Thursday, 10 March 2011

A Study of Winsor McCay...

Fig. 1  Image of the Mosquito at work.

Winsor McCay can be considered the father of animated film. There were few before him, J. Stewart Blackton is perhaps the only one, as he created animated chalk faces in Humorous Phases of Funny Faces in 1906. One of McCay's first works was How a Mosquito Operates, an amazing but definitely disturbing use of animated line drawings. Paul Wells believed that it was "Arguably, the first animated 'horror film, featuring a vampiric mosquito. and consolidating McCay's technique drawn from his skills as a draughtsman and illustrator." (Wells, 2002:115) First revealed in 1912, it was a real example of what can be achieved simply through illustration and how graphic only a few lines can be. Wells also expressed that "the close-up depiction of Winsor McCay's vampiric enough to draw the film into a consideration of it's place as a 'horror' film." (Wells, 2002:48) The audience watches this well-to-do looking mosquito as he sharpens his nose and then horribly and slowly stabs it into the sleeping man's face and head. The timing is key to creating the unsettling tone as the audience knows what it will do, but they are left sitting for too long before anything happens, building up the tension.
Fig. 2  Image of Gertie.
The second, and possibly most famous animation of McCay's is Gertie, from his 1914 animation Gertie the Dinosaur.  In this animation, not only does he bring to life an extinct life form with two other characters, but he also created the biggest amount of drawings for an animated film ever. Michael W. Brooks explained that "his major contribution to the mass media came...when he produced more than ten thousand pencil sketches to animate 5 minutes of film in Gertie the Trained Dinosaur - the first animated cartoon to feature an animal." (Brooks, 1997:96) This animation, to this day, is full of charm and its simplicity only adds to its appeal to the audience. McCay creates a wholly imaginary world in this film and it is through the animations simplicity of its line drawings that McCay can place himself into the animation in a clear visual way. J.P. Telotte divulged that the "moment of entry is certainly one of the most effective parts of the film, an unexpected "topper" for all the other tricks Gertie has done and a hint of the attraction that inheres in the deep - and still unexplored - space of the frame." (Telotte, 2010:28) The audience is introduced to Gertie, she is his disobedient pet that is supposed to perform tricks for him when she asks but her cheeky personality still shines through.  It is the real personality that Gertie has that makes it, not only believable ,but incredibly fun when McCay steps into the animation and she picks him up and rides away with him on her back.

Fig. 3 Image from The Sinking of the Lusitania.

Possibly one of McCay's most powerful animations is The Sinking of the Lusitania from 1918. This is the first example of an animated film based on real events and it is because of this that it is so powerful to watch. The Lusitania was a british liner that was carrying civilians as well as a few popular celebrities of the time. McCay was so affected by this loss thousands of innocent lives that he wanted to portray it in film and express his disgust to the whole world. It's another solely black and white film, but this time it doesn't appear to be simple line drawings, the ship even has rotoscope quality to it as it sits tall on the water. The animation's appearance, Tellotte has mentioned, is much like the appearance of illustrations and images in the newspapers of the time, and as this was during a time of war and great fear this made it all the more effective for the audience. Telotte then goes on to explain that McCay "uses the stylistic possibilities implicit in that real space of anxiety to add a further unsettling dimension, as if the submarine lurking in those depths were metaphoric of some other sort of anxiety or threat that was more difficult to articulate or visualise." (Telotte, 2010:49-50) That threat could be the fear of invasion by the Germans.  This animation is a piece of propaganda to make sure the audience is sufficiently scared and angry at the opposing forces. The use of tragic music alongside the images of people falling, drowning and being killed in the explosions completely adds to the terror they must be feeling.  To create this animation McCay made over 25,000 drawings and that grand effort is clearly visible in the flowing smoke and raucous waters of the sea.

All of these animations are incredibly important to the foundation of animation. Without these seemingly simple moving images animation wouldn't be where it is today, and perhaps not as easy to access too.
List of Illustrations

Figure 1. How a Mosquito Operates (1912) Image of the Mosquito at work. At: (Accessed on: 09.03.11)

Figure 2. Gertie the Dinosaur (1914) Image of Gertie. At: (Accessed on: 09.03.11)

Figure 3. The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918) Image from The Sinking of the Lusitania. At: (Accessed on: 09.03.11)


Telotte, J. P. (2010) Animating space: from Mickey to Wall-E. Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky.

Brooks, Michael W. (1997) Subway city: riding the trains, reading New York. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.

Wells, Paul (2002) Animation: genre and authorship. London: Wallflower Press.

1 comment: