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(Credit: Studio Ghibli)

Film

Six Definitive Films: The ultimate beginner's guide to animation

@Russellisation

“Animation is not the art of drawings that move but the art of movements that are drawn.” – Norman McLaren

If you wanted to show an early pioneer of filmmaking in the 19th century something that would truly blow their minds, one might not go for the greatest film of the modern era, nor even the films of Stanley Kubrick, Quentin Tarantino or Steven Speilberg. Instead, to truly demonstrate just how far the cinematic medium has come and to illustrate the dynamism, vibrancy and excitement of new media, one would likely choose the beauty of something like Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name.

Growing in popularity throughout the mid-20th century due to the tactility of film that allowed hand-drawn images, shapes and colours, animation expanded in steady formation with the technological revolution, leading to a modern industry that is unrecognisable in comparison to its infancy. Whilst animated feature films were once an arduous, time-consuming slog, in modern cinema, such films can be made far more easily using digital technology and innovative new techniques.

A century of steady growth and constant success has led to animation studios across the world, with filmmakers such as Hayao Miyazaki, Isao Takahata, Jan Švankmajer, Walt Disney and Norman McLaren each having their hand in the global triumph of the medium. In contemporary society, the artistic medium of animation has become one of the most popular forms of cinema, leading to a booming anime industry and a consistently popular Disney franchise. 

Animation’s six definitive films:

Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs (David Hand and more, 1937)

The artistic medium of animation had long been simmering before the release of Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs in 1937, though Walt Disney’s debut feature-length film was the very first to be made using entirely hand-drawn animation. 

Introducing the world to a style of storytelling that would dominate commercial animation for years to come Snow White became a pioneer of the animation art form, making way for a countless number of duplicates including Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo and Bambi in the years to come. Now recognised as an establishment of the American film industry, this film represented the very start of Disney’s dominance over the animation industry, defying critics who believed the vibrant bright colours of an animated feature film would be too dazzling for audiences. 

Becoming an instant worldwide success, Walt Disney Pictures sparked into life and subsequently planted the seed for a flourishing industry to come. 

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (Nathan Juran, 1958)

As traditional hand-drawn animation thrived, animators across the world experimented with the medium of animation, exploring how else it could be used to tell extraordinary stories that defied the laws of physics. 

Ray Harryhausen was one such pioneer of animation, toiling away in private at the start of his career crafting marvellous sequences involving dinosaurs and wondrous fantasy worlds before gaining the attention of film studios. The 7th Voyage of Sinbad may be the most inspiring of his entire film work, with the project taking the animator 11 months to complete, resulting in stunning action scenes that are entwined with live action for truly spectacular results, particularly considering its 1950s context. 

Recognised as one of the first and finest examples of stop-motion animation, Ray Harryhausen, along with the work of experimental Czech artist Jan Švankmajer, expanded the very known limits of the medium.

Fritz the Cat (Ralph Bakshi, 1972)

Enjoying several decades of success, animation saw a boom in the mid-20th century, with Walt Disney becoming a significant driving force behind the increase of such films. So too did the industry consider an audience outside of the young age bracket, with Fritz the Cat by Ralph Bakshi becoming the first animated film to receive an X rating.

Swinging the doors of the animation industry wide open, Bakshi suggested that the medium did not need to be restricted to childish content, creating an adult-orientated raunchy comedy about a cat going through college. Making way for the likes of the experimental French animation Fantastic Planet by René Laloux in 1973, the importance of Fritz the Cat in the history of the medium cannot be understated. 

Paving the way for later classics such as South Park: Bigger, Longer, Uncut, Team America or indeed the western popularity of Japanese anime, Ralph Bakshi’s film proved to be a major gamechanger. 

Toy Story (John Lasseter, 1995)

The sheer influx of animated titles that blossomed at the tail-end of the 20th century is truly too staggering to even comprehend, with the American industry flourishing alongside Japanese anime that was thriving thanks to the international acclaim of 1988’s Akira.

With the dawn of the new millennium in sight and new technologies making once tedious animation processes far easier, it was Pixar who made the first leap into fully digital animation with Toy Story in 1995, a film that would forever change the fabric of modern Hollywood. Making the process of animation far more simple to assemble, Pixar presented an animation technique made fit for the 21st century, demonstrating the sheer potential of digital technology as cinema moved ever away from celluloid. 

The film itself wasn’t too bad either, making way for Pixar’s continued success into the 21st century, before becoming a company under the umbrella of Disney in 2006. 

Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki, 2001)

The American animation industry had long thrived by the time the 21st century rolled around and entered the new millennium with an air of superiority as the likes of Disney, Pixar and Dreamworks remained dominant. 

Whilst Akira had sparked interest in animation overseas, it was 2001’s Spirited Away that would truly force the American film industry to sit up and take notice of the activity of its rivals overseas. Headed up by the now influential filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki, Studio Ghibli has since become recognised as one of the most revered animation studios of all time, with Spirited Away acting as their flagship success, winning the Best Animated Picture Oscar in 2003, the first and only international film to win the award to date. 

Without Spirited Away, the modern-day popularity of Studio Ghibli may have never blossomed in the same way, with the Japanese animation introducing new art styles to an animation medium that was stagnant with American influence. 

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (Peter Ramsey, Bob Persichetti, Rodney Rothman, 2018)

When modern audiences think they might have seen everything when it comes to animation, from the pioneering hand-drawn efforts of Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs to the totally digital world of Toy Story, Sony Animation threw in a modern curveball with Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse one of the most extraordinary animated films of all time. 

Blending a plethora of 2D and 3D animation styles to recreate the look and feel of a comic book, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse uses all the tools in its arsenal to put together a playful cinematic masterstroke. Adjusting frame rates, vibrant colour palettes and visual styles to put several eclectic characters on the screen at one time, Sony has created an animation that feels as revolutionary as the aforementioned pioneers of the medium itself. 

So bizarre and visually baffling is this modern animated masterpiece that it barely feels part of the fabric of contemporary filmmaking at all, offering a revelatory portal into the future of the industry.