Winsor McCay: Animation Pioneer
1 In the early 1900s, artist Winsor McCay created one of the most extravagant comic strips ever to grace the American newspaper. His weekly Sunday comic, the full-page Little Nemo in Slumberland, was a breathtaking weekly display of dazzling colors, stunning visuals, and detailed architectural perspective. Since Nemo’s story line took place in the mind of a dreaming little boy, anything and everything could happen, and in McCay’s able hands, the impossible happened fifty-two times a year.
2 As a man, McCay was driven. Besides producing the wildly imaginative Little Nemo, he also entertained vaudeville audiences with what he called "chalk talks." Standing onstage, he would crack jokes while "speed-sketching" drawings on a large blackboard to the delight of his audience. One day, McCay hit upon the inspired idea of working animation into his act.
3 By 1914, only a handful of cartoons had been attempted; the animation process was involved, and the results were primitive. The animator would draw a picture, and then another, and another, changing each one slightly to produce a sequence of actions. When the pictures were transferred to film, the effect was the illusion of motion. But each second of film required twenty-four individual frames, so one minute of film needed almost 1500 drawings — a tedious, laborious process, but the result was a kind of magic. And magic was what Winsor McCay loved to make.
4 McCay came up with "Gertie the Dinosaur," the first character created specifically for animation. With no animator’s guidebook to follow, McCay had to invent his technique as he went along, devising strategies to increase the efficiency of his drawing. Over the course of six months, McCay drew over 10,000 pictures of this friendly, lumbering dinosaur who could bow gracefully, shuffle from foot to foot, and drink up an entire lake. When he was finished drawing and the sketches were transferred to film frame by frame, he had a five-minute black-and-white cartoon of his spirited fantasy beast. The effect was astonishing: as his film played on the screen behind him, McCay would stand on stage, speak to Gertie, and seemingly get pantomimed responses from the huge cartoon critter. At the end of the show, using a little inventive trickery, Gertie would appear to put McCay on her back and McCay’s popularity increased. McCay began performing on Vaudeville; his act consisted of "Speed Drawing" various characters including those from his strips.
5 At the same time, McCay produced several daily strips and editorial cartoons for William Randolph Hearst’s magazine the New York American, and Hearst believed McCay’s vaudeville act was taking valuable time away
from the newspaper. Because McCay was under contract, Hearst forbid him from any more live performances outside the New York area, so Gertie was made into a feature film with a live-action prologue and epilogue and shown around the world. Hearst eventually forbid McCay from any vaudeville related performances and even doing daily strips, so McCay was only allowed to draw editorial cartoons.
6 McCay’s animation was exceptional, and McCay and his celebrated dinosaur became a multimedia sensation. Winsor McCay’s groundbreaking Gertie the Dinosaur stood as the ultimate example of animation art for over twenty years and is well regarded to this day. In fact, the film Gertie the Dinosaur has been named as #6 of the top fifty cartoons of all time.