Little Nemo, 1911, Winsor McCay
There had been earlier forays into animation, James Stuart Blackton’s chalk-drawn Humorous Phases of Funny Faces (1906) or Emile Cohl’s Fantasmagorie (1908) before Winsor McCay got in on the act. By 1911 McCay was the most famous cartoonist in America, creator of two hugely popular comic strips, Dream of a Rarebit Fiend and Little Nemo in Slumberland when, apparently inspired by his son’s flip books, he decided movement was the logical next step. He hooked up with Blackton at Vitagraph Studios and they set about constructing a film around this process.
Winsor McCay, the Famous Cartoonist of the N.Y. Herald and his Moving Comics, as it was called (usually referred to now as Little Nemo) begins with live-action sequences in a club where McCay showcases his quick drawing skills (he was famous from a young age for this) to his artist buddies. He makes a wager that, in just one month, he can create the four thousand drawings required to make these comic characters move. They laugh good-naturedly at this madness. (Note that Cohl used 700 drawings over a four to five month period to make Fantasmagorie). Next we see him hard at work surrounded by cartoon-like props, comically large containers for paper and ink. Finally he’s finished. A projector is set up in the club and we see the famous characters from the strip – Little Nemo, Flip and The Imp – come to life, forming magically out of thin air.
What follows is a moment of freedom, liberation. They contort, fight, expand like fair ground mirrors, draw other characters (that’s McCay animating a character speed drawing another character) until finally Nemo rides off in the jaws of a dragon with a princess. These are finely-rendered characters, in colour, moving through space with anarchic glee. It’s the true birth of animation. Although McCay would go on to more ambitious projects like Gertie the Dinosaur, these two minutes of plotless transformation retain the magic of first moments, the breakthrough wonder of discovery.