In our heady post-internet days, we live in a world of perpetual motion, where video and animation are the norm rather than the exception. They have become a key tool for communication; whether in advertising, education, art projects, or to express something about it being Friday in a way that only the looping madness of a GIF is able.
Of course, it’s not always been this way. Back when our great-grandparents were still playing with a cup and ball rather than a drone or augmented reality headset, animation was a wildly exciting new medium that brought with it endless possibilities.
An ambitious new book by animation historian Maureen Furniss, Animation: The Global History, traces the history of the discipline back even further, taking a broad examination of its origins in revolutions like the 1659 invention of the first magic lantern by Christiaan Huygens, 1832’s zoetrope, and even (pushing it a bit here), prehistoric paintings in France’s Lascaux caves from 15,000 BC.
The book is the product of Furniss’ 11 years of teaching animation history at Cal Arts, and her lectures there over the years formed its underlying structure. It discusses key animators and works alongside the cultural and political climates that birthed them, showcasing some beautiful stills and timelines. We spoke to her about what animation can achieve that live footage can’t, the recent revival of hand-drawn frames and stop-motion, and the three animated features that changed how we perceive the discipline.
How important do you think it is that today’s creatives across the disciplines understand the history of animation?
If you’re a visual artist today, or working in any pop culture or more fine art contexts, it’s another realm you should have a vocabulary in. It’ll make you more versatile, and [archive animations] are so easily accessible online now.
What do you think have been the most important developments in animation over the last hundred years?
It’s useful to think of how animation used to be thought of as opposed to now—people don’t have a fixed idea of what it is today. People used to think of it as being about big studio features from Warner Bros. or Disney, but The Simpsons came about in the 1980s and since the ’90s television series’ have become more innovative, and changes in feature animation have occurred. What we understand by the term animation has been broadening.
Many of our current developments can be traced back to the ’80s and ’90s, where there were many shifts in pop culture: home movies, VHS, and DVD, and then the internet.
We also saw the Disney Renaissance and the growth in popularity of made-for-TV animations. Then Pixar came about, so there was an explosion of new developments. Not to mention visual effects in live action, which became more and more complex—now there are fully digital movies that look completely real.
Having made your survey of the discipline a global one, how has the world changed, if at all, in terms of where animation is being produced?
Japan and America still dominate, but there’s more and more exposure to a lot of European studios now too. The growth in the number of animated feature films being put out across the world is amazing. Animation is growing in a number of different contexts to counter the dominance of the U.S. and also Japan, and we’re seeing countries that are trying to get their own identities. But that isn’t easy, as people have come to expect work that looks like Disney or Pixar.
With Korean animation, too, animators and directors have a harder time because there’s a real emphasis on technology, and the dominance of the anime model, so it’s hard to have a “Korean” style. Today we’re seeing a lot more collaboration between people based in different countries, so it’s hard to pinpoint one specific place. There’s so much international co-production.
In the UK at least, Japanese animation seems to be something that teenagers are perennially drawn to, what do you think it is about the manga style that’s so appealing?
It goes back to 1980’s, and before that even. The spread of Japanese animation’s popularity happened with films like Akira, and people like Hayao Miyazaki making films that were more along the lines of Disney movies and family entertainment, like My Neighbor Totoro. I think the appeal for westerners is the idea that it’s something kind of unique that your parents don’t know about—it’s maybe not so mainstream.
How did the advent of big studios like Disney in the mid-20th century change how animations were made and watched?
In terms of American work at least, Disney was the person who developed feature-length animation as a model. While the films vary wildly—there’s not one style or one kind of story being told—Disney quality animation can be seen as a high-point in animation’s history.
As 3D motion graphics become increasingly sophisticated and realistic, a number of young creatives seem to be looking back to more “DIY” forms like stop motion, hand-drawn frames, collage etc. Why do you think that is?
Well it’s that pendulum thing. People used technology to get the most realistic character they could, but now that challenge has been achieved and is not so much of a motivator, perhaps. People come to animation with a broad range of backgrounds: some might be more inclined to use stop motion as they like sculpture and clay; others might have a more live art background so they want to make their own puppets. Drawing is always the basis in the field of animation—not everyone does draw now, but it’s still at the heart of the 2D industry.
Do you think now a lot of people can access the software they need to make animations, that it’s easier for the best ideas and concepts to rise to the top?
If you look at something like a GIF, it’s really just like a flipbook or other historical optical toys. The concept is old, but the creativity that comes from pushing the boundaries of a simple form is challenging: with technology, you can do pretty much anything you want, but the challenge is in making something new and funny in one little animation. It’s a relatively simple loop that repeats itself but is fascinating to look at.
PES does incredibly sophisticated stop motion stuff, but at the heart of what he’s doing, you can see how he’s made it, and it shows people that anyone can do that. But if you watch a Disney or Pixar film, you can aspire to that and work on it, but it’s not as immediately accessible to someone who wants to be an animator. The idea is still the main thing.
What do you think animation convey that camera footage can’t?
People are drawn to images that are animated; it’s just one of those things. Animations are inherently attractive and that makes them ideal for educational films. There’s limitations with live action; you can’t cut someone open for instance, or probably not. With animation you can do anything you want in a succinct, clear, and often very entertaining way.
The discussion of wartime propaganda animation is so interesting: why do you think people chose that medium to convey their messages? How effective do you think it was, in comparison to say posters or literature?
There was a character called Snafu in World War Two to give messages to American GIs. A film called Booby Trap showed lots of things exploding, including a woman’s boobies. It showed the dangers of hidden explosives, with the familiar play on the term boobies, and lots of other tricks that would interest young troops. It was an effective series for imparting messages to be careful and keep your mouth shut, using a character that people could laugh at.
With things like this, they knew that even if people had heard or read a message 100 times, Snafu would get their attention.
If you had to pinpoint three animated features that marked real turning points in the discipline, what would they be?
Well The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) was a pivotal film, as it changed a lot of perceptions about animated features and drew a large teen audience. There was a cluster of films around that time that formed a renaissance in animation and challenged the model. Toy Story (1995) was a revolutionary use of 3D animation. Then I’d say Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988). It was an amazing combination of animation with live action. It was a little bit sexy, a little bit mysterious, but also fun. It managed to appeal to a youth audience but also had a feel of nostalgia. I think that was the moment we realised Disney was playing with everyone else, and really breaking down barriers.
Now that people aren’t watching animations on television in the way they used to thanks to streaming, blogs, Vimeo, YouTube, etc. how has that changed the nature of animation?
At a certain point it was easy to know a lot about almost everything, now it’s impossible and everything slips away. The way it’s changed is a reflection of culture generally; it’s become ephemeral and it’s gone before you know it and you’re onto something else. From a historian’s point of view, the danger is, if you’re talking about a website or animation from the beginning of the internet, they’re gone now.
What sort of challenges are facing the animation industry now?
It’s really important that governments continue to fund art productions and innovative animations. Although it’s difficult to measure their impact, it’s not just about the money these sort of projects make, but the difference they can make culturally and the way they represent culture. They live on to reflect the ideals of the country and to influence future artists. The National Film Board of Canada has been a great example. It has produced so many short films we now consider to be among the greatest animated shorts in history. When countries or governments make a decision not to support productions, it’s a very shortsighted thing.
Animation: The Global History by Maureen Furniss is out now, published by Thames & Hudson