For nearly as long as humanity has been around, art has been a central part of its culture. Equally as long, artists sought a way to get their images to move, to animate. But what exactly was the earliest animation, and for that matter the first cartoon? The answer to that question is a multiple choice one, but all of which could be considered correct. It’s best then to start from the beginning, to see where it all began.
Paleolithic Shadow Drawings
To find the earliest known attempt at animation, one would have to look far back into humanity’s history, to over 21,000 years ago. In the Paleolithic era, art was displayed on the walls of the caves which humanity’s ancestors resided. As they’re presented now, the images sometimes appear strange. Animals may be drawn disproportionate to each other, and some creatures may have multiple limbs and heads. But these images were designed to tell a story, and in the dim lighting provided by the flickering of a flame, the artwork would seem as though it had come to life.
The Magic Lantern
Across the proceeding millenia, many other examples of similar methods of multiple poses or shadows being used to convey animation emerged, from murals in Egyptian tombs to Chinese rotating lanterns. In the mid-1600s, a device known as the “Magic Lantern” was invented, credited to a Dutch scientist named Christiaan Huygens. A predecessor to the slide projector, it was basically operated in a similar manner, using light to project an image onto a surface. These were usually used for educational purposes in schools, but were also incorporated into performances such as magic shows, using shadows and smoke to give the appearance of movement.
There were also thaumatropes, disks with an image on either side that, when spun on a string, produced the illusion of both images overlapping. While examples of this same type of disk have been found going back several thousand years, it really took hold as an entertainment device during the early 1800s. This would eventually lead to the Phénakisticope in 1833, a spinning disk consisting of multiple images which, when viewed through the slits on the disk onto a mirror behind it, created a looping image. Another important influence on early animators was the kineograph, better known as the flip book.
In terms of the modern understanding of what animation is, the question once again arises: What was the first animated cartoon? While some may say that the first didn’t appear until the 20th century, it may be more accurate to look a bit further back, to the year 1892. While previous methods only provided a very limited number of drawings to work with, French inventor Charles-Emile Reynaud developed “Theatre Optique” (opaque theatre) a method which allowed the use of potentially unlimited images. For this method, two magic lanterns were used, one to project a background from a painted glass plate, while the other used two spools and several mirrors projecting transparent images to create the illusion of continuous movement, an expansion upon Reynaud’s earlier Praxinoscope invention. The downside to this method is that the spools had to manually operated, with Reynaud being one of the only ones who knew how to properly operate it. But the result was what could be considered the first public demonstration of an animated film.
On October 28, 1892, Reynaud publically debuted his “Pantomimes Lumineuses” cartoons at the Musée Grévin wax museum in Paris. The program consisted of three animated features, each using upwards of 700 images and lasting between 10-15 minutes, and accompanied by live dialogue and piano music. It even had sound effects, provided by an electromagnet activated by tabs at key moments in the picture, which would cause either a buzzer to go off or an instrument to play. The shows were a success, with each daily performance initially bringing in hundreds of people. By the time these performances ended in March 1900, it was estimated that half a million people had seen them. However, Reynaud’s show was soon outpaced by the debut of the cinematograph in 1895. Like other pioneers in the early days of film, Reynaud was quickly overshadowed by the advancing technology and changing public tastes, and spent his final years in poverty. By 1913, he had destroyed all of the Theatre Optique projectors with a hammer and threw nearly all of his animated productions into the Seine River.
J. Stuart Blackton and Stop-Motion Animation
As mentioned, in December of 1895, the first public demonstration of the cinematograph took place, the official birth of cinema. Animation, however, would take another decade of developing in this new medium before truly taking off. Much of animation during the early years of cinema involved experimentations in stop motion, primarily from J. Stuart Blackton. The first of these being “The Humpty Dumpty Circus” from 1898, which used circus toys with jointed limbs. Another example, and the earliest surviving, is “The Enchanted Drawing” from 1900, which had very limited animation of a drawing on an easel done using the stop trick with a single drawing replacing another similar drawing, such as the face switching from a frown to a smile when Blackton offers it a bottle of wine.
This was then followed up in 1906 with a much more ambitious short from Blackton, “Humorous Phases of Funny Faces”. Using stop-motion and cutouts, it depicts an artist drawing on a chalkboard, but beyond the first moment showing his hands, the rest of the short is entirely animated. Blackton continued to find success the following year, with the stop motion film “The Haunted Hotel”, which was the first of his films to receive critical acclaim, and brought attention to the potential profitability of animation.
"Fantasmagorie" and Traditional Animation
But as for what the first traditionally animated cartoon is, that answer may come from again from France, this time from caricaturist Émile Cohl. As the legend goes, while working for the Gaumont studio, Cohl was ordered by the studio’s director to study Blackton’s work and uncover its secrets, in the process learning how to create an animated feature. Over the course of three to four months in 1908, Cohl created a two minute film titled “Fantasmagorie” (fittingly titled after a name for earlier magic lantern shows), a short about a stick figure man who can transform into several different objects.
Consisting of 700 line drawings, animated on twos, each frame was shot on negative film to give it the appearance of a chalk drawing on a blackboard (similar to Blackton’s animation), essentially being the first piece of cinema done in what would be come to be considered "traditional" animation. The short, animated in a “stream of consciousness” style, was a direct tribute to the Incoherent Movement, a movement that sought to defy traditional artistic styles with irrational and surreal imagery, that had briefly taken the French art world by storm in the 1880s (and which Cohl was a direct participant of).
Thus, by the end of the 20th century’s first decade, the journey across thousands of years of artistic and technological developments had finally reached the birth of traditional animation. This would, of course, only be the beginning.
Jacqueline G Rozell on September 18, 2019:
Whoever started it, whoever perfected it, we owe them a great debt of thanks. There are untold mothers whose sanity has been preserved by animation, and I dare say it has saved the sanity of many intellectuals who just needed some down time and wanted to enjoy the happy fantasy world animation offers. And in addition to the animation itself, many children were first introduced to classical music via animation, as it was used as scores for many a nonsensical laughter-filled Saturday morning. So here's to Bugs, Elmer, Roadrunner, Coyote, Tweetie, Mickey and the Gang, Underdog, Rocky and Bullwinkle.... and so many more. Where are you today, guys? We need you!