The Evolution of Animation through Music Videos

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If you follow me on social media (and you really should), you’ll notice two of the things I enjoy are music and animation. When the creative process behind both of these art forms collide, it results in some extremely clever and impressive music videos.

In the spirit of sharing, I present to you this crash course in animation styles and evolution though some very cool music videos. Let’s start where it all begin… (RELATED: Blow Off Some Steam with 5 Music Videos Where Singers Get Beaten Up)

Phenakistoscopes, Zoetropes and Praxinoscopes

These three complicated names are variations of the “repeating image” style of early animation that developed in the 1800s. The Phenakistoscope used rows of images on a flat disc that, when spun and looked at via a certain angle, gave the illusion of movement. Zoetropes and Praxinoscopes took similar images, but placed them inside spinning cylinders (like a picture centrifuge). The difference is the former used small slit windows to look through, and the later used mirrors.

Musician and comedian Tim Minchin collaborated with artist Tee Ken Ng earlier this year to create a zoetrope using turntables for the timely song, “Leaving LA.”

Stop Motion Animation

Stop motion animation is one of my personal favorites because it is still so hands-on, even in today’s world of computer and digital art.

The first motion picture camera was patented in 1888 but it was ten years later when filmmakers J. Stuart Blackton and Albert E. Smith, founders of Vitagraph Studios, created the first stop-motion animated film, The Humpty Dumpty Circus, using a toy circus set. Sadly, the original film is long lost except for still images.

Stop motion animation has come a long way, but it sill requires painstaking manual manipulation that demands both patience and skill. Plenty of music videos have taken advantage of this technique from one of the most played videos on MTV, Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer,” to Primus’s claymation cover of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” The beauty of stop motion is you can use any medium at your disposal, including Legos, like the White Stripes did in “Fell In Love With A Girl.”

Early 20th Century Max Fleischer Style

It is very easy to look at Mickey Mouse’s iconic Steamboat Willie as the pinnacle for the early twentieth century animation style, but really the animation world couldn’t have evolved without the contributions of Max Fleischer. He created some of the most popular cartoons of the 1920s and 1930s, such as Betty Boop and Koko the Clown. When he died at age 89 in 1972, some hailed him as the “Dean of Animated Cartoons.” Video games like “Bendy and the Ink Machine” and “CupHead” are heavily influenced by this era, giving a whole new generation an appreciation of Fleischer’s influence.

Squirrel Nut Zippers have shown their love for Fleisher in one of their more recent songs, “Animule Ball,” but in 1999 they also released an original award-winning video in his style, “The Ghost of Steven Foster.”

Live-Action Animation Interaction

One of the cool things Fleischer did in the 1920s and 30s is bring his character Koko the Clown into situations where he interacted with “real world” animals, people, and environments. Walt Disney was inspired by this when he created his “Alice Comedies” in the late 1920s. Since then, live-action animation keeps fascinating viewers who saw Gene Kelly dance with Jerry Mouse in the 1945 movie Anchors Aweigh and a ton of Disney properties like Mary Poppins and Fantasia. One of the most familiar uses occurred in the 1980s when Robert Zemeckis directed the game-changing, live-action/animated movie, Who Framed Roger Rabbit (which is also one of the most awesome films of all time).

Rock band Jet takes a dark twist on this method in the video for their 2003 hit, “Look What You’ve Done.”


I don’t have near enough space or time to give you the complete history of one of the world’s most popular styles, Japanese Anime, so I’ll sum it up as briefly as I can. Japanese animation has been around since the at least the early 1900s, and thanks to television, it became noticed by American audiences in the 1960s, with hits like Speed Racer. And it grew…and grew…and grew. Anime is everywhere today from the more family friendly Studio Ghibli hits like Spirited Away and Kiki’s Delivery Service, to the 1988 cyberpunk masterpiece (many consider the crown jewel of animation), Akira.

Last year, Sturgill Simpson provided the soundtrack for his original Netflix anime film Sound & Fury with hits like “Sing Along.”

Japan also gave us a glimpse at a weird and wonderful future of animation and live music in 2007, when it combined scrim technology, live-action animation, anime, and computer animation to bring to life the world’s first “Vocaloid” superstar, Hatsune Miku, whose name is a blend of the Japanese words for “first,” “sound,” and “future.”

Alas, even vocaloids aren’t immune to pandemics, as the COVID-19 resulted in the cancellation of the 2020 Coachella music festival, where she was scheduled to appear. Still, she has gotten to collaborate with many other artists and was even an opening act for a Lady Gaga show.

It only seems appropriate to end this brief journey through animation and music with a “live” song by Miku and fellow vocaloid, Megune Luka, from a Tokyo show in 2019.

Header promo image © Netflix.

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