The 3 Types of Animated Films

shot from Wallace and Grommet animated film
Handout/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

Animation has certainly come a long way in the decades since its debut in the early 1900s. The techniques used by animators to bring characters and stories to life have improved immeasurably over the years, yet there remains only three primary types of animation: traditional, stop-motion, and computer. Descriptions of and the significant differences between the three major forms of animation are described below.

Traditional Animation

Arriving on the scene at roughly the same time as its live-action counterparts, traditionally animated films have certainly come a long way since the early days of crude drawings and experimental narratives. Traditional animation made its debut in 1906's Humorous Phases of Funny Faces, a short film featuring different facial expressions.

The genre allows for the illusion of animated movement due to the frame-by-frame manipulation of drawings and illustrations. Although computer technology has assisted animators in their efforts over the years, the basic means by which an animated film comes to life has essentially remained the same—by drawing frames one by one.

The popularization of the cel-animation process in the early 1920s proved instrumental in the genre’s meteoric rise to infamy, with the technique ensuring that animators no longer had to draw the same image over and over again—as see-through “cels” containing a character or object in motion could be laid on top of a stationary background. The release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937 marked the first time that traditionally animated films began to be taken seriously by the Hollywood community and audiences alike.

In the years since, traditionally animated films have remained popular at cinemas the world over—with the wild success of the genre affording filmmakers the opportunity to break out of the mold from time to time (i.e., 1972’s Fritz the Cat became the first animated feature to land an “X” rating). Disney’s domination over the 2D animated realm has ensured that their name has become synonymous with animated films, although it’s certainly worth noting that some of the most popular cartoons from the last few decades have come from other studios (including The Rugrats Movie, Beavis and Butt-head Do America, and the Land Before Time series).

However, traditional animated films have become increasingly rare from the major U.S. studios, mostly because they're so expensive and time-consuming to produce. However, independent filmmakers and international animation studios still produce traditional animated movies.

Stop-Motion Animation

Far less common is stop-motion animation. Stop-motion actually predates traditional, hand-drawn animation: The first attempt, The Humpty Dumpty Circus, was released in 1898. Stop-motion animation is shot frame-by-frame as the animators manipulate objects—often made out of clay or similarly flexible material—in order to create the illusion of movement.

There’s little doubt that the biggest hindrance to stop-motion animation’s success is its time-consuming nature, as animators must move an object one frame at a time to mimic movement. Considering movies generally contain 24 frames per second, it can take hours to capture just a few seconds worth of footage.

Although the first full-length stop-motion cartoon was released in 1926 (Germany’s The Adventures of Prince Achmed), the genre’s widest exposure came in the 1950s with the release of the Gumby television series. After that point, stop-motion animation started to be seen less as a gimmicky fad and more as a viable alternative to hand-drawn animation—with 1965’s Willy McBean and his Magic Machine, produced by legendary stop-motion duo Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass, the first full-length stop-motion film to be produced within the United States.

The prominence of Rankin/Bass Christmas specials in the ‘60s and ‘70s only added to stop-motion animation’s growing popularity, yet it was the increased use of stop-motion within special effects field that cemented its place as an invaluable resource—with George Lucas’ pioneering work in both the Star Wars films and in his effects company Industrial Light and Magic setting a standard that the rest of the industry struggled to match.

Stop-motion has seen a dip in popularity in the wake of computer animation’s meteoric rise, yet the style has seen something of a resurgence in the past few years—with the popularity of movies like Coraline and Fantastic Mr. Fox ensuring that stop-motion will likely continue to endure in the years to come.

Computer Animation

Before it became a pervasive, all-encompassing force within the cinematic community, computer animation was primarily used as a tool by filmmakers to enhance their traditionally-conceived special effects work. As such, computer-generated imagery was used sparingly in the ‘70s and ‘80s—with 1982’s marking the first time it was used on an extensive basis within a full-length feature.

Computer animation received a substantial boost in 1986 with the release of the first short film from Pixar, Luxo Jr., which went on to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Short Film and proved that computers could provide more than just behind-the-scenes special effects support. The increased sophistication of both hardware and software was reflected in the progressively eye-popping nature of computer-generated imagery, with 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day and 1993’s Jurassic Park standing as landmark examples of what computers were capable of.

It wasn’t until Pixar released the world’s first computer-animated feature in 1995 that audiences and executives alike first saw the possibilities offered by the technology. It wasn’t long before other studios began clamoring to get into the CGI game. The three-dimensional appearance of computer-generated cartoons instantly assured their success over their 2-D counterparts, as viewers found themselves transfixed by the novelty of the lifelike images and jaw-dropping visuals.

Although Pixar (now owned by animation pioneers Disney) remains the undisputed champion of the computer-generated landscape, there have certainly been plenty of equally successful examples of the genre in recent years—with, for instance, the series raking in well over two billion dollars worldwide.

In 2001, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences introduced the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. Since its introduction, most of the winners have been computer-animated films—but the traditional animated Spirited Away won the 2002 award and the stop-motion film Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit won the 2005 award. In recent years, the Best Animated Short category has continued to see winners in both traditional and computer animated shorts.

Edited by Christopher McKittrick