What Is Cartoon Animation?

Alan Rankin

Cartoon animation is created with traditional hand-drawn or computer-generated animation techniques. While animation can include any subject, style, or age group, the word “cartoon” usually describes colorful short pieces that are often intended to be humorous and to appeal to children. Cartoon animation has been used for this purpose since the dawn of animated film in the early 20th century. The term “cartoon” is also used to describe printed humorous drawings that appear in newspapers or periodicals. These, however, are more accurately called comic strips or gag panels.

A flower drawn by an animation artist.
A flower drawn by an animation artist.

Animation originated at the same time as motion picture photography. Both exist because of a function of the human eye and mind known as persistence of vision. This causes a rapid sequence of different images to be perceived as a single moving image by the observer. The first animated films appeared shortly after the debut of motion pictures in 1896. Cartoon animation followed soon after, pioneered by comic strip artist Winsor McKay with his groundbreaking cartoon Gertie the Dinosaur.

Some animators produce art for comic books.
Some animators produce art for comic books.

During the golden age of American cinema in the 1930s and 1940s, it was common for movie theaters to show several short films before the main feature. These short films often included a brief news capsule, called a newsreel, and a cartoon. The creators of this era of cartoon animation were some of the greatest animators in history, including Chuck Jones, Friz Freleng, and the artists of the Walt Disney studios. Many of these theatrical cartoons became beloved classics of animation, winning acclaim and awards. When television gained widespread popularity in the 1950s, these cartoons became regularly syndicated items.

Television shows may feature animated characters, like Porky Pig, that are created by a cartoon illustrator.
Television shows may feature animated characters, like Porky Pig, that are created by a cartoon illustrator.

The spread of television ushered in a new era of cartoon animation. Studios such as Hanna-Barbera provided numerous cheaply produced cartoons for children’s programming. At one time, a viewer would find broadcast television channels saturated with cartoon programming on Saturday mornings and weekday afternoons. The rise of computer animation in the 1990s coincided with the rapid expansion of cable networks, including many for children. Several of these new channels displayed nothing but cartoons on a 24-hour schedule.

Claymation is a form of cartoon animation.
Claymation is a form of cartoon animation.

The turn of the 21st century saw yet another boon for cartoon animation. Major film studios created feature-length theatrical films with huge budgets and celebrity voice actors. Broadcast and cable networks launched numerous successful animated series. Some of these new cartoons were intended for adults but imitated the simple drawing styles of earlier eras. The animation styles of countries such as Japan gained worldwide followings, while increased respect for the art form was demonstrated by a new Academy Award category for Animated Feature Film.

Cartoons frequently use voice actors to bring characters to life.
Cartoons frequently use voice actors to bring characters to life.

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Discussion Comments


Adobe flash CS5 in just the best software for animation for me.


My all time favorite cartoon always has been and always will be Scooby Doo.

I loved it as a kid and I still have a soft spot for it now. I know that as far as animation goes it did not push any boundaries. But I have always been a sucker for mysteries and they nailed that aspect.


I saw a fascinating documentary about the heyday of cartoon animation that saw the production of all those Disney movies, the Looney Toons characters right up until the Flintstones.

Those artists are some of the unsung heroes of 20th century art. The work they made had an impact that has lasted longer and cut deeper than a lot more famous artists. And seeing them work and how much time and concentration it took was amazing.

There is a reason those cartoon still seem so vibrant. There was an energy to that period and it shows up in the work.


Does anyone know of any easy to use but effective cartoon animation programs that I can find online or download for free? I would like to experiment with a few things for a short film I am working on but I do not have any experience with animation.

I can draw a little and I know Photoshop so I think I can pick something up if it is easy enough. Any suggestions?

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