History has belied the field of animation with misplaced emphases and ethnocentric retellings. First, animation did not start with Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse; the first animated show was Pantomimes lumineuses, produced in Paris in 1892 by Emile Reynaud. Second, the pioneers were not solely the Americans James Stuart Blackton, Winsor McCay, John Randolph Bray, or the Fleischer brothers; others were animating in Argentina, where Quirino Cristiani made the world’s first feature-length film, El Apóstol (The Apostle), in 1917; and in the UK, Spain, Russia, Germany, France, Italy, and Scandinavia, and parts of Asia, such as India, Japan, and China. Early in the twentieth century, the German avant-garde film community took to animation through the experiments of artists such as Hans Richter, Walther Ruttmann, Viking Eggeling, and Lotte Reiniger, and in France, Emile Cohl and Georges Méliès added much to the quality of early animation; Cohl with his graphics, Méliès with his ability to blur the line between live action and animated cinema.
Some of the earliest animation in Asia resulted out of necessity and experimentation. In India it happened when in 1915 cinema pioneer G. W. Phalke did not have sufficient film stock to continue making features and resorted to doing animated shorts. In Japan Seitaro Kitayama, Junichi Kouchi, and Oten Shimokawa in the 1910s separately and successfully experimented with producing animation. In China in the early 1920s the four Wan brothers, curious about animation, slavishly experimented until accidentally, they were able to “make the pictures move.”
In a second phase, from the late 1920s through 1950s, animation advanced from a toylike novelty to an industry and art form. In the US, studios such as those of Walt Disney, the Fleischer brothers, Pat Sullivan, Paul Terry, Leon Schlesinger, and Fred Quimby developed assembly-line systematization that often treated creators as mere cogs in a production wheel, which eventually led to efforts at unionization and strikes. Besides labor exploitation, animation as big business also stimulated commodification of cartoons and characters, and later (the 1960s), runaway production (to Asia and Australia) to seek stable and inexpensive labor pools. Still, artistically, the US in the 1930s through 1950s turned out world-class animation, with memorable characters, beautiful music, moving stories, and excellent technical skills, including a series of Disney features beginning with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937); Warner Bros.’ time-honored characters such as Bugs Bunny and Road Runner; MGM’s Tom and Jerry series, and the United Productions of America cartoons, revolutionary with their stylized approach, graphic diversity, and unconventional stories.
Animation masters came to the fore elsewhere during this period, including experimentalists such as New Zealander Len Lye, known for his drawing on film, and Norman McLaren, who, after 1941, made Canada’s National Film Board an important haven for animators. In Europe, George Pal, Alexandre Alexeïeff, Oskar Fischinger, John Halas, Joy Batchelor, Paul Grimault, and Jirí Trnka each contributed to establishing animation as an art form.
Political-economic phenomena of the 1930s –1950s, including World War II, the division of Europe, and the triumph of communism in China, North Korea, and North Vietnam, greatly affected animation. As expected, during the war, all sides used cartoons to denigrate the enemy and build home-front morale. More profound was the division of Europe into east and west. Within western Europe, the artistic and financial weakness of animation relegated it to a lower status than cinema, while in eastern Europe, animation, supported by the state, found favor in the Soviet Union and in countries previously not known for animation. Among these were Czechoslovakia (popular for its puppet animation), Yugoslavia and its Zagreb school (known for its limited animation, and avant-garde graphics and subjects), and Poland (famous for its art films). By the time of the fall of the Soviet Union and communist eastern Europe in 1990, most countries and states within the USSR (especially Estonia) had thriving animation. China experienced its golden era of animation after 1949, at first following the Soviet model, but after the mid-1950s developing its own style, techniques (including brush painting), and stories based on Chinese proverbs and legends.
Since the 1960s, animation has faced many challenging changes brought about mainly by the growth of television, the quick pace of corporatism and commercialization, the conversion from hand-made to computergenerated animation, and the changeover from state-planned economy to capitalism in Russia, eastern Europe, and China. Since it entered the market economy in the late 1980s, China has abandoned much of its artistic animation and has increased production from a few hundred minutes to 80,000 minutes of animation yearly. In the US, after experiencing a low stage in the late 1970s, animation made a comeback with a spate of TV prime-time shows following The Simpsons in 1989, perennial theatrical features, and increased licensing/merchandising.
Globally, among other trends, local animation must compete with Japanese anime in many countries, especially in Asia. Universally, animation is being reinvented, finding new outlets, such as video games, DVDs, and cell phones, and new uses, particularly special effects. Animation has also expanded to many countries of Africa, Asia, and Latin America, and has benefited in recent years by higher levels of professionalism (more festivals, training opportunities, competitions, associations), government recognition and support (South Korea, China, and Thailand), and by globalization (overseas markets, co-productions). On the downside, in many countries, production has speeded up at the expense of quality – often to meet the gluttonous appetite of television. State funds for experimentation have dried up, several aspects of animation have been taken over by media moguls focused only on the bottom line, and training has concentrated on computer technology, not the specific techniques of animation.
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