The History of Western Animation in Film

I have decided to broaden the subject of this blog a little bit. Yes, I know, I have barely started with my lyrics analysis, but I already realized that I feel a little bit limited when it comes to talking about animation. So instead of starting yet another blog (I am barely able to do regular updates for the ones I already have), I have decided to use this one for some serious basic discussions about animated movies – and start with the basics.

When people talk about the History of Animation, most of the time they really talk about the History of American Animation. And if the topic is theatrical movies and not animation in general, that is for once fairly legitimate. Like it or not, but when it comes to animated movies, the US is dominating not only the home but also the European market.

I guess this is the moment I should talk about animes. They naturally have their own history and influences. Let’s concentrate on one side of the earth for now. I intend to illustrate something by doing a small overview over the most important development in animation.

The first theatrical animated movie in the world was – no, not “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” – an Argentinean movie with the title “El Apóstol”. Released in 1917 it utilized cutout animation (basically a special form of stop-motion). The movie is lost, but based on what I read about it, it was a satire which was certainly not geared towards a young audience.

The oldest still surviving animated movie is – no, still not “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” – Lotte Reiniger’s “The Adventure of Prince Achmet”. Released in 1926 in Germany, it is the third animated movie ever made and the first which used the little bit more sophisticated silhouette animation. In fact, Lotte Reiniger was the one who invented this technic. It works similar to shadow puppets, but they are not moved and filmed live, but painstakingly arranged. And let me tell you, the level of detail Lotte Reiniger archived this way in breathtaking. A photo can’t really convey it, but the result looks like this:


The feathers and leaves are already impressive, but it is even more impressive if you see it in motion. As you can see, the movie is tinted. It also has its own “soundtrack”, composed specifically for it. The movie has been restored in 1999. It is now available on DVD and has even shown with life-orchestra from time to time. If you get the chance to see it life – do! It’s a once in a lifetime experience, for multiple reasons.

The first stop-motion movie using puppets is either of Ladislas Starevich’s “The Tale of the Fox” or the Russian movie “The New Gulliver”, depending on if you base it on the end of the production or release date. “The Tale of the Fox” was finished in 1930 in France but released in April 1937. “The New Gulliver” was finished and released in 1935.

The first animated sound film was – nope! Still not “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” – but another lost Argentinian movie, “Peludópolis”, released in 1931. The claim which “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” has to fame is that was it was the first full-length cell-animated feature filmed in three-strip Technicolor, and begin of the rise what we call nowadays traditional animation. Released in 1937, it was the seventh animated movie ever made.

From that point onwards, you can just as well call it the history of Disney. First stereophonic sound? Fantasia (1940). First widescreen format? Lady and the Tramp (1955). First movie using the xerography process? 101 Dalmatians (1961). From 1937 onwards Disney was dominating the market – and then became complacent. Between Walt Disney losing interest in the Animation Studios and the general lack of a proper rival, Disney stopped being the pioneer in animation.

I think Disney left gladly the crown for the first “adult animation” to Ralph Bakshi’s “Fritz the Cat” (1972), but the studio also got beat concerning the first animated feature in Dolby Sound by “Watership Down” in 1978, the honour of being the first animated feature using computer images went to “Rock and Rule” in 1983, and the first feature length clay animation movie was “The Adventures of Mark Twain” in 1985.

Then Disney woke up again, setting a new milestone with “Who framed Roger Rabbit” (1988) and then proceeded to perfect the CAP system. “Rescuers Down Under” (1990) was the first movie produced without a camera and with only digital ink and paint. In 1995 Pixar happened. Toy Story was the first fully computer animated feature film and Toy Story 3 (2010) was the first feature film released theatrically in 7.1 surround sound. Meanwhile there was development in stop-motion, too. Coraline (2009) was the first stop-motion movie which used rapid prototyping.

There are two point I want to illustrate with this: Disney didn’t invent animation (not by far), but it was over long periods the forerunner in traditional animation. Also, the world of movie animation is all in all pretty small.

The most notable Animation companies (read: companies which produced more than two or three animated movies and left their mark on the industry) and figures are:

  1. The Disney Animation Studios – naturally. Forerunner in traditional animation and currently on the top of their game in CGI, too. Also the first animation studio which started making animated movies on this list active since 1937.
  2. Pixar – Forerunner in CGI animation, now naturally part of the Disney Company, but still an independent subsidiary. Active since 1995.
  3. DreamWorks – mostly notable in being currently the biggest rival of the two studios above.
  4. Don Bluth – His movies are a little bit hard to pin down to one studio, because he went bankrupt multiple times. At one point he was working with Steven Spielberg, later Fox Animation (which is nowadays Blue Skies). So, technically not a studio, but a notable body of work, and a player on the field from 1982 to 2000.
  5. Jiří Trnka – A pioneer in stop motion animation. Between 1947 and 1959 he made six critical highly acclaimed movies. The Czechoslovakian was considered by many the “Walt Disney of Eastern Europe” even though his style was very different.
  6. Aardman Animations – specialised on stop-motion and therefore in a niche market the US companies mostly ignored for a long time, this British Studio has been around since the 1970s. Its activity in movie making started in 2000.
  7. Blue Sky Studios – owned by 20th Century Fox this studio pushed into the market in 2002 with Ice Age.
  8. Robert L. Zemeckis – he worked on different projects on different companies, but is mostly notable for being the expert in motion capture, especially since the release of “The Polar Express” in 2004. If this is proper animation or not is disputable, but it certainly goes hand in hand with animation.
  9. Laika Entertainment – founded in 2005 this studio has still a fairly small line-up, but with releases like “Coraline” and “Paranormal”, as well contract work for “Corpse Bride” under its belt, it certainly left its mark already.
  10. Steven Spielberg – It is easy to overlook since he is not an animator, but he has been involved as executive producer to some of the most noteworthy animated movies made since the 1980s (and one or two really forgettable ones). This list includes “An American Tail”, “The Land before time” and “Who framed Roger Rabbit”, though he is currently mostly dabbling in motion capture.
  11. Warner Brothers Animation – despite the “big name” overall fairly unimportant in terms of movie making, since the company mostly concentrates on shorts and Television Series. But it is the only animation studio which has been around just as long as the Disney studios. Since 1993 the studio has been dabbling in movie making, too, and while the Lego Movie is the first one, which has been a true box office success, it does have a few other critical acclaimed pieces in its line-up, including “The Iron Giant”.
  12. Ralph Bakshi – His movies are a little bit out of the realm of the other studios, since he has a different target group at all. Since 1972 he is creating movies with the intent to address the adult audience – with varying success. To be honest, I think if any of the other studios had a true interest to outshine him, they would do so quite easily, there is just nobody else truly interested in doing animation which is exclusively geared towards adults if they can do a way bigger cash grab with movies made for all age groups.



Roughly, I would sort the phases of Movie Animation in the following eras:

1917 – 1930 : The Silent Age

The early beginning of movie animation. At this point the movie makers from all over the world experimented with different variants of stop-motion. But with only three animated theatrical features overall, animation didn’t really take off in movies – yet.

1931 – 1959: The Golden Age

Even before the rise of Disney, the concept of animated movies notably took off. Aside from the ones I already mentioned above, there were additional movie projects which never got finished and are considered lost. The Golden Age also saw not only the rise of Disney, but above all the rise of traditional animation. Stop motion still continued to thrive in Europe and especially Czechoslovakia, but in the US it was mostly used for shorts, TV shows and above all, special effects in live in live action movies.

1960 – 1981: The Dark Age

A dark time indeed. Disney is more or less the only company out there which is still regularly producing animated movies. There are some smaller projects, some of them certainly remarkable, but overall, the animation landscape has become empty, and Disney is doing just enough to not totally embarrass the studio. This only changes in the 1980s, when Don Bluth starts to challenge the status quo. But not only this. Computer technology changes animation forever.

1982 – current: The Multi Age

Multi, because this is the most diverse era for in animated movies so far. Traditional Animation raised to new heights, stop-motion managed to push its way back on the map, CGI movies stormed the market and motion capture became a thing. And if you look at the list above, most animation companies listed there are active in movie making since the 1990th or 2000th. For the first time ever there is proper competition for Disney.

At this point the Multi Age might have been over already, since CGI keeps pushing other methods, especially traditional animation, out of the picture. We’ll see in a couple of years.

And this concludes my first overview. The history of the most important animation studios is another theme though, which I will discuss separately.

15 responses to “The History of Western Animation in Film

  • The Animation Commendation

    Great history review! And great to let people know that ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ wasn’t the first animated film ever!

    • swanpride

      I admit, I never leave out an opportunity to put this point across. I really admire Walt Disney for the risks he took but there is quite a bit of myth connected to him, and one of the biggest might be that a full-length animated movie was such an impossible idea. It certainly wasn’t, if he hadn’t done it, someone else had – most likely in Europe.

  • anii654

    This was a pretty great article. I was talking with someone online about how films and television (animated and live action) are more geared towards the North American audience (specifically American), and how the foreign countries don’t have much import, focus, or importance, with the audience, and less and less stories are taking place in the foreign world. Everything is too American geared.

    I am so glad that more and more people are realizing that Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is not the first animated movie. While I love Disney, there are a decent amount of credit and titles that go to the company, which is very incorrect. I never knew that Stop Motion was around since the 30s as well. It sucks that now both of them are being pushed aside today.

    I am most intrigued by your category of the Multi era. I have usually seen that category split into 2 categories; Renaissance Animation (80s-90s). and the Millenium Age (2000s-present).

    • swanpride

      That’s because most people tend to do the eras based on Disney – which somewhat worked when Disney was more or less the only notable studio out there. But to me it is the Disney Renaissance, not the Renaissance in general. Pieces like “Toy Story” or “Nightmare before Christmas” are not a Renaissance, but the product of taking new technology in order to achieve a new level of animation. To me it is the time in which Animation for the first time became something you could do to perfection while still making profit with it, the time in which a large Market developed. The time of the animation academy award and the annies. Animation has become a huge market…we used to be lucky to get one high quality animated movie in a year, now there are around ten.
      Like I said, the Multi Era is most likely already over…but it is currently hard to see where the split happens and what the new era look like.
      I’m writing an article about the Disney specific eras and yes, there I make a split between the Disney Renaissance and what I call the Disney Pluralism.

    • swanpride

      There are, btw, more foreign animated movies out there than you might have noticed, some of them pretty good. And Disney itself produced a movie specifically for the Indian Market which I am dying to see.

  • VieraDear

    I really enjoyed reading this! Very insightful. (: On a side note, it’s really hard for me to appreciate the CGI movies in comparison to the traditionally drawn movies. I’m a traditional medium artist, so looking towards movies like Frozen and Tangled just… Bother me. I feel as though the roots have been forgotten.

    • swanpride

      Yeah, I totally get that. I don’t hate CGI, and there are certainly things which one could do with it which traditional animation might not be able to deliver this way (like Rapunzel’s hair), but I also think that CGI is missing something (what I am really missing is a proper acid sequence, I always loved those). It is less artistic than traditional animation, and it is just a shame that Disney has forgotten its roots. While I like the Disney CGI animation better than what anything else is doing because they are at least trying to give it a more artistic slant to it, I want them to do both. Even if Snow White hasn’t been truly the first fully length animated movie, it is still the one which started it all.

  • The Swanpride Award: Searching for the Best Animated Movie of the 20th Century | Movies and Lyrics

    […] about this. Before the start of what I dubbed the “Multi-Age” in my article about the different eras of movie animation, there simply weren’t enough animated movies to warrant such an award. It would have been […]

  • Cartoon19

    This is a really good article as it was really interesting and insightful. The only thing I disagree with you on is the 1960s being a dark age. I personally think it’s a silver age as Disney was still doing well at that time period both critically and financially. But also, Yellow Submarine was released in that same decade and it pushed animation into new heights. Also if wasn’t for Yellow Submarine, films like Fantasia and Alice in Wonderland might not be as popular as they are today.

    • swanpride

      If you read my other articles, you can see that I covered each decade again in order to find the best movie of the 20th century. 1960 was the only decade after 1940 for which I didn’t have more than four movies I considered even worth discussing – and yes Yellow Submarine was one of them – while every other decade I needed to narrow down the field jut a little bit. I have watched countless really bad animated movie from the 1960s in the hope to find a good one towards the end of last year. Believe me, the title “dark age” is rightfully earned. the 1970s were a little bit better, before things started to kick off again in the 1980s.

    • swanpride

      Also, this is my article about western animation in general…I have a separate one specifically about Disney Animation, and there I called this period differently.

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