An Introduction to the History of Animation

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Motion; it's all around us, all the time. From the rhythmic beating of our hearts, the electrical impulses igniting our minds, down to our very cells multiplying. We are motion.

So, it stands to reason that our fascination with capturing and creating motion can be traced as far back as parietal art, also known as cave paintings, of darting deer, soaring spears and blundering behemoths, with some of the oldest known paintings dating as far back as 40,000 years ago! In spite of the passing motions of time, this obsession has far from dissipated, with pottery from around 3000 B.C. decorated with imagery of leaping goats, and even Leonardo da Vinci's studies of anatomy in motion during 1500 A.D.

But how did we get from primitive stick figures and hand stencils to the life-like CGI blowing up our screens today? Which great minds strived to shape how we can capture the world around us, what innovations marked great advancements in the field of animation and motion design? Well, let's take a trip through time.

In the early 1600s, a device known as a “magic lantern” was created. This contraption, made up of a metal body which housed a reflector, lenses, and a lamp, was the forefather of a modern day still-image projector and used bulky, hand-painted or photographic glass slides. However, unlike today's projectors, a magic lantern was capable of displaying more complex imagery and a particularly dextrous projectionist could move slides quickly enough to make the images appear to move. The popularity of the magic lantern was phenomenal, continuing well into the 1800s with many homes soon obtaining their own personal devices – much like the boom of the modern day computer.

From this basis, the 1800s saw rise to a number of optical illusion toys and inventions.


The thaumatrope is one you could make at home in a couple of minutes, if you'd like to give it a try! Although its invention is usually credited to the astronomer Sir John Herschel, it was made popular in the 1820s by the physicist, Dr. John Paris. It consists of a small disc attached to a piece of string on each side. Each side of the disc displays an image and when the strings are held and the disc spun, the two images converge creating the illusion of one image. Some examples include a cage on one side of the disc and a bird on the other, or a rider and a horse, or a vase and some flowers.

A few years later, in 1832, another physicist – Joseph Plateau – developed the phenakistoscope or phenakistiscope. This toy is made up of two discs that spin together on the same axis. The discs display twelve or so consecutive images and the larger, outer disc has slots in its sides. When the discs are spun and viewed in a mirror, through said slots, the images appear to go through their motions.

Unfortunately, the popularity of the phenakistiscope was trumped a couple of years later, in 1834, by William George Horner's zoetrope. Similar to the phenakistiscope, the zoetrope required a sequence of drawn images. As opposed to being on a disc, these images were drawn on a strip and placed inside a cylindrical drum with slits in the sides. When spun on a central axis, one could peer through the slits in the side of the drum and see the illusion of motion. Although very similar in principal to the phenakistiscope, the zoetrope had the added advantages of not requiring a mirror and of allowing more than one viewer at a time.

Have you ever been sat in a boring lesson, doodling away in the corner of your book or notepad? Perhaps you drew in all the corners and created and awesome little animation of a stickman's epic run through the pages, or a traditional ball bouncing the lesson away. Well, would you have guessed that the first documented flip, or flick, book was cited as early as 1868, patented under the name “kineograph”, or “moving picture”. Casually doodling away in the corner of your book, you were actually practicing the first form of linear, as opposed to circular, animation!

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In 1877, Charles-Émile Reynaud improved upon the zoetrope, with his praxinoscope. Still using a strip of images, the slits in the cylinder were replaced with mirrors, effectively eliminating the distortion seen in a zoetrope. Reynaud later improved this design into his “Théâtre Optique” which used a longer roll of paper and was capable of projecting onto a screen, in this way screening some of the first hand-drawn animations. A modern version of the praxinoscope, the “Magic Mirror”, was introduced in the US in 1956 and could be placed over a record player's spindle to play the animation inside.

The end of the 1800s mark the creation of the first motion picture cameras and the start of film history, after which things start to get interesting for the art of animation. But, that's something we'll cover later!

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