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Frenchman Emile Reynaud created what is considered the first animated cartoon in 1892. He created the cartoon by drawing and hand-painting images on film paper and using a praxinoscope, an optical instrument he invented to create the illusion of movement, or animation. Fantasmagorie, considered the first fully animated film, was made by French director Emile Courtet (aka Emile Cohl) in 1908.

As Hollywood grew in the early 1900s, so did companies that created cartoons, although these animated films were silent (just like all movies of the time). Bray Studios in New York City was one of the best-known cartoon studios of the time. It operated from circa 1915 to the late 1920s. Some of its cartoons include Out of the Inkwell (1916), Electric Bell (1918), and If You Could Shrink (1920).

Walt Disney also got his start in the business around this time. In 1923, he sold his first cartoon, Alice’s Wonderland, to a distributor and soon after founded Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio (later renamed Walt Disney Studio) with his brother, Roy. By the late 1920s "talkies" had replaced silent films and Walt Disney had created the cartoon character, Mickey Mouse, which still entertains young and old to this day.

The 1930s and 1940s are considered the golden age of animation. The Walt Disney Studio dominated the industry during these decades. During this time, it created the first animated feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which debuted in 1937. The animated film was so groundbreaking that the Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences gave it a special award in 1938, stating: "to Walt Disney for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, recognized as a significant screen innovation which has charmed millions and pioneered a great new entertainment field for the motion picture cartoon." Walt Disney Studio went on to create many other animated feature-length classics, including Pinocchio, Fantasia, and Dumbo.

The popularity of television in the 1950s caused a decline in interest in theatrical cartoons and feature films that lasted into the 1980s. Many consider the release of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? by Walt Disney Studios in 1988 as the beginning of a renaissance in film animation that continues to this day. Major animation trends over the last two decades include the popularity of adult-oriented animation, such as Waltz With Bashir and television shows such as The Simpsons, Bob's Burgers, and South Park; the emergence of anime [Japanese-based (although the phenomena has spread throughout Asia) high-quality animation in a variety of genres that is geared not just toward children, but adults, too]; the creation of cable networks, such as Nickelodeon and the Cartoon Network, that offer animation as much or all of their programming; and the rise of computer-generated animation, which allows animators infinite creative options and the ability to complete animated features in far less time than by using traditional methods.

In addition to its rich history in the motion picture and television industries, animation is now used in computer and video games, advertisements, marketing promotions, and computer software applications that are viewed on computers, smartphones, and other mobile computing and telecommunications devices. This wide array of venues for animation translates into good opportunities for animators.

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