The Origins of Animation: Its First Years


Everyone knows that the Lumière brothers initiated the beginning of cinematography. However, it's not so easy to name the "firsts" in the history of animation. In brief, what unites first animated films is that they were all silent, mostly black and white (or colorized by hand), and made not for children. We must also remember that a lot of films were lost or came to us in a very bad quality. Only in recent years people have started to actively restore them. In this article we are going to look at the first years of animation's life.

by Victoria Ilenko


Before film
We won't start off with rock paintings, greek vases and other things that people used to depict motion, though all this stuff is related to the common history of both cinematography and animation. We also won't talk about the 19th century's "magic" devices, such as magic lanterns and zootropes, for the same reason. However, before the "real" beginning of animation's life, there was one phigure which deserves our attention. This man is considered to be a precursor exactly of animation.
Émile Reynaud was impressed by a zootrope and created a brand new device – praxinoscope. He combined a magic lantern with the zootrope – so that many people could see the performance, not just one single viewer as it was with the zootrope. Reynaud was the first to divide the creation of main characters and backgrounds. But the process of making his works was too sophisticated. Simultaneously, films which were cheaper than Reynaud's experiments started to gain popularity. Reynaud drowned his works in a river.
Humorous Phases of Funny Faces
Humorous Phases of Funny Faces is considered to be one of the first animated films which was created actually as an "animated film", not as a special effect. It was released in 1906, and lasted for 3 minutes. Its creator, James Stuart Blackton, used different types of animation: stop-motion and cutout – a kind of animation where an animator cuts figures of paper or other materials and then "revives" them using stop-motion technique. We see a hand that draws some images on a chalkboard, then the hand disappears and the image starts to develop itself – a man and a woman get extra details in their appearance. Blackton depicts people in "funny" situations: woman is shrouded in man's smoke, clown showing his performance. Blackton is recognized as 'the father of American animation'. However, Blackton didn't take his experiments with animation seriously and didn't even mention them in his autobiography.
The first traditional animated film
Animation as a special effect
Fantasmagorie (1908) lasts for 2 minutes and is considered to be the first animated film in what we call traditional, or hand-drawn, technique. The main difference between Blackton's Humorous Phases and Fantasmagorie is that the first film was made from pictures drawn on a chalkboard. Its creator, Émile Cohl, used sheets of rice paper instead. Fantasmagorie is made of 700 drawings. Émile Cohl started his career as a cartoonist and caricaturist. At the age of 50 he was amazed by Blackton's animated films and decided to make his own experiments. Cohl studied Blackton's works frame by frame and, eventually, he created Fantasmagorie. The animator created a story of a stick-man Fantoche. He experiences metamorphosis: loses his head, then finds it, becomes fat, changes his figure. Other characters and objects change as well: one man turns into a bottle of wine, a tobacco pipe transforms into a box. It looks chaotic, like a stream of consciousness. The film is made on a black background – maybe because Cohl didn't convert negative film to positive or decided that white background would hurt viewers' eyes.
Winsor McCay
An animator and a dancer
Alexander Shiryaev was a ballet dancer in Russian Empire. He created a "character dance" – a kind of dance in Russian ballet inspired by folk dances and costumes. Shiryaev tried to document folk dances he met in his life. At that time Mariinsky theater used to make photographs of dancers, but Shiryaev wanted to film them for free. He wasn't allowed to bring his idea into life. That's why he started to create sequences of drawings and transform them into animated films where he recreated dance moves. Shiryev also came up with an idea of creating a puppet stop-motion film. He used dolls which had wires so he could easily move them.
Many first animators and directors used stop-motion and other kinds of animation to make their art more expressive.

At first sight it seems strange that there's Georges Méliès's name in the material about animation. However, there is little wonder. As everyone knows – Méliès is considered to be one of the first "wizards" in the history of cinematography. He is famous for his marvelous experiments with special effects – a bullet in the moon's face, men's heads with no bodies, disappearing women. Méliès used stop-motion techniques to turn his bold experiments into reality.
We have already mentioned works of Blackton. He created one of the first animated films. However, he started using animation even earlier. In The Enchanted Drawing (1900) animation is used as a supplement. We see a man who sketches the portrait of a gentleman on an easel. Then the cartoonist draws a bottle of wine and a goblet. One of the reasons why this film cannot be considered as an animation film is that the cartoonist interacts with a drawn picture. He "removes" real wine from the picture and drinks it. Then he takes a cylinder of the drawn gentleman.

Another work of Blackton's, The Haunted Hotel (1907), was a huge success in Europe. Here Blackton used stop-motion animation to create the atmosphere of a haunted place: the bread was sliced, but nobody held a knife. Blackton's works weren't really unique, but it is thanks to them that animation started to prosper as a distinct genre.
Winsor McCay is famous for his animated film Gertie the Dinosaur (1914). Here he has designed a character specially for an animated film for the first time. Before the animated part there are some life action scenes. McCay tried to create an impression that he truly interacted with a drawn dinosaur - as if he feeded it and at the end even jumped on its back. People were overwhelmed - the same effect will be repeated with Starewicz's "trained insects." Gertie became a success due to her individual character - she reacted to the animator's actions: expressed grief, obedience. Gertie is important for the history of animation because McCay created a smooth and realistic image. Here he used a so called keyframe technique - when an animator draws "key scenes" of a film in the first place and then adds inbetweens. Later there will be animators who specialize in drawing these inbetweens. However, McCay started his experiments with animation earlier.
His first animated Little Nemo film is based on his own comic book «Little Nemo in Slumberland». He worked on it at Vitagraph studio (founded by J. Stuart Blackton) under supervision of Blackton himself. Like in Gertie, there is also a life action scene. The animator promises to his friends to make four thousand pictures that will move. Then some time passes by, and we see a character with a phrase "watch me move". Eventually, animation begins. Due to Little Nemo's tremendous success McCay later colorized the animated part himself. Then he created an ironic film How a Mosquito Operates (1912). McCay shows how a mosquito terrorizes a sleeping man. It flies with a little suitcase. Luckily, the mosquito bursts because it has drunk too much human blood.
Most of the animators above considered animation to be an interesting experiment or a way to document reality. But Władysław Starewicz considered animation to be an art form. The figure of Starewicz was shrouded in mystery at his time. He was very secretive. He didn't reveal the secrets of his dolls, he didn't have any followers, he worked with a very close group of people. Most works were made by him and his family members: his wife and daughters. He "revived" dead insects and created a mystification around himself. That's what one cinema critic said about him, "No, I won't go to Starewicz, … I don't want him to transform me into a stone or unleash his dwarfs, spirits…"
One of his films, Pierrot-artists (1907), shows two Pierott-dolls who draw a house, and then a woman comes out of the house. Eventually, all three start ballet-dancing together. Shiryaev's works were considered lost for a long time, just a few decades ago his animated films were rediscovered.
Starewicz – a tamer of insects
Starewicz used his invention in a 1912 short film The Beautiful Leukanida. Simultaneously, he marked the beginning of stop-motion and puppet animation. In Leukanida Starewicz created a parody on films of his time by telling a love story of two beetles set in the Middle Ages. Satiric themes come through most of his works. As we said previously, Starewicz was addicted to insects, he thoroughly studied their behaviour and appearances. Due to Starewicz's attentiveness, first viewers were startled by his film – they couldn't understand how he managed to train insects. And Starewicz didn't reveal his secrets in an instant. He wouldn't allow anyone to enter his sanctum sanctorum – a room with insects and dolls. This stop-motion film had more than 100 copies, and became one of the first Russian films that gained international success.
As a child Starewicz was fascinated by insects and photography, and this admiration later found its place in his works. Starewicz wanted to make a documentary film about a fight of stag beetles for a female. All his efforts were in vain, because beetles behaved passively when he directed a beam of light at them. However, Starewicz came up with an ingenious solution. He created dolls which looked exactly like real insects. That's what Starewicz said about his insect-like dolls, "If it's possible to revive a character on paper by changing his pose, why cannot we revive a dead beetle by changing the position of his legs?... What is easier than to attach thin wires to his (beetle's) legs and to wax them to his body? On stage I moved my characters from one scene to another, decomposed one motion into its component parts … The battle of beetles on plasticine decorations was better than in reality."
From The Grasshopper and the Ant - one of the most successful Starewicz's films
After the Russian Revolution Starewicz immigrated to France. Here he continued to develop his personal style. The artist used special masks to convey his characters' emotions – his characters started to become more human-like. He now used more close-up scenes, Starewicz created around 100 masks for every character. His magnum opus The Tale of the Fox was finished in 1937 and became the 6th animated feature film ever and 3rd animated film with sound. The tale is based on Goethe's folk novel, that's why nazis became interested in this film later. Starewicz worked on it for 10 years. Later Jim Jarmusch was inspired by The Tale and created a stop-motion film Fantastic Mr. Fox.
Later there will be a thrive of animation studios, especially Walt Disney's one. Sound and color will be a component part of animated films. The cell technique will become widespread, and animation will not be a matter of one artist. Big groups of animators will work on one project. Many popular characters will be born exactly in the end of 20s.
Starewicz with the dolls from The Tale of the Fox
What next?
Made on