How did the industry begin?
Animation has become such a huge industry in recent years, that it can be a bit baffling to look back at the medium's extensive history. Some of the earliest cartoon films date back to the dawn of cinema itself. Arguably, the first significant animated short was 'The Enchanted Drawing' (1990). Directed by J. Stuart Blackton for Edison Studios, it was little more than a trick film, involving a man drawing a picture to life on a canvas and interacting with it. Audiences became entranced with the notion that drawings could be brought to life on screen, and Blackton followed up his success with the slightly more sophisticated short, 'Humorous Phases of Funny Faces' (1906). Likewise overseas in France, Emile Cohl, partially inspired by Georges Melies, began producing several experimental films of his own, most notably Fantasmagorie (1908). Fantasmagorie, although seemingly crude by today measures, was the first animated film to involve a wider range of character movement and relied significantly less on live-action footage than Blackton's films.
'Humorous Phases of Funny Faces' (1906) is one of the oldest surviving pieces of animation.
However, the one person who made the biggest impact of all these early innovators, was, without a doubt, Winsor McCay. McCay was a very talented comic strip artist and political cartoonist. Due to all of the experience he had gained drawing a wide variety of subjects for his strips Little Nemo in Slumberland (1905-1923) and The Dream of the Rabbit Fiend (1904-1925), McCay's artistic skill surpassed all other animators of his day, and perhaps even most of them today. McCay's most memorable short films were: 'Little Nemo' (1911), which included a memorable hand-colored sequence, 'Gertie the Dinosaur' (1914), his most famous work, and 'The Sinking of the Lusitania' (1918), which was his first major film to utilize cels and is largely considered his opus magnum.
A page from the comic strip Little Nemo.
A segment from McCay's animated version of Little Nemo.
McCay's expertise made animation more popular than ever before and thus caught the eye of the newly forming Hollywood. However, McCay was a very meticulous worker and a perfectionist. He often drew out his films single handily or only with a very small group of animators. Thus, his films took several months to complete. This was incompatible with the Hollywood work model, so other artists began to adopt cheaper methods and to work in larger groups. It was not until much later, with the artistic evolution within large companies like Disney, that the art of animation would begin to approach the level of sophistication that McCay displayed. McCay himself was dismayed at the scarifies that Hollywood made in order to churn out cartoons more quickly. He was rather dismissive of how many companies began to switch over to less serious subject matter starring funny animal characters.