1. British Animation
100 Years at The Cutting Edge
The United Kingdom has had a rather underrated part to play in the history of animation. As is
often the case though, a lot of the important ideas and inventions in the development of animation
came from British minds but were often better exploited elsewhere.
This exporting of innovation however has always attracted, and been balanced by, an influx of
talent from abroad. Some of the great names of the British animation scene have been individuals
who have travelled here from around the world, attracted by the UK’s status as one of the worlds
centres of creative excellence and home to one of the biggest animation industries. People like Len
Lye (New Zealand), Lotte Reiniger (Germany), Peter Sachs (Germany), John Halas (Hungary),
George Dunning (Canada), Richard Williams (Canada), Bob Godfrey (Australia), Terry Gilliam (USA)
and Tim Burton (USA) have all moved here at various stages of their lives and careers and
contributed to the vibrant and exciting world of British animation.
A lot of early innovative British animation was funded by government organisations producing
public information films, like the GPO unit in the 1930s and later other government bodies
producing wartime propaganda and post-war information films. Generally in these films, getting
over the message was all-important as far as the funding body was concerned while the design was
left pretty much up to the animator. This led to an industry of animators who worked in a variety
of interesting and explorative styles and were good at getting a message across quickly and
effectively. This lent itself perfectly to advertising and with the rise of British independent TV in the
1950’s onwards, the British animation industry became one of the world’s leaders in commercials.
The later impact of the music and film industries as Britain became the heart of the ‘swinging
sixties’ meant that pop culture, TV comedy, film titles, music based film / video and cinema special
effects have created other areas of demand for animation to feed into and from.
In the 1980’s the emergence of Channel 4 as one of the great supporters of animation and new
ideas in film / TV, in its first fifteen years of existence anyway, gave great support to many
animators working on the fringes of the mainstream. This again boosted the idea of Britain as the
centre for innovation and the cutting edge.
Also in the 1980’s and 90’s Britain’s instinct for invention ensured its place in the forefront in the
development of computer games, and saw the emergence of the UK video games industry as one
of the world’s largest. This helped to ensure that towards the end of the century the UK had
become a world leader in digital animation and computer graphics and second only to Hollywood
in the production of cutting edge digital effects for films.
Animation is a medium that is used by other areas of the media to enhance its appeal, while the art
of animation feeds off the fresh ideas that these other areas of the media bring. The UK’s ability
therefore, perhaps unique outside the USA, to consistently produce cutting edge and world
renowned work in all main areas of the popular culture; pop music, television, film, fashion and
interactive media, has helped the British animation industry stay at the forefront of world
animation for most of the last century.
2. The Illusion of Life
What is Animation?
‘Animation’ is what we call a series of images viewed in quick succession, which if they are similar
enough to each other create the illusion of movement. This is due to something that is believed to
happen between the human eye and brain called the ‘persistence of vision’. This means that the
retina in the human eye (the part of the eye that receives the image of what we look at), retains an
image for a brief moment. The theory of the persistence of vision tells us that images seen at a rate
of faster than around eight per second, if they are similar enough to each other, seem to us to be
one moving image.
For animation seen on film, these images should be viewed at more than sixteen images per
second to avoid the flicker of the projector becoming distracting, so the convention for film is
twenty four frames per second (or f.p.s.). Televison in most of Europe is twenty five f.p.s and in the
USA thirty f.p.s.
To save time and money the images in animation are often doubled up so each separate image
appears in two frames, which means if it was projected at twenty four f.p.s. we are actually seeing
the images at half that rate, at twelve f.p.s. On cheaper TV animation the frame rate of the
animation is often designed to be seen as low as six frames per second.
The animation images can be flat drawn images, three dimensional models or as is common today,
computer generated models. These are amongst the main types of animation used today:
Cell Animation (or ‘2d’ or ‘drawn’ animation)– This is traditionally the most common form of
animation although in the last two decades it has been superseded by computer generated images
(‘CGI’ or ‘digital’) animation.
The most famous and successful producers of cell animation were Walt Disney (Snow White (1937),
Pinocchio (1940), Sleeping Beauty (1959), Jungle Book (1967) Beauty and the Beast (1991), The
Little Mermaid (1989)) who pioneered a lot of the techniques and principles of traditional
character animation used worldwide today.
Amongst recent notable films to largely use cell animation have been The Iron Giant (1999) and the
films of Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki and his Gibli Studios (Nausicca Valley of the Wind
(1984) , Laputa Castle in the Sky (1986) My Neighbour Totoro (1988) Spirited Away (2001).
Cell animation usually starts with animator creating drawings at a ‘light box’, a desk with a semi
transparent surface with a light behind, so he can look through the top drawing and see the other
drawings in the sequence underneath it to use as a guide. In the past these drawings were then
transferred onto ‘cells’, transparent plastic sheets, where they were painted by hand and then
filmed, frame by frame, on top of the background painting.
The use of cells was so that the background part of the drawing didn’t need to be created over and
over for every frame. Nowadays it is more common for the drawings to be scanned into a
computer and then coloured digitally, before being placed over the background image also inside
the computer. As a lot of animation is now 3 dimensional (3d) CGI, the cell animation style is now
often known as 2d animation.
3. ‘Sleeping Beauty’ trailer
‘Iron Giant’ trailer
‘My Neighbour Totoro’ Trailer
CGI – Computer Generated Imagery nowadays usually means 3d graphics but there are also various
kinds of other computer graphics, generally associated with early computers and video games.
3d CGI - Pioneered by the American studio Pixar, 3d CGI is now the dominant form of animation at
the box office. In 3d CGI computers are used to generate graphical worlds and characters that
often appear to be highly detailed, realistic and believable, even when the design is stylised and
cartoon like. The quality of design, animation, characterisation and storytelling in Pixar’s pioneering
3d CGI films (Luxo Jr (1986), Toy Story (1995), Finding Nemo (2003), The Incredibles (2004)) has
often imitated by many other studios but never bettered. Pixar is now wholly owned by Walt
Disney Studios. Other good quality 3d CGI films have been produced by studios such as PDI (Antz
(1998), Shrek (2001)) (now bought by Dreamworks) and Blue Sky (Ice Age (2002), Robots (2005)).
3d CGI animation is also used to create most special effects and creatures for many live-action
films (live–action means any film that is filmed not animated) like King Kong (2005 version) and the
most recent Star Wars films.
3D CGI animation is also the most common type of animation used in video games, such as ‘Mario
Galaxy’ and the ‘Grand Theft Auto’ series. Sometimes it can be rendered to look flat, like 2d
animation, as in the game
‘Zelda : Wind Waker’ . 3d animation is great for games due to its suitability for interactive control
within a computer programme.
Toy Story trailer
King Kong 2005 trailer
Super Mario Galaxy trailer
Grand Theft Auto IV trailer
Zelda: Wind Waker trailer
4. Vector Graphics CGI- Whereas most computer imagery is rendered or displayed as ‘bitmaps’, types
of image that are made up of thousands of tiny different coloured dots like newsprint, vector
graphics are calculated and displayed as solid sharp lines filled with solid sharp areas of flat colour.
This can be ideal for flat very cartoony graphics and, as it needs less computing power and memory
to produce and store, is common on web animation (created in applications like Flash) and was
common in early video games. Vector graphics are also ‘scalable’, they can be blown up to large
sizes without becoming fuzzy and breaking down into pixels, so are used for graphic design and
Flash web animation
Flash web animation series’
Pixel Graphics CGI- Pixel graphics basically means the ‘dots’ or pixels that make up the image are
big enough to be clearly visible. The bogger the pixels are the fewer are displayed and so the less
memory needed. These is why large pixel graphics were widely used on early video games and
computer art, and consisted of pictures or frames of animation ‘painted’ by laying down individual
pixels. This is an art form in itself, especially with the limitations of early games where the pixels
were usually restricted to blocks of 16x16 or 32x32 and with 32 or 64 colour palettes.
Pixel game graphics
Pixel style music video- Move Your Feet
Stop Motion (or stop frame or claymation)- Stop motion is the process of using real models and
moving and then filming them frame by frame.
This is perhaps the oldest and simplest kind of animation yet is still very popular thanks to modern
day producers like Aardman, from Bristol, and thier best known director/animator Nick Park
(Chicken Run (2000), Wallace and gromit: Curse of the Wererabbit (2005)) and other recent films
produced or directed by Tim Burton (Nightmare before Christmas (1993), James and the Giant
Peach (1996), The Corpse Bride (2005)).
The technique has also been widely used in the past to animate realistic models of monsters etc
which are then inserted into live action films like King Kong (1933 version), the films of Ray
Harryhausen (The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1974), Jason and the Argonauts (1963), Clash of the
Titans (1981)) and in the giraffe like giant AT-AT Walker vehicles in the early Star Wars films.
Czech animator Jan Svankmajer often uses household objects, food and fruit in his stop frame
animation to create his many surreal and disconcerting films such as Dimensions of Dialogue (1982)
and Alice (1998). Stop frame can be seen in many of the music videos of director Michel Gondry
(Fell in Love With a Girl by the White Stripes and Cellphone’s Dead by Beck) and his film The Science
of Sleep (2007)
5. King Kong (1933) trailer
‘Nightmare Before Christmas’ trailer
‘James and the Giant Peach’ trailer
Curse of the Were Rabbit trailer
Dimensions of Dialogue
Fell in Love with a Girl – White stripes
Science of Sleep trailer
Cutout - This is can be the simplest and quickest technique of all and the results are somewhere
between cell animation and stop frame. Basically the drawing is cut out and then cut into sections
which are put on a background and then moved frame by frame, whether using physical cut outs or
cut out images inside a computer animation package.
Noggin the Nog
Pixilation – the technique where actors move into poses and are photographed frame by frame, as
pioneered by experimental Scottish animator Norman Mclaren in ‘Neighbours’ 1952. Pixilation is
widely used in the 1993 film The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb by Bristol’s The Bolex Brothers
and The Wizard of Space and Time (1979 +1989) by Mike Jittlov. It can also be seen in many music
videos like ‘Sledgehammer’ by Peter Gabriel, ‘The Hardest Button to Button’ by White Stripes and
‘Heard ‘em Say’ by Kayne West.
Sledgehammer (Peter Gabriel)
6. The Hardest Button to Button (White Stripes)
Rotoscoping and Motion capture (or Performance Capture) – Some would say that ‘rotoscoping’
(and its digital cousin motion/performance capture) are not strictly speaking animation at all, but
the techniques still rely on animators to interpret and blend the recorded movements together and
apply them to the character.
Rotoscoping is when characters in a live-action film are traced or drawn over in order to give a life-
like smoother movement. This has been successfully and widely used but can become boring to
watch, as animation is more interesting when it is an exaggeration of life rather than a direct copy.
This can also at times apply to modern CGI stuff when it is merely trying to recreate reality, or real
movements, rather than invent new ones.
A lot of rotoscoping can be seen in Ralph Bakshi’s original version of ‘Lord of the Rings’ (1978),
where they used the technique a lot more than they originally intended as they ran out of time and
money and it can save time. We can see from the seventies hairstyles in the clip below how closely
the filmed actors were traced! This film shows the dangers of rotoscoping in that if you rely on it
too heavily you can get results that just seem like actors in costume miming badly.
More recently the technique of rotoscoping has been used in an interesting digital way by
animator Bob Sabiston, particularly in the films of fellow inhabitant of Austin, Texas, director
Richard Linklater, ‘Waking Life’ (2001) and ‘A Scanner Darkly’ (2004).
Clip from ‘Lord of the Rings’
‘Waking Life’ trailer
‘A Scanner Darkly’ trailer
‘Motion capture’ or ‘performance capture’, a 3D digital form of rotoscoping, is when actors
movements are recorded by a computer, using sensors on their body, and these movements are
applied to CGI characters. This again produces a very life like and smooth movement, and
subtleties of acting performance can be easily and quickly transferred into the CGI character, but
like rotoscoping it also can look cheap and become dull to watch compared to real character
animation. The technique is best known in films like ‘Polar Express’ (2004), ‘Monster House’ (2006),
‘Beowolf’ (2007) and the Gollum in ‘Lord of the Rings: Two Towers’ (2002). The technique is also
very widely used in video games where large volumes of animation are needed quickly and
cheaply. It can be seen in games like the ‘Grand Theft Auto’ series and sports games like the ‘FIFA
Polar Express trailer
Monster House trailer
7. Lord of the Rings: The Twin Towers trailer
FIFA 07 trailer
Paint-on-glass animation, in which slow drying oil paint is painted and moved about on glass and
filmed frame by frame. As seen in the films of Aleksandr Petrov like the incredible Oscar winning
‘The Old Man and the Sea’ (1999).
The Old Man and the Sea
Drawn-on-film animation is where images are scratched or painted directly onto the film strip, as
seen in the experimental work of British animators Len Lye and Norman McLaren.
Len Lye stuff
Norman McLaren stuff
Nowadays we would usually view all these kinds of animation as we view any other kind of film,
cast on some kind of screen, but animation can also be viewed on a flickbook or a variety of other
strange inventions from the past. No matter how they are created and viewed these images still
have to be carefully crafted by someone to create a convincing impression of movement and if
they are images of living things, they have to create, as Walt Disney called it, ‘The Illusion of Life’.
Animators themselves might tell you that with the long hours it takes to create animation,
painstaking days of concentration sitting at your desk, the idea of actually having a life can seem
like the illusion!