When you think of animation, the first thing that comes to mind is probably the latest Disney or Pixar film, or the cartoons you used to watch on a Saturday morning. But did you know that the first animated graphic can be traced all the way back to the early 1800s?

In this guide, we’ll give you a brief history of animation, take a look at some of the different types of animation that have evolved over the decades, and highlight some of our favorite classes so that you can get started with learning how to do animation yourself.

What Is Animation?

Before we dive into the ins and outs of how modern animation was born, it’s probably best to start by answering the question “what is animation?” At its most basic level, animation is the process of taking still, static images and adding them together as a sequence to make it appear as though they’re moving. 

Animated graphics can either be hand-drawn or use computer-generated imagery (CGI) with animation software to bring still characters and objects to life. 

The illusion of movement is created by drawing the same image over and over again, with the smallest of differences between each one. When these images are merged together as a sequence, these tiny differences trick our brains into thinking that the image is moving.

Animations are usually either two-dimensional (2D) or three-dimensional (3D). While traditionally, 2D was used until technology allowed for 3D, it’s still common to see two-dimensional animations used in commercials, marketing, and even in entertainment as a deliberate stylistic choice.

The History of Animation

Origin Stories

It’s difficult to determine when exactly animation began because it depends on how literally you take the definition of animation. Some consider shadow play, where moving images are created using cutouts and different light sources, as one of the original forms of animation, long before cinematography was even possible. Shadow play takes us all the way back to the 1st century, and it’s very possible that humans have been trying to create moving images of some kind since we knew how to make even the most basic art.

rotating man
Source: Wikipedia
The phénakisticope is widely considered the first true animation maker.

The invention of the phénakisticope in 1832 by Joseph Plateau and Simon von Stampfer is widely considered to be the first modern animation maker. This was the first time that images in a sequence were shown in rapid succession to create the illusion of movement, through using a spinning disc of still graphics in front of a mirror.

With the phénakisticope proving to be a popular entertainment item in the 1830s, the zoetrope, flip book (or kineograph), and praxinoscope quickly followed in the subsequent decades. They all followed the same basic principle of using spinning or flicking motions around a series of images to create the idea of movement between the graphics. 

Early Days of Filmmaking

By 1888, Charles-Emilie Reynaud discovered how to make an animation using the praxinoscope to develop projections that could be made into short, 10-15 minute films, like Pauvre Pierrot in 1892. In the last decade of the century, he went on to show his work to over 500,000 Parisians and is widely considered to be the inventor of the animated film.

Despite these huge advances in science, at the dawn of the 20th century, no one was really considering how to bring animation to the masses as part of the newly-born filmmaking industry. It wasn’t until 1908, when Emile Cohl created Fantasmagorie, that the techniques of traditional animation were brought to the big screen. The film was made by drawing each frame by hand, on paper, and recorded onto negative film to give a blackboard-like appearance. The 700 drawings that it took to create the film led to a final run time of around 2 minutes. For film historians, Fantasmagorie is thought to be the first-ever animated cartoon.

For others, though, British-American artist J. Stuart Blackton’s Humorous Phases of Funny Faces in 1906 is technically the first animated film. It’s certainly the oldest known animation to use real standard picture film and uses a mix of hand-drawn designs, stop motion, and cutout animation to create a moving film.

Animated Superstars

Regardless of where you stand on who invented animation, the subsequent years saw a boom in artists creating motion graphics and working toward creating longer animated films. Felix the Cat was born in 1919, using new cel-animated technology, a process where illustrations could more easily be transferred between frames using transparent plastic sheets, rather than needing to be hand-drawn from scratch every time. 

Disney GIF
Source: Giphy
Steamboat Willie was Disney’s first dive into animation.

Felix was the first breakout animation star for Paramount Studios, ahead of the arrival of Steamboat Willie featuring Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse from the Walt Disney Studios in 1928. Four years later, Disney released the first full-color animation short film.

The work of Argentinian filmmaker Quirino Cristiani, much of which no longer survives, is now thought to be some of the earliest examples of animated feature films. But many studios didn’t see the appeal for audiences in a long-running graphic with color and sound. Well, that was until Disney released Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937. To this day, the film is still one of the highest-grossing traditional animated films of all time and led the way for other animation studios around the world.

Looking to the Future

From there, animation quickly moved from the big screen to the small screen. Televisions within the home soon became commonplace throughout the 1950s and 1960s, with many animation studios switching their focus or adding a new branch for animated cartoons like The Flinstones, The Smurfs, and, by the 1980s, The Simpsons.

aardman cartoon oh no worried whoops GIF
Source: Giphy
Wallace and Gromit is a great example of popular stop motion animation.

This was also when studios began to look into emerging technology and shift their technique from traditional hand-drawn illustrations to stop motion, puppetry, and, eventually, computer animation. Japanese anime cartoons, originating in the early 1900s, became popular worldwide throughout the 1960s and beyond, with Aardman Animations in the U.K. using stop motion techniques to create the much-loved Wallace and Gromit in the 1990s.

Most animation studios now use dedicated animation software like Disney and Pixar’s Computer Animation Production System (CAPS) to create 3D graphics. Toy Story was the first animated feature to use this style in 1995 and computer-generated animations were quickly found to be cheaper and more profitable than traditional methods. While some studios still choose to use other methods, CGI effects continue to change and grow the animation industry, even today.

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Types of Animation

Now that you know a little more about the history of animation, understanding the different types out there can help you decide on a direction when you’re learning how to do animation yourself.

Traditional Animation

snow white GIF by Disney
Source: Giphy
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was one of the first full-length feature films to use hand-drawn animation techniques.

When we talk about traditional animation techniques, we’re usually referring to cel-animation. This is when an animator draws every single frame by hand. They’ll typically use a light table that illuminates the drawing underneath so that they can replicate it almost exactly, changing the one small detail that makes it the next image in the sequence. 

Most original Disney films before 1995 used this type of animation and it’s still practiced today, although instead of hand-drawing onto paper, animators will draw on tablets or computer screens. As you can imagine, it’s a time-consuming and labor-intensive process.

2D Animation

persona GIF
Source: Giphy
Anime cartoons like Persona 5: The Animation still use 2D animation to create their unique style.

Two-dimensional animations consist of only height and width—there’s no depth in the object or character on the screen. Vector-based animation is typically used with 2D, where animators create character rigs and move each body part at a time rather than redrawing the same image over and over again. 2D animation is still used today and is especially popular in certain genres like anime. Japanese studios like Kyoto Animation and shows like Persona 5: The Animation have seen continued success worldwide thanks to their unique artistic style.

This style is excellent for beginners learning how to make an animation as you don’t have to rely as much on artistic or drawing skills. CSS animation is also commonly used to create 2D graphics. It’s commonly used with HTML instead of Javascript to create basic animations on a website or search engine page.

3D Animation

horse GIF
Source: Giphy
Most Disney and Pixar movies since the late 1990s use 3D computer animation.

Known more commonly as computer animation (although other styles of animation now also heavily use computers), 3D animation is the most common style used in current animated television shows and feature films. While the same principles of movement and composition apply to all forms of animation, creating 3D characters is about modeling a character to make realistic movements within the animation software that can be replicated over and over to produce the final work.

3D animation has one of the steepest learning curves for new animators, especially if you’re transitioning from traditional mediums. But there are plenty of classes out there that can help you to get started with the basics.

Motion Graphics

Logo Google GIF
Source: Giphy
Motion graphic animation is typically used in the corporate world, from logo design to advertising.

Motion graphics are a little different in that they don’t rely on storylines or specific characters. This type of animation is most commonly used for commercial work, like logos, marketing materials, advertising, and explainer videos. This is more about getting individual shapes to move, rather than building a character.

There’s no need to learn how the body moves and how to replicate that on a computer screen in this type of animation, which can make it a good place for beginners to start. Most of the time, you’ll only need some free animation software or inexpensive tools like Adobe After Effects or Procreate to start working on a project.

Stop Motion

Happy So Good GIF by LAIKA Studios
Source: Giphy
Tim Burton’s Coraline film was made using stop motion animation techniques.

Stop motion animation is the most similar to traditional, in that it requires you to use a series of static images one after the other to create the illusion of movement. But instead of drawing out your characters, you build them out of cutouts, puppets, or even small action figurines. 

Photography is used to capture the real-life image, then the object or character is moved slightly and another picture is taken. You’ll repeat these steps until you have all of your frames to put together. This can be one of the most complex techniques to master when you’re learning how to animate, but it’s also an affordable and accessible place to start.

Popular Animated Films

The Lion King

the lion king disney GIF
Source: Giiphy
Disney’s The Lion King was one of the last 2D animated films the studio made before switching to a 3D computer animation model.

The original animated movie of The Lion King was released in 1994 and is a good example of how Disney used traditional, 2D animation until it switched to computer animation the following year. According to CinemaBlend, more than 600 artists and animators contributed to the creation of the final feature film and used real-life animals as their references to mimic the behavior and movement of the characters.


frozen let it go GIF
Source: Giphy
Frozen is the highest-grossing 3D animated movie of all time.

Although the majority of the 2013 hit film Frozen was created using CGI, the team at Disney blended in some elements of hand-drawn animation to create a unique creative style in the final product. Insider reports that over 70 animators worked on the project, with several filming themselves acting out scenes from the storyboard and script to get a better idea for how they needed to program character movements and expressions. Their replication of ice and snow motifs throughout the film is widely considered to be some of the best animation ever created for a feature film.

Chicken Run

celebrate chicken run GIF by Aardman Animations
Source: Giphy
Chicken Run was Aardman Animations’ first feature film, released in June 2000.

Originally created as a spoof on The Great Escape, the creators of Chicken Run ultimately decided to invest in the project and create Aardman Animations’ first feature-length film. A Mic interview with the creative team reports that 30 sets were used throughout the production, with over 80 animators and stop motion specialists. Thanks to the unique challenges of this animation technique, it took one week of filming to create one minute of film.

Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba the Movie: Mugen Train

Kimetsu No Yaiba Movie GIF by Funimation
Source: Giphy
Award-winning film Demon Slayer is a good example of a modern 2D animation in the anime genre.

Anime film Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba the Movie: Mugen Train was created using traditional 2D animation techniques, in line with the usual style of anime work. The rise in popularity of anime as a genre around the world, thanks to work from notable studios like Kyoto Animation, saw the film nominated for and awarded several prestigious Japanese and international film awards.

How to Learn Animation

So you’ve learned about what animation is and a few of the different techniques used to create the world’s most popular animated films.

Now, maybe you’re feeling inspired to learn how to animate your own characters. If that’s the case, here’s a roundup of some of our top classes that will help you to create the best animations possible, no matter what software or tools you end up using.

Intro to Motion Graphics: Explainer Videos From Storyboard to Animation

If you’re trying to learn how to make basic motion graphics for a work or school project, Hongshu Guo’s class is the perfect place to start. In just under three hours, you can go from a complete beginner to creating custom motion graphics in Adobe After Effects. You’ll be walked through each step of the process, from storyboarding to individual animation elements and exporting for use.

Create a Sky Island in Blender 2.8

Blender is one of the best free animation software programs on the market today and is a great starting tool for beginners looking to learn both 2D and 3D animation techniques. In this class, you’ll learn how to make a 3D model of an island through animation, motion design, and visual effects. You’ll also learn how to create a rotating shot, where it looks like your camera angle is circling your 3D island. By the end, you’ll feel confident enough to move onto more complex animations and test out your new skills.

Animating in Procreate: Simple Steps to Create Awesome Animations

An easy animation maker for beginners to use is Procreate on an iPad. The built-in features like Animation Assist allow you to take a custom hand-drawn character from beginning to end, with instructor Danni Fisher-Shin showing you how to turn your illustration into a walking motion graphic using cel-animation. You’ll even learn how to take your new animation and turn it into a social-media-friendly GIF!

CSS Animation: Bringing Your Sites to Life

If you’re looking to add some fun to your website, CSS animation is what you need. In Sarah Holden’s 45-minute class, you’ll learn how to add dynamic interactions like hover effects and transitions to your site. While this is a beginner class, you should know some basic HTML and CSS before getting started on your animation project.

Short Films: Tell Stories with Stop Motion

Learn the basics of stop motion animation with Academy Award and Emmy-nominated filmmaker PES. In this 90-minute class, he’ll show you how to develop concepts for your own work, how to craft an engaging narrative that keeps your audience interested, and what practical elements you need to capture your story on film. Finally, you’ll learn how to edit everything together to make a short film of your own.

Animation may be one of the oldest forms of filmmaking, but we’ve seen how relevant it still is in our modern world and just how fun it can be to create your own animations. Whichever style you choose to work with, happy animating!

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Written by:

Holly Landis