Find out about some of the important steps that took animation from cave paintings and shadow puppets, all the way to feature length 3D CG films.

Use the History of Animation Research Topics (below) to explore the development of animation over time and produce an online timeline.

If you’re working in groups, pick a topic each and present your findings to the class for a great overview of the history of animation!

If you’re working alone, focus on areas of interest to create your timeline.

Getting started

We recommend the online timeline maker Timeline but you can create your timeline however you like.

There’s no joining up required; you can start your timelines straight away.

Simply click on the timeline to add an event, and you can also add labels, date/ year in ‘short description’, and the more detailed information you discover in ‘full-description’. It’s great to include images by uploading them into your timeline event. You can also move and manipulate where your events sit on the timeline.

History of animation topics

Ancient animation

Modern animation’s roots go back thousands of years, with drawings, puppetry and other methods used to tell stories. On your timeline indicate the time period of these storytelling forms. When did they emerge? Be sure to include images and information.

Cave paintings

- Watch this video from National Geographic

- Read more over at Encyclopedia Britannica

Chinese shadow puppets

- this website dedicated to Chinese Shadow Puppetry is a great place to start

Greek vase drawings

- here's an engaging video exploring Greek vases

- some more detailed information can be found here

Indonesian Wayang shadow puppets

- watch this great report on a modern-day Wayang shadow puppeteer

- some more information over at Encyclopedia Britannica

Optical Toys

After drawings and puppetry had been around for some time, humans started experimenting with the moving-image through optical illusions toys. Many of these were invented before film and cinema came along. These devices used different methods to bring still images to life.

In a way, these are early examples of animation. Find out when each of these techniques was invented. Describe the illusion created and how it was achieved.

Magic Lanterns

- watch this great video from the V & A Museum in the U.K and see how Magic Lanterns worked


- a brief history of the thaumatrope here

- a nice 'how-to' guide to make your own here


- a great but brief history with examples here

- a cool video that shows they're still being made


- a video of a Zoetrope from ACMI's old exhibition Screen Worlds (be aware there is strobe lighting in this video)

- some brief historical information

Hand-drawn animation, cel animation, and more

When most of us see an animated film in the cinema the chances are we’ll see a form of 3D or CG animation. It’s good to remember though that there are many different types of animation. Find out more about these styles of animation through the following events, inventions and discoveries. Describe why you think each was significant, and be sure to provide visual examples to help illustrate what you’ve discovered.

Winsor McCay

- animator who made Gertie the Dinosaur


- watch this great video from Vox

Cel animation

- find out the first Disney feature film that used this kind of animation

- see how Disney made cel-animations back in the 1930s. Understand that this video highlights that things were very unequal for women back then

The Adventures of Prince Achmed – the first feature length animated film made using cut-out animation

The arrival of the first animated film with synchronised sound

- a detailed history here

Stop motion animation

Claymation is just one form of animation. Find out more about the history of stop motion animation, including the establishment of Aardman Studios (Wallace and Gromit, Morph, Shaun the Sheep). For this area of research, find out when these events occurred, when these films were made and why they were important.

  • invention of plasticine

  • J Stuart Blackton’s Humorous phases of funny faces

  • Emile Cohl’s Fantasmagorie

  • establishment of Aardman Studios

  • Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas

Computer-generated imagery and animation

Explore the history of CG animation and consider how it continues to change and evolve. Begin with these significant milestones and explain why they are so important:

  • Tron (1982)

  • Toy Story (1995)

  • Pixar’s Luxo Junior (1986)

  • Shrek 2 (2004)

  • Final Fantasy (2001)

Extra activity: the history of Aardman Studios

Want to know more about Aardman Studios? Create your own timeline to track the introduction of Aardman TV shows and the release dates of important films.

Begin with Aardman Studio’s own amazing ‘history of'.

Listen: Peter Lord, David Sproxton and Nick Park from Aardman talk about how the studio started out in episode one of ACMI’s special podcast:

Next module

Make your own thaumatrope

More info