What Is Drawn Animation?

Drawn animation has been around for over 100 years. We explain what it is, and analyze some of the best examples and why they are so great.

What Is Drawn Animation?

Drawn animation – also known as traditional animation, or cel animation – is when each frame of the film is hand-drawn on transparent cel sheets.

drawn animation

In the beginning, cels were used only for backgrounds. The characters were drawn on sheets of rice paper, then placed under the drawn background to complete a scene. In 1914, Earl Hard improved that animation process. Instead of painting the background on cells, he painted the characters on the cells and placed them over the static background. This way, the background remains static while the cartoon character moves around.

If we compare drawn animation with computer-generated animation, drawn animation works as a series of individual drawings with minor differences creating the illusion of motion when moving quickly. With computer-generated animation, you don’t have to draw every single frame. Instead, you just draw one frame and use software to manipulate it how you want it to move.

Short History

One of the earliest examples of drawn animation is Fantasmagorie, created back in 1908 by Emile Cohle. It consists of around 700 hand-drawn frames that were transferred and shot on the negative.

When it comes to drawn animation, we’re going to talk a lot about Disney Studios, since they were one of the studios who made the biggest innovations and contributions in the animation industry.

In 1928 Walt Disney released the first fully sound synchronized animated film “Steamboat Willie.”

In 1937, Disney released “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” the first full-length color animated movie. This was the start of a new era in the animation industry. From that point until about 1973, all animated films were created using only hand drawing. After that, CGI began to be used (yes, even back then!), but even after that hand drawing was the main method of the creation process for a long time.

Best Drawn Animated Films

For a deeper dive into what it was like to create some of the best-animated films of the 20th century, I’ve picked some of the most well-done and famous works of that era.


Like I mentioned, we’ll be talking a lot about Disney’s contributions to drawn animation. They elevated drawn animation to a new level and developed revolutionary processes in the visual art industry.

After the success of “Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs,” ” Pinocchio” was the second animated film released by Disney Productions. It was filmed based on the story “The Adventures of Pinocchio” from Italian writer Carlo Collodi. The video was released on cinema screens on February 23, 1940, and due to its massive popularity was rereleased in 1945, 1954, 1962, 1971, 1978, 1984, and 1992.

In the drawn animation industry, this was the first film that had highly realistic animation quality by showing smoother movements from the drawn characters. It also implemented new elements such as rain, smoke, lightning, water, shadows, and fairy dust effects.

In 2008 the film was included in the list of the best 10 classic American films by the American Film Institute. If you haven’t seen Pinocchio, this is one of the classics of hand-drawn films that can be considered timeless, not only for the animation work but also for the incredible characters in it.

Useful Recourse
Types of Animation Styles You May Use for Your Next Marketing Project

The Lion King

This was one of my favorite cartoons as a child, and I enjoyed every second of it. As a kid, I wouldn’t even begin to think that those 88 minutes of film was a result of years of hard work and that more than 600 animators and technicians contributed to the creation process of it.
Released by Walt Disney Pictures in 1994, this film won the Golden Globe Award for best motion picture.

To develop the characters and create realistic movement for them, the animators collaborated with wildlife experts and took a special visit to Hell’s Gate National Park in Kenya. This helped them to create a more realistic environment for the film, along with more natural movements and behaviors for the animal characters. The animators had spent 3 years creating just the wildebeest stampede scene that lasts a mere 2.5 minutes! By the way, this was the first time computers were used to give animals a more realistic appearance and movement.


Based on the Arabian folktale story from the “One Thousand and One Nights collection,“ Walt Disney Pictures Animation produced the drawn animated musical fantasy film “Aladdin.” Released in 1992, it earned $504 million in worldwide box office revenue.

The first adaptation of the main hero character resembled actor Michael J. Fox, but this version of Aladdin was too mannish and the designers changed the image and made it more to be like a mix between Tom Cruise and a Calvin Klein model. One of the most distinguishable designs for me is the Jafar character that was composed of vertical lines and contrasts with all the other personalities created for the film.

aladdin characters development

All the characters were animated separately, since part of Disney’s animators were working from the California branch, and the other part were working from the Florida branch. Sure, in those times when only faxes and phones could be used to communicate, it was hard to arrange and match the process, but they still managed to develop a fantastic explosion of visual art. To create a more realistic movement of the carpet, the animators had to use a real piece of cloth as a reference to make the appearance of it more natural. They applied the design of the real cloth surface digitally after drawing the animation.

They took it one step further, and filmed monkeys in the San Francisco Zoo to study their behavior and then used the footage to recreate the same movements. The design and animation of the film turned out so well that even today it’s hard to imagine that it was created back in 1992.

Sure, the animation industry has advanced and nowadays CGI gives more freedom for creators to accomplish big projects with higher visual quality – like the Pixar animated films.
But if you want to grow your skills in animated film, learning both drawn animation and CGI should be on your list of priorities to study. And for smaller projects like marketing videos, you should also learn motion graphics. If you master that, you’ll be able to create effective marketing materials like animated ads, explainer videos, demos, and much more.

Final Words

Film animation has come a long way since the early days at the beginning of the 20th century. Yet, one thing remains the same – it’s the story that matters most. There is a lot of crossover to the world of marketing and advertising with that concept. We tend to forget boring sales videos after we watch them, but marketing videos that make an emotional connection within us tend to be remembered for a long time. It’s always a safe bet to remember that, no matter what kind of animation projects you’re interested in learning.

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