Eli5: how did animation work before computers?

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Did people literally just draw thousands of pictures that looked almost identical and then they stitched them together, like a flip book? How did they do it, and how was it even remotely cost-effective and worth the effort?

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19 Answers

Anonymous 0 Comments

Yes, there was a common method called paint and trace, where the background was painted on one sheet and then a clear plastic sheet was placed over the background of anything that was moving, for each frame you redraw the moving object on a new sheet and reuse the background, which is why you can tell if any door or similar was going to be opened as it wasn’t on the background sheet but the overlay.

Anonymous 0 Comments

Yes, I went to an animation school for the summer and that’s basically what I did all summer. You would trace what you drew and make the adjustments. This was done on a table that was angled/sloped and had a light fixture inside that would let the paper be translucent so you could see the outline of your drawing. My teacher said that you basically where making a flip book but with modern tech we would just scan the drawings with a scanner and stitch then together on a computer. This was when computer animation was still too costly.

Anonymous 0 Comments

Layers. Let’s say there’s a scene of someone standing outside a cottage in the forest. You’d have one drawing of the forest. Then you’d have a drawing of a cottage. Then a drawing of the person’s body/head. Then a drawing of the person’s arms, then one of their facial features.

You put them all on a machine that puts all of those drawings on their own separate layers and has a special camera on the top, and take a picture of all the layers combined, and that’s one frame. If the person is talking and moving his arms around, then you just replace the layers of the arms and facial features, and you don’t have to replace the rest.

Anonymous 0 Comments

That’s more or less how it worked, yes. This is one of the reasons the cartoons of the early 20th Century were so short. For longer works, the “main” animators would only draw certain key frames, and they’d outsource the other frames to studios where labor was cheaper.

Anonymous 0 Comments

>Did people literally just draw thousands of pictures that looked almost identical and then they stitched them together, like a flip book?

Yes. Literally. ♥️

Anonymous 0 Comments

Big studios like Disney used to put out far fewer feature-length films, maybe one every 5 years. Other cartoons, like Looney Tunes, tended to be quite short.

They did short-cuts where they could. For instance, they’d re-use sequences or trace them to be another character. In one Disney movie, for example, there might be a scene of a bear dancing, and in the next, a scene of a king dancing who happens to be shaped a lot like a bear and doing the exact same moves. They might also re-use backgrounds, such as having them walk down a long hallway conversing, where the hallway passing by is just the same background looped over and over (and the bodies walking are also looped, just the faces move). Or the classic panning jump-attack in anime, where one or two still frames of a screaming person in motion pans across an abstract background that looks like motion-blurred lines or lazers.

Even with some short-cuts, though, the amount of work it took was mind-boggling.

Anonymous 0 Comments

Everyone else has covered the drawing part. Each frame was photographed onto film. Regardless if it was captured on a stills camera or a proper motion picture camera with a single frame function, these images were printed onto either 35mm (higher quality) or 16mm (low quality, think 80s cartoons) film reels that could be played back in a projector or a video converter machine known as a telecine. There was an intermediate printing step for editing and gluing shots together (thats right, glue), but ultimately it ended up on big rolls of positive print film.

Your sound was done magnetically, but for a finished film print could be etched on optically as waveforms that the correct light and sensor in a projector or telecine machine would decode as sound. This was one way to have an end product that could be broadcast and converted into any television format on the planet (remember regions on DVDs? this had to do with these different, non standard video systems).

Eventually video tape workflows came around where material that was telecine transferred from film to a video tape could be edited, though doing so was a pain. Movies were cut mostly on flat bed film editing tables until the Edit Droid digital editing software from Lucas Film arrived on the scene I think in the late 80s. Today that software is known as Avid Media Composer, and it paved the way for Adobe Premier, Final Cut Pro, and even the online editorial component of Davinci Resolve. Heck there would be no iMovie without Edit Droid.

But yeah, really it wasnt till the mid 90s that films (animation or live action) fully moved into what we’d think of as a modern workflow. There were some exceptions, most notably Lucas Films computer animation department otherwise known as Pixar. But even they would have to print their digital movies to film for theatrical distribution (they may have also made IP prints for telecine but by that point tape was an acceptable output option for a broadcast master. I just dont know if they had to laser to film first, then telecine back to tape, or if they could export directly to tape by that point. The industry was insanely analogue even through the 90s. Hopefully someone with direct knowledge can confirm or correct this as it was a bit before my time).

Anonymous 0 Comments

Yes, they just drew all the scenes.

There were shortcuts, of course. For one thing, they drew characters on transparent plastic called “cel”, which is short for “celluloid”. This allowed them to move characters around in front of a backdrop, and avoid having to redraw the background image for each frame.

The most sophisticated version of this was pioneered by Disney, called the “multiplane camera”. [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Multiplane_camera](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Multiplane_camera)

Backgrounds and various layers of foreground images could be installed on rollers, and moved independently of each other. This allows for an illusion of depth, where different layers of the image move more or less quickly as the camera perspective changes.

But for character animation, they were reduced to hand drawing each frame in turn. Because they were working on transparent plastic, they *could* quite easily trace from the previous frame, with slight modifications for movement.

In fact, because this tracing work was easier and didn’t require a great knowledge of how to create the character from scratch, it was often done by people called “in-betweeners”.

The highly paid character animators would only draw a few “key” frames to show the beginning, end, and significant parts of a given movement, and the lower paid in-betweeners would fill in the missing frames by tracing their art.

Some early animators even experimented with rotoscoping, where an actual actor is filmed performing the movement, and the animators simply traced over the filmed image. This type of animation was famously used in the original Star Wars movies to create the lightsaber effects.

You’re right that allowing computers to do a lot of this work is easier, but it simply wasn’t possible until fairly recently in the grand scheme of things. And the way things were done back in the day continues to influence how computer software works. If you’ve done any animation, you’ll recognize various concepts I’ve mentioned in this post, especially things like key frames which are still used to this day.

Anonymous 0 Comments

The breakdown for your traditional Disney-style animation is basically such (I’m simplifying for clarity):
A character animator would do keyframes (the most important drawings) on white animation paper.
An inbetweener would fill in the frames between the keyframes on some more white animation paper.
Someone in the ink and paint department would trace and color in these drawings on a clear celluloid acetate, or “cel”.
Photography would then lay the clear cels over the background images and expose the resultant image for one frame, or two if they want to slow down the action a bit.
The film negative would get developed and sent to the editor who would do his editing process with scissors, guillotine splicers, and paste.
Then they’d send that film to get duplicated into the various prints that would be sent to theaters.
As for your question on how it’s worth the effort, watch some of the films that were made at the height of the technique’s golden age: Fantasia, for example. The craft on display is undeniable.
As for cost effective? Well animated movies have traditionally needed a big return on investment in order to be profitable—this is true even today with computer animation because, even if the computer does the inbetween process for you, it’s still backbreaking labor—and 3D animators also have to contend with things like lighting and hair/cloth simulation as well as camera movement.
Why would anyone put themselves through such pains?
Animators are masochists. That’s what I’m going with.

Anonymous 0 Comments

OP, tell me you’re <12 without TELLING ME you’re <12.

Yes, people drew pictures by hand. They also wrote letters by hand too. Computers didn’t exist for most of history.