Mr. Nostalgia: Winsor McCay – “I couldn’t stop drawing anything and everything.”

With every creative genius that has done something to advance their field of interest beyond what one thought was possible, there were always pioneers who came before and brought the field to the point where the next generation could take it and move it further.  While the world of animation owes forever a debt of gratitude to Walt Disney for the tremendous amounts of achievements he and his studio created, every once in a while we should stop and look back to the genius’ of a bygone era.

When it comes to the world of animation, we need to look no further than Winsor McCay.

Zenas Winsor McCay (1869-1934) was a cartoonist and animator whose most popular creations were Little Nemo and Gertie the Dinosaur. Equally talented in each field, McCay’s style was highly detailed, breaking artistic boundaries in his Sunday comics that other comic artists wouldn’t begin to use for years, while his animation was as fluid as moving water, and would not be matched until Walt Disney released Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

An extremely fast artist, McCay kept himself busy drawing editorial and comic strip cartoons, creating animated films and working on vaudeville.  While McCay started out on newspapers, it wouldn’t be until he moved to New York that his most prolific comic work would begin, working for James Gordon Bennett Jr’s The New York Herald and William Randolph Hearst’s New York American. Besides doing editorial cartoons, where McCay displayed brilliant cross-hatching work, McCay would draw ten different comic strips, which included:

A Tale of the Jungle Imps by Felix Fiddle (1903)

Mr. Good Enough (1904)

Sister’s Little Sister’s Beau (1904 – 1 comic)

Phurious Phinish of Phoolish Philipe’s Phunny Phrolics (1904 – 1 comic)

Little Sammy Sneeze (1904-1906)

Dream of the Rarebit Fiend (1904-1911 – under his pen name “Silas”)

The Story of Hungry Henrietta (1905)

A Pilgrims Progress by Mister Bunion (1905-1910 – “Silas”)

Little Nemo in Slumber land (1905-1914, 1924-1926)

Poor Jake (1909-1911)

It would be Little Nemo in Slumberland that would be McCay’s most famous newspaper comic work.  Little Nemo in Slumberland originally appeared in the New York Herald between 1905-1911, then moved to the New York American between 1911-1914, where it was renamed In the Land of Wonderful Dreams. In 1924 McCay returned to the New York Herald and returned Nemo to its original title until 1926.

The concept of Little Nemo was that when Nemo went to bed each night he would dream that he was on his way to Slumberland, the kingdom of King Morpheus, who wanted Nemo to play with his daughter Princess Camille.  While Nemo tried to reach her, each Sunday comic ended with Nemo waking up in the last panel. When Nemo eventually did read Slumberland, he’d be woken by a character named Flip (who wore a note on his hat that said “Wake up”). Other characters included Dr. Pill, the Imp, the Candy Kid and Santa Claus. Nemo would have journeys to other places besides Morpheus’ Slumberland, including the Moon, Mars, and even into the real world, made exciting by the dreamstate.

From the very first comic that appeared in the Sunday newspaper McCay was experimenting in the medium to help tell the story he wanted to tell. He’d bring continuity to the series, a trick that helped McCay have Nemo’s adventures span over 500 comics, some stories lasting for weeks or months.  He’d use the panels themselves to help tell the story too by changing the dimensions of the boxes if needed, and even listed the specific colors for each comic.

In 1906, just one year after Little Nemo started his slumber, McCay would begin his brief vaudeville career, performing his “chalk talks”, in one event drawing twenty-five drawings in fifteen minutes while the pit band played a melody titled “Dream of the Rarebit Fiend”, or in “The Seven Ages of Man” where McCay would draw two faces and continuously age them. He would also introduce his animation, and none were more exciting than when McCay would introduce and interact with his dinosaur, Gertie.

While not the first person to bring his sketches to life through animation, McCay pioneered this early art form with the use of inventions such as the “McCay Split System” (now known as Key Frame Animation), where he would draw striking poses first, then go back and draw the in-between sketches leading to that pose, as well as use the Moto scope Action Viewer to watch his previous sketches come to life (a small machine with a handle that when the sketches were placed in it and the handle turned, the sketches would come to life like a flip-book),  and animation loops (repeating the same footage over) to help keep the look consistent throughout the film. Many of these practices are still used in one way or another in two-dimensional animation today.

McCay never patented his techniques and would show them to others. His feeling about patenting can best be summed up in this quote, “Any idiot that wants to make a couple of thousand drawings for a hundred feet of film is welcome to join the club.”

His first animated film in 1911 was based off his Nemo comics and simply titled Little Nemo. In 1912 his next film was How a Mosquito Operates (sometimes called The Story of a Mosquito). It would be McCay’s fluid lifelike movements that he brought to his sketches that would have people thinking he tricked them by using “Little People” for the Nemo cartoons or tracing pictures to bring the figures to life. Projected onto the screen the characters looked real and in Nemo’s case, you can just feel the weight of the characters as they fall to the ground, or even feel the sting of the mosquito as he stings the sleeping man.

Essentially calling the man a liar due to his films looking too life like, I can’t help but see that as the ultimate, yet ironic, compliment. Frustrated , McCay set out to create an animated film that no one would say he did not draw, and chose a dinosaur as his main character, making the first ever dinosaur cartoon and giving birth to Gertie.

With 16 drawings to make one second of film in the 1900’s (compared to what would become the norm of 24 drawings for one second) it would be 10,000 sketches to create just five minutes of film, and these 10,000 sketches McCay would do all on his own. Drawn on rice paper (thin enough to place over the last drawing and see the sketch) McCay would bring Gertie to life, the only help being that from John Fitzsimmons tracing the backgrounds.

Using Gertie for part of his vaudeville routine, McCay would interact with the cartoon in one of the earliest performances of live action and cartoons combined. Projected onto the screen to look life-size, Gertie interacted with McCay who used a bullwhip to train her, like a circus trainer would do with an elephant. Gertie lifted her legs, caught a pumpkin when thrown to her, and to really stun audiences, McCay would walk offstage only to appear once more IN the cartoon, and ride off on Gertie.

Despite its’ success, newspaper owner William Randolph Hearst would soon put an end to McCay’s traveling with the show to keep him focused on his editorials. McCay made a short film to introduce Gertie, and replacing the parts where he would command her what to do, he used title cards. Gertie comes to life right before our eyes as she shifts her weight from one leg to another, throws a mammoth into a lake, drinks the lake gone and scratches her nose with her tail. McCay planned a sequel to Gertie, but only drew one minute worth of footage.

McCay would go on to inspire such cartoon geniuses like Ub Iwerks, Walt Disney and even Chuck Jones. Disney once said, “Winsor McCay’s Gertie and other animation novelties stimulated a great public interest and created a demand for this new medium. This, in turn, encouraged other pioneers to creative efforts that in time, led to the establishment of the animated cartoon as an industry.”

From one cartoon genius to the next, Walt Disney’s words are a great way to end this entry and to thank and applaud McCay for his comic and cartoon work.

Mr. Nostalgia

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