Frames of Reference: An Examination of the Adaptive Nature of Animation

Plan Author

  • Evan Lorenzen, 2013

Fields of Concentration

  • Visual Arts

Sample Courses

  • Tutorial: Cut-out Animation
  • Tutorial: The History of Animation and Its Relationship to Technology
  • Tutorial: The History of Animation and Its Influence on Perception

Project Description

An investigation of visual and technical appropriation as a means to engage the viewer within the context of animation

Faculty Sponsors

  • Cathy Osman
  • Carol Hendrickson

Outside Evaluator

  • Patricia Galuis-Assmus, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Plan Overview

Paul Wells, Professor of Media and Cultural Studies at Teesside University and author of Animation: Genre and Authorship, has called animation the “omnipotent pictorial form of the modern era.” From cartoons to major motion pictures to YouTube videos, animation has become one of the dominant forms of artistic expression in contemporary media. This Plan traces the history of animation, from the earliest moving pictures to today’s advanced CGI techniques.

Though it may be difficult for contemporary audiences to believe, the earliest motion pictures were made for scientific inquiry, not entertainment. Eadweard Maybridge’s The Horse in Motion (1878), though entertaining to audiences at the time, was primarily designed to answer definitively whether all four feet of a horse left the ground simultaneously while trotting.

In 1914, the introduction of celluloid paper allowed animators to superimpose characters over a static backdrop, a time-saving technique that is still used today. The addition of sound to animation in 1928 boosted the medium’s popularity, and made classic cartoons like Walt Disney’s Steamboat Willie possible.

In the past decade, information technology has revolutionized animation, cutting production time and making finished products easier to distribute. Additionally, CGI techniques and programs have opened new artistic directions for animators, giving them the tools to tell stories in new and exciting ways.


“Many animators believe that the most important decisions that an animator makes occur between frames, rather than on the frames themselves. The animator must consider the importance of the content of each frame, but more importantly, he or she must consider the gaps that occur between successive frames, for animation is fundamentally concerned with the illusion of action.”

“The first showing of Steamboat Willie must have been an extraordinary moment for both Disney and the audience. The addition of sound effects opened a door to a magical world in which animated characters could talk, sing, and play instruments, in opposition to the limitations placed on animators in the era of silent film.”

“The most important result of the introduction of computer technology to animation was the alteration of time. While most historical technologies discussed in this paper led to a perceptive shift in time for the audience, the computer altered notions of time for the animator.”