The History of Animation


Animated cartoons and movies have made the childhood of the modern generation magical. It was especially glorious for kids born in the 90s who are already adults and have their kids by now. Waking up in the morning as a carefree kid and turning on the television to watch Rugrats, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Duck Tales, Johnny Bravo, Powerpuff Girls, Batman: The Animated Series, Tom and Jerry, and X-Men, to name a few, were everything a child without much on his plate can do.

For most of us, animation entertainment has always been there – from the moment we learned to understand what we see on our TV screen. But, unknown to many people, animation roots probably go back to when human beings first learned how to draw caricatures on their cave walls. So, what story does the history of animation has in store for us? How did it become the prime entertainment that it is today?


Archeological evidence point out humans’ first attempts at animation as shown in ancient artifacts such as vases, pottery, burial chambers, journals, and books. An excellent example of this is the 4000-year-old Egyptian burial chamber at the tomb of Khnumhotep at the Beni Hassan cemetery, which contains a series of drawings showing wrestlers in action. In Shahr-e Sukhteh, Iran, a 5,200 years old pottery bowl depicted five sequential images of a goat in motion. 

Additionally, Leonardo Da Vinci, in his page of drawings, drew anatomical studies of the physique in several angles that, when viewed in sequence, depicts a rotating image of a man.

These drawings of sequential images by our ancestors led many scholars to believe that human beings may have been trying to attempt animation. However, that belief remains an assumption since there was no clear proof to affirm that human beings did the drawings for that particular purpose. Nevertheless, these sequential drawings have become one of the theoretical foundations of motion art.


The idea of animation predates the birth of cinematography. Back in the early days, people would use visual devices to entertain people and implicate stories but only in crude, non-fluid narration through images. But, it was the first form of motion art and would lay the foundations of animation in the years to come. 

Trotting Horse Lamp. In ancient China, the trotting horse lamp was a popular form of visual entertainment, especially for children. Attached to the rotating shaft within the light were thin paper sides, whose silhouettes appear to be chasing each other.

Shadow Play. As an antique form of storytelling and entertainment, shadow play or shadow puppetry shares many qualities with modern animation – incorporating dialogue, music, and sounds. Shadow puppeteers use cut-out figures placed in front of a light source to project the shadow on a translucent screen. More advanced shadow plays incorporate translucent coloring and other detailing techniques. As by common assumption, the shadow play originated in Asia, probably in the 1st millennium BCE. It later became prominent in Europe, particularly in France, by the end of the 18th Century. François Dominique Séraphin was among the notable persons who started shadow plays, using clockwork to run the shows in the mid-1700s until his death.

Magic Lantern. Thanks to the scientist Christiaan Huygens, his works on optics led to the invention of the magic lantern in 1659. The magic lantern uses glass slides and a light source to project the images sketched or painted on the said sheets. Subjects of the magic lantern slides were as simple as a calm sea suddenly turning into a stormy one, a windmill turning, a person’s head with eyes moving – all less complicated yet close-to-reality depictions of motion.

Phantasmagoria. Phantasmagoria is not a device but a technique used to project magic lantern images on smoke, creating a transparent, ghostly appearance. If you watched the movie Oz the Great and Powerful movie starring James Franco, a scene features this technique where the wizard’s face is projected on a massive cloud of smoke to create an ‘all-powerful,’ ghostly effect.


Before the advent of cinematography, several devices intended to project animated images already existed for the public’s entertainment. However, the machines were limited to one or two users only and not to a large crowd compared to modern animation projected on the big screen. It is safe to say that the mechanisms were more like optical toys than devices. From these inventions and innovations, people discovered the principle, persistence of vision, which later becomes part of the early foundation of the moving picture.

Persistence of Vision. Persistence of vision, or persistence of impression, is a principle in optics describing how an object’s image or appearance remains for a while despite the light carrying it had already ceased to exist. It also explains how when said images are shown in fast succession; the human eye will naturally perceive the images as a continuous flow of motion. Discovering this principle led many inventors to further their creations concerning animation projection.

Thaumatrope. Modern sources credit the invention of this optical toy to John Ayrton Paris, a British physician. Thaumatrope is a device that gained popularity in the 19th Century. It consists of a disk painted with images on both front and back faces. It also has a string on both ends so that when you twirl them quickly enough, the disk creates an optical illusion based on the images it contains.

Phénakisticope. Phénakisticope was the first animation device to project a fluid-like illusion of motion – employing quick successive substitution of sequential images. It was invented by Belgian Joseph Plateau, almost simultaneously, by the Austrian Simon von Stampfer in 1832. The first published device contains 16 frames, so it can only show a short flow of motion in a continuous loop, much like a GIF.

Zoetrope. Zoetrope is a cylindrical version of phénakisticope invented almost two years after. The new version features quickly replaceable strips of images making it more appealing for commercial purposes.

Flipbook. Flipbook can be considered one of the best animation devices ever made for its simplicity and versatility. It follows the same concept of sudden replacement of images in quick successions to create a fluent illusion of motion, just like the thaumatrope, phénakisticope, and zoetrope. However, the flipbook or kineograph offered the possibility of adding more images to the sequence than the other three, which have apparent physical limitations—most animators credit flipbook as a prelude to animation, more than they do the other devices.


Frame from the opening sequence of Tezuka's 1963 TV series Astro Boy

In 1876, the French Charles-Émile Reynaud invented the praxinoscope, a successor to the zoetrope. Like the latter, the device features a strip of images placed inside a rotating cylinder, but instead of the narrow viewing slits was an inner circle of mirrors. He carried out this principle to his theatrical show in Paris, projecting the hand-painted strips of images. He employed a separate scene playing in the background, piano music, songs, and even dialogues performed live. The man was the first to give life and warmth to the still images, paving the way for the animation to be adapted to film.

With the Cinematograph (kinematograph) invention in 1895, animation set its course to a grander road ahead. The toy film projector was commercially produced after a toy festival in Leipzig, and since then, manufacturers have sold toys of similar nature to the public for home entertainment. The devices project films of printed, lithographed drawings in a loop.


The first artist to bring animation to standard picture film was J. Stuart Blackton, a British-American filmmaker in his Enchanted Drawings in 1900. They employed a stop trick – a popular technique where a change in the scene is done by replacing that frame with a similar drawing scene but with a different or changed facial expression or object position. On the other hand, the French artist Émile Cohl created the first film, which used the traditional animation method in Fantasmagorie (1908). Historians consider Fantasmagorie as the first animated cartoon.

From then on, several animation productions have taken place and found success in the cartoon industry. For instance, in 1914, Winsor McCay’s Gertie the Dinosaur became the first cartoon character in drawn animation to show character development. In the same year, Bray Productions revolutionized animation and patented transparent celluloid sheets in animation. Bay Productions consequently created the first animated series, Colonel Heeza Liar, using the assembly-line method of animation. 

Another example is Otto Messmer’s Felix the Cat, which became the first cartoon character to be merchandised in 1919. Felix the Cat was considered the first animated movie star.


Walt Disney with the miniature toy dwarfs

IN 1928, the Steamboat Willie, Mickey’s third film, amassed an enormous audience, adding the long-lost ingredient to animation – sound. Disney wasn’t the first to employ sound tho, as the Inkwell Studios had already made it before, back from 1924 to 1926. Nevertheless, Disney’s Steamboat Willie in sound appeared complete and closer to reality.

With the technical expert Ub Iwerks working alongside Walt Disney, the studio was able to achieve multiplane camera and synchronization techniques that gave more definition, depth of color, and dimension to Mickey Mouse and their Silly Symphonies series.

In 1937, Disney released the phenomenal Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in a Hollywood-like fashion. The animated film was said to Disney’s interpretation of the fairytale and successfully portrayed a more theatrical experience, as opposed to the usual entertainment.


Fast-forward to the 1950s, the Golden Age of American Animation, animated films have fully become an integral part of the American popular culture – all thanks to the impacts of early animations by Walt Disney, Warner Bros., MGM, and Fleischer. 

The 1950s cartoons mainly consist of brightly colored, well-defined animal characters in dynamic action and gags; hence, young children were the most audience. Stations would air these cartoons on convenient time slots such as weekends and weekday afternoons to early evenings. There were also cartoon series that depicted violence and adult content, but these are aired together with newsreels to avoid young audiences. Through the decades, Disney has been at the forefront of the animation industry, which also led to the creation of Disneyland – a theme park featuring Disney studios’ characters.

In Japan, animation during these years was also a growing enterprise, taking the world by storm. Today, anime has become a globally acclaimed form of animation. The Japanese’ take on this visual entertainment plays a prominent role in the world’s pop culture. 


Computer animation even grew to greater prominence with the success of Pixar’s Toy Story in 1995 and DreamWorks Animation’s Shrek in 2001. The new technological application in animation dramatically enhanced the quality of animated films and slowly replaced traditional animation techniques in 2004.

The animated films, cartoons, and animes that we stream on online viewing platforms like Netflix and Amazon are products of computer animation. Applications of the technology became more apparent in animated films and in creating virtual realities and game content that could spell out the future of visual entertainment. Animation has come a long way from its early days, evolving into a medium that does more than tell stories; it also addresses critical issues. Our post, How Do Animations Address Complex Social Issues?, explores how contemporary animations are being used as a platform to engage with and bring awareness to various social and global challenges.

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