Remember getting up early in the morning to watch cartoons? Cartoons provide kids (and adults) with an escape from the real world, giving us a chance to let our imaginations run wild whileoffering an early education on building relationships, making friends, and more. Beloved characters have helped countless understand the world around them.

But as technology improves and cartoons change, where might this quintessential media format go in the future? Before answering that question, let’s look back and see just how far the animation industry has come.

The History of Animation

The global animation market size might have been valued at US$354.7 billion in 2020, but cartoons date back to humble origins thousands of years ago. In fact, archaeologists continue to discover pottery and spinning objects designed to create the illusion of motion at many ancient dig sites around the world. Meanwhile, shadow-play is another centuries-old artform that parallels modern animation with its lighthearted characters and playful themes.

Perhaps the most distinctive historical form of animation was ‘magic lanterns’. Invented by Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens in the 1600s, this early projector used paintings and photographs on glass plates. Combined with a light source and multiple lenses, it created a sense of movement between images. This fascinating invention remained in use until the 1890s, when the Lumière brothers invented the first motion-picture camera and movie projector.

As filmmakers developed cinema, animators were also hard at work in the silent era, with hand-drawn cartoons on singular frames, pieced together and projected to generate movement. While these earliest creations like Humorous Phases of Funny Faces (1906) and Fantasmagorie (1908) are imperfect by today’s standards, they still capture the same spirit of animation.

As the animation industry evolved, several production studios were launched to seize the public’s infatuation with this new format. And along with the invention of cel animation technology, which allowed artists to redraw images much quicker, the quality of animated films improved dramatically over the next few years.

The Rise of Disney

In the 1920s, Walt Disney began producing cartoons for film distributors, spreading the magic of animation. Alongside animator Ub Iwerks, the duo developed Mickey Mouse, which appeared in the first animation with sound – Steamboat Willie (1928). Becoming the most popular animation of the era, it launched Disney to international fame.

Disney subsequently revolutionised the industry again just a few years after with its first full-colour animation, Flowers and Trees (1932). With more public attention on animation than ever before, technological innovations came in quick succession, and Disney produced its first feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937. Although critics didn’t expect audiences to sit through the 83-minute runtime, the film became a blockbuster success.

The Impact of Television and CGI

The rise of television in the 1950s was also critical to the animation industry. As animated feature films took a huge amount of time and energy to create, the cinema was the only place these extended works could be screened. However, animated television shows were particularly appealing to networks because they could fill up large blocks of time for cheaper than live-action productions. Meanwhile, the episodes could be rerun more often than traditional TV shows. This led to the concept of Saturday morning cartoons, with one of the firsts being Mighty Mouse in 1955.

Through the decades, technology has further hastened the animation industry's development. The earliest computer-generated animation, Hummingbird, was released in 1967, featuring 30,000 individual images and 25 motion sequences. And as computer-generated imagery (CGI) quickly improved through the 1980s and 1990s, the massive global success of films like Toy Story (1995) and Shrek (2001) cemented computer animation status in the industry.

Beyond Technological Changes

As animation evolved, so did the characters. While successful early cartoons like The Flintstones and The Jetsons were made for children, many of today’s most popular animated shows are almost entirely for adults. The Simpsons was particularly influential in this regard, arriving on prime-time American television when many US critics perceived animated shows as children’s programmes.

The show’s enormous success led to the creation of numerous other adult-targeted animated series in the 1990s, including Beavis and Butt-Head, South Park, Family Guy, and King of the Hill. While still hilarious and far-fetched, characters have become far more relatable compared to the slapstick figures of the past.

Cartoons have also become increasingly political. The Simpsons is well-known for its satirical social commentary, with many episodes touching controversial themes like homophobia, alcohol abuse, corruption, and the environment. In many ways, animated series like South Park and Family Guy are the new form of editorial cartoons. Where people once had to pick up the newspaper to find political satire, these shows, driven by current events, help people reflect on public issues. In fact, the creators of South Park write, produce and air new episodes within a week, ensuring every season is fresh but also relevant.

The Future of Cartoons

There’s no doubt that cartoons provide a great escape for children and adults alike. Many of the best shows feature highly relatable characters that people come to love and cherish. However, people are also using new forms of animation in the virtual world.

Digital avatars have become incredibly sophisticated. For example, Apple’s Memoji allows people to quickly design animated characters that mimic their vocal and facial expressions. Studies have found that people who create these characters often use attributes to explore their identity in a different light from reality. For instance, someone might create an avatar with coloured hair despite being too embarrassed to follow through with such changes in real life.

Meanwhile, innovative smartphone apps like Volu can also be used to produce high-quality reality-defying holograms. For people like you and me who want to learn how to make a hologram, apps like these allow us to create holographic videos in 3D. In recent years, you might even have noticed the rise of holographic concerts involving legendary musicians like Tupac, Buddy Holly, and Whitney Houston. In the recent Spider Man: Far From Home action-adventure film, battle scenes are delivered in a whirlwind of images leveraging on hologram technology. And in 2019, Singapore’s Marina Bay was also lit up by a holographic art installation in line with the annual iLight Festival.

As technology in the animation industry gives rise to productions which are more realistic and dynamic than ever before, and other advancements like 5G technology become more widespread in Singapore and beyond, there’s a chance we'll also see holographic cartoons in the future!

In fact, researchers at the Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology have demonstrated an exciting new technology that might make holographic movies a reality. While we might not be designing exoskeletal suits using holograms like Iron Man yet, perhaps this tech may not be so far-fetched after all. As the animation industry remains at the forefront of technology, you can be sure creators will push ahead with the latest innovations.