History of Animation
Parts I and II - Origins and Early Human Attempts
(copyright ©1999, d.j.hudek)

Part I - Origins

Millenea ago, before time began, all the matter and energy in the Universe existed in a static infinitesimal point in the void.


Sure, it was an incredible achievement, a stunning example of creative power,  exercise of will, etc. etc., but let's be realistic... not all that much to look at... doesn't really hold one's interest, does it? Full of potential, granted, but lacking a certain something... motion, action, dare we say it... animation.

Stung by such criticisms, the author decided to chuck the whole thing and blew it up. Ironically, this proved to be more appealing than the original creation, as the static form suddenly expanded into the most exciting special effects animation the Universe had ever seen... hereinafter known as the "Big Bang".

The initial reviews were overwhelmingly positive:

    "Stunning... Awe-inspiring... 
     Magnificent in its scope and power... 
     Never been anything like it!"

Ever changing, swirling combinations of matter and energy were on display for the first time, and it was a spectacular sight to behold. The first example of animation was a roaring success.

Unfortunately, that success proved fleeting. Yes, it was spectacular to behold, and the interactions were amazingly intricate... but there was nothing of substance behind it to hold the observers' interest. Something more was needed.

As the effects lost their novelty and interest waned, an important lesson was learned. Special effects are well suited to a supporting role, providing accents and augmentations, but by themselves prove empty and ultimately uninteresting. After much thought, the author took the next step and added... a story.

Entities with which an observer could identify were inserted into the mix, and endowed with life, or at least the illusion of it (further discussion of that topic is left to the philosophers). They were set with challenges and obstacles to overcome, as well as rewards and pleasures to experience. Drama, adventure, tragedy, comedy... the possibilities were endless and all were explored in infinite variety. A neverending stream of interesting and engaging stories were played out on the cosmic stage. Matter was animated in such a way as to draw in the observers, despite themselves, and it became the most successful artform ever developed.

Part II - Early Human Attempts

Given the infinite scope of the primary animation, it was inevitable that in time a fractal effect would emerge, adding a layer of complexity as second order animations were attempted by the original animated matter. Humans on the planet Earth provide an interesting and entertaining study.

Their attempts have predominantly focused on just one sense (that of sight), ingeniously taking advantage of the persistence of vision effect peculiar to their photon sensing organs.

- Prehistoric Animations -

The first known example was by a cave painter named Oog, and came about quite by accident. Oog was well regarded for his lifelike paintings of animals in flight. He had a secret cave in which he would try out different concepts and perfect a style before revealing it in public murals. At the time, he was having trouble representing Mastodons. He could draw them standing at rest, or while in full gallop, but he couldn't quite seem to get them looking right at the stages in-between.

One day, Oog decided that the best way to work on the problem was in small increments. He found an empty circular area in his secret "studio" cave complex and began working. On the wall, he first sketched a Mastodon at rest. To its immediate left, he drew a Mastodon in full flight. Then he went back to the original drawing and began methodically working clockwise around the walls of the cave, doing sketch after sketch, slowly altering from the one previous, working from the starting pose to the ending.

ASIDE: Depending upon your philosophy, the original first order animation was either straight-ahead (if you believe in free will), or pose-to-pose with in-betweens (if you believe in predestination). If you favor the first point of view, then Oog was the Father of pose-to-pose animation with the second order animation he was about to discover.
When he was done, Oog sat back and examined his work, well pleased with the result. He now had excellent reference material; scanning from start to end, he had an example of every possible pose he would need for his paintings (forgetting, for the moment, about other variations such as fighting, attacking with the tusks, etc.)

To celebrate, he began munching on some rotting berries (a delicacy of the time, not the least due to the effect of fermentation on the berry juice). Oog had a nice little buzz going as he examined his work by the flickering firelight. The more fermented berry juice he consumed, the more he liked his work (a result common to humans even to this day). Oog became quite drunk, and soon erroneously thought the room had begun spinning. To counteract this effect, he stood in the middle of the room and began to spin himself clockwise quite rapidly. As he did so, he noticed a curious effect... the combination of inebriation, flickering light, and rapid spinning gave him the illusion that his Mastodon drawings were coming to life, periodically going from rest, beginning to trot, and finally to gallop along his cave walls. The first human example of animation had occurred.

Unfortunately, this first example was also the last for Oog. Excited by his new discovery, he put on a grand exhibition the next evening. All of the "right" tribal members (the rich, powerful, influential) were invited to his cave, where they were plied with food and drink (roasted beetles and fermented berry juice... not all that different from gallery showings in the modern era). One by one he would take them into his "magic room" where he would demonstrate his animation. In order to maximize the spinning effect and add some excitement to the show, Oog would grab the viewer by the ankles and spin them around himself, their faces just inches away from the walls. Between the alcohol, the flickering lighting and the spinning (and perhaps a bit of help from the suggestive subconscious) each viewer claimed to see the magic effect of a tiny live Mastodon running along the cave walls.

Oog would then escort each viewer back to the main area, where they would join the others, excitedly describing the amazing things they had seen. It was a magnificent success and Oog was ecstatic.

Trouble was brewing, however. Oog was never known for his raw physical strength, and the effort of swinging each viewer around the room was beginning to take its toll. Combine that with his unfortunate tendency to sample more food, and critically, drink, with each trip to and from his "magic room" and disaster was just around the corner.

When the time came for Oog to demonstrate his work to the Chief's mate, Aav, he was exhausted and not a little drunk. Aav herself, as chieftain's wife, was entitled to the first crack at the results of each hunt, and over time had lost her youthful figure. By this time, she... how to put it... hmmm... there was no question but that the hunts had been both frequent and successful. Aav was a good 250 pounds of healthy prehistoric woman.

Oog escorted her to the "magic room," grabbed her by the ankles, and with a loud groan dutifully tried to swing her around the room. Just as he managed to get her up to speed, his body failed him and he accidentally let go.

Disaster! Aav struck the wall with great force, leaving a bloody mark, and fell to the ground, unmoving. Filled with fear and panic, thinking he had killed her, Oog fled the scene using a secret passageway that bypassed the main reception area.

Aav was made of sturdy stuff, however, and was only momentarily stunned. Regaining consciousness quickly, she let out a scream that brought the others running. They examined the scene and after quick consultation the tribal elders made the pronouncement... Oog had obviously made alliance with evil spirits who caused the tiny Mastodon come to life; the evil spirits demanded a sacrifice, which Oog attempted to give them via Aav; Aav's purity saved her and the evil animated Mastodon had then consumed Oog instead; the cave was to be sealed forever, and any artist daring to attempt animation would be immediately stoned to death. This put a damper on any further developments for thousands of years.

Oog himself made out rather well after all, however. He fled to the land of multisyllable folk, in the area later known as the Bordeaux region of France. Scared off by the results of his artistic pursuits and finding there a plentiful supply of berries and grapes, Oog decided to take up his other true passion... fermenting juice. He changed his name to Cabernet, achieved great fame for the quality of his fermented grape juice, married and had many grandchildren, and lived to the ripe old age of 41.

- Stonehenge -

The next known human example of animation occurred years later, in the British Isles, at the great showcase known as Stonehenge. The real purpose of Stonehenge has been lost to modern scholars, who have come up with wild speculation tying the structure to astronomical purposes. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Stonehenge was the brainchild of a brilliant showman named Duncan Horner, founder and president of Druid Studios. Duncan developed a scheme he called a Daedaleum (note that his g-g-g-g-g-etc-grandson William Horner supposedly "discovered" the same thing years later... the information had been handed down within the family for generations, and William simply implemented it on a much smaller basis. This invention later went by the name of a Zoetrope). The core idea of the scheme was two nested cylindrical objects. The inner cylinder had a series of still images on its walls. The outer cylindrical structure was used to obscure the inner images, with slits designed to allow only one image to be seen at a time. Viewers would be outside the contraption, and as the inner cylinder rotated, the images upon it would appear in series briefly through the viewing slits. If the images were done skillfully enough, and the rotation speed great enough, the viewers would see objects seemingly alive with motion.

Duncan thought on grand scales, and erected a giant theater at Stonehenge to demonstrate his animation scheme. He utilized giant stones to create the outer slitted structure, portions of which have endured to modern times. A smaller wooden cylindrical support system was constructed inside the radius of the outer stones, over which large sheets of cloth could be draped and secured. The entire wooden structure was suspended on a giant inner pole, and could be rotated with the help of horses tethered to a simple geared mechanism.

When it was showtime, viewers gathered outside the ring, sheets were attached to the inner structure, the horses built up speed, and under the proper conditions giant images within each slit would appear to come to life. It was a smashing success.

Druid Studios expanded and opened up smaller theaters throughout the land. For a time, Duncan enjoyed a monopoly and high profits, which he plowed back into the studio, experimenting with new processes and expanding his theater building plan. At first, Druid Studios was the only source of viewing material, and Druid theaters were the only place animation could be shown.

Over time, however, disaffected employees from his own studio left to start studios of their own. Of course, it was of little use creating new animations if the only place to show them refused. The spin-off studios lacked the capital to create their own theater chain, so they went to the government for relief. The High Council of the Isles, made up of tribal and clan leaders, ruled that Druid studios could own either the animation creation end, or the display end, but could not own both. Duncan decided to sell off the theaters and assumed that he could prosper with his superior animations. Sadly, this first Golden Age of Animation was coming to an end.

The new owners of the theaters were a greedy lot, and did not share Duncan's high standards. Being rather short-sighted, thinking only of the immediate bottom-line, they began cutting back on maintenance and let the theaters decay. Using cost as their only criteria, they forced the studios into a price war and rented only the lowest cost animation regardless of its quality (or lack of it). This was a recipe for disaster, and it didn't take long. As the theaters physically declined and the shows lost their appeal, the more affluent customers stopped coming and sought other diversions. With a less affluent clientele, the theater owners could not charge as much as before and so cut back even more on cleaning/maintenance, and would pay even less for animation. Druid Studios was in a hopeless bind. They couldn't compete on cost alone, and they had no avenue for display of their superior product.

Soon, the quality of animation on display dropped below a sustainable level, public interest evaporated, and the theaters failed one by one. In a last ditch attempt at saving the medium (and his studio), Duncan obtained permission to reopen the original showcase at Stonehenge, but it was a lost cause. The damage had been done. Animation had been tainted by the recent poor examples and the public "stayed away in droves."

Although Druid Studios ultimately failed, Duncan did not. Ever the showman, he rebounded from the animation fiasco and ended up head of a rather prosperous religious organization.

- Pyramids of Egypt -

The last example in this section is a somewhat controversial one. Purists may object that it more properly belongs in a discussion of theme parks. However, as we will soon see, the theme park thrill ride aspects are only peripheral, as the driving force was a desire to create animation.

Given the Egyptian use of hieroglyphics and pictures for written communication, one might wonder why the next step wasn't taken and why animation did not flourish there. After all, animation could be viewed as a means of communication using moving pictures, and the Egyptians certainly were expert at using pictures to communicate.

Unfortunately, that very skill was an obstacle to their proper perception of early animation attempts. Rather than view the images as images and allow their mind to interpret the rapid changes as movement, they instead tended to interpret the images as words and phrases, and perceived the rapidly changing images as sentences in their language. At best, these would be interpreted as near random gobble-de-gook; at worst, they would be perceived as vulgar graffiti. Indeed, an early proponent of the artform was put to death after displaying a work intended to show an owl interacting with a snake. Instead, it was perceived as a particularly nasty statement about the then-current Pharaoh.

It was many years until a possible solution was found. A persuasive young artist named Akhotep realized that to solve this perceptual problem, the viewer must be shocked out of their normal modes of thought. He theorized that if the viewer was shaken up, frightened for their life, they would revert to a more primitive mode of perception... instead of calmly and intellectually translating the images into language, they would simply observe the images as images and so, the animation effect might occur.

He conceived of a grand method for attracting an audience, giving them a good scare, and presenting the images that would comprise the animation... a wonderful sort of theme park, with multiple pyramids each acting as a thrill ride and theater... and he managed to convince the Pharaoh to provide funding and support.

Although simply used as tombs when the project ultimately failed, the various passages and rooms in the pyramids were originally intended for use as part of a combination roller-coaster ride and animation theater. The viewers would have blinders put on to limit their field of view, be placed sideways in carts facing the walls, and restrained (both to heighten the fear factor as well as ensure the proper viewing angle). The carts would then roll along the passages at a high rate of speed, with exciting drops and abrupt turns. As they sped along, they would be passing walls upon which the animation drawings had been carved. With the fear factor hindering literary interpretation of the images, and the blinders limiting the field of view to small rapidly changing sections, it was hoped that the animation effect would be experienced.

Early tests on a smaller scaled model were promising, and the project was given the green light. Unfortunately, the full-scale implementation was a nightmare. No construction on so grand a scale had yet been attempted, and the initial estimates were way off. Costs mounted, and the budget was increased time and time again. The project consumed colossal resources, and corruption was rampant. Support from the Pharaoh began to wane, as his political enemies made much of the apparent boondoggle.

In order to keep the funding going, Akhotep decided that a spectacular demonstration was required. Against the objections of the lead contractor, Akhotep proposed a simple partial run-through demonstration for the Pharaoh. The passages were not yet finished, the cart design not finalized, the loading/unloading areas just plans on papyrus, and no animation had yet been carved into the walls. The pressure was on, however, and Akhotep overrode any and all objections. He had some test animations on papyrus attached to the walls along one portion of a passageway, brought in a simple wooden cart, and instructed that a soft barrier be placed at the bottom of the passageway in question. With much fanfare, the Pharaoh and Akhotep boarded the cart, put on the blinders, and were pushed over the edge to careen down the passageway.

If the Pharaoh's last words are to be believed, it worked in spectacular fashion. Ironically, "it lives!" was to be his last utterance, as the barrier failed when the cart smashed into it and both the Pharaoh and Akhotep were flung to their deaths. The succeeding Pharaoh was not sympathetic to the cause, and without Akhotep to push the concept along, early Egyptian animation died that day as well. Work ceased on the partially finished thrill rides/animation theaters, and they were ultimately used as royal tombs instead.

Although never utilized for their original purpose, given the tremendous interest in these pyramids by humanity (with a huge tourist trade, prominent appearances in films and documentaries, popular location for murder mysteries, horror stories, etc. etc.), we cannot help but wonder if Akhotep, being in the entertainment field himself, would not have been pleased after all.