Gertie the Dinosaur, 1914 — Windsor McCay’s animated cartoons were among the earliest on screen. But McCay had to redraw every background scene in every frame of the five-minute cartoon—a tedious process that made the film look jittery.
Felix the Cat, 1919 — Cel animation was a way to get around the jitters. Invented at the John Bray studios in 1914, celluloid (“cel”) animation allowed backgrounds to remain stable while moving characters were inked on transparent sheets. Another innovation was the introduction of cartoon “stars” like Felix the Cat by Otto Mesmer and Mickey Mouse by Walt Disney.
Steamboat Willie, 1928 — The innovation that catapulted Disney to success was the marriage of sound with animation in 1928. Only a year after The Jazz Singer amazed audiences with synchronized dialogue and music, Disney produced a Mickey Mouse cartoon with tightly synchronized sound effects and orchestrated background music called “Steamboat Willie.” The cartoon was a takeoff on Buster Keaton’s silent classic, Steamboat Bill, released earlier that year.
Skeleton Dance — Building on the success of Steamboat Willie, Disney released Skeleton Dance on Aug. 22, 1929, in time for theaters before Halloween that year. It was the first of 75 “Silly Symphonies” produced through 1939.
Snow White, 1938 — When you went to the movies in the 1930s, you could expect to see a newsreel and a cartoon. But a full-length animated feature was unknown until 1938, when Disney released Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. One of the big achievements in this film was naturalistic figure drawing — as opposed to the unrealistic animation with “rubber hose” arm and leg movements. It also was the first to use full color. Despite early doubters (even Disney’s wife Lillian said no one would ever pay to see a dwarf picture) the film premiered to wildly enthusiastic audiences. Snow White was followed by animation classics like Pinocchio in 1940, Dumbo in 1941, Bambi in 1942, Cinderella in 1950, and many others.
Roots of Japanese Anime, 1930s — This is a trailer for a set of eight classic works of Japanese anime, from pioneers such as Noburo Ofuji, Kenzo Masaoka, and Mitsuyo Seo, released by Zakka Films. They include Momotaro’s Sea Eagle, billed as Japan’s first feature length anime. It is a wartime propaganda film showing cute animals bombing Pearl Harbor, which is interesting, given the virulence and racism found in Western propaganda cartoons of the same era.
Peace on Earth, 1939 — Hugh Harman’s animated short was a break from the Disney tradition. The cartoon was a serious plea for peace just as World War II was starting. It depicted never-ending wars and the last people on earth killing each other, followed by animals rebuilding society using the helmets of the soldiers. The cartoon was nominated for an Academy Award—and the Nobel Peace Prize.
Other animators departed from Disney’s naturalistic storytelling techniques to create physics-defying characters. Tex Avery, for instance, created a large cast of exaggerated characters. “That is the most wonderfully liberating spectacle,” said Monty Python animator Terry Gilliam in a review of his ten favorite animations.
And speaking of Terry Gilliam…
The Monty Python animator used relatively low-cost techniques to stretch the medium artistically.