Animation Definition: From Early Beginning’s To Modern Day Animation

Well, well, well. An animation company, providing you with the definition of animation… What are the chances?

You don’t have to have been a cartoonist to have had animation play a large part throughout your childhood and adult life.

Let’s face it: the medium is everywhere—from our homes to schools, to work, and just about around that, there’s a screen. 

Human beings, big and small, are natural lovers of animation. We find warmth in color and happy moving objects and simply cannot deny feeling mesmerized and at home by imaginary characters moving as if in real life. This has not gone unnoticed by today’s marketers, as animation has been adapted to various campaigns.

Over the years, it has become more evident that in our ever-growing digital era, animation can do far more than just entertain children with a talking sponge who lives in a pineapple under the sea. It’s undoubtedly an eclectic tool for expressing ideas visually, for entertainment, education, and even marketing.

After all, it offers a whole new platform for invention and originality, but practicality dictates that more than static images, the movement of animation naturally invites more engagement. Coupled with various physical restraints that come with live footage, animation becomes a highly desirable choice for your video marketing needs. It is not only flexible but has endless opportunities for creativity.

This blog post will provide you with an all-encompassing overview of animation as an artform, technique, marketing tool, means of boosting UX, among other things (yes – there’s more!).

So, without further ado, let’s get moving! 

What Is Animation?

Let’s begin at the beginning with a good, old definition of animation.

Plain and straightforward, animation captures sequential, static images—drawings or photos of inanimate objects—and plays them in rapid succession to give the illusion of movement. 

But we’re guessing that having found yourself here when you ask “what is animation?” you want something a little more comprehensive than a simple technical definition. 

Where Did It Come From?

It is believed that sequential art dates back thousands of years, depending on your interpretation of cave paintings, in which animals were depicted with multiple overlapping legs in superimposed positions to create a series. 

It has been claimed that these overlapping figures were designed for a form of early animation using a flickering light. The flames of a fire or a passing torch alternately illuminate different parts of the paintings upon the rock walls for an ultimate revealing of other parts of the movement.

Archeological findings imply that humans have been attempting to depict things in motion as long as we’ve been able to draw. Several phases of a goat leaping up to nip at a tree can be seen painted around a 5,200-year-old pottery bowl found in Iran’s Shahr-e Sukhteh.

A page of drawings by Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man shows an anatomical study with multiple angles of a man, which implies movement. 

In the 18th and 19th centuries, Europe and North America were impacted heavily by the Industrial Revolution, which prompted the development of machines that would create the illusion of moving images. Here we had listed a timeline of animation-associated innovations that occurred even before the wonder of the film was introduced to human lives:

The Magic Lantern 

The Magic Lantern was an image projector using pictures on sheets of glass, invented by  Christiaan Huygens in 1603. Since some sheets contain moving parts. The parts shifted according to the image with a candle put in the magic lantern using the light to project the picture’s shadow on a piece of cloth or a board. The Magic Lantern is considered the first example of projected animation.

The Thaumatrope

A thaumatrope is a device popularized in the 19th century, around 1824, to be specific. It housed a rotating disk with a different picture on each side and was attached to two pieces of string. When the strings are rotated promptly between the fingers, the two images appear to blend into one due to the ‘persistence of vision.’


The phenakistoscope consisted of spinning disks reflected in mirrors that displayed a fluid illusion of motion. The device is considered one of the first forms of moving media entertainment that laid the foundation for the future motion picture and film industry. Ironically, the device echoes the modern GIF animation of today since it can only display images in a short continuous loop. The contraption dates back to the 1830s.

Flip Book

We are sure you’ll have heard of this one. Heck, we were all flip-book artists in our high school years, right? They were a great way to spice up passing notes between friends. The flipbook has also been called the kineograph and reached broad audiences from its beginnings in the 1860s. It has been credited with inspiring early animators more than machines did throughout the Victorian era.

Regardless, no matter what your views are on its true roots, animation, as we know it today, was only made possible by innovations throughout the 20th century.

The early 1900s saw artists from all over the world experimenting with animation, such as Lotte Reiniger’s dabbles with cut-out animation. 

However, animation was thought of mainly as a novel invention until the famous era of Walt Disney in the 1920s, when the wonder of sound was beginning to be fulfilled in movies. Steamboat Willie (1928), Disney’s “flagship” cartoon featuring Mickey Mouse, became the first cartoon with sound and the first noteworthy accomplishment for Walt Disney Studios, founded in Los Angeles in 1923.

By the 1930s, other studios recognized that there was lots of money to be made through animation, the catalyst behind Warner Bros’ rise to fame in their launch of Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies.  The 1930s saw the friendly rivalry between Mickey and Bugs — known as the American Golden Age of Animation. 

Cartoon characters found themselves an integral part of popular culture.  Disney, Warner Bros., MGM, and Fleischer came head to head in character cartoon creation. The battle came to its head slightly as Disney took a vast lead following a power move with the creation of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.  It was the first feature-length film to be made entirely of hand-drawn images. The finished film was made up of a whopping 1.5 million cels.

And The Rest, They Say, Is History

As television continued its rise as the preferred entertainment medium, the animation industry began to adapt. Studios created many cartoons for TV, using a “limited animation” style. Cartoons became universal on TV in the 1980s thanks to cable channels such as The Disney Channel and Nickelodeon.

The popularization of color TV in the late 1950s saw the rise to fame of yet another American animation pioneer, Hanna-Barbera. 

Hanna-Barbera Productions was formed in 1957 by William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, who had worked together at MGM Studios on classic Tom and Jerry shorts. The pair left MGM when the studio stopped production on animated films, achieving rapid recognition on television with The Huckleberry Hound Show in 1958, followed swiftly by the widely acclaimed prime-time series, The Flintstones. 

Over the next thirty years, Hanna-Barbera released a whopping 249 television cartoons. 

Cartoon Network was formed in 1992 with cartoons primarily produced by Hanna-Barbera. In the end, Warner Bros. acquired Hanna-Barbera, but the cartoons still run in syndication and are available on DVD.

Despite its dissolution, the impact of Hanna-Barbera’s cartoons is apparent even in today’s popular culture. Seth McFarlane’s Family Guy, for example, avidly parodies The Flinstones. 

Don’t forget the new release of The Smurfs movie in 2011, which even followed with a sequel two years later due to its popularity. Scooby-Doo has seen live-action remakes and countless animated spin-offs. In fact, one of our very own team members at AE dressed up as Daphne Blake for Halloween!

Finally, in the 1990s, computer-generated imagery (CGI) competed with hand-drawn animation, popularized by the first completely-CGI film Toy Story (1995). In this instance, I guess you could say that Disney snatched it again since The Walt Disney Company bought Pixar in 2006 at a valuation of $7.4 billion.


Now you can picture the wide-ranging history of animation, which will likely guide you to see just how its appeal is so wide-ranging too. Naturally, children love it since most of the stories involve talking animals and loveable characters.

The extra sophisticated animation, however, is those that appeal to adults. Despite the widespread use of CGI in movies today, even completely animated films can appeal to adults; just look at popular animated sitcoms like Family Guy, The Simpsons, or South Park.

Its greatest strength may not be that it appeals to different groups simultaneously, but instead that it appeals to all groups simultaneously. 

Growing up, I will never forget my dad’s fits of laughter as my brother and I watched one of our favorite shows, Phineas and Ferb, screened on Disney Channel. A scene in particular that comes to mind contains a segment whereby the evil villain of the series, Dr. Doofenshmirtz, develops a ‘dance ray’ in his plans to take over the world. Once activated and aimed at people, they are unable to stop dancing. The doc’s notorious lack of common sense means that he finds himself shot by his ray gun, and well, just watch the rest. 

My dad would roll around on the floor laughing and still mention the episode now.

Animators make shrewd use of knowledge that adults enjoy being inspired by childlike wonder and that feeling of not believing our eyes. The best part? They can also harness that power for more mature storytelling, business, and humor that will go over children’s heads and be understood between the lines by adults.

Isn’t it just astonishing animation can connect to both our inner child and our discerning adult simultaneously? Simply consider any Pixar movie. Come on – you’re not going to tell me you didn’t cry at the Toy Story finale or Carl and Ellie’s love story at the beginning of Up?

Fun fact: Pixar estimated it would take 23.5 million balloons to lift a 1,800 square foot house. Pixar used 20,622 balloons in the animation of the lift-off and 10,297 balloons from the floating sequences.

Wrapping Up

Animation is truly rich in history and impossible to define in a few words. We hope that this blog has given you an insight into the definition of animation in all of its glory. It may have even inspired you to have a look at getting started on a new project! Check out some of our other blog posts to learn more about particular styles of animation, and of course, should you need any additional guidance – why not give Animation Explainers a call?

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