The Centennial of American Animation
Written by Ray Pointer
Animated cartoons are recognized as “America’s Art Form,” and have become an influential part of our culture for a century. It all began with the 1906 release of Humorous Phases Of Funny Faces by James Stuart Blackton. Blackton was originally a journalist for the New York Evening World, and on March 12, 1896, he was sent to interview Thomas Edison. As they talked, Blackton made some quick sketches that impressed Edison so much that he invited him to appear before his newly developed motion picture camera. Blackton joined Edison and became the co-founder of Edison’s Vitagraph Company, which was later bought by the Warner Brothers in 1924. Blackton’s first experiment was The Enchanted Drawing (1900), followed by Humorous Phases (1906) and Lightning Sketches (1907). But these were more of the “trick film” variety based on stop-motion techniques and were not actual animated cartoons in the truest sense.
In 1907, Emile Cohl, who was a contemporary of George Melies and the Lumiere Brothers, started making his first animated cartoons in Paris, France. His first cartoon, Fantasmagorie (1907) applied all of the basic principles behind animated cartoons by making a series of progressive drawings photographed on motion picture film. By all accounts, Cohl was the first cartoon animator and the great-grandfather of all animators who have followed since.
But the most significant developments came out of the United States. And the most important figures to emerge were Winsor McCay, Max Fleischer, and most of all, Walt Disney. McCay had gained fame through his comic strips, and in 1911 he displayed his first animation, Little Nemo, which set a standard of artistry and fluid action that would not be surpassed for 20 years. McCay continued to make animated cartoons such as How A Mosquito Operates (1912) and most importantly, Gertie The Dinosaur (1914) that inspired others to enter this fascinating new field.
One of these men was John Randolph Bray. Bray was a newspaper and magazine cartoonist from Adrian, Michigan working in the New York publishing circles in the early 1900s. According to an account by McCay, Bray visited him posing as a reporter to learn the secrets of his production processes. Bray learned that McCay drew the background and figures on each drawing, which contributed to the slow process of production. Realizing the commercial value of animation, Bray understood the need to industrialize the production of animation. At first he printed the backgrounds onto paper, drawing the characters in the open areas. He later realized the concept of a single drawing of the background inked on a celluloid overlay, and sandwiched with the animation drawings which were on individual sheets of paper.
Another cartoonist, Earl Hurd realized the concept of tracing and painting animation drawings on celluloid, and photographing them against a single illustrated background. Bray and Hurd combined their patents to form the Bray-Hurd Process Company, which licensed the use of all related uses of the cel technique to animation studios until the patents expired in 1932.
While the cel technique sped up production, the results of many of these commercially produced cartoons were not as fluid or graceful as the initial works of McCay. To face the challenge of producing lifelike animation and meet a commercial schedule, Max Fleischer developed The Rotoscope, which originally consisted of the adaptation of a used Moy projector and an easel with an 8″x 10″ opening that allowed for frame-by-frame reference and tracing of live action photography. While the process of “Roto-tracing,” was slow, the results were most convincing. The Rotoscope proved to be an important tool, not just an aid in animation production, but in motion picture production. It also provided a registered reference for compositing cartoon animation with live action photography, and was used for making match line references for matte photography and process scenes used in live action films.
The most important pioneer was without doubt, Walt Disney, who took his lead from pioneers such as McCay, Fleischer, and Paul Terry. When Disney was 19 years old, he was working as a commercial artist for The Kansas City Film Ad Company when he became interested in animation. His only source of instruction was a book by Edwin G. Lutz, who was famous for his “Lightning Sketch” trick films that pioneered many of the basic animation techniques that would be applied by others. In a 1955 taped interview, Disney remarked that The Kansas City Film Ad Company doubled as a film exchange known as United Film Service. He would look for the cartoons, and made a file of clips taken from the film prints that came through. Many of these clips were taken from the cartoons produced by Bray and Terry. Since Disney admired the work of Terry, much of his early work resembles Terry’s, especially since he copied much of the animation from these clips. He borrowed a camera from work, and in his spare time produced a political cartoon about conditions in Kansas City called Newman’s Laugh-O-Grams.
Disney approached his boss at the Film Ad Company on the prospect of producing theatrical cartoons in the manner of the New York producers. Disney’s boss passed on the idea, and Walt left to start his own company in 1922. He was contracted to produce six modernized fairy tales including Little Red Riding Hood, The Four Musicians of Bremen, Jack and The Beanstalk, Goldie Locks and The Three Bears, Puss In Boots, and Cinderella. While his distributor owed him $10,000 on each film, the balance wasn’t paid, and Disney’s small company was forced into bankruptcy.
In early summer of 1923, Disney was seeking employment as a live action film director in Hollywood when he was contacted by Margaret Winkler. She had seen his test film, Alice’s Wonderland that used a reverse of the Out Of The Inkwell concept, placing a live action girl into an animated cartoon fantasy world. One account of the story states that Disney sent a print of this test film to the Winkler Company. Other accounts state that while Disney’s films were held in receivership, the holding company showed it to prospective buyers, and one of them was Miss Winkler. Regardless of how she happened to see the film, Miss Winkler saw potential and ordered a series without ever having seen Disney’s facilities, which at the time consisted of his Uncle Robert’s garage. Within a year, The Disney Studio occupied a formal location and became the birthplace of what became known as “The West Coast Style of Animation,” since it was the first animation operation in Los Angeles. Because of this, the then Disney Brothers Studio spawned all of the other Hollywood animation studios that materialized after the sound revolution.
See our DVD Before Walt for more about the history of animation.