What is Animation - Featured - StudioBinder

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.

How is Animation Made

What is the definition of animation?

The simulation of movement created by a series of pictures is animation.  But there are a few more technicalities that go along with it.

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 1/16 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 and shown on film. Early cartoons are examples of this, but today, most animation is 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 animation. 

There are several types of animation that employ different techniques to achieve their desired effect.

Different Types of Animation:

  • Traditional Animation
  • 2D Animation (Vector-based)
  • 3D Animation
  • Motion Graphics
  • Stop Motion
Traditional Animation

This is one of the oldest forms 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 flipbook 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. *Though, not all 2D is traditional. But we'll get to that in a minute. 

In the earlier years of traditional animation, 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 traditional animation 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. 

See how animator, Aaron Blaise creates traditional, hand-drawn animation.

Aaron Blaise, Disney Animator - Animation Process

2D Animation (Vector)

2D animation can fall under traditional animation like most early Disney movies ---Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, etc. But there is something called Vector-based animation that can be 2D and not considered 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.

The Maltese Falcon: the quintessential example of a MacGuffin

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 Animation

Today, 3D animation or computer animation is the most common type. 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 animation, 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 synonymous with “animation.”

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 pieces 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.

Ballad of Buster Scruggs shows Western gunplay in a fresh way

Stop Motion

Answering what is stop motion involves more than this brief paragraph. Stop motion animation encompasses claymation, pixelation, object-motion, cutout animation, and more. But the basic mechanics are similar to traditional animation or 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 Nightmare Before Christmas are all great examples of stop motion animation films.

Trope meaning is reshaped in these subversive Westerns

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


History of animation

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

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.

Trope meaning is reshaped in these subversive Westerns

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.

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

History tells us that many different people were involved in creating animation. There even seem to be two “firsts.” 

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 animation called The Enchanted Drawing.

In 1906, he goes in 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 a trope? This character relationship in Touch of Evil

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.

The Other Guys satirizes character tropes

In 1914, Earl Hurd created cel animation, thereby becoming a kind of 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 is made by cartoonist, Winsor McCay. A dancing “Gertie the Dinosaur” comes to life on screen. 

Disney Animation

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.

The Other Guys satirizes character tropes

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.

The Other Guys satirizes character tropes

From the many years in between popular 2D and traditional animation to today’s CGI, storytellers, Disney or not, 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)

The Other Guys satirizes character tropes

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

The Other Guys satirizes character tropes

To computer animation in…(well nearly every recent Disney Pixar but we’ll pick Wall-E)

The Other Guys satirizes character tropes

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


DIY Animation: Making Stop Motion

The coolest part about animation 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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