Even in the contemporary era, when animation enjoys mainstream success and a diverse presence in everything from feature films to television sitcoms to festival shorts, and to Web and mobile delivery, the animation form is still very much understood in the popular imagination as "the cartoon"; its history, as ostensibly "American"; and its principal identity, as "Disney." This neglects an extraordinary body of work made with different techniques and by animators and studios worldwide. Animation may be broadly categorized under four key headings: the traditional cartoon; stop-motion three-dimensional (3D) animation, including puppet and clay animation, and work undertaken within the special-effects tradition; digital animation, incorporating computer-generated films, Web animation, motion capture and postproduction visual effects; and alternative animation, embracing experimental and avant garde forms and independent, developmental films that are essentially related to a fine-art discipline and context. Inevitably, these definitions overlap and combine in specific works, but they operate as convenient signposts by which to address different "histories" of animation, and animation as a consistently progressive form even as it has entered mainstream acceptance and popular culture.

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