A blog about the arts, books, flora and fauna, vittles, and whatever comes to mind!

Note: Comments are moderated. If you include a link, your comment will not be published. As you will note, I do not accept ads on my website and that includes in comments.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Rodents and Dinosaurs...

Winsor McCay
Long before there were rodents, there were dinosaurs.  Likewise, long before there was an animated rodent, there was an animated dinosaur.

Winsor McCay (1867-1934), the brilliant author of Little Nemo in Wonderland, among other comic strips, was also an early animator.  In 1906, McCay began performing in vaudeville in addition to writing and drawing his comic strips. Vaudeville was in its heyday, and McCay became a hit.  By 1911, he began presenting animated films on stage.  The first was an animation of Little Nemo in Slumberland composed of 4,000 drawings he drew himself.  He went on to make How a Mosquito Operates, this contained 6,000 drawings.  McCay’s fame spread through the nascent animation community.

But his biggest animated success was premiered at the Palace Theater in Chicago on February 8, 1914 – Gertie the Dinosaur.  Gertie was based on a brontosaurus skeleton from the American Museum of Natural History.  McCay's 10,000 drawings were photographed by Vitagraph Studios.  McCay himself then interacted with the animation.  Dressed in a tux and sporting a whip, McCay conducted something akin to a circus act by instructing Gertie to perform. 

Gertie swallowed a rock, played with a mastodon, drank a lake dry, and gobbled a real apple thrown to her by McCay (who actually palmed it).  When McCay scolded her, she began to cry.  Animation (and for that matter motion pictures) were quite new and audiences were mystified.  They thought there were tricks involved, and would even cry out protests of fakery.  In the long run, however, audiences became enthralled and McCay received much critical acclaim.

Long before cel animation was introduced, McCay drew thousands of frame on individual 6.5 x 8.5 inch sheets of rice paper.  Another artist drew the backgrounds onto each sheet.  McCay then developed techniques that became standard in the industry.  He also cycled drawings, reusing some instead of duplicating them.  He devised a type of key frame animation where rather than draw each frame sequentially, he drew the key positions, then filled in the frames in between.  This was called the “McCay Split System”.

Advertising poster for "Gertie".

But into every artist’s life, a little rain must fall.  McCay, who magnanimously shared his techniques, once showed a visitor posing as journalist the details of his process.  But that visitor was John Randolph Bray, who later produced the first animation in color.  Bray patented McCay’s procedures, then tried to sue McCay for using his own techniques.  But McCay triumphed and received royalties from Bray for some years.  Around 1915, a plagiarized version of Gertie was distributed and played for years.  It was identified as made by Bray Productions.

Stacks of "Gertie" drawings.

McCay's work in animation was groundbreaking.  He pushed the boundaries of this new art form with the use of naturalistic motion and characters with personality, trailblazing the way for animators who followed, including Walt Disney.  Compare McCay's work with Disney's "Steamboat Willie", the precursor to Mickey Mouse, produced fourteen years later.

Famous Warner Brothers animator Chuck Jones once said, “The two most important people in animation are Winsor McCay and Walt Disney.  I’m not sure who should go first.”

McCay at his desk.
Remember, Folks, McCay never received instruction in animation.  Instead, he wrote the book...
A DVD of all of McCay’s films is available:  Animated Legend: Winsor McCay.

No comments:

Post a Comment