July 28, 2007

Winsor McCay, the Famous Cartoonist of the N.Y. Herald and His Moving Comics (1911)

While better known for his enormous influence in the history of comic strips and comics in general, the now legendary American artist Winsor McCay also played an important role in the development of animated films in the U.S. when he began to put his talents in animated movies, creating classics such as 1914's "Gertie the Dinosaur", where he interacted with his animated dinosaur in ways that precede what Walt Disney would do decades later in "Song of the South" and "Who Framed Roger Rabbit". Winsor McCay's first encounter with the movie industry happened in 1906, when his comic strip "Dream of a Rarebit Fiend" was adapted to screen by Wallace McCutcheon and Edwin S. Porter. Fascinated with cinema, McCay produced his first movie in 1911, the autobiographical short film titled "Winsor McCay, the Famous Cartoonist of the N.Y. Herald and His Moving Comics", the movie that would contain his first 2 minutes of animated work.

In many ways, it could be said that "Winsor McCay and His Moving Comics" is a short biopic about McCay's decision to enter the field of animated films. The movie begins with McCay (playing himself) debating with a group of friends and colleagues (John Bunny and George McManus among them) about the possibility of using cinema to create animated movies. McCay explains them the process and his ideas to make it work in a way that the drawings move realistically. To his surprise, his friends laugh at the idea, thinking it's too laborious and complicated to create enough drawings to animate a cartoon the way McCay wants it. However, this only makes McCay more determined to prove he is right, so he bets that he can do a short film in a month. At Vitagraph studios, McCay works without rest, creating the four thousand drawings that will give life to his most famous creation: Little Nemo.

Written by Winsor McCay himself, the frame story for this wonderful "Little Nemo" animation is loosely based on McCay's real experiences with animation. While of course the plot about the bet is an exaggeration, McCay did face a certain degree of skepticism about the way he was planning to animate his drawings. It's not that animated films were new at the time, but the kind of movies McCay wanted to make were considered too difficult to create. In fact, even when McCay does joke about the amount of ink and paper used to make the animation, he really had to draw a lot to create the marvelous 2 minutes that make the last segment. Like in his comic strips, the "little Nemo" animation is a surrealist marvel in which McCay makes a brief introduction of his popular characters: Nemo, the Princess, the Imp, and of course, Flip.

While the animation segment was of course McCay's creation, the frame story was directed by J. Stuart Blackton, former employee of the Edison Production Company who in those years was one of Vitagraph's top directors. Knowing that the movie's highlight was the animation at the end, Blackton keeps a restrained style through his movie, although this doesn't mean he refuses to have fun, as he adds clever visual gags that keep the viewer's attention as McCay's story is told. His handling of the cast is also very good, although the credit for the film's natural and realistic performances must definitely go to legendary comedian John Bunny, who plays himself as a friend of McCay, and together with writer George McManus are McCay's main costars. Bunny's aid was certainly instrumental in helping McCay and McManus to look believable.

Now, as written above, McCay's animated segment is simply a masterpiece of animation, as he achieves a level of detail in his drawings that still few animators attempt to achieve. As in his comic strips, his use of perspective is remarkable, and the fact that here we see it animated just feels as if his drawings were alive. While short, 2 minutes are enough to present his characters, and he offers a small glimpse of what "Little Nemo" is about: a magical fantasy where like in dreams, everything is possible. A great detail about the animation is the fact that the same drawings he made during the frame story are the ones that eventually end up in his animation, enhancing this feeling of drawings coming alive by the magic of cinema. Even now it is truly a fascinating work of art.

"Winsor McCay, the Famous Cartoonist of the N.Y. Herald and His Moving Comics" is an amazing mix of biopic, documentary and animation that definitely is an obligatory viewing for everyone interested in the history of animated films. It is truly amazing how more than 90 years after it was made the movie still looks beautiful and impressive. No wonder why Walt Dinsey liked McCay's work so much that it inspired him to make animations. It is truly a film that must be seen to be believed.


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