3d & animation

Pioneers of Animation: Before Mickey Mouse

When you think of the first animated drawings, do you think of a steamship with a mouse at the wheel, or of seven dwarves singing as they march towards the mine? You’re not the only one who thinks this, nor are you the only one who is mistaken.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarves weren’t the first animated film in history, nor was Mickey Mouse the first animated superstar. Although it may be hard to imagine the world of animation before Walt Disney and his company, this discipline actually started long before the birth of his famous mouse. In fact, long before the arrival of cinema itself.

Find out more in this video:

The magic lantern and the first inventions

Animation arose from a seventeenth-century invention nicknamed ‘the magic lantern’, attributed to the scientist Christiaan Huygens. This invention allowed the achievement of an illusion of movement, alternating between various images or projecting two at the same time, one fixed and the other moving.

Huygens regretted her invention immediately: he thought that it was a frivolous and absurd invention, and he even began to worry that he might damage the reputation of his family. This idea was so terrifying to him that he tried to sabotage it before his father could show it to King Louis XIV of France. But it was already too late, and the magic lantern had awoken an unstoppable movement: giving life to drawings was now possible.

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It didn’t take long for this invention to be used to create more complex spectacles: the legacy of Huygens was utilized to frighten the masses with the phantasmagoric spectacles popular in Western Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, in which one of more lanterns projected terrifying images of skeletons, demons and ghosts moving over smoke, walls and screens.

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But animation wasn’t only used in public projections: the strobe disc or Phenakistoscope, which Joseph Plateau and Simon von Stampfer invented at practically the same time during the year 1832, was an optical toy which utilized retinal persistence to create the effect of movement. This device led to other inventions such as the Zoetrope (1866), the Flip Book (1868) and the Praxinoscope (1877), which took animation into the intimacy of the home.

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The first person to create more extensive sequences was Charles-Émile Reynaud. His Pantomimes Lumineuses[i], like [i]Pauvre Pierrot (1892), which lasted for 10 to 15 minutos, consisted of between 300 and 700 drawings projected through the [i]Théâtre Optique[i], a system he himself invented. Nevertheless, the remorseless rise of cinematic photography meant that his stories stopped interesting the public. Reynaud, ruined and humiliated, destroyed his Théâtre Optique with a hammer and threw all his films into the Seine.

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Animation after the arrival of cinema

Cinema arrived through the work of the Lumière brothers in 1895 and the industry took off immediately, but animation remained sidelined as little more than a childish toy. Nevertheless, the experimentation didn’t stop: Stuart Blackton, father of American animation, was one of the first to utilize the stop-motion technique to tell stories in The Enchanted Drawing (1900) and, later, in Humorous Phases of Funny Faces (1906) and The Haunted Hotel (1907). His innovative work, a blend of real images and stop motion, pushed the boundaries of what animation could achieve.

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But the first steps towards what we now consider to be “traditional animation” were taken by Émile Cohl with his Fantasmagorie (1908), followed by Winsor McCay, who marked a ‘before and after’ with short films like Little Nemo (1911) and Gertie the Dinosaur (1914). These works were made possible by his technical innovations, such as tracing, animation loops and keyframing, which involved drawing the beginning and the end of a movement and using this reference point to create the drawings in between.

Thanks to these pioneers, animated drawings evolved beyond the magic lanterns and became a revolutionary industry. But their work was entirely drawn by hand. Gertie the Dinosaur, which lasted for 12 minutes, was composed of 10.000 drawings.

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The birth of a powerful industry

Now that animation was a business, the experimentation process became a race to make it less time-consuming and more lucrative. The cel animation, patented by John Randolph Bray and Earl Hurd (1915) arose from this objective. The technique consisted of drawing different elements of the same view over transparent sheets, to later reuse the ones that were not going to move. This ingenious solution to reduce the work of animators would dominate the industry until the 21st century.

In parallel, the animate Max Fleischer was working on another innovative technique: rotoscoping, which allowed the achievement of more detailed and realistic movements by tracing frames of live-action videos. This technique was used to give life to the characters of the famous cartoon Betty Boop in the 1930s: the animators based them on the songs of the famous jazz singer Cab Calloway.

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But the glamorous Betty Boop was not the first animated superstar: Felix The Cat, by animator Otto Messmer, debuted in 1919 in Feline Follies (1919) and his profile took off immediately. This animated cat starred in more than 100 short films and was the first animated drawing to become a trend with his own line of merchandising, something never before seen in this age.

But what about the animated feature films?

Around this period, the industry was bursting with impressive animations, full of humor - but they were always short. In fact it was outside the United States where pioneers dared to create longer stories.

The first animated films in history emerged in Argentina in 1917, created by Quirino Cristiani, but the earliest film that survives today is German: The Adventures of Prince Achmed, by Lotte Reiniger (1926).

Reiniger came up against an industry in which the idea of an animated film seemed crazy, and her fim took a full year to find a distributor who believed in it. But when she found the distributor, her success was overwhelming. Hers is the first animated film that was kept for posterity, but it was only the first of many.

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Although the Disney aesthetic would come to be synonymous with animated films, all these pioneering directors explored unique styles in their productions: from Reiniger’s game of lights and silhouettes to the detailed stop motion of Ladislaw Starevich en Le Roman de Renard (1930) or the Diehl brothers in Die sieben raben (1937). Thanks to them, animations became ever-more complex, as did the stories they told.

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The arrival of Mickey Mouse in Steamboat Willie (1928) was the start of a golden age for American animation that lasted until 1960, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937) marked the birth of a huge industry around animated film. But we have to remember that many pioneers were needed to put that mouse in charge of a steamship.

You may also be interested in:

- The first special effects: from Melies to Marvel
- Stop Motion Animation with Modelling Clay, a course by Becho y MAB _ Can Can Club
- [https://www.domestika.org/en/courses/248-3d-animation-for-non-animators-with-cinema-4d]3D Animation for Non Animators with Cinema 4D[/url], a course by Zigor Samaniego.

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