How Are Animated Cartoons Made?

And a short history

By Stefan Anitei on January 12th, 2008 10:26 GMT
The original animation was a kid toy, a book whose leaves could be scrolled rapidly. On each page there were figures slightly different from the previous ones, and through the rapid scrolling they merged one with the other. It was an optic illusion. Modern technology is much more evolved, but it works on the same principle: static images presented rapidly and successively.

Using a camera, any object can be animated, from plasticine figurines to home appliances. This way, the first animation was realized in 1898. The first known animated cartoon is "The Humpty Dumpty Circus", by Albert E. Smith. Instead of drawings, he used the toys of his daughter, placing them in another position after each exposure, so that the effect would be as convincing as possible. His partner, James Stuart Blarburn, popularized the cartoons all over the world, between 1900-1906.

The first cartoons were black and white and tended to be realistic, using drawings and models. But soon, people realized this was the art of the impossible: flying piglets, moving mountains, dinosaurs destroying the Earth. In 1902, the French George Melies made "Trip to the moon", in which a spaceship hits the eye of the Moon Man, a step towards daring projects. But by those times, making a cartoon took a lot of time: a sole animator had to make 24 slightly different drawings for each second of the movie, thus 1,440 for each minute. By 1910, the technique changed: the artists started to work in teams and use the so-called phase drawings, drawn on transparent sheets of celluloid.

The celluloid technology eased their work. The artists did not have to draw each scene in part, but only the main characters, placed on the same background. Sometimes, just parts of the character were redrawn, like the feet of a walking character.

In 1927, the first vocal movie was made in the U.S. and the sonic band matched the actors' movements. The young animator Walt Disney applied this for the first time to cartoons in 1928, in "Willie, the Steamer", in which the famous Mickey Mouse made his debut, taking the whittled voice of Disney. Disney came with other characters too: Donald Duck, Pluto the Dog or Goofy. Disney made a strong connection between the action and music.

The soundtrack of the cartoon is not easy to make. Background music or sounds like thunder can be added later, but human voices, noise of the steps or a knock on the door must be made before, the animation being made accordingly to them.

The sound engineer separates the sounds of the speech (phonemes). To each sound, a lip movement is corresponded. The sound delimitations are recorded on soundcards, divided in frames of 1/24 seconds. For example, "hello" is made by two phonemes: "he" and "llo", occupying together 29 frames on the soundcard. This process takes a lot and is tiresome, but without it the images would not match the sound, and the result would resemble a wrongly synchronized movie.

Mickey Mouse opened the Golden Age of the cartoons, that lasted until the middle of the '50s. Disney was followed by the Fleisher Brothers with Popeye the Sailor, the spinach eating sailor with steel muscles, and after them, an invasion of the characters preferred by today's children: Tom and Jerry, Road Runner, Bugs Bunny, Duffy Duck, Sylvester, Tweety and others. Later, the Simpsons with their odd heads boosted again the popularity of the cartoons.

The new characters were very different. They were the work of very talented animators, like "Tex" Avery, Chick Jones, William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, from Warner Bros and MGM. These new heroes lived in a world of unimaginable destructions. They were stepped by the steam roller, got out dizzy and filled of smoke from explosions, holed the walls leaving behind their configurations and others. As the heroes always turned back to the initial shape, ready to fight, violence was hard to be taken seriously. The rules of the reality were broken at will. But all these were just short jokes that could not replace movies.

Disney was the first to overcome the issue, making the feature cartoon. The time issue was solved using the principle of the conveyor belt: some realized the action scenes, others the background and others transposed the background on the celluloid band, where colors were mixed and outlines drawn. At the middle of the '30s, Disney had 800 employees.

The first feature cartoon, in 1937, was "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs", which had a huge success. Other feature cartoons followed and, in 1994, for example, King Lion, made at Walt Disney studios, had one of the grossest revenues of the year.

In 1964, cartoons and cinema were for the first time combined, when real actors and animated figures appeared on a drawn décor in "Mary Poppins". A real piece of art was made in 1988, when Bob Hoskins had an animated partner in "Who Framed Roger Rabbit". The combination goes to impossible: Jim Carey's heart goes out of his chest in 1994 "The Mask".

Since the '70s, computerized technology has been easing the work of the animators. Computers are more precise than humans and can draw dynamic tridimensional images, which remain real in any light, and from any angle. In "Who Framed Roger Rabbit", the real decors had to be connected to the drawn ones. The solution was offered by computerized light follow up: the programmed computer could detect the light source in any situation and find its effect on the environment. The computer drew the images automatically, so that the shadows matched illumination and the whole action, helping to gain time.

Today, animation is so common in television, that we do not even figure it out. It gives life to graphics, diagrams, maps. In advertising, it enables cans to speak or raisins to dance, videos appreciated by both children and adults. Animation is the realm of fantasy.