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An animated cartoon is a short, hand-drawn (or made with computers to look similar to something hand-drawn) film for the cinema, television or computer screen, featuring some kind of story or plot (even if it is a very short one). This is distinct from the term "animation" or "animated film", as not all follow the definition.

Although cartoons can use many different types of animation, they all fall under the traditional animation category.


Early examples of attempts to capture the phenomenon of motion into a still drawing can be found in paleolithic cave paintings, where animals are depicted with multiple legs in superimposed positions, clearly attempting to convey the perception of motion.

The phenakistoscope, zoetrope and praxinoscope, as well as the common flip book, were early animation devices to produce movement from sequential drawings using technological means, but animation did not really develop much further until the advent of motion picture film.

File:Phenakistoscope 3g07690u.jpg|A phenakistoscope disc by Eadweard Muybridge (1893)File:Phenakistoscope 3g07690b.gif|Simulated mirror view of the discFile:Linnet kineograph 1886.jpg|Flip book (1886)File:Zoetrope.jpg|A modern replica of a Victorian zoetropeFile:Lanature1882 praxinoscope projection reynaud.png|Praxinoscope (1882)

The first animated cartoon (in the traditional sense, i.e. on film) was "Fantasmagorie" by the French director Émile Cohl. Released in 1908.

One of the very first successful animated cartoons was "Gertie the Dinosaur" by Winsor McCay. It is considered the first example of true character animation.

In the 1930s to 1960s, theatrical cartoons were produced in huge numbers, and usually shown before a feature film in a movie theater. MGM, Disney, Paramount and Warner Brothers were the largest studios producing these 5 to 10-minute "shorts".

Competition from television drew audiences away from movie theaters in the late 1950s, and the theatrical cartoon began its decline. Today, animated cartoons are produced mostly for television.


The advent of film technology opened opportunities to develop the art of animation. The basic animation process is described in the article Animation, and the classic, hand-drawn technology in Traditional animation.

At first, animated cartoons were black-and-white and silent. Felix the cat is a notable example.

The first cartoon with synchronized sound is often identified as Walt Disney's Steamboat Willie, starring Mickey Mouse in 1928, but Max Fleischer's 1926 My Old Kentucky Home is less popularly but more correctly credited with this innovation. Fleischer also patented rotoscoping, whereby animation could be traced from a live action film.

With the advent of sound film, musical themes were often used. Animated characters usually performed the action in "loops", i.e., drawings were repeated over and over, synchronized with the music. The music used is often original, but musical quotation is often employed.

Disney also produced the first full-color cartoon in Technicolor, "Flowers and Trees", in 1931, although other producers had earlier made films using inferior, 2-color processes instead of the 3-color process offered by Technicolor.

Later, other movie technologies were adapted for use in animation, such as multiplane cameras, stereophonic sound in Disney's Fantasia in 1941, and later, widescreen processes (e.g. CinemaScope), and even 3D.

Today, animation is commonly produced with computers, giving the animator new tools not available in hand-drawn traditional animation. See Computer animation for further information of the specific technologies. However, many types of animation cannot be called "cartoons", which implies something that resembles drawings. Most forms of 3D computer animation, as well as clay animation and other forms of stop motion filming, are not cartoons in the strict sense of the word.

An animated cartoon created using Adobe Flash is sometimes called a webtoon.

Feature films

The name "animated cartoon" is generally not used when referring to full-length animated productions, since the term more or less implies a "short". Huge numbers of animated feature films were, and are still produced; see List of animated feature-length films

Notable artists and producers of "shorts"


American television animation of the 1950s featured quite limited animation styles, highlighted by the work of Jay Ward on Crusader Rabbit. Chuck Jones coined the term "illustrated radio" to refer to the shoddy style of most television cartoons that depended more on their soundtracks than visuals. Other notable 1950s programs include UPA's Gerald McBoing Boing, Hanna-Barbera's Huckleberry Hound and Quick Draw McGraw, and rebroadcast of many classic theatrical cartoons from Warner Brothers, MGM, and Disney.

Hanna-Barbera's show, The Flintstones was the first successful primetime animated series in the United States, running from 1960-66 (and in reruns since). While many networks followed the show's success by scheduling other primetime cartoons in the early 1960s, including The Jetsons, Top Cat, and The Alvin Show, none of these programs survived more than a year in primetime. However, networks found success by running these failed shows as Saturday morning cartoons, reaching smaller audiences with more demographic unity among children. Television animation for children flourished on Saturday morning, on cable channels like Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network, and in syndicated afternoon timeslots.

Primetime cartoons were virtually non-existent until 1990s hit The Simpsons ushered in a new era of adult animation. Now, "adult animation" programs, such as Aeon Flux, Beavis and Butt-head, South Park, Family Guy, The Boondocks, American Dad!, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, and Futurama are a large part of television.

Commercial animation

Animation has been very popular in television commercials, both due to its graphic appeal, and the humor it can provide. Some animated characters in commercials have survived for decades, such as Snap, Crackle and Pop in advertisements for Kellogg's cereals.

The legendary animation director Tex Avery was the producer of the first Raid "Kills Bugs Dead" commercials in 1966, which were very successful for the company. The concept has been used in many countries since.

Genres of animated cartoons

Funny animals

The first animated cartoons often depicted funny animals in various adventures. This was the mainstream genre in the United Statesmarker from the early 1900s until the 1940s, and the backbone of Disney's series of cartoons.

Zany humor

Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck of Warner Brothers, and the various films of Tex Avery at MGM introduced this popular form of animated cartoons. It usually involves surreal acts such as characters being crushed by massive boulders or going over the edge of a cliff but floating in mid air for a few seconds. The Road Runner cartoons are great examples of these actions. The article Cartoon physics describes typical antics of zany cartoon characters. Disney has, to a lesser extent, applied this to some of their cartoons.


As the medium matured, more sophistication was introduced, albeit keeping the humorous touch. Classical music was often spoofed, a notable example is "What's Opera, Doc" by Chuck Jones. European animation sometimes followed a very different path from American animation. In the Soviet Union, the late 1930s saw the enforcement of socialist realism in animation, a style which lasted throughout the Stalinist era. The animations themselves were mostly for kids, and based on traditional fairy tales.

Limited animation

In the 1950s, UPA and other studios refined the art aspects of animation, by using extremely limited animation as a means of expression.


Graphic styles continued to change in the late 1950s and 1960s. At this point, the design of the characters became more angular, while the quality of the character animation declined.

Animated music videos and bands

Popular with the advent of MTV and similar music channels, music videos often contain animation, sometimes rotoscoped (see: Take on Me), i.e., based on live action performers. Cartoons animated to music go at least as far back as Disney's 1929 The Skeleton Dance. These are now popular with the animated bandsGorillaz and Dethklok, the latter of which is based around a television show about the band.

Computer animation

Beginning in the 1990s, with the rise of computer animation, some cartoons implemented CGI and a few were done entirely in computer animation. Beast Wars and Reboot were done entirely in CGI whereas Silver Surfer only partially implemented CGI. Donkey Kong Country also used CGI to make it look like the SNES game. CGI is common today, whether obvious such as in Tak and the Power of Juju or made to look two-dimensional such as in Speed Racer X.

See also



  • Barrier, J. Michael. Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. ISBN 0-19-503759-6.
  • Bendazzi, Giannalberto. Cartoons: One Hundred Years of Cinema Animation. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1994. ISBN 0-253-20937-4.
  • Maltin, Leonard. Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons. New York: Plume, 1980. ISBN 0-45225-993-2.
  • Stabile, Carol and Mark Harrison, eds. Prime Time Animation: Television Animation and American Culture. London: Routledge, 2003. ISBN 0-415-28326-4.
  • Stephenson, Ralph. The Animated Film. London: Tantivity Press, 1973. ISBN 0-49801-202-6.

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