Winsor McCay is, withouth a doubt, one of the most important figures in animation history. Despite this, most of his films are barely remembered today and, as an artist, he has largely been forgotten by the general public. (The situation seems to be a little better regarding his position in comic strips history, but still mostly the same). Partly because of this, I have decided to dedicate a mini-retrospective to his short films, although some of these have already been discussed to death. I’ll try not to sound too redundant…
Before moving to films, Winsor McCay was active in the comic strips business, and he was mostly known for “Little Nemo in Slumberland” (one of the most important comic strips of all time). The strip already shows most of McCay’s drawing abilities: great use of color, great use of perspective, generally realistic in spite of the subject matter, full of details. The style can almost be described as “Baroque”. McCay also liked to experiment with the comic strip format, going beyond what was originally possible. After a while, McCay got bored with the medium (having probably explored any artistic possibility he wanted to exploit) and began to grow an interest in a new art form: animation.
Little Nemo (1911)
His first film is little more than an experiment, but a crucial one. Here, McCay takes characters already made famous by his strip and puts them in a totally unrelated plot (there’s actually no “plot” to speak of); the designs are the same ones and McCay shows that he can create the illusion of space (thanks, once again, to his perspective abilities), even when handling complex drawings. Just take a look at the dragon sequence to see what I’m talking about.
Most importantly, though, McCay anticipates an element that’s going to become fundamental in the future of animation: the possibility to “distort” characters, changing their shape and form at their animator’s will. McCay doesn’t seem to realize the potential of this characteristic yet, not even in his future films, unlike his colleauge Emile Cohl, but it’s still something worth noting. Final note: the film is also in color. Hand-colored, frame-by-frame.
The year after, he made How a Mosquito Operates (1912), a less relevant short but still of amazing quality by the standards of 1910s animation. Once again, McCay can create the illusion of depth like very few artists can, but the most relevant thing in this film is the handling of “realistic” animation, especially when it comes to the mosquito itself: when it’s draining blood, its abdome isn’t immediately “full”; it happens gradually, and the weight of the mosquito changes accordingly. The short is also rather morbid, since it’s almost entirely focused on one single action, which is essentially draining blood. But I guess it could also be considered humorous.
Gertie the Dinosaur (1914)
Possibly the most famous of McCay’s work, and arguably his best film, is Gertie the Dinosaur. Other than some of the technical innovations (such as the invention of inbetweening), the reason this film is important is because of the advances in character animation. The design of Gertie is accurate and realistic (at least for the time) but, despite her size, she has a shy and timid personality, and behaves more like a child, unaware of her strenght. She mostly makes small gestures and movements, and the drawings feel solid and real, with real weight (the final scene is similar to the previous film, where Gertie gradually drains a river by drinking from it: see how her stomach changes accordingly). For all of these reasons, Gertie can be considered the base from which all future American animated films have developed from; Walt Disney and his animators will go on to try to replicate what McCay was doing over a century ago (an explicit homage is made in Fantasia, in the Rite of Spring segment). Overall it’s probably McCay’s best film, but my favorite actually came out a few years later… but we’ll talk about it next time.