Cartoon and Animation Terms

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There are a lot of terms that animators use that you may not understand. There are sme other words you may think you understand, but maybe not in the professional animation sense. There may even be some words here you doin't know at all. Thats why they are all here- to help you learn more about animation.

We have put together this list to help you understand what some of these words mean, in an animation context. If there are other terms you come across and you don't understand, let us know. We'll at least give you a definition; perhaps we'll even add that word to this list.


Animation in two dimensions or flat animation. Can be computer or hand-animated. When specifically applied to computer animation, 2D is generally bitmap graphics or vector graphic images.


In it's strictest interpretation, this should mean any animation released in a 3D format (that is, you MUST wear glasses to see it). In practice, this term has come to mean computer animation that imitates a real, 3D world, or has 3D modeling in it, even if presented in 2D. The characters created in this computer world are manipulated by an animator to create the movements.


The process of infusing movement or life out of static or inanimate objects to create an illusion of movement. Can be in painting or drawing (traditional animation), computer animation (FLASH, C.A.P.S), stop motion or even drawing directly on film stock.


One type of animation, though generally considered to be the classic form of animation. A cartoon is created by creating a series of drawings of an object in motion, and then showing those drawings at a specific speed to recreate the intended motion. Modern cartoons are generally an animated series of drawings, cleaned up and transferred to cels for coloring. These cels are then shot over an accompanying background to complete the scene. Fast motion may be animated at up to 24 frames per second, but this is rare. Most theatrical cartoons are animated "on 2's", that is, at 12 fps, and television cartoons are usually animated at far less than that.


A cel is the plastic sheet, either cellulose acetate or cellulose nitrate, that animated characters are painted on. In practice, the term cel has come to mean that plastic sheet in combination with the outline and coloring of a character, object, and/or special effect. Outlines can be either hand-inked or xerographically transferred to the sheet of plastic. Those outlines are then filled with color, either by hand-painting or a serigraphic process, to complete the cel.


Animation performed by computer, or computer graphics used in animation. Can be 2D or 3D animation.


Animation drawings by the key and inbetween animators can sometimes be rough, with a lot of movement in the line. A clean-up animator tones that all down, and brings the animation down to just a single, clean line.


Animation performed by hand, with computer creating the inbetween steps.


A guide to all the individual shows in a specific animated television or film series. Includes original air dates, crew lists, synopsis and production notes.


Typically, the head/senior/directing animator only animates the key points in an animated sequence. These may be the beginning and end of a movement, or the main parts of the movement. The inbetweener animates the positions between the key animators drawings.


When cartoons came to television, with it's voracious appetite for content, it became quickly apparent that the old style of animation production was going to have to change to fill the hunger of this new medium. Initially developed by UPA, and further refined by Jay Ward and ultimately Hanna-Barbera, limited animation is a series of methods of cutting down on the actual animation needed to complete a cartoon. It can be through the use of repeated footage... or even repeating the same animation over different backgrounds (think Scooby and the gang running). It can be static cels with just the mouth animated for speaking scenes (this is why Fred Flintstone always had 5 o'clock shadow). It can be looping animation, an arm raising can be reversed and used as arms raising and lowering. Ultimately, it is just a series of ways to complete animation quicker, with less work, resulting in a less detailed or more stylized look to the cartoon.


The phenomenon which causes animation (and all film and video presentations) to "fool" the eye into seeing a series of images, shown successively, as real, live motion. Any film or video is just a series of images shot and shown in order (usually at 24 or 30 frames per second in the U.S.A.). When an image "hits" the retina, it "holds" there for a 10th or more of s second. This allows a film projector to blank the screen, move to and then project the next image, without the viewer noticing this blanking. The previous image "persists" in the viewers eye or mind until the next image takes over for it, completing the motion.


The rotoscope is a device invented by Max Fleischer that allows an animator to base a characters' animated movements from a film of a live-action actor performing the same movements. The original film is used as reference for the animator's work.


In its simplest form, stop-motion animation is physically manipulating a model, taking an image, then moving the model slightly, one frame at a time to create the illusion of movement. But from that simple beginning comes immense diversity of style and technique. The model can be clay, plasticine over a metal skeleton, sand, LEGOs, or any number of other objects. The Guinness Book of Movie Facts and Feats credits The Humpty Dumpty Circus as "the first animated film using the stop-motion technique to give the illusion of movement to inanimate objects."


An animated cartoon shown in theaters. Can be feature length or a theatrical short.


A guide to all the individual shows in a specific animated theatrical series. Includes original release dates, crew lists, synopsis and production notes.


An series of animated cartoons shown in theaters, typically theatrical shorts. A good example are the Looney Tunes cartoon series, or Tom and Jerry.