The History of Animation

The human imagination is limitless and sometimes our creative minds come up with stories and subject matter that just can’t be achieved with real actors, props and costumes. Cue animation: the art of bringing images to life.  The techniques that created these animations, once painstaking, has made leaps and bounds thanks to advances in technology.

October 28th is Animation Day and to celebrate, we thought we’d take some time to look back at just how far animation has come over the last century. For brevity’s sake, we’ll stick to the impact that animation has had on TV and film. After all, no matter how old you are, it’s a safe bet that you’ve seen some animation in your time that has knocked your socks off!

1900s: The first animated short film

Although a few other films had been created in the years prior, Fantasmagorie is widely considered the first true animated film. Created by Emile Cohl, the short film follows a stick figure who encounters other characters and transforming objects. At the time, chalkboard caricatures were popular on vaudevilles circuits, so the drawings were filmed in negative to give the animation the appearance of a chalkboard drawing brought to life.

Fantasmagorie has long since entered the public domain and you can feast your eyes here:

1910s: Rotoscoping adds more realism

In 1915, Max Fleischer developed the rotoscope technique, where projection equipment is used to trace figures from stills of live-action footage. This method allowed animators to get a better understanding of the finer aspects of a moving form to create realistic, fluid motion in animated pieces. Fleischer’s patent on rotoscoping expired in 1934, allowing other animators to swoop in and freely use the technique.

1920s: Traditional animation picks up steam

Animator Walt Disney founded his own studio in California which (as his name suggests) would later become Walt Disney Studios, a titan in the industry. Although it was the third instalment of the Mickey Mouse series, it was the 1928 classic, Steamboat Willie, where Mickey Mouse finally captured the hearts of the public. Recurring characters from the series such as Minnie Mouse, Goofy, and Donald Duck are still around today!

1930s: Walt’s gamble pays off

Throughout the early 1930s, the “rubber hose” style of animation dominated the industry, typically set to jazz music which was popular for the era (it can also be found in Cuphead, the latest indie game sensation available on Steam).

Then along came Disney’s Snow White and Seven Dwarfs. Released in 1937, it was the first feature-length film created entirely with hand-drawn animation. As the first of its kind, Disney had to fight hard to get the film released, even mortgaging his own house to help pay the massive production costs. However, the film was a tremendous success and it paved the way for many more iconic Disney movies to come! One thing’s for sure – they don’t make film trailers like they used to!

1940s: Animation takes to television

In previous decades, you could only find animation in movie theatres, where most people sought out their dose of animated entertainment. As home TVs became more popular, the very first animated TV series debuted in the form of Crusader Rabbit, a series of 4-minute long satirical cliffhangers which would continue to air as late as the 1970s. One of its creators, Jay Ward, would later go on to create The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show.


1950s: Helping out in horror flicks

In the days long before computer-generated images (CGI), traditional animation methods such as stop-motion were used as an alternative to having someone dress up in a monster costume, which could look cheesy and a little less scary. Following the example of the original King Kong, “creature features” such as The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and It Came From Beneath the Sea used stop-motion animation for many of their monster scenes.


1960s: Saturday morning cartoons become commonplace

When colour TVs hit the market in the previous decade, it opened up a world of creative opportunities for animation in mass media. Airing cartoons such as The Flinstones on a Saturday morning when kids didn’t have school became a common trend. Xerography was also adapted to speed up the production process by printing animator’s drawings directly onto animation cels (the transparent sheets they were drawn on so they could be layered over backgrounds) instead of hand-inking them. The first feature film to use this technique was One Hundred and One Dalmatians.

1970s: Animation for adults

Who says animation is just for kids? As society become increasingly more experimental throughout the 1970s, creators broke out of the stereotype of kid-friendly subject matter and adapted Robert Crumb’s comic strip Fritz the Cat into an animated comedy film of the same name. Not shying away from controversial topics, Fritz the Cat was a huge success in counterculture and an R-rated sequel would follow just a few years later.

1980s: Space operas are big in Japan

There’s no doubt that Japanese animation, more commonly known as anime, is a huge part of animation today. In the decades prior, however, the Japanese animation industry had shrunk due to increased competition from television. Inspired by the commercial success of the Star Wars franchise, however, space operas Mobile Suit Gundam and Space Battleship Yamato were revived as theatrical films, sparking the beginning of the 1980s “anime boom” that would spread throughout Japan, the USA, and then the world!

We also saw the very first use of computer-generated imagery (CGI) for a cartoon-style animation in the form of Pixar’s The Adventures of André and Wally B. This type of animation started out with a much more simplistic art style as graphics were created entirely on computer software without involving hand-drawn images.


1990s: The age of computers

Rapid advancements in computer technology revolutionised animation production throughout the nineties. Walt Disney’s Rescuers Down Under was the first feature film created using a Computer Animation Production System that removed the need for a traditional animation camera. Released in the same decade, Toy Story was the first fully computer-animated film, utilising artistic techniques such as transparent shading and blended colours that weren’t possible using older forms of animation.

This was also a great time for Australian animation with the release of two much-loved feature films in 1992: FernGully: The Last Rainforest and Blinky Bill: The Mischievous Koala.


2000s: The Flash craze

At the dawn of the new millennium, Flash was installed on the vast majority of desktop computers to display interactive web pages, games and video. The Macromedia Flash software (what we now know as Adobe Flash) grew in popularity both inside and outside of the professional industry and communities formed around websites such as Newgrounds and YouTube where anyone was free to share their creations with the world.

2010s: Present day

Today, animation is a bustling industry with heavy exposure across all manner of websites, social media, TV and film for all ages. Although the age of Flash is over, computer animation techniques remain the most popular due to their creativity versatility and increasing accessibility.

That said, techniques with more traditional roots are still finding a way to adapt – stop-motion picture ParaNorman used 3D printing to create models rather than sculpting them by hand. Even children’s toys such as StikBot and Mattel’s Minecraft Stop-motion Movie Creator are encouraging kids to get creative and give animation a try, so who know what we’ll see once they’re grown up!


Are you a fan of animation? Let us know your favourite animation in the comments.

Image credits


  1. Ross says:

    Thanks Gina, Pleased to see Emile Cohl and the Fleischers acknowledged. I hope people receiving this newsletter are stimulated to track down early animation, as I have.

    • Gina Thompson says:

      I hope so too, Ross! I knew a little bit about animation before I started research for this article but I was amazed at just how much there was once you really get into it! Editing it down was a challenge. – Gina

  2. Heather says:

    Back in the ’70s and early ’80s the Australian company Burbank Films in Paddington (Sydney) made lots of animated movies. Mainly classic stories about 90 mins. such as ‘The Man in the Iron Mask’ ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ ‘A Study in Scarlet’ Employing about 50 Australian animators, in-betweeners, editors, composers such as Mark Isaacs and John Stuart. Such a pity when it could no longer compete cost-wise.

  3. Steve says:

    I’m a fan of Anime, I watch it over what ever happens to be on TV these days because…. repeats. You can watch MASH too many times.

    Favorite Anime atm is “Acchi Kocchi”. It’s cute and funny. Wish I was Io!

  4. Ken says:

    What no mention of “Felix the Cat” a Aussie cartoon that predates Mickey Mouse.

  5. Cam Ford says:

    In 1972, Eric Porter released Australia’s first animated feature film “Marco Polo Jr”, now available on DVD for the first time:

  6. Kris says:

    No mention of Studio Ghibli/Miyazaki? A renowned body of work that everyone should see – and are still popular today, with cinemas around the country doing Studio Ghibli seasons annually.

  7. The wind and the water-flow keep remaking the world and we put too much attention in change that spins from phantasy. All well to pamper phantasy, but what happens naturally still has plenty to interest a mind.

  8. a v e r y says:

    why are the videos restricted?