Introduction to computer animation and its possible educational applicationS

Musa, S; Ziatdinov, R; Griffiths, C. (2013). Introduction to computer animation and its possible educational applications. In M. Gallová, J. Gunčaga, Z. Chanasová, M.M. Chovancová (Eds.), New Challenges in Education. Retrospection of history of education to the future in the interdisciplinary dialogue among didactics of various school subjects (1st ed., pp. 177-205). Ružomberok, Slovakia: VERBUM – vydavateľstvo Katolíckej univerzity v Ružomberku (supported by ERASMUS programme) [PDF].

For a complete list of my publications, please see my ResearchGate or Google Scholar profiles. Please email me at or if you are interested in some of my works.


Animation, which is basically a form of pictorial presentation, has become the most prominent feature of technology-based learning environments. It refers to simulated motion pictures showing movement of drawn objects. Recently, educational computer animation has turned out to be one of the most elegant tools for presenting multimedia materials for learners, and its significance in helping to understand and remember information has greatly increased since the advent of powerful graphics-oriented computers.

In this book chapter we introduce and discuss the history of computer animation, its well-known fundamental principles and some educational applications. It is however still debatable if truly educational computer animations help in learning, as the research on whether animation aids learners’ understanding of dynamic phenomena has come up with positive, negative and neutral results.

We have tried to provide as much detailed information on computer animation as we could, and we hope that this book chapter will be useful for students who study computer science, computer-assisted education or some other courses connected with contemporary education, as well as researchers who conduct their research in the field of computer animation.


For the past two decades, the most prominent feature of the technology-based learning environment has become animation (Dunbar, 1993). Mayer and Moreno (2002) state that animation is a form of pictorial presentation - a definition which also refers to computer-generated motion pictures showing associations between drawn figures. Things which correspond to this idea are: motion, picture and simulation. As far as videos and illustrations are concerned, these are motion pictures depicting movement of real objects.

The birth of pictorial forms of teaching has been observed to have developed as a counterpart to verbal forms of teaching (Lowe, 2004; Lasseter et al., 2000; Mosenthal, 2000). Although verbal ways of presentation have long dominated education, the addition of visual forms of presentation has enhanced students’ understanding (Mayer, 1999; Sweller, 1999). In fact, some disciplines are taught in universities which deal with dynamic subject matter, and animation or graphic illustration is more favoured as a way of addressing the difficulties which arise when presenting such matters verbally or numerically (Lowe, 2004).

Even though such multimedia instructional environments hold potential for enhancing people’s way of learning (Lowe, 2004; Lasseter et al., 2000; Mosenthal, 2000) there is still much debate surrounding this area; indeed animation presentations are less useful for the purposes of education and training than was expected. Moreover, little is known about the way animation needs to be designed in order to aid learning (Plötzner & Lowe, 2004) and not to act solely as a way to gain aesthetic attraction. For instance, some animators who work in the entertainment industry create animations for the sake of entertainment and they are therefore unlikely to be interested in helping to build coherent understanding using their work (Lowe, 2004).

In some cases, animation can even hold back rather than improve learning (Campbell et al., 2005), and may even not promote learning depending on how they are used (Mayer & Moreno, 2002). Animation may possibly require greater cognitive processing demands than static visuals as the information changes frequently, especially critical objects, and thus cognitive connection can be lost during the animation (Hasler et al., 2007).

As noted by Hegarty (2005) in Learning with Animation: Research Implications for Design, “the current emphasis on ways of improving animations implicitly assumes a bottom-up model animation comprehension… Comprehension is primarily a process of encoding the information in the external display, so that improving that display necessarily improves understanding.” Similarly, Lowe noted in his work Learning from Animation Where to Look, When to Look, that the main problem that the developers of multimedia learning materials face is the lack of principled guidance on how some elements of such materials should be designed in order to enable comprehension.

Mayer and Moreno (2000) examined the role of animation in multimedia learning; they also presented a cognitive theory of multimedia learning and were able to summarize the programme of their research. They come up with seven principles for the use of animation in multimedia instruction. Some of these principles were multimedia principles; students learn more deeply when narration and animation come together than narration or animation alone. Learners can easily create mental connections between corresponding words and pictures when both animation and narration are presented. The other principle was the coherence principle; they say that students learn more deeply from both animation and narration especially when irrelevant words, sounds (even music) and clips are not present. This is due to the chances of the learner experiencing difficulty in building mental connections because of fewer cognitive resources between relevant portions of the narration and animations (Lowe, 2004).

Hasler (2007) investigated the effect of learner controlled progress in educational animation on instructional efficiency. Based on her paper, three audio-visual computer animations and narration-only presentations were used to teach primary school students the determinants of day and night. One of the animations was system-paced using an uninterrupted animation. The results of the experiment showed that the group which had a two learner paced groups displayed higher test performance compared with the other two (Hasler, 2007). Table 1 provides an overview on the works done in this field.

History of Animation

Looking at the past and the present, animation has evolved over time. It started with pieces of paper and rope in 1828 and is today 3D animation videos. In this section, we will list the chronological order of the development of animation and animation devices which have evolved and improved over the past two centuries. We have also included the most famous animation characters in the history of animation.

• Thaumatrope

A thaumatrope (invented by Paul Roget in 1828) is a simple mechanical toy which creates the illusion of movement. Thaumatrope means “wonder turner” derived from the Greek words: θαῦμα “wonder” and τρόπος “turn”. Roget was the first person in history to create such a device which produces the illusion of movement. In order to enjoy this animation, one would only need one small round piece of paper with pictures on it and thin ropes fixed at both ends of the shape (Figure 1). Below shows what a thaumatrope (Figure 1) is and how the illusion of movement is produced (Figure 2).

• Phenakistoscope

After the invention of the thaumatrope, the phenakistoscope followed made possible by J.A. Ferdinand Plateau in 1832. This device uses the persistence of vision principle to create an illusion of movement. Phenakistoscope originated from the Greek φενακίζειν (phenakizein), meaning "to trick or cheat"; as it tricks the eye by making the figures in the pictures appear to move. It is composed of six similar images in different positions taken in order to relay the movement. A very simple example is a running reindeer and jumping frogs (Figure 3).

• Zoetrope

In 1843, William Horner, a British mathematician invented the zoetrope. A zoetrope produces an illusion of movement from a rapid succession of static pictures. Derived from the Greek words ζωήzoe, "life" and τρόπος tropos, "turn" this forms a “wheel of life”.

• Praxinoscope

Almost the same as a zoetrope, the only difference was the integration of a mirror to the device which makes the viewer more comfortable as they watch the movement of the objects. It was designed by Emile Reynaud in 1877 and was known as the “action viewer”.

• Kinestoscope

An early motion picture exhibition device was invented in 1888 by Thomas Edison together with his colleague Eadweard Muybridge. The kinestoscope was designed for films to be viewed through the window of a cabinet (Figure 6). Kinestoscope means the “view of movement” from the Greek words κίνησις “movement” and σκοπός “movement”.

• Multiplane Camera and Storyboard

Walt Disney and his colleagues had a problem with creating realistic animation and how to conserve time while creating it. Then they came up with a great solution which can be considered another innovation in the field of animation - the multiplane camera (Figure 12). The multiplane camera is a piece of equipment designed to make cartoons more realistic and enjoyable. It uses stacked panes of glass each with different elements of the animation (Figure 13). With this, it allowed for the reuse of backgrounds, foregrounds, or any elements not in motion. The multiplane camera was developed by a Walt Disney Productions team headed by William Garity in the early 1930s. It was also known as the “super cartoon camera”.

The storyboard was yet another successful creation in animation technology. It is used to recheck the story and utilizes pencil sketches to review motion.

Next we will discuss the first ever animated films together with some of the most famous and successful animation characters. Outstanding works in stop motion and clay motion are also elucidated, followed by a discussion of computer graphics and computer animation, i.e., 3D animation.

• Humorous Phases of Funny Faces

After the invention of the above-mentioned devices, J. Stuart Blackton made the first animated film in 1906. The film was entitled Humorous Phases of Funny Faces, and with this he became known as the father of animation. He was using a blackboard as his workplace together with chalk and an eraser as his main tools. He was able to record the animation using the “draw-stop-film-erase” method.

• The Birth of Cartoon Characters

The creation of the first ever animated film also inspired many animators to create their own animations. For instance, Winsor McCay drew Gertie, the trained dinosaur (Figure 8). It was an animated film astonishingly consisting of 10,000 drawings. The animation was shown as a film in theatres as well as at a multimedia event on stage with McCay interacting with the animated Gertie. Next in line was Felix the Cat (Figure 9). During the early 1920s, he became the most famous animated character. Then who could forget Mickey Mouse? (Figure 10). Mickey Mouse was created on November 18, 1928 and with his creation came the first successful sound animated film. Mickey Mouse was originally known as Steamboat Willie (Figure 11). He became an international star and made way for the launch of Disney Studios. Lastly, Looney Tunes was introduced in 1930 by Hugh Harman and Rudolp Ising run by the Warner Bros. Company. Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Tweety Bird and Silvester are just a few of the main characters in this cartoon.

• Stop Motion and Claymation

Stop motion animation is used to animate things that are smaller than life size. Willis Harold O’Brian pioneered motion picture special effects, which were perfected in stop motion. He became famous after his successful work on King Kong (Figure 14), claiming the title Dean of Stop-action Animation. Ray Harryhausen followed in the footsteps of O’Brian and became one of the most outstanding stop motion film makers through his films Mighty Joe Young and The Lost World (Figure 15).

On the other hand, claymation also became a trend. Technically, it is the art of moulding clay figures and making them move, dance, talk, sing and whatever you can think of. Frames are run together to produce the animation. Chicken Run and Wallace & Grommit are the two most successful claymations created by Aarmand Studios of the United Kingdom.

• Computer Animation

When it comes to new forms of animation, firstly let us define traditional animation - a system of animating in which the illusion of movement is presented by photographing a sequence of individual drawings on consecutive frames of film. On the other hand, computer animation is a form of pictorial presentation which refers to simulated motion pictures showing movement of drawn objects.

• Computer Graphics and 3D Animation

This is where graphics are created using computers and the illustration of image data by a computer particularly with the help of respective graphic hardware and software such as Superpaint. It is used to replace physical models then create realistic intermixed elements with the live action. 3D animation is today’s animation. By using some sophisticated software and looking at the Principles of Traditional Animation Applied to 3D Animation concept, animators are able to produce outstanding and aesthetic animations such as, Toy Story, Madagascar, Megamind, etc.

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For a complete list of my publications, please see my ResearchGate or Google Scholar profiles. Please email me at or if you are interested in some of my works.