Funny Pictures: A Brief History of Animation

Animation has long been considered a children’s entertainment, but in recent decades this has been talked about less and less: a lot of cartoons and animated series have appeared both for mixed audiences and for “very adults”, and everyone and sundry enjoy the fruits of animation progress.

Film Dictionary

It is incorrect to argue who was the very first animator: there were many first ones. Even primitive people can argue for the right to be considered the pioneers of animation, because it was they who first fixed the phases of movement of schematically depicted drawn figures with charcoal on the wall. Something similar can be seen on ancient Greek vases. True, it was only in the 19th century that they thought of combining such images into a tape launched at a certain speed and forcing all the pictures to merge into one changing frame. Popular amusements of that time were phenakistoscope, zoitrope, praxinoscope and other primitive prototypes of a modern movie camera, which, however, were not capable of anything more than a short drawn “loopback” clip. Although the inventor of the praxinoscope, Jean-Emile Renault, went a little further than his colleagues: his projector no longer worked with rotating disks, but with a transparent film equipped with perforations. But his brainchild still lacked the element of filming: Renault painted images on film by hand, without the participation of a photo process.

The true potential of hand-drawn animation (called animation in the USSR in consonance with the application) was revealed already after the Lumiere brothers demonstrated the wide possibilities of film in 1895, and the directors Blackton and Smith, inspired by this, brought to the surface the first film in stop-motion technology. “Circus of Lilliputians”. Not stopping at experiments with wooden toys, the same Jay Stuart Blackton a couple of years later, in 1900, presented to the public “The Enchanted Drawing” – a tape with animated inserts (it is believed that the first attempt at a full-fledged hand-drawn animation filmed frame by frame) . In this, as in the subsequent works of Blackton, there was still no plot – a coherent cartoon story loomed on the horizon only in 1908, when the first European animator Emile Cole became more active; the French cartoonist released the cartoon Phantasmagoria, which, in addition to the plot, was also endowed with a recognizable character (however, he cut out his figure from paper – moving it inside the frame was easier than constantly redrawing it).

Six years later, in 1914, his overseas cartoonist colleague Winsor McKay, who drew inspiration from comics, took over the baton, launching the first series with a regular protagonist, Gertie the dinosaur (later he would also come up with Felix the Cat). For the first issue, the “father of American animation” painstakingly drew thousands of pictures. It turned out to be very troublesome to draw each frame, but in the same year, the invention of Earl Hurd, who worked at John Bay Studios, greatly simplified the technology: now the background was drawn once, and only characters drawn on transparent celluloid sheets and superimposed on top changed from frame to frame (respectively work was also divided: different people were now engaged in drawing characters and drawing “backs”). In 1918, cartoons ceased to be short films – the Argentine “full meter” “The Apostle” appeared. During this time, by trial and error, it was found that in order for the image to remain smooth and not twitch, the picture should change at least 10-12 times per second, although the more the better.

Then … then came Walt Disney, dividing the history of world animation into “pre-Disney” and everything that happened after.

What did Disney do?

He saw deep commercial potential in animation and bet on it. In 1928, Disney released the first sound cartoon, Steamboat Willie, which featured Mickey Mouse, one of the world’s most famous cartoon characters to this day. In 1931, Walt made the first color cartoon “Flowers and Trees”, which brought him an Oscar, and in 1937, the first Disney sound feature “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” was released, which had an unprecedented financial success – it began the “golden age” » studio, whose stock skyrocketed. In addition, Walt improved the technique of celluloid transfers and introduced many other innovations to the process, later taken for granted by other majors.

Disney is beginning to set the tone in animation, in pursuit of its success, competing studios are launching activities that draw their own animated series (like Looney Toons from Warner Bros. and Tom and Jerry from the Hanna-Barber duo). True, they prefer to draw short cartoons that are convenient to show in the cinema before the main session. This is not enough for Disney: he crushes the “full-length” market under himself. No one draws cartoons alone anymore, this stage has been passed – now hundreds of people are simultaneously working on the movements of cartoon characters.

On Disney projects, before starting work on each scene, storyboards are drawn, like in a big movie: the work of artists is too expensive to improvise, make mistakes and then spend time reworking, so the whole team must immediately clearly understand whether the visual solution of a particular frame successful. If dozens of artists work on a project, they have to unify their authoring styles so that the cartoon looks whole – for this they are provided with images of characters in different poses and with different facial expressions, sometimes they even sculpt their sculptures. In the 60s, when each “full meter” already meant hundreds of jobs and there was no room for trial and error at all, professional screenwriters began to be invited to full-length projects, prescribing the plot from A to Z (before that, the process looked different: artists drew storyboards scenes by which the investor judged the future tape, and after the allocation of the budget, the storyboarders were instructed to compose a full-fledged story).

Otherwise, regardless of the budget and the number of people involved in the work, until the end of the 20th century, the process of hand-drawn animation remained practically unchanged: having outlined the plan of each scene using storyboard sketches, the artist works at a special table with bright illumination of the workspace, methodically superimposing on a stationary background layers of transparent celluloid with characters drawn on them in different phases of movement, photographs the resulting “sandwich” twice with a special camera (for a demonstration at a speed of 24 frames per second, thus, 12 pictures per second of animation are needed). And so day after day – the production of cartoons takes months and years.

Of course, the animation that flourished in the 20th century also knew other techniques – puppet, plasticine, sand, silhouette, rotoscopic (when a movie image shot on camera with real actors was carefully drawn by the artist frame by frame, turning into a cartoon), etc. Different countries have developed their own characteristic styles – for example, in the USSR of Stalin’s time, the state order for the film adaptation of folk tales with a naturalistic depiction of characters (that is, no caricature or hypertrophy, all bodily proportions within the framework of the anatomical atlas) dominated. In Japan, after the introduction of TV, the “anime” style appeared: in order to quickly fill the TV channels with animated series, to save time, local animators animated only part of the image (hence the dominance of characteristic static frames, in which only the character’s mouth moves). Experiments were practiced on the introduction of cartoon characters into the cinema world, where they interacted with live actors – many people remember the tapes “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”, “The Last Action Hero”, “Cold World” or “Space Jam”. At the same time, stop-motion animation has become one of the most important tools for cinematic special effects masters (the protagonist’s battle with the skeletons in Jason and the Argonauts remains one of the strongest experiences for many older viewers to this day).

The era of computers has dramatically changed the face of animation. Pixar, which began with the production of special effects for Star Wars and TV commercials, came up with a revolutionary feature-length project in 1995 – Toy Story, made using 3D modeling technology. The film was an incredible success, and Pixar quickly became the flagship of the world of animation and was eventually bought by Disney. It is believed that it was “Toy Story” that hammered the first nails into the coffin of hand-drawn animation, although in fact, Disney artists began to depart from the classical tradition in the mid-80s, having learned to program their cameras to “hover”, as well as to zoom in, zoom in and out. other things previously inaccessible to animators. The last fully hand-made cartoon was The Little Mermaid (1988), after which the Disney people switched to CAPS technology: they began to sketch only the outlines of the characters by hand, and then they were scanned and painted on a computer. So Pixar and the Dreamworks studio, which joined in the “shattering of the canons”, only brought the process to its logical conclusion, completely reorienting Hollywood towards tapes with a “volumetric” picture, which the classical 2D approach could not give. The revolutionary tapes “Terminator 2” and “Jurassic Park” also contributed to the progress, after which no one had any doubts about the power of computer technology. The success of competitors and the decline in their own popularity after a wave of hits forced to get away from classical animation, which was bringing in less and less money, the studio switched to CGI graphics, and in the middle of the 2000s, in order to strengthen its position, it also bought Pixar.

But there was one catch, codenamed “uncanny valley”. Its meaning is that any animal drawn on a computer is perceived by the viewer without pretensions – for him, all bears “have the same face”, and few people will pay attention if the bear’s ears are larger than they should be or the eyes are not the right shape. The caricature of a person also does not cause any complaints. But attempts at accurate photographic reproduction of a human face produce a repulsive impression and cause subconscious disgust: this is how the human brain reacts to being fooled (perhaps the fact is that perfectly symmetrical human faces that a computer creates are extremely rare in real life). ). An animated object of this kind only enhances the unpleasant sensation. Therefore, today’s robots are not made to look like people, and they do not try to turn mannequins into high-precision figures from Madame Tussauds. So it’s not at all surprising that Pixar, when drawing people, prefers a caricature presentation: human facial expressions are too complex to be calculated and reproduced naturally even by the most powerful computer, so it’s better not to disgrace yourself. Sylvain Chomet, an adherent of the “old school”, said in this regard: “Computer graphics are good for depicting toys and robots, but not people.” However, computer technologies, if they claim to conquer the world, cannot do without human faces! How to give computer homo sapiens realism?

In the struggle for realism, a curious experiment took shape: starting from the middle of the 2000s, Robert Zemeckis, who once made friends with the animated Roger Rabbit and film actor Bob Hoskins, tried for several years to instill human traits in flat cartoon characters: he filmed the game of live actors, whom he then transformed into cartoon characters ( with the preservation of facial resemblance), and received the output of three-dimensional cartoons in which not only voices, but also facial expressions and movements belonged to real movie stars. Why bother with programming facial expressions (the most complicated process, controlled by a huge amount of muscles!), If you can just scan it from a real face? The visual result was impressive, but the box office was not. Unfortunately, both The Mystery of the Red Planet and Zemeckis’ other works in this direction turned out to be too financially costly and did not pay off at the box office, so the director was forced to return to feature films. But the technology of motion capture (or “motion capture”), which he first demonstrated in The Polar Express, attracted the attention of James Cameron – he rethought it in the film Avatar and handed it over to Peter Jackson, who continued the theme with the Tintin movie comic. With three sequels already announced for Avatar, it looks like this is the area where we’ll see most of the film experiments in the coming years. And yes, thanks to motion capture, the facial expressions of movie characters have improved, although this has not yet affected the development of animation as such: “motion capture” is more popular today in films than in cartoons, and leading animation studios stubbornly continue to sculpt caricature faces.

There is an explanation for this. Over the millennia of the existence of the human race, people have greatly trained their imagination, having learned to see a mammoth hunting scene in crookedly scrawled rock lines, sunflowers in lurid spots of paint on a canvas, and a mouse named Mickey in a humanoid creature with a black nose. No one has seen in real life talking upright mice that would wear pants and boots, but animation, as the heiress of the classical fine arts, reserves the right to conditionality of presentation, which the viewer does not try to challenge. To enjoy the cartoon, the exact portrait resemblance of the character to someone seen by the viewer in real life is not necessary. The audience is indulgent even to the series “South Park”, whose characters are drawn very badly, and are not outraged that blue and green cats act in “Oggy and the Cuckoo” – all because animation lovers sucked in with their mother’s milk that the cartoon has the right to an abstract, simplified, schematic presentation. Cinematography is a completely different matter. He competes with reality, claims to be appropriate realism, and therefore has no right to “simplify”. He needs motion capture, if you think about it, much more. By the way, attempts to draw people were nevertheless made – for example, in the computer film “Final Fantasy”, but it was not successful with the audience – either due to the imperfection of technology, or because the audience was too accustomed to caricature characters.