in the infancy of filmmaking james stuart blackton produced what is widely regarded as the earliest surviving animated film, humorous phases of funny faces (1906).
in this three minute short from the vitagraph company of america (our namesake!) you see blackton, or at least his arm, sketch a handful of characters on a blackboard that spring to life. hats are doffed, umbrellas are tossed, clowns cavort with dogs and hoops. to modern eyes it is nothing particularly spectacular but it was the acorn from which grew the mighty oak of filmed animation. it inspired and influenced everyone from émile cohl:
to winsor mccay (in color!):
to the fleischer brothers (i love this one):
on through, of course, to walt disney:
we have since seen the lineage of humorous phases expand to include things as sophisticated and/or varied as looney tunes, the super friends and scooby-doo, the wondrous universe of hayao miyazaki and the superlative work coming out of the pixar studios. when you see the state of the art today it is staggering to think that it started just a few generations ago with some lines on a blackboard.
if you want to dig into the history of animation, or even just film in general, the library of congress website is a perfect place to start. their archives are full of great material. the international animated film society also has a fantastic site with tons of articles, ongoing discussions and an archive of films and illustrations. i highly recommend going back and looking at some of these things you may have missed. there's some visionary work and tracing the evolution of the form is fascinating. and the next time you're slipping on those 3-D glasses at whatever animated summer blockbuster/holiday extravaganza you're attending, raise your four dollar soda to these pioneers. without them woody and buzz would be inaction figures.