
The Art of Animation: From Mickey Mouse to Beauty and the Beast by Bob Thomas (Hyperion, 1991)
The Art of Hanna-Barbera: Fifty Years of Creativity by Ted Sennett (Viking, 1989)
The Art of The Lion King by Christopher Finch (Hyperion, 1994)
The Art of Pocahontas by Stephen Rebello (Hyperion, 1995)
The Art of Walt Disney by Christopher finch (Abradale/Abrams, 1973 – reissued: Hyperion, 1991)
Bambi: The Story & the Film by Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, Inc., 1990)
The History of Animation by Charles Solomon (Knopf, 1989)
The Illusion of Life : Disney Animation by Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas (1981 – reissued: Hyperion, 1995)
The Disney That Never Was by Charles Solomon (Hyperion, 1995)
The Disney Villain by Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas (Hyperion, 1993)
Encyclopedia of Disney Animated Characters by John Grant (Hyperion, 1993)
Fantasia by John Culhane (Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1993)
The Flintstones: A Modern Stone Age Phenomenon by T.R. Adams (Turner, 1994)
My Life in Toons: From Flatbush to Bedrock in Under a Century by Joe Barbera (Turner, 1994)
[“Sketchbook”] (Walt Disney’s sketch-book of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs) (Walt Disney Enterprises, 1938 – reissued The Walt Disney Co. 1993)
Treasures of Disney Animation Art by Robert E. Abrams, John Canemaker (Artabras, 1982)
Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: An Art in Its Making by Martin Krause & Linda Witkowski (Hyperion, 1994)
Walt in Wonderland : The Silent Films of Walt Disney by Russell Merritt & J.B. Kaufman (UC Press, 1992)


  1. I wish i was good with words, excuse this poorly expressed comment,

    Just wanted to say what a fantastic read this is! it’s been a bit of revelation for my own practice enquiry, i just had to quote you in my own presentation. Such a tricky thing to write about , i found my self struggling to identify animation, when is it motion, when is movement, when is it animation, and trying to create a timeline of animation methodologies, i love the simplicity of how you have connected the past to today, especially your mention of light movement and the Ancient Egyptians reference!

    “Animation is not the art of drawings that move but the art of movements that are drawn.” Norman McLaren,” great quote i thought i throw in there

    • mkalami

      Hi Rachel,
      Thanks for your kind words. That is a great quote you’ve provided. All the best in your endeavors!

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