Animation occupies an unusual place in Western film. On the one hand, some of the most popular films today are animated features (including several of the highest grossing films for 2016), and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gives awards for both animated features and shorts, as does the British Academy Film Awards. On the other hand, in discussions of film, animation is often treated as a special category independent of the rest of the industry, or left out entirely, as if “film” and “live-action film” were synonyms. Despite the broad range of styles used by contemporary animation artists, and the broad range of subjects treated in animated films, it’s still far too common to hear animation dismissed out of hand as a medium appropriate only for children’s films.
The best remedy for ignorance is education. A good corrective to such attitudes is offered by Maureen Furniss’ A New History of Animation, which offers a survey of animation from the pre-film era of magic lantern shows and zoetropes up to the present day. The author is the program director of Experimental Animation at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) and draws on her long experience of teaching animation history in writing this book. Given the growing interest in animation studies as an academic topic, as well as the increasing use of animation in film and other media (including television and video games), it couldn’t have come at a better time.
A New History of Animation is definitely a textbook, with familiar features such as chapter introductions and conclusions, lists of key terms for each chapter, and timelines for each major historical section. Don’t hold that against it, however, it’s a great read and contains a wealth of information, admirably organized and efficiently conveyed, that will enrich the understanding of anyone who is interested in film or visual communication.
As the title says, this is a book about the history of animation. It’s not a how-to manual for people who want to make their own animations, a series of analyses of famous animated films, or a theory-heavy discourse on the art of animation. Furniss avoids using specialist jargon unless it’s really necessary, in which case she defines the terms (generally within the text, but there’s also a glossary in the back), and writes in a straightforward voice devoid of tedious academic-speak. As you would expect from the history of a visual medium, A New History of Animation includes lots of illustrations (460 or 465, depending on whether you cite the title page or the press release), many of them in color, and you could learn a lot just leafing through this book and looking at the pictures. One thing you would certainly learn through that approach is that animation is not, and never has been, only for children.
Furniss organizes her material into six main sections, which are presented in roughly chronological order: Origins of Animation, Early Animation, Wartime and Midcentury, Experimental Modes, New Contexts and Voices, and Animation Worldwide. Within each section, chapters are devoted to specific topics that may span a broader time period, such as stop-motion animation, Japanese animation, and early television animation. Throughout, Furniss takes pains to mention relevant historical events, developments in live-action film, and trends in the other arts, and to discuss how they influenced animation in the period in question. Her definition of animation is broad, and this book includes chapters on what might be called “pre-animation” (including the Lascaux cave paintings, comic strips, and mechanical devices such as the choreutoscope and thaumatrope), two chapters covering animation on television, and one chapter each on electronic games and animation in the art world.
While American animation is covered most thoroughly in A New History of Animation, Furniss also devotes considerable space to animation produced in Europe and Asia. She also mentions animators and works from countries like India and South Africa that may be less well known, but certainly deserve inclusion in a survey of animation. The inclusive approach taken in this book means that, while reading it, you will constantly be discovering the work of new animators, as well as new works by artists already familiar to you. Both were frequent experiences for me while reading this volume, and I’ve been studying and writing about film for years.
Even if you’re not currently enrolled in university, A New History of Animation will amply repay the time you spend with it. Besides being a well-organized textbook, it’s a useful reference book (complete with a detailed index), a great source of new leads and ideas (many of the sources cited are available online, a real plus for those without access to an academic library), and it’s fun to browse, as well. Leafing through the pages, you’ll be reminded of old friends, make interesting new acquaintances, and be reminded of just how much great work has been done in animation.