I will begin with the observation that there is no standardized name with a widely accepted currency to describe the prevailing style which began with the inception of studio animation. The emergence of Bray Productions in 1914 marks the beginning of this period, and a style emerged and matured which ran for roughly 14 years before being replaced with rubber hose animation – if Steamboat Willie (1928), with its rubberized limbs and synchronized sound is to be taken as the beginning of the next period.

The best known, and most enduring export from this formative period is Otto Messmer’s Felix the Cat, whose Felix in Hollywood (1923) is the only short from this era to appear on Jerry Beck’s canonical list of “The 50 Greatest Cartoons” [1]. Other major figures of the time include Bray Productions’ Colonel Heeza Liar, Farmer Al Falfa, and Bobby Bumps. There was also the Barré Studio’s Mutt and Jeff, which ran from 1916 to 1926.

Broadly speaking, the style can be understood as featuring lengthy, single-take scenes with an immobile camera usually placed far back from the action. This style is carried over from the tableaux filmmaking conventions that prevailed in live action filmmaking during its earliest years, in films such as Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1903) [2].

Further echoing live action conventions of the time, an iris would sometimes appear around the onscreen character (e.g. see fig.1).

Fig. 1

Understanding the aesthetics of this early period that relate specifically to the way in which cartoons were animated can be elucidated through their connection to the principles of limited animation, which was established and formalized into a discernible style in later years. By the 1950s and 60s, UPA introduced limited animation for 7minutes cartoon shorts, and then the Hanna Barbera Studio in America, along with Osamu Tezuka’s pioneering anime in Japan popularized the approach as a cost-cutting measure for television cartoons in the 1960s. By then, “full animation” as practiced by the Disney Studio, alongside other studios, would be understood as a point of contrast to the more budget-conscious and putatively less prestigious technique of limited animation.[3]

To appreciate the development of this as-yet-unnamed formative style, one may compare Mutt and Jeff’s Domestic Difficulties (1916) to Playing with Fire (1926). During these ten years, one time-and-money saving technique associated with limited animation was discarded, while another one was implemented.

The technique that was discarded was the process of “animating on 4s”. Here, a single drawing in an animated sequence would appear for four frames before being replaced by the next picture. While some sequences would be animated on 2s or 3s, animating on 4s was commonplace at this time. This gave the animation a staggered, jittery quality which you are most likely to see today in low-budget anime TV shows. For instance, the following images all appear for four frames:

Fig. 2

By 1926, movements were far smoother. Sequences would be animated on 1s or 2s, much like the Disney movies or Warner Bros. shorts that would follow. The following freeze frames are played consecutively in the original short (on 1s), featuring small, more incremental changes between the images (e.g. see fig. 3).

Fig. 3

While the practice of animating on 4s was discarded, then, the technique that was adopted would eventually be known as cycling (or kurikaeshi in Japan). Broadly speaking, an animated performance during this early period can be characterized as a series of poses, with the final pose of each string normally featuring a back and forth movement like a scratching of the head or tapping of the foot. This, of course, is economical as the pictures can go (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, 2, 3, 4… etc.), extending the length of the animation without the need to draw new images. Consider the following frames:

Fig. 4

Here, the titular character Jeff is shaking his fists in anger. Note that images 2 and 4 are the same. When played in sequence (on 1s), the images go (1, 2, 3, 2) five times over. After this, another series of gestures are made before the next series of cycled images are played out. This technique of applying short, looped sequences plays a major role in animated cartoons during this period.

To understand the aesthetic of this period more clearly, it may be considered in relation to the Disney Studio’s “12 principles of animation”, which were developed from the late 1920s to the late 1930s [4]. These would become the standard set of principles for quality animation and are still applied today.

There is no space to detail all of the principles and compare them to pre-rubber hose animation here. In brief, one may say that timing was not varied during the earlier period, all characters tended to move at a single (brisk) speed when they were in motion. Characters did not squash and stretch, and seldom offered a movement in anticipation (e.g. pulling the arm back clearly before throwing a snowball). Overlapping action (e.g. hair moving independently following a character’s jump) did not occur, and compared to modern tastes, the characters did not hold much visual appeal.

Pose-to-pose animation did occur, with characters holding key-poses with swift movements between them, while straight ahead animation had already occurred prior to the development of studio animation in shorts such as Emile Cohl’s Fantasmagorie (1908) and Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo (1911). The strategic alternation between straight-ahead and pose-to-pose animation did not take form until later, however.

There remains much more work that needs to be done to expand on this analysis. A more fine-grained typology of silent animation style is yet to be fully captured. In addition, a fitting name for this formative (though largely overlooked) period of animation history is yet to be proposed.

Paul Taberham is a senior lecturer at the Arts University Bournemouth. He has published on topics such as film cognition, evolutionary theories of art, avant-garde film and animation, film sound and aesthetics. He is the coeditor of Cognitive Media Theory (2014) and Experimental Animation: From Analogue to Digital (2019). He is also the author of Lessons in Perception: The Avant-Garde Filmmaker as Practical Psychologist (2018). He is a fellow of The Society for Cognitive Studies of the Moving Image.

[1] Beck, Jerry. The 50 Greatest Cartoons: As Selected by 1, 000 Animation Professionals. Turner Publishing Inc., 1994.

[2] Brewster, Ben and Lea Jacobs. Theatre to Cinema: Stage Pictorialism and the Early Feature Film. Oxford University Press, 1998.

[3] This story is explained in Furniss, Maureen. Art in Motion, Revised Edition Animation Aesthetics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008.

[4] Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life. New York: Abbeville Press, 1981.