Posted by Susan Doll on November 19, 2012
While D.W. Griffith was innovating the language of cinema in dozens of one-reelers in the first decade of the 20th century, Winsor McCay began developing the foundations of American animation in a series of skillfully drawn and astutely realized cartoons. His emphasis on clever stories punctuated with humorous gags and driven by characters with distinct personalities became norms of American animation for the next generation, including Walt Disney and the Fleischer Brothers.
I was aware of McCay’s importance as a pioneer of animation, and I have seen snippets of his cartoons, but I did not know much about him until a recent exhibit at the Selby Art Gallery on the campus of Ringling College of Art and Design. Last week, the exhibit was augmented by a multi-media presentation by McCay biographer and animation scholar John Canemaker. Canemaker’s life mission seems to be to elevate McCay’s name until it becomes as recognizable as Disney’s, and his presentation made a clear case for why this animator’s accomplishments are immeasurable.
McCay was already an acclaimed illustrator and newspaper comic strip artist when he released his first animated cartoon, Little Nemo, based on his wildly popular strip for the New York Herald. The gallery exhibit included original drawings, panels, and layouts for the Little Nemo strip, which show off the artist’s incredible drawing skills and inventive approach to the medium. Unlike other cartoon strips, McCay rendered his backgrounds and settings with a complex perspective, which gave them great depth and distinction. Unafraid to defy the conventions of the medium, he violated the frame by drawing outside it. Or, he expanded its standard square format to accommodate imaginative depictions of fictional locations and recognizable worlds, including Coney Island and the 1893 Columbian Exposition.
Canemaker offered a brief overview of McCay’s career, and I was struck by the fact that the artist’s bread-and-butter did not come from the toney world of magazine or book illustration. Instead, he worked as a poster artist and sign painter for small circuses and dime museums before becoming a comic strip artist. In the 19th century, dime museums housed vast collections of man-made and natural curiosities—the more sensational the better. More akin to carnival side-shows than museums, these exhibition halls were aimed at the working and immigrant working classes. They featured collections of anatomical oddities in jars, animals from foreign lands, and photographs of strange and exotic worlds. I can’t help but think that the depiction of surreal and unusual worlds in Little Nemo in Slumberland and another strip, Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend, had been stimulated by McCay’s adventures in dime museums and his exposure to the oddities of the world.
McCay began experimenting with animation as early as 1909, and his first completed cartoon was released on April 8, 1911, at the New Colonial Theater vaudeville house. Part live action and part animation, Little Nemo recreated the legendary story in which McCay made a bet with his friends that he could get Little Nemo to “move.” The short stars McCay and shows him drawing some of the 4000 frames needed to make the animated portion of the film. The storyline underscores this monumental undertaking by joking about it. We see workmen repeatedly roll barrels of ink and crates of paper into the cartoonist’s office; later, an office boy accidentally knocks huge stacks of the drawings from his desk, emphasizing the volume of work involved in creating an animated movie. A Mutoscope-like device, which looks like a giant rolodex, sits on his desk. When McCay wants to test his progress on the animation, he fills the device with drawings and spins it to check their precision. When the animated portion of the film begins, it shows McCay drawing Nemo, Flip, and the Imp, the three main characters from his famous comic strip. The skilled McCay was such a sure-handed draftsman that he used little or no underdrawing. Viewers get a sense of this as they watch McCay whip out the three characters in record time. As the characters come to life, they are in color, because the film prints were hand-tinted after they were struck from the negative.
The roughly dozen or so animated cartoons produced by McCay reveal a naturalistic style with fluid lines and distinctive characters who move smoothly. McCay, who billed himself as America’s Greatest Cartoonist, liked to claim that he was the first to create an animated film. This claim is untrue, but he was the first to use personality-driven figures to drive the animation. In How a Mosquito Operates, the pesky title character flies into the room of an unsuspecting human for a quick snack. The determined mosquito is given an obsessive personality, which drives the humor, and yet he is also neat, competent, and skilled at his “job.” Though the cartoon is simply rendered in only a few lines, the image of the mosquito repeatedly sticking his proboscis into the man’s flesh is so naturalistic that it will make you squirm.
McCay’s most well-known work was Gertie the Dinosaur, a cartoon far more sophisticated than its 1914 release date suggests. The film opens much like Little Nemo, with a live action segment featuring McCay’s fellow comic-strip artists George McManus and Roy McCardell. Out joyriding, the group has a flat tire in front of New York’s Museum of Natural History, so they decide to take a tour of the museum while their car is being repaired. When they spot the dinosaur skeletons, McCay bets McManus, who was the creator of the popular strip Maggie and Jinx, that he could make a dinosaur come to life. The dinosaur in question is a brontosaurus named Gertie, who is introduced as an animated character in the next scene. The interesting—and forgotten—aspect of this cartoon was that it was intended to be an interactive experience. When McCay completed the cartoon, he created a vaudeville routine to showcase it. As the cartoon was projected on a screen onstage, McCay himself stood nearby and spoke to Gertie, calling for her to step forward as she shyly pokes her head out of her cave. He puts her through a series of tricks in which she lifts up each of her legs and bows to the audience. As Jumbo the elephant taunts her, Gertie playfully picks him up by the tail and tosses him into the water. At the end, an animated McCay is carried offscreen by a playful Gertie. The dino’s movements were designed to be answers or responses to McCay’s requests and prompts, and the interaction is akin to a vaudeville routine between two seasoned comics. In the DVD version of Gertie the Dinosaur, McCay’s part has been turned into intertitles, which isn’t nearly as effective.
Vaudeville was a perfect showcase for McCay and his animated cartoons. Like dime museums and small circuses, vaudeville was a popular entertainment for the lower and working classes. Vaudeville was a type of variety show or music hall, in which a number of entertainers performed separately, one after the other. The acts ranged from the most talented of singers and dancers to circus performers who spun plates, performed acrobatics, or juggled anything not nailed down. Some performers simply defied description, including animal trainers who taught birds to disrobe them, musicians who created sounds by rubbing the rims of drinking glasses, sports figures who demonstrated their swing, boxing stance, or shooting skills onstage, and body builders who lifted weights and flexed their muscles. Sometimes, notorious figures, such as freed murderers and old-time gunslingers, simply stood onstage and described their exploits as the audience reacted in kind. McCay had been a quick-draw artist in vaudeville, sketching scenes or figures in seconds while the audience called out subject matter. He understood the audiences and had seen every kind of act imaginable. He rightly calculated the potential for success for his interactive animation among the vaudeville audience—who had seen everything.
In general, McCay’s work is the forerunner to the personality-driven cartoons of the next generation of animators, but my favorite piece of animation was the exception to this style. Four years in the making, Sinking of the Lusitania turned out to be McCay’s last completed animated short. He used newspaper accounts and transcripts to create an authentic and realistic depiction of the decade’s most controversial event. When a German submarine sank the ocean liner RMS Lusitania in May 1915, England and America were outraged. The ship went down off the coast of Ireland within 18 minutes of the first torpedo, killing 1198 of 1959 people. Among those killed were several prominent people, including Elbert Hubbard, Charles Klein, millionaire Alfred Vanderbilt, and showman Charles Frohman. The event turned public opinion against Germany and became a clarion call for World War I.
Sinking of the Lusitania may not have been directly influential but it did demonstrate the possibilities of the medium. Dramatic, melancholy, and dark in tone and look, the film stretched the boundaries of animation as a storytelling medium. The film begins with the submarine lurking in the foreground; it is rendered in perspective and foreshortened to exaggerate the sense of depth. Once the first torpedo hits, smoke billows out the stacks of the ocean liner in the middleground. As the lifeboats are being lowered, the second torpedo hits, prompting the intertitle: “No warmth given, no mercy shown.” In the film’s most eerie scene, bodies fall or jump from the ships, and then heads bob up and down in the frigid water. In the last shot of the film, a mother and child are shown sinking into the abyss, followed by a title card that declares that the officer who was in charge of the German U-boat had been decorated by the Kaiser. In the rhetoric of war, the title implies that it is acceptable to “hate the Hun.” It is a remarkable piece of animation, revealing the power of art as a call to action.
McCay attempted a couple of cartoons starring Gertie after Sinking the Lusitania, but they were never completed and released. The illustrator was working for William Randolph Hearst during the decade he devoted to animation, and Hearst was not supportive of McCay’s work in animation or his vaudeville act. McCay returned to the New York Journal during the 1920s, which was not a successful reunion, and then signed with the American in 1926. He ended his career illustrating political cartoons.
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