History of Animation: The Silent Era

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Whilst nowadays we have the luxury of high definition surround sound, things weren't always so audible. As with film, animation also went through a Silent Era, spanning between the 1900s and late 1920s.

Last speaking about the history of animation, we left off at the end of the 1800s, when the first motion picture cameras were created. This invention eventually led to regular theatrical showings of cartoons, lead predominantly by Bray Productions who helped shape the studio pipelines that we see today.


Starting as early as 1900, J. Stuart Blackton created “The Enchanted Drawing”. As suggested by the title, this revolves around a drawing – namely Blackton drawing a face which then reacts to various things he does, using film-cutting/stop-motion techniques. This is considered by most as the very first instance of animated video, making J. Stuart Blackton the father of animation. Following this innovation,

in 1906 Blackton went on to create “Humorous Phases of Funny Faces” - the first entirely animated film, once again using stop-motion to breathe life into characters drawn on a chalkboard.

Two years later brings us to what film historians consider the first entirely hand-drawn animation, “Fantasmagorie” by Emile Cohl, which featured stick-figure-like characters and morphing objects.

From there, things really began to pick up speed with a great many thanks to one of the most pioneering animators of the time – Winsor McCay. His first attempts at animation were in 1910, using his well-known comic strip character, “Little Nemo” and later “How a Mosquito Operates”. Building upon his experiences and driven by criticism claiming that he had traced over live-action footage of people for his last animations, in 1914 McCay set a milestone that would change the future of animation - “Gertie the Dinosaur”, who is considered the first animated character to have appealing and distinctive character traits.


Gertie led to the creation of several other popular animated stars, including “Felix the Cat” by Otto Mesmer (Felix is considered the first and longest-lasting animated movie star), “Koko the Clown” by the Fleischer brothers, “Bobby Bumps” and“Colonel Heeza Liar” by Bray Productions, and “Oswald the Lucky Rabbit”, designed by Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks.

Due to the lack of sound capabilities, the cartoons of this era were considered, and designed as, moving comic strips. Some would even incorporate speech bubbles for dialogue, whilst others used narration stills as in the silent films of the time.

Come the late 1920s, the Silent Era of animation came to a swift end with the rise of sound technology, giving way to the fruitful Golden Age of Animation, where the art-form developed even more, and artists such as Walt Disney really came into their own.

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