Friday, July 3, 2009

Winsor McCay: Animation Pioneer

According to animation icon Chuck Jones, "The two most important people in animation are Winsor McCay and Walt Disney. I'm not sure who should go first."

Although we at the Bijou would add Max Fleischer to the list, we too would find it difficult to determine who would go first.

Though in his lifetime he enjoyed considerable acclaim for creating the Little Nemo in Slumberland comic strip and the landmark Gertie the Dinosaur animated classic, McCay's work was largely forgotten in the twentieth century. With the recent publication of several biographies and compilations of his works, his life and boundless imagination is at last achieving critical acclaim by modern audiences. Perhaps most amazing is that he began this incredible career not with formalized instruction, but by wowing his teachers and classmates with chalkboard drawings at the age of 13. He found their enthusiastic responses exhilarating, setting the stage for a lifetime of creative accomplishments.

Spring Lake, Michigan didn't offer much opportunity for the gifted young man. At age 19, McCay's father wanted his son to forego his artistic ambitions and pursue a career in business. Though he was sent to Ypsilanti to attend Cleary's Business College, young McCay instead ran off to work at a dime museum in Detroit called Wonderland, a bizarre blend of circus acts, freak shows, vaudeville and museum exhibitions. There he honed his artistic skills by drawing caricatures of patrons and later designing posters amid a creative hodge-podge of clowns, acrobats, bearded ladies, con artists and carnival barkers.

When he was 24 and working at a dime museum in Cincinnati, McCay was smitten by and married a flirtatious 14-year old admirer. During five years they had two children, and the responsibilities of fatherhood motivated a transition from earning little income in the bohemian world to a more substantial income working in the newspaper business.

In 1903 the demand for illustrators and cartoonists at big-city newspapers was on the rise, and McCay earned a staff position at The New York Herald. His early assignments consisted of a mix of reporting, editorial writing and drawing illustrations.

A year later McCay created a popular daily comic strip called Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend, which was published from 1904 to 1913.

The brilliant Canadian journalist Jeet Heer vividly describes this series in The Virginia Quarterly Review: "Each strip followed the same general plot: a dreamer would have some sort of nightmare related to his or her daytime life and wake up at the last panel, inevitably blaming the harsh vision on ill-digested cheese (the rarebit of the title). But the nightmares had decidedly mature content: a man mocks Darwin and then turns into a monkey; a woman receives a leather purse from a male admirer which turns into an alligator eager to consume her; a parson dies but rather than receiving his eternal reward is cast into the fires of hell."

In 1905 McCay created a Sunday comic strip for children called Little Nemo in Slumberland. While Rarebit Fiend told harsh, cynical tales set in a nightmare world, Little Nemo described the adventures of an imaginative child inhabiting a fantasy dream world. The little boy in the new series was inspired by McCay's young son Robert.

There has been a huge resurgence in admiration among comic book fans and artists for Little Nemo and several amazing compilations have recently been published, including "Little Nemo in Slumberland: So Many Splendid Sundays!" and "Winsor McCay: Early Works, Volumes 1-10."

In 1906 vaudeville had become a fashionable tradition in theaters across America, and among the comedians, acrobats, minstrels and magicians was a popular genre called the "chalk-talk artist." These were entertainers who would talk to the audience while drawing images on a chalk board. McCay's talents and the Little Nemo comic strips were ideally suited to this format, and soon McCay found himself sharing the vaudeville stage with the major entertainers of the day. (resonating back to his childhood days entertaining his classmates in much the same way.)

The art of animation was in its infancy at the beginning of the twentieth century, and McCay couldn't resist trying to figure out how to make his characters and stories come to life. An idea was inspired by his son's flip books - and four thousand individual drawings later the animated Little Nemo cartoon was born.

The original title for the animated version of the comic strip is Winsor McCay, the Famous Cartoonist of the NY Herald and His Moving Comics (1911) and in the film McCay boasts to his genteel friends that he can bring to life his famous comic strip characters by making 4000 drawings in one month - and then make them move.

We see McCay enlist the Vitagraph Company to do the filming and when completed he shows off the charming results to his astonished colleagues. The animated sequences were hand-colored frame-by-frame on 35 mm film stock, adding to this amazing accomplishment. The Little Nemo short was first showcased as part of McCay's vaudeville act to enthusiastic acclaim, then subsequently shown in movie theaters.

How a Mosquito Operates (1912) was McCay's second animated cartoon and one which some may find rather disturbing. Again and again in this brief six minute nightmare we witness a sadistically mischievous mosquito pierce his elongated stinger into various parts of the victim's head, each time expanding the mosquito's blood sack until it finally explodes.

After this film was completed in 1911, McCay made a decision that he would come to regret for the rest of his life. After seven years working for The New York Herald and becoming one of the most celebrated artists of his day penning three immensely popular comic strips, McCay requested a leave of absence. He was eager to take a break and tour Europe for awhile and perform his vaudeville show.

When the request was denied, he waited until his contract expired and then accepted a very lucrative offer from the competition and joined The New York American as a staff cartoonist. The American was published by the notorious newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, and McCay had no idea of the demands that would soon follow.

His assignments at The American included creating editorial cartoons, illustrating recruitment posters and continuing with his daily comic strips. In the Hearst papers, "Little Nemo was published under the title "In the Land of Wonderful Dreams," since The Herald owned the Nemo name.

While fulfilling his routine duties at The American, McCay set out to develop what would become his masterpiece accomplishment in the field of animation. He had been frustrated that vaudeville audiences were not convinced his drawings were actually moving, but believed somehow the illusion was accomplished with sticks or strings. McCay came up with the grand idea of integrating his in-person live-action persona with the onscreen animation. This was several years ahead of similar innovations later developed by Max Fleischer and Walt Disney.

Thus was born Gertie the Dinosaur, the first cartoon "star" in animation history with genuine personality and emotions not adapted from a comic strip. Gertie debuted in Chicago in 1914 as part of McCay's vaudeville act to enthralled audiences and critical acclaim.

The premise involved McCay standing off to the right side of the movie screen dressed as an animal trainer holding a whip. First he would talk about the science of animation and how it was projected, then introduce Gertie with the crack of his whip. Audiences were astounded when Gertie "the only dinosaur in captivity" first poked her head out from a cave and then, on command, came lumbering out in all her gigantic prehistoric splendor. McCay would then issue a series of commands that Gertie would obey, such as bowing to the audience, lifting her foot, dancing, and interacting with a sea monster, a flying lizard and a woolly mammoth. For the grand finale, McCay would pretend to throw an apple at Gertie, which Gertie would catch in her mouth. He would then announce that "Gertie will show that she isn't afraid of me and take me for a ride" as McCay appeared to morph into an animated character himself, walk onto Gertie's back, take a bow and exit the frame to wild applause.

The Gertie animated sequences were subsequently reformatted for theatrical release as a short subject, with McCay and other actors performing in a prologue and epilogue with intertitles incorporated into the cartoon sequence communicating the story and McCay's various commands to Gertie.

About the time of Gertie's debut, McCay was told by his employer at The American that he was to cease wasting his time in vaudeville and animation and limit his cartooning and illustrations to the editorial page. This demand was backed by the contract he had signed with the newspaper. Henceforth he was to take his instructions from Editor Arthur Brisbane. Brisbane told his new cartoonist: "you're a serious artist, not a comic cartoonist. I want you to give up [Little Nemo] and draw serious cartoon pictures for my editorials."

Hearst biographer W.A. Swanberg describes Brisbane as "a one-time socialist who had drifted pleasantly into the profit system... in some respects a vest-pocket Hearst -- a personal enigma, a workhorse, a madman for circulation, a liberal who had grown conservative, an investor." (pp. 390-391)

While war was brewing in Europe Hearst and editor Brisbane advocated isolationism and that the States should try to understand Germany's perspective. In hindsight we have a better understanding of the political forces then at work in Europe and the United States, but at that time these views were prevailing American sentiment. McCay had his own ideas about the European conflict, but was trapped by his need to support his family and his extravagant spending.

The sinking of the Lusitania in May 1915 was a turning point for both the American Public and McCay. Three years later, McCay created what some scholars consider his finest animated short called The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918) This was different than anything McCay had produced previously, with graphic animated images of the German U-Boat torpedoes hitting and quickly sinking the giant ocean liner and killing 1200 people.

In 1921 McCay created a sequel to Gertie the Dinosaur, wherein Gertie visits New York City, called Gertie on Tour. Sadly, only a small fragment survives.

In 1924 McCay left The American and returned the The Herald (now The Herald Tribune), attempting to revive the Little Nemo comic strip. However, the public's tastes had changed. It was reported that McCay had been allowed to purchase all rights to Little Nemo for $1. McCay was quoted as saying "I have never been so happy as when I was drawing Little Nemo."

He returned once again to The American in 1926 to the singular task of drawing editorial cartoons for Arthur Brisbane, his glory days of creating comic strips, animated shorts and performing on the vaudeville stage becoming only fond memories that would sustain him until his death due to a cerebral hemorrhage in 1934.

Winsor McCay's rich legacy of original innovation and creative output inspired not only his immediate successors; Fleischer and Disney, but also generations of print and animation artists who have entertained and inspired us since those pioneer years a century ago.

Gertie the Dinosaur was selected for preservation in The National Film Registry, and is listed as #6 in The 50 Greatest Cartoons - a survey of animators and historians conducted in 1994 by animation historian Jerry Beck. Every surviving film that McCay made can be enjoyed on one DVD called Animated Legend: Winsor McCay. Many incredible examples of McCay's editorial political cartoons can be found at Golden Age Comic Book Stories

Here on our Bijou blog screen you can enjoy the original theatrical release version of Gertie the Dinosaur, where McCay communicates with Gertie through onscreen intertitles. We can only imagine what a thrill it must have been for 1912 vaudeville audiences witnessing McCay in person on stage interacting with the huge animated Gertie.

No comments: