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From the first silent, black-and-white cartoons to new-age computer animation, animated characters have been regulars in family homes for decades. Tom and Jerry, Shrek, Wolverine, and Buzz Lightyear are all so different, but each one holds a special place in the hearts of fans. Character design for animation has evolved over the last decades, improving techniques and adapting with technological advancements. But, one thing has remained the same: Animated characters have a way of touching audiences.
Read along for a look at the history of animated characters and some of the most beloved animated movies and shows of all time!
Many of us grew up watching Saturday cartoons or reading the “silly pages.” Drawings and animations have a way of connecting with people and sticking with them. But have you ever thought about what goes into those beloved cartoons and movies? What is character design in animation? And what goes into movie animation and the characters that have remained timeless?
Animation, or the illusion of making drawings appear to move, was around long before its inclusion in film and motion pictures. Projectors and the manipulation of light were used as a technique to move images as early as the 1600s—animation truly is nothing new.
In the early to mid-1800s, devices for single- or two-person viewing, such as the phénakisticope flipbook, began to gain popularity. The phénakisticope, designed by Belgian Joseph Plateau in 1832, was one of the earliest devices that used multiple images, or frames, in quick succession to create the illusion of movement.
Animation continued to advance and premiered in European films in the late 1800s to early 1900s. It was French caricaturist Émile Cohl who invented what came to be the foundation for modern animation—he has been lauded as “the father of the animated cartoon.”
Cohl’s 1908 film Fantasmagorie was created by drawing individual images, or frames, and filming them one after the other to create an illusion of movement. This animated two-minute film was created with 700 individual drawings that depicted the main character—a simple stick figure—interacting with different objects and things around it.
As animation began to develop, so did the character design. Creators strived to bring more realistic and dimensional characters to entertainment screens, bringing us to Winsor McCay, one of the first notable Americans to create hand-drawn animated films with characters that audiences truly loved.
In 1911, McCay, a newspaper cartoonist, made a short film based on one of his famous cartoon strips, “Little Nemo in Slumberland.” Little Nemo, the short film, was created with four thousand hand-drawn pictures to mimic movement. The main character, a young boy named Nemo, was the first of its kind. McCay drew Nemo with such detail and expressive animation that audiences fell in love with him and his wild, exuberant adventures in dreamland.
People’s love of McCay’s characters continued to grow when he produced another film—Gertie the Dinosaur. Gertie, a young, playful dinosaur, captured audiences’ hearts with her sweet disposition and childlike performances. McCay’s short film was also the first animated film to ever feature a dinosaur, which, as we know, is now a popular recurring animated character in films and shows—Littlefoot in The Land Before Time, Rudy in Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, Arlo in The Good Dinosaur, and Blitz on Dino Ranch.
Animation, cartoon character design, and its techniques only continued to develop and advance. It swiftly changed from being something that a single artist created to becoming an assembly-line operation for production studios where multiple artists would work on a singular project, drawing thousands of frames, to create the illusion of movement.
By the 1910s, animation production studios were beginning to pop up. From early companies such as Bray Productions and Hearst’s International Film Service, animation quickly gained popularity in the entertainment industry.
In fact, it was Hearst’s International Film Service’s film Krazy Kat that first saw the creation of an animated animal with human traits, predating other, much more famous, anthropomorphic characters such Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck.
And animated character designs only continued to develop from there. Soon illustrated animals and humans were taking over the screens and entering the hearts and homes of families everywhere.
Arguably the most popular animation and film studio, Walt Disney Animation Studios truly changed the face of entertainment. In 1928, the company, run by brothers Walt and Roy O. Disney, created and produced the first-ever sound cartoon, Steamboat Willie, which was the first public introduction to the one and only Mickey Mouse.
Before his signature red shorts got any color, Mickey Mouse premiered in the black-and-white Steamboat Willie as a worker on a steamboat. The short film also introduces two other iconic Disney characters: Pete the Cat, Mickey’s lifelong adversary, and Minnie Mouse, his sweetheart. Both characters are still part of Mickey’s story.
The early films were based on Mickey and his crew and heavily relied on gags and “physical” comedy. Shortly after Mickey’s success, Disney produced a series of films called the Silly Symphonies, which introduced more iconic characters still loved today—Donald Duck, Pluto, and Ferdinand the Bull.
After creating multiple short films centered around human-like animal characters, Disney made its first venture into a full-length feature animation film and animated human characters with its production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs not only focused on human characters, but the film also introduced the first truly frightening villain with the Evil Queen. Disney’s characters only became more detailed and realistic—they went on to produce 59 more full-length animated films.
A few years after Walt Disney Animation Studios produced and distributed Steamboat Willie, Warner Brothers Cartoons was founded in 1933 under the name Leon Schlesinger Productions.
Just like the small black-and-white trouble-making mouse over at Disney, Warner Bros. introduced their first recurring character, Buddy. Unlike Mickey, however, Buddy is part of a little makeshift family with his dog Happy, his girlfriend Cookie, and her little brother.
Buddy was the star of the gang in Looney Tunes for 23 films. And for an eight-year period, from 1936 to 1944, Schlesinger and his team of animators churned out some of the most popular characters. These Warner Bros. classics included Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd, and Bugs Bunny. This time period was so successful that the company was more famous than Disney.
Warner Bros. is responsible for producing some of the most iconic and beloved animated characters we know today, including the entire Looney Tunes bunch like Tweety Bird, Hogarth and his giant robot in The Iron Giant, and the leading stars of Pinky and the Brain, just to name a few.
Hanna-Barbera Productions, Inc. got its start in 1957, nearly 30 years after Disney and Warner Bros. stepped onto the animation film scene. Despite the production company’s late start, they managed to create characters that quickly and passionately caught the audience’s attention.
Largely successful for its production of strictly for-television entertainment, Hanna-Barbera pushed out a number of successful series from 1960 to 1962—from Fred and Wilma Flintstone on The Flintstones to Yogi Bear on The Yogi Bear Show and George and Jane Jetson from The Jetsons.
It’s also thanks to Hanna-Barbera that Saturday morning cartoons became a staple in people’s homes. They were the first to introduce the idea of a Saturday morning lineup of cartoons and animated shows.
It was during this weekend lineup that one of America’s most beloved animated dogs was introduced: Scooby-Doo. In 1969, Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! aired on CBS. This first program provided the basis for a myriad of popular Scooby-Doo spin-offs.
A few other characters that got their start on Saturday morning cartoons are Josie and her band from Josie and the Pussycats and Butch Cassidy from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kids.
Animators and Character Designers
Animators and animation character designers are hired for books (think the illustrations at the beginning of each Harry Potter chapter), films (any animated movie), and television shows and comics (for both adults and children).
Without animation character designers, writers’ descriptions and visions of characters would remain in words only. And without animators, illustrations would remain flat on the page, simple drawings incapable of mimicking movement and fluidity.
What Animators and Character Designers Do
Although they have a similar mission to bring life to animation, the two jobs—animators and character designers—are slightly different.
An animation character designer is hired to create the visual component of a character. Often provided with a script, manuscript, or description, animation character designers then create a drawing to capture the physical appearance and personality of a character. They take language and make it a visual.
An animator is hired to bring movement to those drawings. By drawing multiple frames, or images, an animator creates the illusion of motion—that is, of course, once the images are rapidly displayed in order.
Think of a flipbook. By drawing one image over and over with slight changes and modifications on each page, an artist can create the illusion that the illustration is moving as the pages are rapidly flipped from one to the next. Though nowadays, there are all kinds of animation software programs that achieve this rapid movement for the artist.
Popular Animated Characters
With the most recognizable set of ears in the world, Mickey Mouse is a household name. The famous mouse got his start in Disney’s 1928 Steamboat Willie. A mischievous little guy, Mickey captured audiences’ hearts with his slapstick comedy and whistling tunes.
This beloved goofy character and famed member of the Looney Tunes was originally voiced by Mel Blanc, who also famously did the voice acting for both Daffy Duck and Woody Woodpecker. Blanc was so dedicated to his work that he even munched on carrots while doing his line recordings.
George, Jane, Judy, and Elroy Jetson live in the future—a world of aliens, robots, machines, and luxury. The catchy theme song of the animated show even became a pop sensation while it was on air.
Miles Morales was just a Brooklyn boy…and then he became Spider-Man! In this first-ever depiction of Spider-Man as a person of color, Miles Morales is the new hero his universe needed.
Popular Animated Movies
The Little Mermaid
Ariel’s famous red hair almost wasn’t so! Thankfully, the movie Splash had come out prior to the animated film, and it featured a blonde mermaid. So, red was the chosen color! Plus…it’s just so much more eye-catching.
The Iron Giant
The animation in this film was based on the artwork of Norman Rockwell. Hogarth, the main character—aside from the Iron Giant himself—was designed to embody that classic, all-American look Rockwell is famous for.
This beloved green ogre and his donkey companion make a genius comedic couple. Although they live in a fairy tale land, “Far Far Away,” Donkey’s iteration was based on a real-life miniature donkey named Perry.
The animators for the film worked in tandem with Tahitian advisors to make sure their character designs were authentic to the culture. In fact, Maui was nearly going to be portrayed as a bald character had the animators not been advised on Pacific legend demigods.
Popular Animated Shows
Doug creator and animator James Jinkins based his character designs on people from his own life. In fact, Patti Mayonnaise was based on his childhood crush.
A long-running show like The Simpsons is a perfect example of the need for an assembly line of animators—it takes a whole team. David Silverman is one animator for the show, who is credited with coming up with some of the major character design choices for Bart, Lisa, Homer, Marge, and more.
As an adult animated series, Family Guy follows the life of an American family. Like any other series, creators made character and plot decisions to maintain cohesiveness. For instance, they had at least one character say “What the hell?” during each episode, and, ironically, the family’s dog Brian is always the most rational character in any situation.
This sea sponge who lives in a pineapple under the sea is beloved by fans. SpongeBob’s unique and colorful underwater world of comedic characters like Patrick Star and Sandy Cheeks entertain both children and adults alike.
Peppa Pig, a four-year-old anthropomorphic pig in a red dress, was actually voiced by a real four-year-old girl for a while. Producers had Lily Snowden-Fine repeat short lines in small increments and even kept some of her mistakes in the recordings. It gives the cartoon authenticity and, somehow, makes it even more loveable!
Charlie Brown and the Peanuts gang first started as a black-and-white comic strip. They didn’t get color or animation until A Charlie Brown Christmas aired in 1965.
The character design for the famous orange cat has changed multiple times over the course of its lifetime. Animator Jim Davis says that, besides the orange coloring, the one other staple of his character design is the fact that Garfield is a fat cat!
Tom and Jerry
When this famous duo first aired in the 1940s, Tom was originally named Jasper and little Jerry was a nameless character. Like any other show with a long life, the characters and their designs underwent some revisions, ergo becoming Tom and Jerry.
How Far Animated Characters Have Come
From black-and-white comic strips and 2D animation to 3D computerized digital animation, character design has undergone many changes and advancements over the last decade. Characters have become more detailed, more vibrant, and more emotive. From Mickey Mouse and his physical comedy to Miles Morales and his representation as the first Black Spider-Man, character design and animators have certainly come a long way.
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