Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Winsor McCay | September 26th, 1869 – July 26, 1934

Fig 1 | Winsor Mcay
Windsor McCay is largely known for being an important pioneer in the animation industry; moreover his work became prolific for future generation such as his successors Walt Disney and Max Fleischer. At the beginning of his career, however McCay started out as a cartoonist working on comic strips for papers where he gained attention from the public thanks to his two comic strips ‘Dream Of Rarebit Fiend’ and ‘Little Nemo in Sumberland’ published between 1905 to 1915. Yet his animated performance began with his ‘Lightning Sketcher’ which he performed in a vaudeville shows. From these acts he gained quick popularity as a performer.  
Fig 2 | 'How A Mosquito Operates' Screenshot

From this point McCay became the father figure of animation, stepping over J. Stuart Blackton who developed ‘Humorous Phases of Funny Faces’ in 1906 displaying morphs of two faces.  Nevertheless this was no doubt down to his notorious shorts; One of which was ‘How A Mosquito Operates’  which he produced in 1912. The short depicts as the title suggests how a mosquito operates – biting its victims.  The film generically looks for a comedic value with the Mosquito being ‘outsized’ and yet to it viewer has a cringe-worthy undertone when the mosquito plunges his snout into it victim. Paul Wells confirms this stating Arguable, the first animated ‘horror’ film, featuring a vampiric mosquito’ (Wells, 2002; 115) making it a ‘startling a riveting animation to see during it’s time.  Without doubt showing his ability to animate once again after his prior success ‘Little Nemo’ in 1911. Wells concludes this and state that his work is ‘consolidating McCay’s technique drawn from his skills a draughtsman and illustrator’ (Wells, 2002; 115).  In conclusion, define 2 strong reasons for his chosen ‘father figure’ title. One of these points being his ability to grab his audience with two definitive genre selections. His power specifically in this animation is through, ‘the close depiction of Windsor McCay’s vampiric mosquito’ which ‘is enough to draw the film into a consideration of its place as a ‘horror’ film. Similarly, Raoul Servais’ film Harpya uses the generic figure of a harpy to invoke a gothic surreality, but in many senses the film is a sustained joke about consumption.’ (Wells, 2002; 48) The final point being McCay’s illustrating talent which is an important device for his story-telling; firstly, to find the appropriate graphic style to present the narrative, and secondly, an inherently related to the first process , to alter the perception of the American ‘cartoonal’ idiom from its condition as an intrinsically comic space’ (Wells,2002;48). Which he achieved on a big scale, so much so that it was superseded in future greats such as ‘Disney’s The Mad Doctor’ and ‘MGM’s Tom and Jerry’

Fig 3 | 'Gertie The Dinosaur'  Screenshot
However his biggest success was his later success Gertie the Dinosaur’ which, he developed 2 years later (1914) . ‘Gertie the Dinosaur’s’ follows the storyline of a bet between McCay and his friends as he bring back to life, a Dinosaur in the figure of his latest animation of the time. The animation itself resembles similar attributes to ‘How A Mosquito Operates’ with both characters having full range of personality traits and gestures. The differences however came from his interactive working with the animation material which inherited nicely into his vaudeville act. In another term, presenting the public with it first (staged) interactive animation.  However Gertie ‘The Dinosaur’ gave multiple consolidating factors of McCay’s talent and technique in the animation field. The biggest of which was to stimulate natural movement with an uncanny fluidness and is a major key point in the animation timeline. For McCay he looked at ‘in-between’ movements in animation a developed these specific keys to get a more natural-looking movement out of Gertie. Donald Crafton writes about this explaining ‘McCay’s ability to simulate natural movement was uncanny. Gertie’s ponderous weight is suggested as she shifts rhythmically back and forth on her feet. When she kneels to drink, the ground sags beneath her enormous mass’ (Crafton, 1993; 113) Arguable being the a pivotal investment into animating which has now become a forgotten talent in CGI thanks to software enabling to work the gaps out. In turn, the effects in 1914 paper drawing along with the interactive element  left wonder to the eyes of its audience and in most case convincing the audience thatthat he has resurrected a tangible and loveable animal’ (Crafton,1993;113). Importantly leaving a side connotation which has in fact been of great significance to the animation industry to ‘convince’; which for all animator in their different specialities is a ‘a triumphant moment for the animator as a life giver’ as well as being able to make the imaginary, reality for the audience and as animation has gone on become the speciality of itself in the post-production houses.  McCay’s natural instinct as it where enabled him to build a structure in which many animators have followed in development and once again proves his genius as a father figure for the practice. Gertie also showed us more into the mind set of McCay and his ability to hit home in on a genre. The fact that Gertie was loveable did contribute but his acknowledgement of comedy and how a specific emotion contains a comedic value when displayed – in Gertie’s case being cantankerous in nature would be able to get laughter from an audience and as Howard Beckerman quite correctly says still getting laughs decades after its debut’ (Beckerman, 2003; 19) . Obviously pointing out his acknowledgement of psychological in animation as hook to its audience and for his time most definitely giving him the edge in the industry at the time, his knowledge gave him that extra ability for narrating a story through motion. This attribute was then superseded by most if not all animation practices and companies, in a way of giving us a structural advantage to tell a story/narrative through an animated sequence. 

Fig 4 | 'The Sinking Of The Lusitania' Screen

Still his final ‘piece de résistance’ showed another side to his ability and moreover showed a class to his dichotomy in approach. ‘The Sinking Of the Lusitania’  was again another brainchild of McCay’s although factual event in WWI history. His usage of the story was not used as entertainment but informative. Completely turning around, his genre choice, from comedy, to a more emotional and dramatic envisionment. As Beckerman quite rightly suggest his envisionment was intent on inciting emotions of the public as a propaganda piece against the Germans at the time (1918 being the final staged of the war). The Film is itself focuses on the attack from a German U-boat attack on a defenceless civilian vessel and immediately displays the extremist interpretation that propaganda entails; with the U-boat crew celebrating as the Lusitania goes down. The most striking part of this is complexity and general progression of McCay’s work. I this case the imagery resembles nothing like his previous working such as ‘silhouetted passengers and the vessel itself’ portraying a darker feel and fitting to the genre. Other contradictions to his earlier style and feel was because it was documentary piece McCay had used a more realistic graphic style using detailed cross-hatching as well as again being one of the earliest filmmakers to attempt to use ‘cel animation’. This entails using a transparent sheet on which a object is drawn and used on a background for a more complex, sophisticated and natural look which McCay used to resemble a newsreel of the time. In conclusion, making as Ben Singer states, The Sinking of Lusitania one of McCay’s accomplished works’ (Singer, 2009; 218). This was down to numerous feats in which McCay had achieved, one significant feat being his creation being an animated record of true event which previously would have been achieved through film or photography. The result simulating an informative, horrifying and gripping animation as well as implying a political opinion of McCay’s in a balanced argument – all specifically meant for allied propaganda. As an artistic talent however the film shows the adaption McCay made for his illustration to work incoherently with the genre. Showing his ability, to convert his technique, to a superior method, to suit the story and genre as well as being innovative with his practice. Moreover, implying that animation again doesn’t have to be a tool used for comedy only but can be used for multiple purposes. Examples being from a political diagram in the news to a adverts to now 3D projections. 

Evidently summing up why McCay will always retain the title ‘the farther of animation’ over J. Stuart Blackton and the more notorious animation nut ‘Walter Elias “Walt” Disney’.  McCay was the influence and in turn, the biggest significant stepping stone to the evolution of animation. His abilities through his major work where evident of this as his progression identifying, now key abilities that an animator needs to produce an animation. One - being to use an iconic character which in turn will stick in the audience mind along with a story which psychologically hooks the audience in. Two – having a graphic style which suits the genre and the action within the animation. Three – To achieve a natural, fluid motion, in a animation for it to be convincing to the audience.  4 – Animation isn’t a genre specific or even media specific tool. Finally 5 – Animation is a innovating tool and the only really big way to get a noticeable animation is to do something not done before. In McCay’s era it was a documentary animation, for Walt Disney it was is ‘Multiplane Camera’ (following a revolution of celluloid animation), the 1995 Pixar’s full animated Toy Story and finally back to the present  with Avatar and it’s complex and dynamic 3D Dimensionally scenery.  All in all, stating quite evidently that McCay’s work was literally the commandments of a good animation and speak directly to animators. 

List of Illustrations


Fig 2 McCay, Windsor (1912) ‘How A Mosquito Operates’ Screenshot
[Film Still] How A Mosquito Operates

Fig 3 McCay, Windsor (1914) ‘Gertie The Dinosaur’ Screenshot
[Film Still] Gertie The Dinosaur’

Fig 4 McCay, Windsor (1918) ‘The Sinking Of The Lusitania’ Screenshot
[Film Still] The Sinking Of The Lusitania’

Beckerman, Howard (1993) Animation: The Whole Story, Allworth Communications, inc, 10 East 23rd Street, new York, NY: Allworth Communications, inc.

Crafton, Donald (1993) Before Mickey, The University of Chicago Press, Ltd., London: University of Chicago.]

Singer, Ben (2009) American Cinema of the 1910s: Themes and Variations, Rutgers University press, 100 Joyce Kilmer Avenue, Piscataway: Rutgers University Press

Thomas, Maureen (2003) Architectures of Illusion, Intellect Book, ISBS, 5824 N.E. Hassalo St, Portland, Oregon: Intellects Books

Wells, Pauls (2002) Animation: Genre and Authorship, Wallflower Press, 5 Pond Street, Hampstead, London NW3 2PN: Wallflower Press

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