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The Creation of the Animation "Genre" - Part One


In this three-part blog series, GFT Youth Board member Kasey travels through the history of animation on screen. Each part will be released weekly on the Youth Board blog. This first part looks at the early days of animation and the beginnings of animation champion, Walt Disney.

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When a new animated film is released at the cinema most adults don’t consider buying a ticket. We dread the thought of sitting amongst hundreds of giggling children watching a film that their parents would question our attendance at. For many of us animation is synonymous with our childhoods, reminding us of our past love of fairy tales or the joy we had watching cartoons on a Saturday morning. It’s this bond between animation and childhood that contributes to the belief that animation is a children’s genre, creating a huge stigma around who can or can’t enjoy it.

As we get older, the diversity of animation is no secret with adult animation thriving on television, anime continuing to grow worldwide and short films being more accessible than ever. Yet when it comes to the big screen animation is seen as a children’s domain. This reputation didn’t exist 100 years ago nor did it appear recently, so where did it come from?

Fun has always been a vital element of animation. With a medium that could be limitless there was no need or desire to conform to reality. Early animation was often based on existing characters in comic strips, using them to create jokes and gags with actions that simply couldn't be conveyed in a few panels. This experimentation led to the creation of the 'rubber hose' style, describing the flexible and jointless movement of its characters which mimicked that of a rubber hose. From these early experimentations original characters soon came to life, with the most popular of the time being Felix the Cat and Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. These characters both fascinated and amused audiences in the 1920s with their absurd physical humour that was impossible to recreate outside of their animated worlds.


As the 1930s came around a whole new host of animators had appeared and content began to deviate from its simple comic strip beginnings. Animators like Walt Disney wanted to refine their work and continue making fun, family friendly shorts whilst others such as the Fleischer Brothers catered towards an adult audience with darker themes in their films in addition to characters such as Betty Boop and Popeye. The Fleischer Brothers even made fun of Disney in their cartoons for his light-hearted approach, depicting a Mickey Mouse look-a-like in a handful of their shorts. Little did they know, that the mouse would actually have the last laugh.

At the 5th Academy Awards in 1933 Disney won the first Oscar for an animated film with his Silly Symphonies short Flowers and Trees in a category (now) known as Best Short Animated Film. A few years later in 1939 Disney received the Special Achievement Award for innovation in film for his adaption of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. This award celebrated the first feature length cell animated film and — unbeknownst to everyone at the time — commenced Disney's reign in the world of animation with his fairy tale features.

During this period many other studios and animators had established a name for themselves and were looking to create their own technicolour masterpieces. This optimism for the future only lasted briefly as by the end of the decade the Second World War had broken out. With the little profit to be made through shorts in addition to the lack of resources many studios struggled to stay afloat, turning their focus to the war effort creating content ranging from army training films to patriotic shorts to help boost morale. All creativity was not lost though, many existing characters like Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck plus Tom and Jerry featured in these wartime films and the occasional comedic short which heavily contributed to the development of these popular characters.

The after effects of the war were felt long into the 1940's as feature films still seemed far out of reach and budgets remained tight. With creative freedom back in the studios hands characters were able to return back to their wacky and vibrant animated worlds. For the next decade the cartoons created by Warner Bros., MGM and Disney would become known as some of their best, displaying the peak of animation’s ‘golden age’.


In parallel Disney began production on feature length films again based on fantasy tales like Cinderella and Peter Pan. Similar to his early shorts many noticed that Disney favoured a rose-coloured telling of these stories, often removing darker and gory elements. With the popularity of his cheerful fairy tales and opening of his theme park Disneyland the studio and it’s films became hugely successful as well as the Disney brand. It was no secret that Disney’s work strongly appealed to children and was a huge part of his and the company’s success due to this. Other studios quickly took note and adapted their work to this child-friendly style too, hoping for similar popularity.

Not all studios were heading in this direction however, over at MGM two Oscar winning directors William Hanna and Joseph Barbera were looking to create their own studio to focus on a platform that was largely untouched by animation.

Join us for part two as Kasey turns to the boom of animation on television and the pioneering work of animation at other studios.

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