You Gon Learn Today: A Brief History of Animation

From Western cartoons to anime to computer animated to claymation. In one form or another, animation has been around for damn near two centuries at this point. It’s given rise to the mouse empire, breathed life into our wildest imaginations, and has touched our hearts in ways live action never could. When we look at the different eras of animation, we can see just how much it has changed and evolved over the years. While Disney tends to be the backbone when separating its history into eras, many different companies and properties contribute to the vast history of the media. You have your high highs in the Golden Age and Renaissance Age, and your low lows like the Dark Age. The medium is always evolving and learning to reinvent itself. And recently, I feel this has kicked into overdrive. So, sit back dear reader as I, Professor G (not a real professor), take you through a brief history of animation.

The Beginnings of Animation

For those unfamiliar, the ages of animation tend to follow the same guidelines as the history of the Earth. Starting from the beginning and changing with major upheavals within the industry. The beginning of the timeline consists of longer ages whereas the more recent ones are shorter with the quicker advancement of technology. There isn’t a universal agreement on all the ages but there’s a general consensus that I’ll use for our history class.

Image vis Wikipedia

The Early Animation Age which covers pretty much everything before 1907. This gave us the invention of the phénakistoscope, or stroboscopic, (seen above) and film. Leading into the Silent Era from the late 1900s to the late 1920s, we have the popularization of stop motion and the start of hand drawn animation on film and cel animation. We then enter the Golden Era in 1928 with the release of Steamboat Willie. The first and arguably the highest peak of the animation mountain lasted until the 1950s with the rise of Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, Tom & Jerry and so many more characters that are still going strong to this day. But with high highs comes a huge fall. In the post war era, the changing cost of animation and television becoming a major medium began a shift in the perception of what animation was and who it was for. This was the Dark Age, and it lasted from the late 1950s until the 1980s.

Peaks and Valleys

The Dark Age was led by Hanna-Barbera and the Saturday Morning Cartoon timeslot. Now, this isn’t to say that this era was full of crap with nothing of worth. Far from it, but the money constraints the studios had to deal with, or implemented themselves, meant that corners were cut and animation was CHEAP. And the prevailing attitude that “Cartoons are for kids” rather than for everyone meant narratives were watered downed and repetitive. So not only was the animation cheap but so were the stories. Even Disney, who pretty much rode its Golden Age until the death of Walt Disney, hit a major slump. There were some bright spots like the Rankin Bass stop motion Christmas tales and A Charlie Brown Christmas. And arguably Hanna-Barbera gave us some beloved characters, but times were tough. It wasn’t until the late 80s that we finally entered The Renaissance Age.

Hanna-Barbera cartoons

The 70s created shows meant to give a vehicle for live action shows and stars to reach more children. The Jackson 5, Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, Star Trek, and The New Scooby-Doo Movies which brought in celebrities and live-action characters in cartoon form to, again, reach the kid audience. This gave way to the idea in the 80s that cartoons can just be glorified toy commercials. G.I. Joe, Transformers, Gem and the Holograms, etc. as long as there was some kind of “moral message” at the end they had free reign to peddle their wares to the kids of America. And to be honest, these were some awesome wares. But at the end of the decade there was a shift, and artist began to take back their creativity and saw an eruption of creative freedom.

Disney started to bounce back with their Disney Afternoon shows, and its banger after banger silver screen hits from Aladdin, to Lion King, to The Little Mermaid, and so on. Warner Bros (WB) got freakin’ Steven Spielberg to produce some grade-A cartoons like Tiny Toons, Animaniacs, and Pinky and the Brain. (They’ve all been revived recently but ehhhh….that’s a whole other article right there.) Superhero shows were made with love and respect, and Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network had a stranglehold on many childhoods. And let’s not forget adult animation stepping back into the spotlight and being deeper than just blood and boobs, though there was plenty of blood and boobs. And with the emerging CG technology, Pixar led the way in giving us good computer animated properties. It was just a great time to love animation.

A New Age

Now, here’s where things start to get tricky. The Renaissance Age started in the late 80s, but some say it ended in the late 90s and some say the early 2000s. And there is no real consensus on what the next age is. Some call it The Millennium Age, some call it the CG Age, but I like to call it The New Age. I’d argue it lasted until the early 2010s. This age is a bit of a mixed bag. Television cartoons lost a little bit of that 90s edge, taming down some of the more “grotesque” eccentric art style and adult humor, yet became even better about not talking down to kids. Adult Swim and MTV gave places for new adult-oriented shows, and there was an understanding that teenagers can handle more serious themes and a bit of violence. Even shows for younger kids knew that you didn’t need to talk down to them. Phineas and Ferb is a great example of that. We were also beginning to see strong influences and corporation between Western animation and Japanese anime, like Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Boondocks. Yet some of that 80s corporate cynicism started to creep back in.

Phineas and Ferb

Properties were being cancelled because corporate didn’t think it was making them enough money, no matter the actual quality. The first time Young Justice got cancelled off Cartoon Network wasn’t because it was bad and not because viewership was low. It was because no one was buying the cheaply made toys. Oh, and because the main viewership happened to be young girls who “Don’t buy action figures.” … Yup, it’s dumb. The 2011 ThunderCats got cancelled for similar reasons. And the big 3 cartoon channels, Disney Channel, Nickelodeon, and Cartoon Network, began moving away from cartoons and more into live action. Why? Because money. It was cheaper to make live audience sitcoms then it was to produce high-quality cartoons. You know how off putting it was to turn to CARTOON Network and not see ANY cartoons? Same as it was when Music Television (MTV) stopped playing music (Yes, I’m still salty).

Heavy is the Head

As far as the movie industry went, CG took the crown. Disney’s hand drawn animated movies weren’t hitting like they used to while Pixar was dominating with hit after hit after hit. DreamWorks went all in on the CG movies like Shrek, Kung-Fu Panda, and How to Train Your Dragon. And while not thought of in the same vein as traditional animation, photo realistic CG was really coming into play. Gollum from Lord of the Rings, Avatar, that’s still animation. The ever-improving technology and the money pinching attitude really shifted the landscape of animation. And in the 2010s, it felt like there was a consolidation of art styles, ideas, and tones, for better or worse.

The early 2010s to the mid to late 2010s saw a convergence of styles on a few different fronts. This is why I would actually call this The Convergence Age of animation. I also feel this is a better name then what some have proclaimed as The Cal Arts Age. Steven Universe, Gravity Falls, Adventure Time, everyone remembers the explosion of shows with similar art styles and comedy. A surreal weird comedic tone that turned into surprisingly deep narratives once they found their footing. This style was spreading like wildfire with some of the creators graduating together and working on each other’s shows. But this wasn’t the only style inspiring new properties.

Gravity Falls

On the more adult oriented side, Bob’s Burgers cultivated a big fanbase (even with its contemporaries taking shots at “how bad and lazy” the show was) and birthed a few shows in its own particular style. For movies, DreamWorks hadn’t really deviated from too much from its own style, and Disney, now fully moved from traditional animation to CG, solidified the new Disney style that was very similar to Pixar. Yes, Pixar is owned by Disney but for the longest there was a clear difference. You always knew which was which and in the middle of the 2010s people would actually confuse one for the other at times. I would hardly call this era bad by any means, it was just that once we discovered what worked we just stuck with it. Mainly because audiences loved it.

There were loud dissenting voices online cursing “Why does everything all of a sudden looked the same!?” But loud does not equal many. And the fans of the shows were many, and they LOVED them. It wasn’t until a certain superhero broke through the monotony and swung us into a new dimension of animation. I’m talking Spiderman: Into the Spider-Verse, and it was the herald of the new era we are currently experiencing. A time of 2D and 3D cohesion, one that I have dubbed: The New Renaissance Age.

A New Trend Setter

Like all time periods, there’s a bit of leeway in terms of the start of it. The New Renaissance Age began in 2018 with Spiderman: Into the Spider-Verse wall crawling its way into theaters, spider climbed its way into the hearts of audiences world-wide, and stuck to the ceiling of the box office (ok, no more spider-puns). People were blown away by this new art style that blended CGI with hand drawn overlays and different rendering techniques. What we got was a masterclass in animation, so much so that other companies both emulated the style and put their own spin on it. The Mitchells vs. the Machines, The Bad Guys, Puss in Boots: The Last Wish and most recently Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem added upon and elevated the style so that they are very different looking films. Into the Spider-Verse was like a comic book coming to life while Mutant Mayhem almost looked like claymation. And not to rest on their laurels, the sequel, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, got to experiment with even more styles: from an actual Ben Day dots style to a watercolor art style that changed with the moods of the characters.

But one style can’t carry an age alone. Luckily, more companies were willing to allow creatives to try new things. Preceding my given timeline a bit, Blue Sky’s The Peanuts Movie found a way to translate the tradition Peanuts style faithfully and lovingly into 3D. Apple TV’s Wolfwalkers looking more like an unfinished hand drawn style that lent itself to the story and worked surprisingly well. On your television side, we were gifted with Harley Quinn, Arcane, Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, and Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Stacked side by side, these shows have wildly differentiating art styles and tones. Rise of the TMNT at face value has a somewhat overly comedic presentation, which makes sense since it leaned more into comedy in this iteration. Yet when the action kicked off, it amped up into over the-top bombastic fluid fight scenes on par with some of the best anime fights out there. And I know this article has focused mainly on western animation, but anime is most definitely a part of The New Renaissance. With studios like MAPPA and Ufotable to name a few, we have been spoiled with luscious scenery, food drawn so beautifully you want to reach through the screen and take a bite, and of course, mind shattering fight scenes. And with it easier than ever to watch anime now, if you aren’t diving into this medium, you’re missing out.

Lesson Over

Animation has such a rich history. From its humble beginnings, no one could have imagined the juggernaut it has grown into. And it’s still going strong. Technology and storytelling continue to develop at an incredible rate. What will come next? Will AI become a major player for better or worse? Can new techniques of drawing and CG change the medium even further? No one can say, but understanding where we have come from can help us launch into a brighter future. In this New Renaissance Age, we are spoiled. So eat up while the food is hot!

I hope you enjoyed this trip through history with Professor G. Class dismissed.

Cover image via CareerAddict

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