Over the past two weeks, we’ve highlighted a couple of cartoons that are prime examples of early personality animation, both of them from the venerable House of Mouse. But while Disney’s animators were undoubtedly adept at crafting distinct, interesting characters, they were not the first to attempt to breathe life into drawings on the page. That concept was established more than two decades before, by a comic strip artist and skilled vaudevillian performer named Winsor McCay.
It is impossible to overstate McCay’s influence on the development of animation as pure art form. There is a reason many animation scholars refer to McCay as the “Father of Animation,” for he almost single-handedly set the stage for Disney and his contemporaries by creating a series of groundbreaking, intriguing animated shorts that were remarkable for their sheer skill and bountiful imagination.
Before he became a pioneer of the animated film, however, McCay enjoyed immense success as a newspaper cartoonist–his long-running strips Little Nemo in Slumberland and Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend were endlessly inventive, with a beautiful sense of color and detail that remains influential even today. But McCay’s true interest lay in animation, and the dream of bringing his unique ideas to life on film. McCay’s first two short films were adapted from his own comic strips–one lacks a narrative story, and instead is composed of a series of vignettes starring the Little Nemo cast of characters; the other, How a Mosquito Operates, was drawn from an edition of Rarebit Fiend, and demonstrates a more defined, if somewhat unpolished story. But for his third attempt, McCay turned to a brand-new creation, building an entire vaudeville performance around her in the process.
As rewarding as the final result was, the creation of Gertie was nonetheless a painstaking one for the animator. Though he hired another artist, John A. Fitzsimmons, to sketch all of the unusually finely detailed backgrounds for the cartoon, McCay himself composed nearly 10,000 drawings of Gertie. The drawings were done on rice paper, which was then mounted to cardboard for the process of animating the sequences. In developing this cartoon, McCay crafted a revolutionary method for ensuring a smooth transition between different frames, the precursor to “keyframe” animation (which allowed for relatively seamless movement in traditionally hand-drawn animated features).
Initially, McCay crafted Gertie as a part of a broader vaudeville act, along with Nemo and Mosquito; to the amazement of audiences, he would stand on stage and “interact” with his creation in real time. He debuted the cartoon in Chicago in February 1914, and it was a definite hit, but a problem soon arose in the guise of William Randolph Hearst, McCay’s boss at the New York American. Hearst–who decried McCay’s “childish” film ambitions as distracting from the more important business of drawing political cartoons for his newspaper–exerted his influence to try to prevent theater owners from booking McCay’s act. McCay, understandably upset by Hearst’s machinations, ultimately accepted an offer from William Fox (of Twentieth-Century Fox fame) to distribute Gertie to theaters. This necessitated some changes to the cartoon; a live-action introduction was added, and intertitles were inserted into the animated portion to account for McCay’s stage narration.
The rest, as they say, is history. From the moment of her auspicious debut, Gertie the Dinosaur influenced untold generations of artists and animators. Even today it remains one of the most important cartoons in the history of animation. In 1994, Gertie was voted the sixth greatest cartoon of all time in a peer-reviewed survey of 1000 professionals in the field; it was the oldest cartoon to appear on the list. Remarkable though it may seem, with the help of a seriously cute pen-and-ink dinosaur, one man set the stage for animation’s evolution from parlor trick to beloved cinematic and artistic medium.