2. The Evolution of Storytelling and Animation Techniques (1914-1940)

The medium of animation through its humble beginnings had set new standards for the possibilities of what one could do with art and expression. The later innovations within the field of animation and the different techniques that would develop within the course of the 20th century would step animation up from being merely a form of side entertainment to a high profile form of entertainment and storytelling art with the introduction of various cartoons and cartoon characters which would come to be known the world over. Among the very first of these cartoons brought into existence were one named Gertie the Dinosaur, and another, called Little Nemo, both of which were created by Winsor McCay in 1914 and 1910 respectively. The Gertie the Dinosaur cartoon was the first to combine filmings of real life with animations, with the cartoon existing to craft the illusion of a dinosaur being under the command of Winsor McCay. The first Gertie film, being silent, has McCay introducing the animated dinosaur to the audience with a textual frame stating that “Gertie-yes her name is Gertie–will come out of that cave and do everything I tell her to.” after showing the audience a gigantic brachiosaurus fossil. The gimmick here was to apply animation as a form of exhibition of what could be done with animation and how the medium had evolved to offer animators more control over what they could or could not do on screen.

The earlier Little Nemo film, on the other hand had little to narrative in contrast to the exhibitionist narrative of the Gertie the Dinosaur cartoon. The cartoon does however set a new precedent for animation cartooning techniques that would become commonplace later on in the life of the medium. The cartoon in my own humble opinion looks and feels like what I’d imagine going to a Barnum & Bailey’s circus while tripping on acid would look like. The animation portrayed some of the characters from the Little Nemo comic books forming seemingly from thin air in the middle of a blank page and interacting. The video, posted below displays examples of field of vision and also squashing and stretching; techniques which are still used in animation today. Squashing and stretching is precisely what it sounds like, and is the process of having a character or object in the mise en scene (within the frame) of the film magically elongate or shorten, much like a rubber band. This technique is often used in order to give inanimate things and characters a comic sense of life in cartoons, or to exaggerate an emotion, however, squash and stretch has its origins in the world of nature. The earlier Eduard Muybridge horse galloping sequences would show a squashing and stretching in the muscles of the horse, as the muscles and flesh naturally stretched with each gallop.

McCay’s Little Nemo and the Muybridge’s Horse Gallop

Much like the introductory phrase for Gertie, and the trippy Little Nemo animation, animators would later in the twentieth century take inspiration from these, and cartoonists soon became more imaginative and aware of the power of control that they existed within animation that was not attainable through any other means like regular recorded film. The world of animation, instead of limiting itself to a mere imitation of reality, as film does, combines this with the artistic innovation present in many later abstract art movements, and there was still for the time period of the 1910s still something a bit more magical about the medium and its ability to simultaneously captivate and disorient an audience with its similarity to reality, but also its distortion of it.

Despite also doing these two animations, Winsor McCay in the year 1918 finally released the first animated propaganda film entitled The Sinking of the Lusitania; an Amazing Adventure in 1918 as means to help people enlist and the government to collect war bonds. World War 1, however, would last until 1918, so while the film’s viability as propaganda film waned significantly; it remained as a prominent period piece. Also, the Lusitania by that point had been sunk for three years, so the film became a useless gesture of sorts. The prospect behind the animation, however, was to prove that animation could have other applications beyond mere entertainment, and could be utilized to convey complex stories as well as political messages.

The Sinking of the Lusitania would be the first animation to be used for political purposes, but it would not be the last usage of animation for a political cause. In fact the usage of animation in Sinking of the Lusitania as propaganda would set precedent for the various other successive political animations to come. The 1920s would go on to be an even bigger decade for the American animation industry, and was the beginning of a new era for the art of storytelling and entertainment. The 1920s saw the rise of the very first popular cartoon characters, with chief amongst them being Felix the Cat.


Felix the Cat; legendary cartoon.

The Felix the Cat character was conceived in Otto Mesmer’s animation studio and quickly became widely popular, becoming the very first animated character to attract movie-level crowds. Mesmer had already in 1916 been known for creating Charlie Chaplin animated cartoons, however, he took the silliness, mannerisms, and surrealist themes present in these Chaplin cartoons and transferred them over to his Felix the Cat animated movies. The Felix the Cat cartoon would become arguably an international sensation and was perhaps the very first animated character to become its own franchise. Wherever the character’s animations were shown, there was bound to be Felix the Cat merchandise not far behind. Felix the Cat’s wildly popular marketed image is easily recognizable and arguably made cartoons is taken far more seriously than in previous eras. The cartoon animation could by this point be considered a commercially viable means of artistic expression.

What was unique about the he character of Felix the Cat which separated it from the likes of characters such as Gertie the Dinosaur, was the fact that the character possessed a personality of sorts which other cartoon characters severely lacked. This character exists as proof of how animation has the capability to captivate and connect with the minds of hundreds of audience members, and how the magic of an illusionary sequence of images could create relationships and attachments between the character portrayed and the community of viewers. The always thinking Felix the cat’s surreal adventures portrayed an always pondering, always self-reflective character with a devious personality, that was always up to no good. This anthropomorphic cat character’s ability for inner reflection and to ponder a plan for himself, instead of merely following orders like Gertie the dinosaur, marks a drastic shift in how characters would be animated, but also how animators would relate their fantasy characters to a human audience. Below is an example of why this character appealed to so many.

Prospective animators everywhere who witnessed Mesmer’s work would instead of focusing merely on animation as an exhibitionist sideshow like many previous showmen, now focused on how they could imbue cartoon characters with a certain personality akin to Felix the Cat’s. Felix’s constant use of his mind to figure out a solution to a problem made him more relatable and added another dimension to the animated character, however, it also showed that animation had the potential for much more with characters that were somewhat more human in their mannerisms. However, due to the lack of sound or voiceover in cartoons and movies in general at that time, cartoons such as Felix the Cat would need to rely solely upon motion and gestures in order to convey a particular message towards an audience. It would not be until the rise of Walt Disney, who would begin his career around the same time as Messmer in 1920, that the world of animation would be revolutionized yet again and introduced to a world of sound.

While Felix the Cat’s era was soundless, the personality of the onscreen character spoke volumes to the viewer, and ironically, as soon as Disney introduced sound to animation, Felix the Cat began to lose its appeal. With Walt Disney’s introduction of Oswald the Rabbit in his Trolley Troubles debut in 1927, followed quickly by Mickey Mouse in his animated debut entitled Steamboat Willie in 1928, the world of animation would add another element to its shorts in the form of speech and sounds, the result of which was largely successful with audiences, as the musical numbers were heavily syncopated and perfectly timed in comparison to other experiments in the area of sound and the moving image. Musical numbers in animation, characters with personality, as well as the squash and stretch techniques would become a staple in cartoons from then on. The addition of sound to the mix would place these new cartoons in a rival position to previous cartoons such as Felix, putting them against the ropes. In 1930, after creating Mickey Mouse for Walt Disney, animator Ub Iwerks debuted his newest cartoon, Fiddlesticks. It was the first to combine sound and color, and was the contribution which would change the entire animation industry forever.


Iwerk’s Fiddlesticks

Animating full feature cartoons with the onset of Disney’s newfound dominance was a bit more of a challenge without any real direction for the story visuals to go on to start animating; however, in the years soon after the Great Depression, Disney began to take inspiration from comic books and strips. This would go on to start a practice which nearly every animator follows to this day to conceptualize their work before crafting a fully formed product. The art of storyboarding, which was popularized by Disney helped for future animators to produce a cleaner animation as the storyboards would help to establish the most important changes in scenery or set what a set of frames would focus on. The storyboard basically acted as a comic book of sorts, being the stylistic foundation for the storyline that was to be produced by the director. The storyboard would go on to also be used by Disney’s future rival Warner Bros. studios. The WB animation studios would form around the same time as the debut of the Mickey Mouse, and would debut their legendary “Merrie Melodies” Looney Tunes cartoons in 1930 with Bosko the kid, continuing to work in tangent with Disney’s techniques, however going on to adapt more slapstick with the help of legendary cartoonist Fred “Tex” Avery around 1940.

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