03 August 2008

The Short Films of Winsor McCay (1911-1921)

d. Winsor McCay / USA / Four shorts, 40 mins.

We marvel at the beauty and precision of animation today, but we no longer see animation the way previous generations must have. To fresh eyes, drawn pictures actually moving must have inspired awe; at least that's the impression one gets from Winsor McCay's short animated films.

Before there was Chuck Jones or Walt Disney, there was Winsor McCay, a cartoonist and animator who didn't invent the form but sits atop the pyramid as its most profound influence. McCay's films showcase not only the man's talent at illustration and creation but how much time, energy, and production went into the cartoons. No fewer than two of his films have real-life footage McCay "taking on a bet" that he wins through animation; no fewer than two of his films involve neatly stack reams of paper, upon which are implied to be the real drawings, that come tumbling down in chaos.

The films are simple and often surreal. His first film, Little Nemo (1911), was based on his famous newspaper comic strip and is only fractionally animated. Characters are literally broken down in lines, drawn, and shown coming to life, bopping around in humorous ways. His 1918 propaganda short The Sinking of the Lusitania imagines what the frightful torpedoing of the British luxury liner must have been like. (Watching it today, it's easy to spot how the images of the steamliner sinking bear a strange foreshadowing to the CGI of James Camerson's Titanic.) One of his Dream of the Rarebit Fiend films from 1921 shows how cheesecake can make a man have twisted dreams in which insects do acrobatic feats.

McCay's crowning achievement, however, remains Gertie the Dinosaur, a 1914 short film that is believed to be the first animated film to establish a character (and not simply be little goofy creations skipping around for chuckles), a fact that would have profound implications to Disney two decades later. Gertie, justly tucked away in the National Film Registry, has its roots in the theme of the miracle of animation; McCay is shown with his friends at a museum where they observe the skeleton of a dinosaur, and he makes a wager that he can bring the bones to life. Gertie – a jovial sauropod– is his animated meal ticket. Gertie lumbers around, eats rocks, gets embarrassed and has emotions, and teases a woolly mammoth named Jumbo (not the last time an elephant with the name Jumbo would be seen in animation). The cartoons are simplistic, but they're miniature feats of strength and ingenuity, perhaps more remarkable than the powerhouse Ub Iwerks, who drew all of his material alone more than a decade later. Just as one can watch A Trip to the Moon to appreciate Star Wars, or The Great Train Robbery to appreciate Red River, so should anyone who admires the art of animation take in McCay's short films for the history lesson.


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