Cel Animation

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Gertie the dinosaur, from Winsor McCay's 1914 film of the same name. The earliest widely popular animated short films in the US, it was drawn frame-by-frame entirely by hand on paper.

Celluloid or cel animation is a film-based media form, where transparent individually-created films frames are projected with light sequentially onto a reflective screen, creating an illusion of motion. Although contemporary cinematic animation has been transformed through use of the computer, historically cel animation has been created by hand. Due to this manual quality, traditional cel animation pre-dated the photographic automation that became 20th century cinema.

This visual phantasmagoria derives from the phenomenon of 'persistence of vision,' or the visual perception of minute sequential differences. As fundamentally discontinuous not just in sequence but in visual representation, cel animation is inherently modular. Its fundamental construction gives cel animation a rarely-acknowledged aesthetic range. Historically, its hand-drawn nature and demand for labor has made animated cartoons visually oversimplified, yet the computational capacity of the computer has made the form exceedingly complex.


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The phenakistoscope's motion came from spinning the circular disc and viewing the figures through narrow slits.

Many technical genealogies have been written about the precursors to what became established in the early 1900s as 16mm motion picture cinema. In perceptual effect, these devices can be divided visually into hand-painted or hand-drawn, as contrasted with mimetic, and temporally into static and dynamic representation.

In static visual terms, Western art established the painted, typically rectangular visual image. In the 18th century, the magic lantern transposed painting onto a small transparent surface, which could be projected on a wall, as a slide projector does. The camera obscura, an ancient device, constructed a dark, enclosed room with a single small perforation; as light refracts through the hole, an inverted image appears on the far wall, effecting both a mimetic and constructed effect. In the mid-19th century, photography's inscription of light onto transparent film with chemical processes transposed mimetic images onto tin and paper.

In dynamic visual terms, image sequences have been found on ancient pottery and tablets, but came to 'move' only in the 19th century, with parlor amusements like the phenakistoscope. This device has hand-painted or hand-drawn figures rounding the edge of a circular disc; when the disc is spun, the figures appear to move. Photography's mimetic images were static until technicians such as Étienne-Jules Marey's experiments in chronophotography began to impose mechanical order on movement. Edison's kinetoscope first imposed a mechanical seriality upon motion, which soon became an industry standard.

Animation and Film

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Felix the Cat had a simple, iconic design, both easily drawn and easily recognized.

Unlike the phonograph, film is inherently discrete. While to the eye it appears analog, the cinematic image is composed of 24 separate frames per second, a digital quality. While Edison's earliest films were composed of single shots, soon it was discovered different shots could be edited together, forming a montage. Seeing these shots in sequence, viewers inferred their continuous sequence. Motion picture cameras were able to automate their inscription, and simply place actors before it. Cameras used to shoot animated films needed to individually shoot each frame.

Many early animated films placed animation in the context of live-action film. J. Stuart Blackton's "The Enchanted Drawing" was a form of 'trick' film, in which Blackton used film's inherent discontinuity to appear to turn real objects, such as a bottle, into hand-drawn representations on paper. Walt Disney's earliest film, "Alice's Wonderland" (1923), shows a girl wandering into his animation studio, where he proceeds to astonish her with crude but vivacious moving drawings on his drafting desk. In his early films, shown in vaudeville theaters, Windsor McCay found that audiences did not believe the illusion of animation. At the end of his widely-popular "Gertie the Dinosaur" (1914), he drew a small life-like representation of himself being picked up in Gertie's mouth.

The two forms increasingly sought to differentiate each from the other. While cinema grew out of early hand-drawn sequences, mechanization, coupled with mimesis, enabled cinema to achieve a new standard of verisimilitude. "A mechanical eye was coupled with a mechanical heart; photography met the motor", as Manovich (296-7) writes. Cinema's ease with mimetic images soon distanced it from the crudity of animation, "cinema's bastard relative, its supplement and shadow" (298).

Early animated characters had exceedingly simple design, such as Felix the Cat, which enabled the figure to be drawn many times over by different animators. While films like McCay's and Disney's showed cinema audiences an entirely new kind of spectacle, cel animation's painted quality came to be trivialized in comparison to cinema's realism. Short animated films were shown before Hollywood feature films, but simply as a form of light entertainment. The simplicity of visual representations ultimately appealed more to children, and particularly with the onset of television in the home in the the postwar years, Animation became a child's pleasure, something it arguably remained for much of the rest of the 20th century.

Animation's Modularity

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McCay's drawings for 'Gertie' took up thousands of pages.

Perhaps ironically, animation's very sophistication meant that it was a labor-intensive and exacting form. To make animated films several minutes long took thousands of drawings. To fill time, loops of drawings were used as labor-saving devices. In "Gertie the Dinosaur," Gertie spends much of the time simply rocking back and forth. Nevertheless, each frame was drawn entirely over again. Each time, the entire image was copied, with only the small difference of the figure typically changing. It took McCay 3 years to finish the six minute film.

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Disney's multi-plane camera was used to photograph all frames together in focus, establishing a sense of depth.

It was not until years later that 'cel' animation became adopted in the industry. Cel animation involved separating the animated figure from the background, which remained static. The animated figure could then be drawn on transparent celluloid, and layered on top of the background. This innovation freed early animation up from the crippling demands of mechanically copying each drawing, yet still meant that to produce animated shorts with anything like the regularity they were demanded by the marketplace, teams of animators were needed. A photo of Pat Sullivan's studio, responsible for Felix the Cat, shows 10 men sitting side-by-side at separate desks.

In contrast to the initial serial quality of animation, this layering gave animation a parallel quality which mimetic film lacked. The potential of this form was not truly realized until Walt Disney's feature films, starting with "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" (1937), which featured rich, colored backgrounds, and tens of scampering animals. Disney's richly detailed world was accomplished by employing an elaborate vertically-oriented camera, which was able to focus on the multiple layers of the animated image at one time. Similar models remained with animation for most of the 20th century.

Computer-Based Animation

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"Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" mixed live-action and animated characters in a hybrid narrative.

Starting in the 1980's, computers began to be used to compliment live-action footage with "special effects." "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" (1988) was among the first mainstream Hollywood releases to mix the two. Here, the live action and animation remained worlds apart, even though events took place side-by side. By the early 1990s technology had advanced significantly enough that computer effects could convincingly be shown to match the verisimilitude of live action. A breakthrough was reached with "Jurrasic Park" (1993), which featured animated images of dinosaurs pursuing humans who sought to domesticate them. Although the film contained only 12 minutes of computer animation, the entire film was based around these brief, terrifying appearances.

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The computer-animated dinosaurs in "Jurrasic Park" set a new standard for verisimilitude in special effects.

No longer a child's medium, cinema turned to animation to develop technically. Here the sophistication of the medium can be seen, as the live action footage seems nearly overshadowed by the rich detail of the animation. The aesthetic demands of early cel animation meant that characters must be simple, yet computer modeling enabled animation aesthetics to become frighteningly detailed and life-like.

Subsequent films using digital animation are carrying animation even further, using it as a primary visual representation device. In "Avatar" (2009), even live-action actors are transformed by digital effects, as the characters inhabit an entirely fictionalized fantasy world. Cinema, which began in animation, has ended up returning to it. Manovich goes so far as to say argue that “digital cinema is a particular case of animation that uses live-action footage as one of its many elements" (302). While traditional hand-animation has largely become supplanted, computer-animation now appears to be becoming the dominant paradigm in filmmaking.


Crary, Jonathan. Techniques of the Observer. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1990. Print.

Doane, Mary Ann. “The Emergence of CInematic Time.” Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 2002. Print.

Gitelman, Lisa. “Scripts, Grooves, and Writing Machines: Representing Technology in the Edison Era.” Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999. Print.

Manovich, Lev. “The Language of New Media.” Cambridge and London: The MIT Press, 2001. Print.

Wells, Paul. “Understanding Animation.” London and New York: Routledge, 1998. Print.