Animation is the rapid display of static images in a way that creates the illusion of motion. Nowadays animation is used mostly in motion pictures and videos, plus some computer applications, such as moving icons, and in video games. Like photographic cinema, animated video usually incorporates sound for dialog, musical accompaniment, and other effects. But unlike photographic cinema, it can depict anything that the animation artist can imagine visually, and therefore it is especially useful for telling stories with fantasy elements that would be hard to stage in reality. Animation is also used to create special visual effects within movie productions that otherwise use traditional photographic methods.

These are the four basic types of animation:

  • Stop-motion animation
  • Two-dimensional drawn (traditional) animation
  • Two-dimensional computer-generated animation
  • Three-dimensional computer-generated animation

Stop-motion animation has been used in motion pictures almost since the invention of cinema technology. To use this technique, the animator photographs one frame depicting a static object, moves the object slightly, photographs another single frame of the object, moves the object again, and so forth. The 1933 classic movie King Kong is an excellent example of this technique.

For drawn animation, artists begin by drawing a character on paper. They transfer the image to a transparent sheet of acetate (called a cel), superimpose the cel on a painted background, and photograph this image. Then they make another drawing of the character, with slight differences to suggest motion, photograph this against the background, and so forth. Sometimes the background also contains moving elements. This technique may not achieve the realism that is possible with stop-motion animation, but it permits stylized depictions and other-worldly effects. Drawn animation was used in most of the animations of the 20th century, such as Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1938).

Computerized animation was developed as a faster and less labor-intensive alternative to stop-motion and drawn animation. Using computer programs, artists can create images and the slight changes in position that suggest movement over multiple frames more efficiently than they can with hand-drawing tools. And because artists can manipulate computer images in three dimensions and use software tools based on mathematical formulas that accurately describe real-world objects, they can achieve considerable realism in the movement of a character's limbs, the bouncing of an inanimate object, a texture such as fur or pavement, or a lighting effect such as a shadow or highlight. These effects are useful whether the results are viewed on a flat screen or with 3-D glasses. Computerized animation has now almost entirely replaced the other techniques. Examples of computer and 3-D animation include Toy Story (1995) and Avatar (2009).

Animation is used mainly in entertainment, but also in advertising, education, news, and business communications. The industry creates jobs for artists, writers, voice actors, sound effects technicians, and animators who are skilled with specialized animation software, as well as the computer programmers who create animation tools. Because animation software puts heavy demands on computers, as it uses sophisticated calculations and manipulates massive quantities of data, the animation industry helps support the work of the computer scientists whose research and development creates ever-faster computer hardware.

Because of the labor-intense nature of drawn animation, the industry was one of the first to use lower-paid offshore workers on a large scale. This practice has continued as the work has shifted to computer platforms. Because all voices are dubbed and animated images are a universal language, animations that originate in one country can easily be exported to another. For example, Japanese anime has become popular in the United States. The global animation industry is now estimated to be worth $222 billion per year and most industry segments are growing at an annual rate of about 7 percent. One prominent industry database lists more than 4,500 animation companies in North America and about 1,700 in Asia.

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