The First True Animation: Celebrating Winsor McCay

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A short silent film from 1911, Little Nemo, contains the seeds of one of the 20th century's defining storytelling techniques

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Cartoonist and artist Winsor McCay (1869-1964) is often considered the father of true animation, pioneering the drawn image in film and influencing iconic creators for generations to come, from Walt Disney to Moebius to Bill Watterson. His celebrated Little Nemo comic strip appeared in the New York Herald and New York American newspapers between 1905 and 1911.

Upon the series end in print, McCay and J. Stuart Blackman, of Enchanted Drawing fame, co-directed a short silent film—though, at 10 minutes, it was practically feature-length by the standards of the early cinema era—about the process of creating comics. Winsor McCay, the Famous Cartoonist of the N.Y. Herald and His Moving Comics, also referred to simply as Little Nemo, is commonly considered one of the first bits of true animation ever created, exploring the frontiers of a then-nascent storytelling medium that we have now grown to take for granted. (For more on McCay's work and legacy, I can't recommend Winsor McCay : His Life and Art enough.)

The real action starts at around 8:11—enjoy, and ponder the remarkable technology-driven creative and artistic empowerment we have witnessed in our lifetimes.

Meanwhile, a wonderful Kickstarter project is out to resurrect McCay's last film, The Flying House. The film is in terrible condition and animator Bill Plimpton has set out to painstakingly clean each frame, hand-color it using reprints of McCay's comics as color guides, and record voice actors for the two lead characters—an admirable effort to preserve a true gem of creative history.

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This post also appears on Brain Pickings.
Image: Winsor McCay

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Maria Popova is the editor of Brain Pickings. She writes for Wired UK and GOOD, and is an MIT Futures of Entertainment Fellow.

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