The history of North American animation spans over 100 years, yet to this day the industry evolves in significant ways.
We’re sure you’re all familiar with iconic cartoon characters such as Disney’s Mickey Mouse and Warner Bros.’ Bugs Bunny, and we’d also venture a guess that some of you may think these icons to be among the first animated individuals to ever hit the big screen. In truth, those who believe this would only be half-right. While it is true that these character’s represented major turning points for animation throughout history, the origins of North American animation are surprisingly more humble than you may believe. In fact, the animation industry would go through 20 years of evolution and experimentation before Walt Disney ever debuted his lovable mouse.
While rudimentary forms of animation have existed for centuries, the advent of silent films in the early 1900s served as the catalyst for animation to properly takeoff. As early movie makers discovered that individual frames of films could be spliced together to create illusions that would be otherwise impossible in the real world, aspiring animators saw the potential in a trick that would go on to be called “stop-motion animation.” James Stuart Blackton’s 1906 short film Humorous Phases of Funny Faces is considered one of the first animated films ever made, as it features an animator’s hand drawing faces on a blackboard that go on to move on their own via frame manipulation and stop-motion animation. Animation would go on to evolve in complexity throughout the silent film era, and the term “cartoon” was officially coined as the industry flourished by 1910. A mere 10 years after Humorous Phases of Funny Faces, the fully hand-drawn short Gertie the Dinosaur showed how far the industry had come with its fluid animation and its impressive attention to detail.
By the late 1920s, “sound films” made silent films a thing of the past. As actors who gained their popularity during the silent era struggled with the advent of sound, so too did prominent silent cartoon characters such as Felix the Cat wane in popularity. That said, the sound era kicked off what is considered the “golden age of animation” to this day. Walt Disney’s Steamboat Willie was not the first cartoon to feature sound, but it was the first major animated success of the era due to its sound accurately syncing up with the onscreen action. Disney went on to become the leading name in animation throughout the era, and cartoons featuring Goofy and Donald Duck would appear in 1932 and 1934 respectively. Many studios tried to copy Disney’s style and tone to find success, which surprisingly included Warner Bros. with the premier of their animated series Looney Tunes. While Warner Bros. struggled throughout the early 30s, Tex Avery was hired as their new animation director and swiftly revitalized the Looney Tunes brand in 1935. Because Avery had no interest in competing with Disney, he was able to pioneer now-iconic characters such as Porky Pig and Daffy Duck with a distinctively silly style that resonated with audiences. Avery would go on to design Bugs Bunny in the 1940s, and Warner Bros.’ Looney Tunes series surpassed Disney’s popularity shortly after.
The industry experienced a significant shake-up once again in the 1950s, as television became the preferred entertainment medium for most American families. Since cartoons were perceived to be children’s entertainment by this point, animation studios worked diligently to adapt their work for TV. Minor animated shorts from the 1930s were recycled to fill programming gaps, including Mighty Mouse and Heckle and Jeckle. The greatest breakout success of this era was Hanna-Barbera Studios, who produced TV’s first animated sitcom in the 1960s: The Flintstones. The modern stone age family proved to be such a hit during prime-time hours that the studio would produce stylistically similar shows like The Jetsons and Top Cat shortly after. To remain competitive during this era, Disney shifted Mickey Mouse and his friends towards TV while they worked on feature films such as One Hundred and One Dalmatians and Robin Hood.
By 1980, the “golden age of animation” was considered to be over. Many animators from the 1930s had either retired or passed away, including the tragic death of Walt Disney himself in 1966. However, as technology continued to advance in complexity, so too did animation redefine itself for the new era. Computer generated graphics became a viable form of animation throughout the 80s, culminating in Disney’s futuristic cult classic film Tron. While the film only received moderate box office success, it would go on to influence Disney for decades. Slightly more traditionally, 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit mixed live action with animation to heavily revitalize the industry by showcasing classic cartoon characters with significantly advanced special effects. Acclaimed director Stephen Speilberg also entered the animation space with Tiny Toon Adventures and Pinky and the Brain, and Disney themselves experimented with syndicated cartoons with the premiere of DuckTales (Woo-hoo!). Other syndicated successes of this era included He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, G.I. Joe, and My Little Pony.
Unsurprisingly, animation would continue to evolve throughout the 90s, and in many ways we are still living in this age of animation. 1987’s The Simpsons paved the way for adult-oriented cartoons, and the show currently holds the records for both the longest running animated program and the longest running American sitcom. 1995’s Toy Story was the first fully computer-generated feature film, and CG animation continues to be utilized by the likes of Disney’s Frozen and DreamWorks’ How To Train Your Dragon series. The advent of the internet brought about the birth of Adobe’s Flash Player, which has actually gone full-circle and has influenced the style of professional cartoons such as Bob’s Burgers and Teen Titans Go!. Even if Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny are still as popular today as they have ever been, the way North American animation continues to evolve and dominate pop culture remains as impressive as it is remarkable. Even if animation today is infinitely more complex than 1906’s Humorous Phases of Funny Faces, we will have to wait and see how today’s animation holds up in another 100 years.
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