How Technology Drives the Animation Industry

The animation industry has been truly revolutionized by technology. The first ever animations were hand-drawn or painted cartoons, each one almost identical to the previous except for a few subtle changes. These were then photographed and the images sequentially projected onto a large screen at a rapid rate to simulate movement. The first animated films were made in the early 1900s; these were all without color or sound. Advances in technology over the past century have been the driving force within the animation industry; here we look at some of the most important developments.

Animation industry


The development of Technicolor allowed the creation of color animations and Walt Disney used this to great effect. By 1937 the first animated feature film had been made and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs marks the start of animated feature length movies.

Stop motion

When stop motion was developed it allowed 3D animation. While we may recall classics such as Wallace and Gromit, stop motion animation was also used for special effects in films early on, such as the original 1933 version of King Kong and also in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, in which many of the creatures and skeleton swordsman were animated with stop motion technology.


Today almost all animation is computer-generated imagery (CGI). This new technology was developed during the early 1990s and the first major animated movie shot was the now classic Toy Story. CGI animation can be likened to virtual 3D modeling; the characters are created as three-dimensional objects that can be moved and manipulated like a real doll.

Advancements in computer graphics technology have since fueled the development of CGI films. New technology allows computers to process many more details at the same time, which allows humans to be animated using CGI. Until 2001, when Final Fantasy was released, most CGI animation was of animals or doll-like characters.

Without doubt the leader in movie animation is Pixar Animation Studios, the creators of Toy Story and 13 other animated movie hits. When Pixar was originally formed it was called Graphics Group and was a part of Lucasfilm. Graphics Group developed quickly, providing animation services for other film studios it was eventually renamed Pixar. The new corporation was heavily funded by Apple – with CEO Steve Jobs eventually becoming Pixar’s major shareholder. Pixar went on to develop its own version of RenderMan image rendering that it called PhotoRealistic RenderMan. RenderMan is now the industry standard for rendering animated computer graphics.

Walt Disney bought Pixar in 2006 and this brings us full circle in the history of animation. Walt Disney developed the first feature length animated movies and eventually bought into the most advanced movie animation technology to ensure that it remains the leader in movie animation.

Walt Disney’s recent movies, such as Toy Story 3 (2010), Monsters University (2013) and Frozen (2013), have become huge box office successes. In fact, Frozen and Toy Story 3 are currently two of the most popular animated movies ever made; both made with Pixar’s technology.


Motion capture software

One of the disadvantages of traditional CGI is that the animator still has to physically manipulate the characters on a computer to position them. However, a new technology has been developed that allows the real movements of people to be transferred into an animation.

Motion capture software, often called Mo-cap, creates animation by recording the movement of people, or sometimes animals, and converting the movements into a digital representation. In filmmaking it is called match moving. It was most famously used to create the animated Gollum in the Lord of the Rings movies.

The process is called motion tracking when not used in film and it has been utilized by sport scientists to analyze how athletes move, in robotics to better learn how people move so efficiently, as well as in the military and entertainment world.

Motion capture requires a person to wear a special suit covered in sensors that are detected by the computer software. Sensors are placed at every joint on the body and this allows animation software to then superimpose the digitally designed animation over the top of the filmed image. The sequence would usually be shot with a green screen background that allows animators to add the scenery later.

Animation is progressing at an astounding rate. Complex performance capture software that tracks subtle movements in facial features is allowing animators to create life-like virtual people. The only obstacle in digital animation today is processing power and data storage. With each new generation of animation technology the quality of the animated figures improves. Very soon animators will be able to create virtual humans who are indistinguishable from the real thing.