Saturday, 22 February 2014

Saturday Morning Cartoons - How To Train Your Dinosaur

I've seen several different dates on the subject. My Simpsons calendar indicates it's today. Many websites reported it happened 2 Saturdays ago, February 8th, with special screenings and theme parties. A Google search just told me it's September 14th. Whatever the case, Gertie The Dinosaur celebrates her 100th birthday this year. And the world of cartoons owes her and her creator, Winsor McCay, a great deal of gratitude for ensuring the animation artform didn't go extinct.

Released to vaudevillian audiences in 1914 (you pick a date) as "the greatest animal act in the world", Gertie The Dinosaur is considered to be the first "personality" animation ever done. Don't over-read that. It's the first cartoon to feature a specific style of animation - not the first cartoon ever, as it is sometimes mistaken. In fact, Winsor McCay released 2 cartoons prior to Gertie - 1911's Little Nemo, which was based on his classic comic strip, and 1912's How A Mosquito Operates.

Yeesh, that mosquito cartoon is creepy even by today's standards!

Winsor McCay was not afraid to push the envelope. He was an innovator in style and technique. But his refusal to accept that (and maybe a general lack of business acumen?) would obscure the legacy he left behind. 

McCay officially left the comics scene in 1911, and became interested in animation while admiring his son's flip books. But how he would present this animation was rooted in the unique way he was presenting his comic strip art at the time - live in front of an audience.

In 1906, McCay was paid to do live chalk drawings on the vaudeville circuit - $500 per week for 25 sketches per show in 15 minutes. He had a routine called The Seven Ages Of Man, where he would progressively age 2 faces through a series of drawings.

This interactivity for an audience is what set Gertie apart. If you haven't watched the cartoon before, observe below before we go any further. The animation itself doesn't start until the 7:00 mark, but watch the footage from the beginning if you're interested in seeing McCay himself in (staged?) action.

I just love that elephant bit. Even a century later, it's still funny.

So obviously the above is a later version of the Gertie film, with the intro and title cards added for some perspective in order to run in movie theatres. The original Gertie was just the animation itself, but those title cards placed in the above would be a good representation of what Winsor McCay would be saying in person to the audience, interacting with his drawings. Winsor, with an actual whip in hand, would instruct the dinosaur to behave or lift its leg. When Gertie disobeyed, Winsor would get angry and the dinosaur would react. When she was good, Winsor would toss Gertie an apple off stage, timed in such a way where it would be integrated into the animation, connecting performer to cartoon.

At the end of each show, the real Winsor would walk off-stage, and then magically re-appear on-screen in animated form.

This was cutting edge stuff at the time, and the show was an instant hit making Gertie one of the first-ever cartoon stars. McCay made lots of other cartoons after that (many of which only exist in bits and pieces), but Gertie is the only one that's well-known. Why? Because it set the standards for animation to come.

It order to make this film, McCay recruited his neighbour, art student John A. Fitzsimmons, to trace all backgrounds onto rice paper, while McCay produced the dinosaur drawings. This was the first film he made utilizing backgrounds.

There were over 10,000 drawings in total made in 6 months, which is quite astonishing considering the way they farm out animation today. Each drawing was mounted on cardboard so that McCay could check his animation, adopting a much grander version of his son's flip book.

He also used marks in the corners of his drawings, which would help to line up the animation better and eliminate shakiness.

Some scenes, like when Gertie is dancing, made first use of animation loops - reusing footage to create a cycle of similar movement, which saved time and money. This would DEFINITELY be employed in cartoons to come.

The film also invented industry standard terms like "inbetweening", which refers to the frames between keyframe poses. Keyframes indicate movement and change, while the inbetweens are meant more as filler. This saves time and allows for filmmakers to focus on timing and personality.

This attention to detail is what set Gertie apart - not only in technique, but in terms of what you see on the screen. Gertie has true personality - an amazing feat for a silent film. And there's always something going on in the background, whether it's water dripping or the ground sagging. It reveals the inner perfectionism of McCay. In fact, a scene where a lizard flies overhead, was meant to act as a distraction from a scene where Gertie gets up, which McCay feared was inaccurate to the movements of an actual dinosaur.

As mentioned, McCay never trademarked any of his techniques, and obviously felt animation was for the people. So when a journalist arrived at his studio during the production of Gertie asking questions, McCay had no problem sharing his ideas and systems. That journalist was a rival animator, John Randolph Bray, who later patented those same techniques as his own, and tried to sue McCay in the process. McCay won the case and received royalties from Bray afterwards. But one can't help but think that if McCay had the foresight to better own his creations, he'd receive more credit today for his contributions.

But to those who actually work in cartoons, McCay is still a hero - inspiring a generation of famous animators. Walt Disney, who was obviously far better at taking ownership, paid homage to McCay and Gertie in a 1955 episode of Disneyland.

You can also find Dinosaur Gertie's Ice Cream at Disney's Hollywood Studios in Walt Disney World.

Attempts to revive Gertie were made in 1921, when McCay was working on a sequel called 'Gertie On Tour'. The film was supposed to show Gertie crossing America, visiting and interfering with famous US landmarks. But all that exists from the film are a few drawings and a bit of revived footage.

Most of McCay's work, both as cartoonist and animator, have not been well-preserved. But in the case of Gertie, it's amazing what even 2 minutes of footage can do to establish a long-lasting legend.

Happy birthday, Gertie! Even 100 years later, you're still the life of the party!

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