If you ever want to earn yourself some serious animation nerd cred, the next time someone asks you who your favourite animator is, fix them with a steely gaze, whisper the words “Winsor McCay”, drop the mike and then moonwalk out of the room.
McCay is not a household name, but he is almost certainly one of the greatest animators of all time, one of the two most influential animators of all time and most amazingly of all, possibly the first animator of all time. Okay, obviously, we will never know who was actually the first animator. Probably the first kid in class who realised that with a little doodling in the edges of your copybook you could make it look like your teacher was being eaten by velociraptors. But to start this decade by decade look at animated shorts I need a big, flashy, incandescent Big Bang and by God, McCay fits the bill.
McCay was a celebrated cartoonist probably most famous for the Little Nemo comic strip, which combined incredible detail with gorgeous, trippy surrealism.
Inspired by the flip books that his son brought home one day, he decided to create an animated version of Little Nemo, drawing four thousand rice paper cels by hand and pioneering many animation techniques on the fly, all while carrying on with his regular comic strip work. That’s right. He virtually invented modern animation. He did it single-handedly. And he did it in his spare time. Today’s short is Winsor McCay, the Famous Cartoonist of the N.Y. Herald and His Moving Comics and because it’s public domain and up on You Tube, we can all watch it together. Great, right? We never do stuff together any more.
So the movie begins before animation has been invented which is why it’s in live action (joking, joking, I know about Blackton and Cohl, I can read Wikipedia too). Winsor McKay is betting his fellow artists that he can create a comic strip that moves. And can I just point out how insanely lucrative newspapers used to be? Those tony-looking motherfuckers with their fancy suits and monocles and brandy and cigars aren’t newspaper owners, they aren’t even journalists. They are COMIC STRIP ARTISTS. That’s how much money was in the newspaper business in the nineteen tens. I mean, look at these guys! They don’t look like artists, they look like the guys who owned the fleets that hunted the blue whale to the brink of extinction! Anyway, they of course scoff and mock his idea and presumably tell him to try something more sensible like circumnavigating the globe in eighty days. This is a recurring plot in McCay’s cartoons incidentally, which could be titled
Watch My Idiot Friends Lose Money by Betting Against Me, Winsor Goddamn McKcay.
Undeterred, McCay draws one of his characters, the Little Imp, to show his friends how this whole “animation” thing is going to work.
One of the things you notice watching the live action scenes is that compared to a modern film the pacing is absolutely glacial. When McCay draws Little Imp, you see him draw the entire thing from start to finish, no cuts, no edits. We’re talking about a period where film is so new and exciting that even watching something as mundane as a man drawing a picture is fascinating in and of itself. You’d watch it because you most likely had never seen that before. Anyway, McCay bets his friends that he will draw 4,000 images in one month and make them move. I especially love the moment where one of McCay’s friends tries to leave and he literally pushes him back down in his chair.
We now get a sequence of delivery men bringing barrels of ink and massive slabs of paper to McCay’s office and I honestly don’t know if that’s supposed to be a joke or an accurate representation of the material that was required. McCay directs them as they bring it while wearing a fedora and smoking a cigar like a goddamn Ink Mobster. There’s some pretty unfunny business with Winsor’s son knocking over a huge pile of papers and the middle of the film drags pretty hard once you’ve gotten over the culture shock of watching people from over a century ago. But at last, McCay unveils his animation. And it is…
Chuck Jones described Winsor McCay thusly, as if the first living creature to emerge on Earth was Albert Einstein, and the next was an amoeba. He’s like the Antikythera mechanism, something that should not exist as early in history as it does. He’s the first to do this, or close enough, so he doesn’t know what you’re not supposed to be able to do. He doesn’t know that you have to keep the character models simple. He doesn’t know that you’re supposed to keep the perspective unchanged and flat. When he swings the “camera” around to show an incredible, meticulously detailed dragon from the side, the front and then the rear before it slouches off into the distance he doesn’t know that you’re not supposed to be able to do that. There is no story, not really. It’s simply characters coming to life and exulting in their existence and creating new characters to play with. It’s dreamlike, and surreal, and moves with a grace and fluidity that most animators living today will never be able to match. The Titanic was being built when Winsor McCay created this, single handed. It wouldn’t be until the eve of the Second World War that Walt Disney, with a team of dozens of the most talented animators in the world and a budget of over a million dollars, would be able to create animation that rivals it. It’s beautiful. It’s amazing. It breaks my goddamn heart.
Jones went on to say that the two most important names in animation were Walt Disney and Winsor McCay and that he honestly didn’t know whose name should go first. Walt himself might have bowed out of that contest. When McCay’s son visited the Disney studios in the fifties Walt gave him the tour and told him “Bob, all this should be your father’s.”
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DAMN. I forgot how amazing McKay was. I know we got a Little Nemo movie back in the early 90’s, but I’d love to see an animated film that really does his work justice.
Winsor McCay! They had an exhibit on this guy at my university once, and it was a freaking marvel. His comic strips were wonderfully trippy, especially Dream of the Rarebit Fiend, which completely bypassed any concept of cuteness or story like Nemo had, and went straight for Nightmare Fuel.
Gertie may be his more famous creation, but I always thought this was the more impressive film. Gertie gets credit for being the first cartoon “character”, because she actually displays some personality, but she also mostly stands around and looks cute, while this cartoon is all energy and amazing perspective.
Wow. I tend to like more structure and story but as a pure artistic achievement this was great to watch. Thanks for introducing it to me.
I had a Cinema and Television Arts professor who was big on watching a film as the audience at the time would have watched it. That does help appreciate the live action bits where they’re just showing off going “hey, the pictures move.” Still, imagine sitting down to watch this, being all amazed by the live action and then suddenly drawings can move too.
I’d heard of McCay but I had no idea he was this big a deal in animation. It’s not everyday you get to watch the birth of an artform.
Hell, even from a modern standpoint this is impressive. McCay’s later productions (especially Gertie) made a huge deal out of each individual frame being drawn individually, and the amount of detail is impressive, particularly given that the art was done by one man as opposed to a studio.
He was a goddamn Michaelangelo.
That….that is pretty goddam amazing
Wow, Gotta hand it to this guy for actually being good enough to make Walter Elias Disney say his stuff should belong to someone else. That’s gotta take ability. The dragon was definitely the most impressive part to me, for the reasons you mentioned. Even if that moment where the bonnet-sporting kid distorts Little Imp and his buddy repeatedly does drag out a tad.
So if McCay isn’t technically the first animator because of Blackton and Cohl, what is the significance of him? Is he the first to do it this well? One video I watched about him said that without McCay there’d be no Disney or Pixar. Do you know how that’s the case? Also, forgive my ignorance, but how is that one drawing racist and which race is it racist against?
Little Imp is an African tribesmen drawn with massively exaggerated lips (although in the colourised version it’s actually not that easy to tell that he’s black). McCay, as well as being far and away the most accomplished animator at that point, had a vaudeville show where he would show off his cartoons and interact with them. He wasn’t just an animator but a showman and entertainer. He was Disney before Disney.
So did Disney take inspiration from him? I mean, how would animation history likely be different if McCay didn’t exist, and why?
Impossible to say really. McCay invented inbetweening and lots of other techniques and popularised animation for the masses. It’s possible Disney might not even have become an animator without McCay. Hell animation might never have gone beyond flip books and kid’s toys without McCay.
“McCay invented inbetweening and lots of other techniques”
So does that mean there are also films he drew with the assistance of inbetweeners in addition to the ones he drew all by himself, or did he just draw all the key frames himself and then all the inbetween frames himself on every project?
“and popularised animation for the masses. It’s possible Disney might not even have become an animator without McCay. Hell animation might never have gone beyond flip books and kid’s toys without McCay.”
Fascinating. Thanks for educating me!
No, he worked alone on all his films as far as I know. He invented inbetweening later on when working on “The Sinking of the Lusitania”.
Talk about dedication!
Great review, but with Shortstember going on, are all the full reviews (and the Bald Frog reviews) going to be delayed?
(Cause I really want to see you review Steven Universe within my lifetime)
I’m planning on doing the regular reviews as well. SU won’t be for another few months though.
“We now get a sequence of delivery men bringing barrels of ink and massive slabs of paper to McCay’s office and I honestly don’t know if that’s supposed to be a joke or an accurate representation of the material that was required.”
Four thousand drawings. Four thousand sheets of paper – plus however many more for mistakes, though he couldn’t afford many of those with a time limit of one month. Assuming the paper is about the same thickness as modern copy paper, the final product is about the size of one of the stacks on his desk. If it’s much thicker, maybe two stacks.
The ink is clearly a joke.