Before Walt Disney: 5 Pioneers of Early Animation

A look back at the early-20th-century inventors of a new art form, from Émile Cohl to Winsor McCay to Eadweard J. Muybridge

Animation is one of the most ubiquitous and all-permeating forms of visual communication today, seen everywhere from the multitude of TV channels dedicated solely to cartoons to the title sequences of our favorite movies to the reactive graphic interfaces our smartphones. And while most of us have a vague idea of how, when, and where it all began, we tend to take for granted the incredible visual wizardry possible today. With that in mind, here's a brief history of the beloved medium's beginnings through the seminal work of five early animation pioneers.

1. COHL: FANTASMAGORIE (1908)

emilecohl.jpgFrench cartoonist and animator Émile Cohl is often referred to as "the father of the animated cartoon." The legend goes that in in 1907, when motion pictures were reaching critical mass, the 50-year-old Cohl was walking down the street and spotted a poster for a movie clearly stolen from one of his comic strips. He confronted the manager of the offending studio, Gaumont, in outrage and was hired on the spot as a scenarist—the person generating one-page story ideas for movies. Between February and May 1908, Cohl created Fantasmagorie, considered the first fully animated film ever made.

To create the animation, Cohl placed each drawing on an illuminated glass plate and traced the next drawing, reflecting the variations necessary to show movement, over it until he had some 700 drawings. Since chalkboard caricaturists were common vaudeville attractions in the era, the characters in the film look as though they've been drawn on a chalkboard, but it's an illusion—Cohl filmed black lines on paper and printed them in negative to make his animations appear to be chalk drawings.

Fantasmagorie and dozens of other influential early films can be found on Gaumont Treasures Vol. 2: 1908-1916, with over 10 hours of glorious raw material.

2. MÉLIÈS: THE PROLIFIC EGG (1902)

georgesmelies.jpg French filmmaker Georges Méliès is known as the first cinemagician for his early use of special effects in cinema. Between 1896 and 1914, he directed some 531 films, ranging from one to 40 minutes in length, usually featuring single in-camera effects throughout each entire film. In 1902, he appeared in one of his own films, l'oeuf du sorcier (The Prolific Egg)—a groundbreaking exploration of scale, multiplication, and transitions that truly sealed his reputation as a "cinemagician" and the father of special effects in film.

Méliès's seminal work can be found in Georges Méliès: First Wizard of Cinema (1896-1913), an outstanding five-disc collection of 173 rare and rediscovered Méliès gems alongside a beautifully illustrated booklet featuring essays by acclaimed National Film Board of Canada animator Norman McLaren, and its sequel, Méliès Encore: 26 Additional Rare and Original Films by the First Wizard of Cinema (1896-1911).

3. MCCAY: LITTLE NEMO (1911)

winsormccay_sized.jpg Cartoonist and artist Winsor McCay (1869-1964) is often considered one of the fathers of "true" animation.

His 1911 film, Winsor McCay, the Famous Cartoonist of the N.Y. Herald and His Moving Comics, also referred to simply as Little Nemo and featured here last week, contains two minutes of pure animation at around 8:11, using sequential hand-illustration in a novel way not seen in previous films.

For more on McCay's work and legacy, look no further than the stunning and illuminating Winsor McCay: His Life and Art. There's also a wonderful Kickstarter project out to resurrect McCay's last film, The Flying House—join me in supporting it.

Presented by

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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