Thursday, October 8, 2015

A Guide to the Earliest Animated Films (1900-1915)

The field of animation has been one of the most interesting and creative forms of film and its history goes almost all the way back to the beginning of movies.

The first example is a short two-minute film called The Enchanted Drawing from the year 1900. It was not entirely animated as it included live action footage, but it was the first movie with animated sequences as far as I am aware.

It consists of a man (in live-action) drawing a picture of a male face on an easel, as well as other objects such as a cigar and a glass of wine. He takes the drawings off the paper and they turn into real items. Also, the man in the drawing magically changes his facial expressions and this is where the stop-action animation part comes in. So it really isn't an animated film in the traditional sense, but it qualifies enough to be included here.

The Enchanted Drawing is a cute, gimmicky film that's definitely worth checking out to see the roots of animation.

The short was directed by a man named J. Stuart Blackton (he also starred in the film) who was born in the UK but came to the US at age 10. He is often referred to as the father of American animation.

He also made the first entirely animated work, a three-minute short film from 1906 called Humorous Phases of Funny Faces. It used stop-motion and cutout animation and depicts a  hand drawing images on a blackboard that come to life. Like The Enchanted Drawing, it's a fun little diversion that isn't meant to be taken too seriously. Obviously, it's a bit crude by today's standards, but it's definitely entertaining.

Moving forward a couple years to 1908, we see the first film using "traditional animation" methods, a French film called Fantasmagorie.

The less than two minute short depicted a stick figure and several objects that transform into other objects. It does have a live action hand drawing the images in the beginning, but the rest is completely animated. The film was made by drawing each frame on a piece of paper (there were over 700 drawings) and then shooting it with film. The lines were originally black, but the film was then printed in negative.

Fantasmagorie survives and is currently on Youtube, but the footage hasn't been preserved that well.

In 1908, there was also another work by J. Stuart Blackton, a stop-motion short called The Humpty Dumpty Circus. Albert E. Smith, who founded Vitagraph Studios with Blackton, was also a producer. 

As the title suggests, it portrayed a circus with various animals and performers. The film has historical significance as it's the first American work to use stop-motion animation, according to Wikipedia. Confusingly, some places have this listed as an 1898 work, but IMDB has it at 1908, so I assume that is accurate. Also, I didn't see this uploaded anywhere online.

Three years later in 1911, we see the first film work of American cartoonist Winsor McCay, Little Nemo (alternately titled Winsor McCay, the Famous Cartoonist of the N.Y. Herald and His Moving Comics, which is a mouthful to say the least).

The animated short was based on McCay's newspaper comic Little Nemo, which ran from 1905 to 1914. Little Nemo, along with his other strip Dream of a Rarebit Fiend, brought McCay success and fame. Supposedly he was then inspired to make cartoons by flip books. He also apparently thought of himself as the first to do so (the credits even state this), but we obviously know that wasn't the case. Having said that, he was definitely a very influential figure in the field of animation.

The film consisted of 4000 frames that were drawn by hand on rice paper and then photographed. There were also extensive live action sequences. It was probably the most sophisticated animated movie yet and is decently visually impressive.

Also released in 1911 was an early work by Russian stop-motion animator Wladyslaw Starewicz, The Grasshopper and the Ant (Strekoza i muravey was the original Russian title). Starewicz  was born in Moscow in 1888. 

He was very interested in insects and actually used dead ones as "actors" in films, which ended up looking a bit creepy. 

There are odd touches like the grasshopper playing violin and taking a bow. The insects are even given dialogue through intertitles. 

Despite its quirkiness, the five-minute short was pretty impressive for the time and even earned Starewicz a commendation from the czar. 

It's listed on IMDB as The Dragonfly and the Ant and given a release year of 1913, but most other sources seem to put it at 1911.

The next year in 1912, Starewicz made what is claimed to be the first puppet animated film, The Beautiful Lukanida (aka Prekrasnaya Lyukanida). Unfortunately, I could not find this anywhere, so I'm not sure if it's lost.

That same year Starewicz released The Cameraman's Revenge, starring animated beetles. It's listed as The Revenge of a Kinematograph Cameraman on IMDB. The short film continued the unsettling usage of dead insects for stop-motion animation; they even get to drive a car and visit a nightclub this time. The subject matter is incredibly unique as it's about infidelity among insects.

In 1913, animator John Randolph Bray created his first movie, The Artists's Dream (also known as The Dachsund and the Sausage). It was historically significant because it was the first film to use animation cels, which are clear pieces of celluloid  that are drawn on.

Like many of the other examples in this article, The Artist's Dream used live-action footage as a frame story and showed an artist drawing the images. The very basic plot of the animated sequences consists of a cute little dachshund eyeing a sausage.

1914 saw the return of Winsor McCay with Gertie the Dinosaur, the first film to combine hand drawn animation with live action footage. Not only that, it was the first movie to feature a dinosaur. It also had a then-staggering 10,000 hand drawn frames, mostly made by McCay himself and his assistant John A. Fitzsimmons.

Some sources claim this to be the first animated work, but that's clearly incorrect. This may be because it was the most successful and well-known one up to that point. 

Furthermore, on a technical level it was probably the most refined work of the era. The animation consisted of line drawings, but they were remarkably expressive for the time. My favorite part is when Gertie does an adorable little dance for the camera.

The live action parts feature McCay and other animators in what basically amounts to a frame story, which is similar to Little Nemo.

Finally, in 1915 there was the first animated film of feature length, titled Creation. It was directed by Pinto Colvig, who was famous for designing the Disney logo and being the voice of Goofy. Creation is currently considered a lost film as only tiny snippets have been found.

I could find very little information online about this film; it doesn't even have an IMDB listing.

That's all for the animated flicks of this era, thanks for reading!

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