Precursors to Animation

Recalling the previously discussed cave paintings, certain arrangements of animal figures carved or painted on the cave walls were composed in a sequence, creating a very basic illusion of movement; an ancient precursor to animation. The most common examples were animals in various stages of motion, or of human hunters taking on their prey.

Earthenware bowl / goblet from the Burnt City, Iran

Earthenware bowl / goblet from the Burnt City, Iran

Discovered in the 1970s, it has only recently been realised that a 5,200 year old earthenware bowl from the Burnt City, Iran could be the earliest surviving example of animation. The artefact features five sequential images of a goat jumping up to eat the leaves on a tree. (CAIS News article, March 2008)

It is believed that the bowl may have been spun to create the impression of the goat moving, thus making it a precursor to animation and such devices as the zoetrope.

Unrolled goat sequence from the Iranian bowl, showing the progression of the positions that would make primitive animation.

Unrolled goat sequence from the Iranian bowl, showing the progression of the positions that would make primitive animation.

Panathenic amphora, depicting sequential images of a man running.The use of sequential images on pottery was popular in Ancient Greece, as seen in the example of a Panathenaic amphora (a vase containing oil awarded to the victors of the Panathenaic Games), displaying the movement of a male figure running, however it is uncertain if the Greeks spun such vases to create basic moving images. Many of the beautifully designed vases still conveyed complex narratives, often relating to mythologies, and suggested movement with great skill, even if they were not spun around. A popular theme explored in numerous found vases from Ancient Greece, is that of the legendary Hercules and his Twelve Labours.

Attic black figure amphora, c.510-500 BC, Hercules battling the Amazons for the ninth labour

Attic black figure amphora, c.510-500 BC, Hercules battling the Amazons for the ninth labour

The “Zero to Hero” sequence from Disney’s Hercules, featuring some lovely Greek pottery. Indeed, the overall style of the film was inspired by the stylistic designs of Ancient Greek pottery.

Another example of the ancients’ attempts at capturing motion was in an Egyptian temple from 1600 BC. Commissioned by Pharaoh Rameses II, the Temple of Isis was constructed with 110 columns, each displaying a figure of the goddess Isis, her pose gradually changing from one column to the next. To horse riders and charioteers going past, it would have appeared as though the images were moving, a primitive but effective illusion, by far predating the theory of the persistence of vision.

(Murphy, Jo, History of Basic Animation Precursors, Suite101, 2010)

(Williams, Richard, The Animator’s Survival Kit, London: Faber & Faber, 2009)

Temple of Isis, Richard Williams, The Animator’s Survival Kit

Temple of Isis, Richard Williams, The Animator’s Survival Kit

These early precursors to animation show how our ancestors were interested in movement and portraying figures in motion. They were not satisfied with merely suggesting motion through still sequential drawings, but wanted to make the images actually move, or at least, create the illusion of movement.

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About startlediguana

Miscellaneous art history blog made for a module at uni. The likelihood of future posts is slim at best, like sliced cheese.
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