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Where Does the Animation in Feature Films Come From?

horse run cycle animation sprite

Animation is the box office success of 21st century cinema bringing technological innovation into mainstream film production and new degrees to film schools.

Cel Animation

Traditionally, television and big-screen animation such as Hannah-Barbera or Disney produced cel animation. Disney created the first animated feature film Snow White and made the category popular by aiming at children as an audience, and by adding sound effects. For many years this was the prevalent form of animation in feature films experienced by television viewers and cinema-goers.

Computer generated imagery (CGI)

Computer-generated imagery developed with computers and the video game industry, and its possibilities were perceived by film directors such as James Cameron in The Abyss and Terminator II. It became incorporated into television technique as a new generation of cameras and digital technologies entered the industry.

Animation methods render images that are either 2D (two dimensional) or 3D (three dimensional). Animation depends on the persistence of vision – the way the eye behaves and the way the brain processes visual information.

Cel Animation and Graphic Storytelling

An entire subsection of cel animations worked along the lines of animated graphic stories, comic-book art, and often drew upon comics for their characters, for instance, Spider-Man. These animations are referred to as cartoons.

  • Cel animation is drawn on paper and transferred to cels and see-through sheets; it is 2D.
  • It depends on a series of drawings showing minute changes in character drawings, giving a sense of movement.
  • It is allied to the flipbook and the zoetrope in its visual result.
  • Characters move against sequentially, slightly altered perspectives of the background detail, which adds a sense of narrative flow to the basic visual result.
  • These effects can now be created using computer software and scanners.

Walt Disney’s method was labor intensive and involved thousands of cels layered and photographed. Cels were hand drawn and hand-colored, then layered in a sequence that became the process of animation for feature movies. This was the first studio to add sound to an animated feature film, from the very beginning of the cinema soundtrack method and technology.

Stop Motion Animation Method for Film & Tv

Stop motion animation is more a European art form, related to puppetry, which produced, for instance, the Magic Roundabout and, more recently, Pingu. Like puppetry, it involves skills of modeling, both in props for staging the story and in character creation.

  • Stop motion delivers a 3D product using pliable models.
  • Characters are set up on a stage, as in a theatre.
  • A particular type of stop motion animation developed using modeling clay, which added fluidity to character movement.
  • Eventually, this clay character modeling became grafted onto wire shapes that enable the models to hold shape and position under lighting.
  • This evolved into the method now known as claymation.
  • The more robotic animatronics model type was devised for feature film special effects.

This type of animation is a slow process and very labor intensive. Feature films made primarily in claymation include Chicken Run and Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit. Stop motion animation technique was, and still is, used to create special effects in feature films; these include Star Wars, Terminator, and Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Computer Animation Feature Films

toy story is an animated feature film

Digital methods emerged from computer technology in the 1960s, and with it the development of computer-generated imagery for use in mainstream movie special effects. They may resemble either stop motion or cel animation in visual style, but their artistic and technical possibilities are still being explored.

  • Digital (made on computer) may be either 2D or 3D but is usually modeled as 3D.
  • Also related to puppetry is the way a character is manipulated against a predesigned background.
  • Closely related to claymation in the way that the character’s body is mapped as a structure.
  • Employs mathematical grids to generate landscapes and environments for characters.
  • The first full length feature film made with computer animation technology was Toy Story in 1995.

Computer-Generated Digital Animation for Feature Films

Computer-generated imagery technique in mainstream movies incorporates some of the above digital animation techniques, but also has developed ways to blend them with live action:

  • uses an actor’s body within an electronically rigged motion capture suit so that actions can be mapped onto computers
  • CGI scenes are usually filmed against a green screen which can then be substituted with the background scenery in the post-production phase.

Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy was the first box office blockbuster enterprise to combine multiple computer-generated effects with standard photography to obtain a realistic epic effect in a mainstream movie. The principal animated character used in Lord of the Rings is Gollum. Body-mapped and voice-overed by Andy Serkis, computer-generated techniques enabled this fantasy creature to be visually realized in a believable way.

Cel animators pioneered camera technologies and filming techniques; stop motion animation pioneered robotic characterization techniques; computer-generated imagery continues to extend and explore new methods of combining the real and the imaginary in this expanding field of the digital animation feature film.