Arts Listings

Moving Pictures: The Birth of Animation

By Justin DeFreitas
Friday August 25, 2006

Despite his claims to the contrary, Winsor McCay did not invent the animated cartoon. But the legendary cartoonist did play a pioneering role, helping to advance, shape and define the nascent art form. 

This Saturday Pacific Film Archive will present several films by McCay as part of a presentation by another accomplished cartoonist, John Canemaker.  

Canemaker has many achievements to his credit, the latest among them being the Academy Award he won last year for his short film The Moon and the Son. The film depicted an imaginary conversation between Canemaker and his deceased father and featured the voices of John Turturro and Eli Wallach. 

Canemaker will be present for a screening of his own films as part of a program entitled “John Canemaker: Marching to a Different Toon” at 5 p.m. Saturday and will follow at 7:30 p.m. with a presentation and discussion of the McCay films.  

The presentation on McCay is based on Canemaker’s own biography of the great cartoonist, Winsor McCay: His Life and Art. The book was first published in 1987 but has been newly revised and expanded in a beautiful new edition that presents excellent reproductions of McCay’s artwork along with insightful and scholarly analysis. It is the only comprehensive biography of McCay and will surely play a crucial role in helping to better establish his legacy in print and animated cartooning. 

McCay’s range and talent is difficult to comprehend today. He was an extremely prolific artist, creating a number of popular comic strips as well as illustrations, editorial cartoons and animated cartoons, working on many of them simultaneously. The work for which he is most renowned focused on dreams and fantasy and included his most famous and beloved creation, Little Nemo in Slumberland, widely considered one of the greatest comic strips of all time.  

Another of his unique, though lesser known, strips is Dream of the Rarebit Fiend. Like Nemo, it relies on a predictable pattern in the creation of a most unpredictable strip. Each week the strip depicted a harrowing nightmare consisting of often surreal and hallucinatory imagery, and each week the strip concluded in precisely the same way: The protagonist would wake up in bed, realize it was just a dream, and exclaim that never again would he eat so much rarebit for dinner. 

McCay used the same basic structure for Little Nemo, with the young boy always waking up or falling out of bed in the strip’s final panel, a device later used to great effect by another comic strip artist, Bill Watterson, whose Calvin and Hobbes which often featured the wild adventures that take place inside the mind of a highly imaginative 6-year-old boy. 

Little Nemo in Slumberland ran as a full page every Sunday at a time when a newspaper page was nearly twice the size of today’s broadsheet pages. The comic strip was a relatively new medium when Nemo debuted in 1905, just 10 years old and still struggling to find its niche. McCay’s superior draftsmanship, wide-ranging imagination and bold use of color took the form to new heights. 

Brilliant as his imagination and artwork were, McCay was not without his shortcomings. He never seemed to master dialogue or narrative thrust. His dialogue is trite and redundant, and often crammed into awkward and at times barely legible word balloons. Of course, the word balloon itself was a recent invention, and it took time for artists to learn to incorporate them gracefully into their compositions. But McCay never seemed to fully grasp the concept; in fact, Nemo, even in its second incarnation in the 1920s, still evinced this anomalous flaw. 

McCay later turned his attention to animation, and once again, he played a major role in the development of a new art form, using his bold imagination, unparalleled drawing skills and showman’s flair in advancing the new medium. McCay employed wonderfully sophisticated effects and charming characters in his animated work, even taking his films on the road in vaudeville.  

“Where McCay differed from his predecessors,” Canemaker writes, “was in his ability to animate this drawings with no sacrifice of linear detail; the fluid motion, naturalistic timing, feeling of weight, and, eventually, the attempts to inject individualistic personality traits into his characters were new qualities that McCay first brought to the animated film medium.” 

McCay developed techniques that would later become commonplace and, in stark contrast to other, more secretive artists of the day, refused to patent those techniques, believing that the art form stood a better chance of progressing if artists shared their knowledge. 

Saturday’s screening will include four of McCay’s 10 animated films. His first film was Little Nemo, in which Nemo, Flip and the Imp go through a series of fun-house mirror style transformations. At the time, audiences were skeptical and often didn’t believe that the film was hand-drawn. 

“It was pronounced very lifelike,” McCay wrote in a 1927 essay, “but my audience declared that it was not a drawing, but that the pictures were photographs of real children.” 

So, in his next film, McCay drew something a little more difficult. How a Mosquito Operates, a somewhat twisted presentation that would fit right in today in Spike and Mike’s Sick and Twisted Animation Festival, features a disturbingly oversized mosquito plunging his proboscis again and again into the face of a sleeping man, eventually becoming so bloated with blood that he explodes. Again, the cartoonist encountered skepticism.  

“My audiences were pleased,” McCay wrote, “but declared the mosquito was operated by wires to get the effect before the camera.” 

So McCay decided to create a character that could not be photographed: Gertie the Dinosaur. Gertie was a popular creation and McCay proceeded to take her on the road in vaudeville with a clever act that consisted of McCay standing beside the screen and commanding Gertie as though she were a trained elephant. He would toss her a pumpkin, crack a trainer’s whip, and even step into the frame himself, disappearing behind the screen and reappearing onscreen as an animated figure riding on the dinosaur’s back, a moment later satirized by Buster Keaton in his first feature film, The Three Ages. 

McCay’s next project was his most ambitious. The Sinking of the Lusitania took two years to produced and consisted of nearly 25,000 drawings. It marked the first time McCay used the technique of drawing on transparent cels on separate backgrounds, a technique that not only saved time and work, but also contributed greatly to the film’s dynamics. For the first time, McCay’s animated work took on a more cinematic quality, using dramatic angles to further enhance the action.  

Great as his films are and important as his contribution may be, McCay’s defects again hindered his progress. Animated cartoons would soon develop plot and narrative, and, eventually, sound, but without McCay’s help. He played a significant role in nurturing animated film into its adolescence, but it would take other talents to bring it to maturity. 



Even in his print work, McCay toyed with the idea of animation eventually leading to Gertie the Dinosaur the first widely popular animated cartoon character.