Animation has allowed storytellers to tell stories in unique ways. The visceral fantastical worlds in animated films can reignite inspiration and the magic of stories no matter what age. So if you’re a storyteller, or want to be, the animation is a great place to start. So what is animation? And what are the types of animation cartoonists and artists use? Let’s jump in.

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How is Animation Made

What is the definition of animation?

The simulation of movement created by a series of pictures is animation. But how it actually works is a bit more complicated than that. Before we get to the various types of animated motion pictures, let's start with an animation definition.

Animation Definition

What is animation?

Animation is a method of photographing successive drawings, models, or even puppets, to create an illusion of movement in a sequence. Because our eyes can only retain an image for approximately 1/10 of a second, when multiple images appear in fast succession, the brain blends them into a single moving image. 

In traditional animation, pictures are drawn or painted on transparent celluloid sheets to be photographed. Early cartoons are examples of this, but today, most animated movies are made with computer-generated imagery or CGI.

To create the appearance of smooth motion from these drawn, painted, or computer-generated images, frame rate, or the number of consecutive images that are displayed each second, is considered. Moving characters are usually shot “on twos” which just means one image is shown for two frames, totaling in at 12 drawings per second. 12 frames per second allows for motion but may look choppy. In the film, a frame rate of 24 frames per second is often used for smooth motion.

Different Types of Animation:

  • Traditional Animation
  • Rotoscoping
  • Anime
  • Cutout
  • 3D Animation
  • Stop Motion
  • Motion graphics

Now that we have an animation definition, let’s dig into the different types of animation.

Traditional

This is one of the oldest types of animation in film. It’s sometimes called cel animation. As mentioned above, in traditional animation objects are drawn on celluloid transparent paper. In order to create the animation sequence, the animator must draw every frame. It’s the same mechanism as a flip book just on a grander scale. 

Traditional is most often 2D animation. Aladdin, The Lion King, and other earlier cartoons are the best examples of this. 

In the earlier years, the animator would draw on a table that had a light inside of it, so the creator could see his or her previous animation. While the traditional style is not nearly as prevalent today, drawings are generally done on tablets. And manual coloring hasn’t been used by Disney since The Little Mermaid in 1989. 

Here's an explanation of how animator Aaron Blaise creates traditional, hand-drawn animated movies.

Animation definition  •  How is animation made?

Anime

Anime could technically be considered a subcategory of traditional animation. But anime simply refers to any of the types of animation which comes out of Japan. Take a look at this scene from Akira, one of the most celebrated anime films of all time:

Animation definition  •  Akira

Japan has become a powerhouse of animation, and anime has been massively influential around the world. One of its most distinctive characteristics is that often, anime is animated on 3s, which means there is a new image every three frames, rather than in the US, where most animation is every two frames.

This allows Japanese animators to draw with more detail, since fewer images are required. It also gives anime a distinct feel to its movement. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule: some US animation is done on threes, and some anime is done on 2s or even 1s.

For a more in-depth dive into anime, check out this video:

The history of anime  •  Animation definition

2D (Vector)

2D animation can fall under traditional animation like most early Disney movies — Pinocchio, Beauty and the Beast, etc. But there is something called Vector-based animation that can be 2D without being traditional. 

With Vector-based, the motion here can be controlled by vectors rather than pixels. So, what the heck does that mean? 

Images with familiar formats like JPG, GIF, BMP, are pixel images. These images cannot be enlarged or shrunk without affecting image quality. Vector graphics don’t need to worry about resolution. Vectors are characterized by pathways with various start and end points, lines connecting these points to build the graphic. Shapes can be created to form a character or other image. Below is an example.

Animation definition  •  Vector Style

Vector-based animation uses mathematical values to resize images, so motion is smooth. They can re-use these creations so the animator doesn’t need to keep drawing the same characters over and over again. You can move around these vectors and animate that way. 

This is also helpful for animators who aren’t the best drawers. Yes, these people exist. 

3D

Today, 3D or computer animation is one of the most common types of animation. But just because computers have stepped in instead of actual drawings, it’s not necessarily easier. The computer is just another tool, and 3D animation is still a long, intense process. 

In 3D animated movies, the animator uses a program to move the character’s body parts around. They set their digital frames when all of the parts of the character are in the right position. They do this for each frame, and the computer calculates the motion from each frame. 

Animators adjust and tweak the curvatures and movements their characters make throughout. From Toy Story in 1995 to today’s Coco, 3D animation has become one of the dominant types of animation.

What is Animation  •  Top 3D Animation Movies

3D animation is also unique in that, unlike 2D or other traditional methods, the character’s entire body is always visible. If a character turns to the side, the animator only needs to draw the side profile in 2D animation, but in 3D, the entire body still needs to be visible. So again, even though computers are being used, with new technology comes with way more considerations. 

Whether you’re using drawing in 2D or computing in 3D, animators and filmmakers alike look to storyboards to plan out each frame. Unlike live- action, animation movies can’t rely on camera tricks in a shot. Storyboards are the lifeline for creating animation. Here are the storyboards used for Disney's classic animated feature Aladdin organized in StudioBinder’s storyboard tool.

Aladdin • Magic Carpet Scene • View Storyboard

Motion Graphics

Motion Graphics are digital graphics that create the illusion of motion usually for ads, title sequences in films, but ultimately exist to communicate something to the viewer. They’re often combined with sound for multimedia projects.

They’re a type of animation used mostly in business, usually with text as a main player. Below are a few examples of motion graphic animation, using the top trends of today.

Motion Graphic Design Inspirations  •  Subscribe on YouTube

Stop Motion

Stop motion encompasses claymation, pixelation, object-motionm, and more. But the basic mechanics are similar to the traditional style like a flipbook. However, instead of drawings, stop motion adjusts physical objects in each frame.

If moved in small increments, captured one frame at a time, the illusion of motion is produced.  Whether puppets, clay, or even real people, these manual adjustments can make it a long, arduous process. Wallace and Gromit, Chicken Runand The Nightmare Before Christmas are all great examples of stop motion films.

Wallace & Gromit  •  The Bunny Vacuum Scene

Stop motion is definitely an older form in the history of animation, especially compared to 3D computer animation. But the process of animating pictures dates back way before Disney or Pixar.

Cutout Animation

Cutout animation is one of the oldest forms of animation. The technique is essentially 2D stop motion. An animator moves cutout shapes (hence, cutout) from frame to frame to create the illusion of movement.

The technique is cheaper and slightly easier than other animation styles, so it proliferated in independent spaces. Think of Monty Python animation:

But it was in 1832 when the Phénakisticope was invented by Joseph Plateau that the first widespread device came into place. Using the principle, it created a fluent illusion of motion. When multiple images blend into a single moving image in the brain it’s called persistence of vision. See below.

What is animation?  •  Different types of animation

The earliest surviving animated feature, Lotte Reiniger’s The Adventures of Prince Achmed, uses cutout animation.

FIRST ANIMATION EVER

History of animation

While it’s unclear when and where first animation ever came to life, the concept of storytelling has been around for centuries. Let’s look at the history of animation

From shadow puppetry in about 200 A.D., to the magic lantern in the 1650s, the first real image projector — telling a story through motion has been happening forever.

But it was in 1832 when the Phénakisticope was invented by Joseph Plateau that the first widespread animation device came into place. Using the persistence of vision principle, it created a fluent illusion of motion. When multiple images blend into a single moving image in the brain it’s called persistence of vision. See below.

What is Animation  •  History of animation

In 1834, William George Horner created a similar motion picture projector, putting the drawings inside of a drum that turned in a circular fashion. This was one of the biggest innovations that laid the foundation for projecting film. Horner originally named it the Daedatelum, or “wheel of the devil” but French inventor, Pierre Desvignes, renamed his own version after the Greek word for “things that turn,” or the Zoetrope.

What is Animation  •  Zoetrope Animation

These early feats of animation carved out the path for the animation we know today. And if we want to get specific about who really had the biggest hand in its birth, we should take a look at the “Father of Animation” himself...or themselves?

The Father(s) of Animation

The history of animation tells us that many different people were involved in creating animation. There even seem to be two “first animation ever” examples.

The Father of American animation is James Stuart Blackton. Though a British filmmaker, Blackton created the first animation in America and was one of the first to use the stop motion technique. 

In 1900, he is credited for creating the first-ever animated film called The Enchanted Drawing.

What is Animation  •  First animation ever?

In 1906, he went on to create a silent film where drawings on a blackboard are captured using film at 20 frames per second. He called it, Humorous Phases of Funny Faces.

What is Animation  •  Humorous Phases of Funny Faces

However, if you were to ask the world who is considered the “Father of Animation,” you would find one name that stands out. French cartoonist Emile Cohl created what is considered the first fully animated movie ever made. In 1908, Fantasmagorie premiered in Paris.

What is Animation  •  Wait, is this the first animation ever?

In 1914, Earl Hurd created cel animation, thereby becoming a founder of traditional animation.  This would of course, revolutionize the entire industry for the majority of the 20th century.

That same year, way before Mickey Mouse came into fruition, the first animated short to have a distinguishable character was made by cartoonist, Winsor McCay. A dancing “Gertie the Dinosaur” comes to life on screen. 

Disney

But no cartoon is as iconic as Mickey Mouse. While the first Mickey cartoon is technically a short, dubbed, “Plane Crazy,” it was never distributed. “Steamboat Willie,” premiered as the first Disney cartoon with synchronized sound in 1928.

What is Animation  •  Steamboat Willie

In 1937, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was the first feature to be entirely hand-drawn. The beauty and success of Snow White gave traditional animation its legs for Disney, and for the entire industry.

What is Animation  •  Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

Between popular 2D and traditionally animated movies to today’s CGI, storytellers have created fantastical animated worlds to tell the best possible stories. 

From the influential stop motion extended skeleton battle scene in Jason and the Argonauts (1963).

Jason and the Argonauts  •  The Amazing Skeleton Fight Scene

To the claymation stop motion in Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.

Wallace & Gromit  •  Bunny Breakfast Scene

To computer animation in… well nearly every recent Disney Pixar.

Animation is one of the most beloved film formats across many generations, and it’s exciting to see what new technique may develop next.


UP NEXT

Techniques in stop motion

The coolest part about animated filmmaking is its accessibility to anyone who wants to create. Sure, many types of animation require the creator to be a great artist, but stop motion isn’t one of those. And you don’t need fancy equipment to pull it off either. Try out some DIY techniques found in the next post. 

Up Next: DIY Stop Motion →
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