Computer Animation: Definition, History & Types

Instructor: Michelle DeSalvo

Michelle has been an academic librarian for over twenty years. She has a Master’s Degree in Library Science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Do you like to watch films or play video games? Have you ever wondered about the inner-workings of computer animation? In this lesson, we will look at the history and future of this field.

What is Computer Animation?

Today, we expect realistic and expert images in the movies we watch and video games we play. But where does this come from, and what did it take to get there?

Computer animation is simply bringing inanimate objects to life on a screen. Animators make the characters both believable and larger than life. The gestures and emotions need to be spot-on; the landscapes magical and life-like. Let's take a look at the history and types of computer animation.


3D Animation

In 2D animation, the drawing is created and slightly altered. Another drawing is made with minimal tweaking. 2D can either be drawn by hand or made on the computer. Disney's The Lion King (1994) is a 2D film.

3D animation is always computer generated. In 3D animation, the objects can be moved and changed and appear in a 3-dimensional space. One of the first 3D animations was of Eric Catmull's hand (1972). They made a wireframe model of the hand and broke the model into numerous polygons. The hand was amazingly life-like. Catmull later became a co-founder of Pixar Animation Studios.

Motion Capture

Motion Capture
Motion Capture

Animators also used a 3D technique called motion capture, which is a way of adding realism by having the actor wears a skin-tight suit that tracks all their movements with little sensors. For gathering data on facial movements, a helmet is worn as well. Software tracks all the motion information and the animators use this invaluable data to make the animated movements more life-like.

The director Peter Jackson is a master of this technique. The film The Two Towers (2002) brought the sinister Gollum to life in this way, as well as the dragon (using motion capture of the actor Benedict Cumberbatch.)

Stop Motion

Stop motion is a traditional animation technique. An object, usually a puppet or action figure, is posed and then filmed. The animator then tweaks the pose very slightly, and on, and on. Don Chaffey's Jason and Argonauts (1963) is an example.

Stop motion has two specific techniques called claymation and pixilation. Claymation uses clay figures that can be easily manipulated into different poses. Each pose is created and filmed. The movie James and the Giant Peach (1996) used claymation.

Has stop motion been replaced by computer-generated imagery (CGI)? Not yet. Stop motion is still highly used in commercials and even motion pictures. In fact, the Dragonframe software is a frame-grabbing software used by professionals and amateurs alike.

Pixilation is a type of stop motion animation that uses live actors rather an action figures or puppets. The actors are posed and filmed. They are posed again and filmed in small increments. Animators enjoy playing with this technique, as the movements can appear smooth and dramatic.

On the other hand, many animators deliberately make the animation appear disjointed and quirky. They vary the frames per second and camera speeds. This technique is often used for children's shows and music videos such as Peter Gabriel's video called Sledgehammer (1986). Pixilation opened the doors for special effects and animation.

Other Types

Tweening is a way of adding frames to manipulate the color, shape, size, or location of an object. This technique often uses Flash software.

Machinima ('machine' and 'cinema' combined) is the making of an animated film using a video and computer gaming software. Creators are highly involved in this process - they create their scene sketches using an original story or an existing game to design their own film. Machinima includes music and narration and can be dramatic or humorous.

Disney's Stunt Island (1992) was a forerunner of the Machinima movement. In this interactive game, people created stunt sequences. A few years later, the Diary of a Camper (1996) is considered one the first true Machinima formats. The World of Warcraft is another popular Machinima example.

Augmented reality is a computerized tool that enhances reality with additional information or input. Usually, the information is sensory such as additional sights or sounds. This innovation lets the user interact with their environment in new ways, too. The game called Pokemon Go (2014) is an example, where people use the GPS on their phones to look for virtual monsters in a real setting.

Behind the Scenes


Storyboarding Template
Storyboarding Template

Computer animation is an elaborate process that begins with a thumbnail. Next, they develop a script. Storyboards are then hand-drawn to outline scenes. They include the major action, dialogue, and emotions of each scene.

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