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100 Greatest Animated Shorts / Gertie the Dinosaur / Winsor McCay

100 Greatest Animated Shorts, Featured

USA / 1914

Although now over a century old, the draughtsmanship and artistry contained in Gertie the Dinosaur still impress, so we can imagine how audiences at the time, unused to any kind animation except the most primitive caveman attempts, were amazed as a dinosaur appeared to walk across the stage at the command of its master, in one of the films in animation history that undoubtedly took the form to a new level.

Winsor McCay was one of those rare figures from history who like Emil Cohl, Len Lye and Harry Smith, was not only a remarkable animator but also an incredible character with a fascinating life story who did outstanding work in different disciplines outside of animation.

Although largely self-taught, Winsor McCay can be described as the first “classical” animator and also one of the world’s leading cartoonists. The sophistication of his work, with its precise lines, realistic use of perspective and intricate designs, set a standard that only a few would match in his lifetime in both the worlds of animation and comic strips. As if this wasn’t enough achievement for one man, he was also a leading light in the world of vaudeville theater with his live-cartooning-based act, for which some of his greatest animation was designed.

Apart from a small amount of tutoring during his spell at Business College in Michigan, McCay had no formal training, and yet his comic strip achievements were impressive enough on their own to ensure his place in history without even taking into consideration his work as an animator. He began his working life as a designer of advertising posters and vaudeville stage sets and from 1903 he produced comic strips, starting out by illustrating other writers’ work in early strips then writing his own strips, such as Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend and Little Nemo in Slumberland.

It was Little Nemo that cemented his reputation, precisely drawn and immaculately crafted in McCay’s signature floral decorative style, it is still regarded as one of the great comic strips and although drifting in and out of fashion, has remained an influence on comic art ever since, including many psychedelic artists of the 1960s and contemporary greats such as Moebius and Chris Ware.

In addition to his comic strip work, the prolific McCay returned to work at vaudeville theaters, this time however as a performer on stage with an act based on creating chalk drawings of volunteers and then ageing the sketches to predict their future appearance. He toured this act for 11 years while still maintaining his steady output of newspaper strips.

McCay’s move into animation came as a result of a bet with other cartoonists who challenged him to film some of the many drawings he created. Probably following technical advice from fellow animation pioneer James Stuart Blackton, he decided to adapt Little Nemo into an animated film. Four thousand drawings and four years later, with every 35mm frame hand-colored by McCay, he incorporated the animated version of his newspaper creation into his stage act. Consisting of little more than the comic characters being brought to life, the impact of this film on audiences at its premiere in 1911 is hard to imagine but the excitement caused by the motion of the characters is such that the animated figures spend much of the film discussing, in comic strip speech bubbles, the fact that they are moving. As well as showing the film on stage, McCay also sold Little Nemo to movie theaters through Blackton’s distribution company Vitagraph, where it was preceded by a short introduction featuring Blackton describing the bet and showing McCay at work.

No doubt aware of the limitations of his first film, McCay’s next animated work, The Story of a Mosquito (aka How a Mosquito Operates, 1912) was a clever comedy in which a mosquito drinks the blood of a drunkard. Every frame of the film is richly drawn in McCay’s art-nouveau style and he was one of the first animators to meticulously preview the animation, testing the flow of the drawings before filming them. It would be his next film, however, which cemented McCay’s reputation as one of the great masters of animation.

McCay unveiled Gertie the Dinosaur on February 8th, 1914 at the Palace Theatre in Chicago, again incorporating it into his vaudeville stage act. His masterpiece was a breakthrough in precision, draughtsmanship, and “realistic” animation and what’s more it cleverly interacted with its creator onstage. During the performance McCay appeared to invite the huge cartoon brontosaurus-like creature onto the stage and, after shyly hiding behind some rocks, the loveable Gertie ate, drank, danced, and cried in response to its onstage “trainer”. McCay’s act was a sensation, aided by the irresistable advertising campaign that proclaimed “She Eats, Drinks, and Breathes! She Dances the Tango!”.

Fellow animation pioneer Emile Cohl wrote the following description in a letter home to his native France: “The main actor, or perhaps the sole actor, was a prehistoric animal… McCay stood very elegantly in front of the screen armed with a whip. He would give a short speech and then, turning towards the screen like an animal trainer, he would call the animal.” To the audience’s amazement, the dinosaur would then come out of the rocks, and perform for the crowd. The film is often regarded as the first instance of true character in that, for the first time, an animated creation had a distinct personality of its own.McCay had truly “breathed life” into his drawings, which is the essence of all great character animation. McCay ended his theatrical productions of Gertie the Dinosaur soon after the newspaper he was working for claimed the rights to his performances. Instead, he added some extra footage to the film and sold it for distribution at movie theaters.

Despite McCay’s towering importance in animation history, he made relatively few films in his lifetime. His perfectionist approach and the fact that he did most of the work single-handed made for long production schedules. It must be remembered that all his most famous films were made in the days before cel animation and each frame is a complete drawing; the backgrounds were drawn on every frame, or traced back by an assistant, a process that’s seems insanely time-consuming and labor intensive today. This, combined with his late start in the field and his parallel careers as a newspaper cartoonist and a stage performer, ensured that his film production was limited. The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918), was McCay’s last significant film, a serious film about a tragic incident, whereby the world’s largest passenger ship was torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat.

For many of his later works he used the new cel animation techniques instead of working purely on paper, a method with which he never matched his earlier levels of quality. Among the later films produced were three adaptations of his early newspaper cartoon Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend (1921), produced with the aid of his son Robert.

Despite his achievements in many areas McCay always considered himself as an animator foremost and that was where his real passion lay. “Animation should be an art, that is how I conceived it,” he famously berated an audience of animation industry figures, “but as I see it, what you fellows have done with it is make it into a trade.”

Note: The 100 greatest animated shorts is an list of opinions and not an order of value from best to worst. Click here to see all of the picks of the list so far. All suggestions, comments and outrage are welcome!

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