Everyone knows animation when they see it. Animation is the process of using rapidly moving drawn or computer generated images to give the illusion of motion. Animation is what is used to make the Saturday morning cartoons you see on television and it is what is used to make those holiday specials everyone looks forward to seeing all year. Animation can also be done with 3-Dimensional objects like clay or action figures as in the very popular Christmas specials made back in the 1970’s that featured small dolls being filmed using stop motion photography. Animation used to be considered a novelty when it came to movies or prime time television shows. Studios would never think of putting animation in a position where it would be the feature even after the 1930’s when Walt Disney proved with Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs that animation could carry a full-length feature film. But over time something changed and now animation is threatening to be the method of choice for not only filmmakers but also prime time television producers as well.
For years the area of the animated feature film was the sole domain of the Walt Disney Company. Other companies would spring up and make the occasional animated feature but the only studio making their living, and reputation, almost solely on their animated feature films was the Walt Disney Company. Warner Brothers opened up an animation studio to compete with the animated short films that Disney was using to dominate the children’s market and Warner Brothers also wanted to use their animated short films as an enticement for theater owners to show their regular feature films. If the theater owner agreed to show the Warner Brothers feature film being offered they would get the animated cartoon for free. Since the cartoons from Warner Brothers were becoming breakaway hits, and many people were gladly paying full admission just to see the cartoons, it became an easy way for Warner Brothers to get their movies into theaters. But by the late 1970’s things started to change and animation was headed towards respectability in the mainstream media markets.
One of the people usually credited with bringing animation to the forefront is someone who did not deal in animation at all. Jim Henson was a puppet maker and he soon became world famous for his television shows, and movies, that featured his puppets that he called Muppets. In 1979 Henson released The Muppet Movie and while it did not change anyone’s mind about animation it did bring an interesting dynamic to the big screen that not many people had seen before. In The Muppet Movie there were puppets interacting with real people and being the main characters in the movie. Many movies before The Muppet Movie had used the idea of puppets, or animated characters, interacting with real people but The Muppet Movie was a sensational hit and it brought the idea to millions of people that had never seen it before. In 1982 Henson released The Dark Crystal, which was a fantasy feature film that used only puppets as characters and featured no actors at all. It wasn’t animation, and it was not as big of a hit as The Muppet Movie was, but The Dark Crystal proved that you did not need actors to carry a feature film. Six years later this idea was used to break open animation forever.
In 1988 Who Framed Roger Rabbit? was released and for the first time a feature film that used cartoons as its main characters won multiple Academy Awards. The film was monumental also for the fact that even though Walt Disney Studios made the film it also featured Warner Brothers’ characters as well. At the time it was released it was the most expensive movie ever made and it was also one of the most successful movies of the year. Roger Rabbit blew the doors off the animation world and suddenly studios everywhere we clamoring to create their own animated feature film. Animation had hit the big time.
Today two of the longest running prime time shows on television are animated. Family Guy is entering its eighth season on Fox network in the prime time Sunday slot and The Simpsons is entering its record breaking twentieth season on Fox prime time as well. South Park is entering its thirteenth season on Comedy Central and shows no signs of stopping. The Simpsons and South Park have both generated hit feature films during their run and the creators of South Park had a minor hit feature film when they made a movie completely with puppets. Today it is not unusual to find that two or three of the summer blockbusters are animated features and with the help of computers animation is heading into new and exciting directions.