Monday, October 16, 2006

Gertie the Dinosaur (again)

Mark Evanier, whose "News From ME" blog is one of my daily reads, posted this 12-minute silent-era film a couple of days ago. It's Winsor McCay's "Gertie the Dinosaur" circa 1914, and this movie is an interesting artifact. McCay originally showed the short cartoon within this movie as part of a live vaudeville show, during which he stood on stage and "commanded" the dinosaur on screen to do tricks. However, McCay couldn't be everywhere at once, and this film was made to recreate that stage experience for theater audiences around the world.

[NOTE: I originally embedded the Gertie movie here, but something about its HTML coding played havoc with my Blogger template in some browsers. I tried to work around the problem but couldn't solve it, so the best I can do is point you to it at the Google Video site here. It's worth the effort.]

Title cards take the place of words McCay would've said in person. At one point, Gertie catches a pumpkin; on stage, McCay would've tossed it to her himself (although I always heard it was an apple). At another point, an animated McCay comes on screen to take a ride on Gertie; on stage, McCay would've walked behind the screen so it appeared he became part of the movie. The framing story of a group of cartoonists finding a museum and wagering on McCay's ability to "make a dinosaurus live" is interesting only for glimpses of McCay at work and cartoonist George McManus. Also for the fact that 1914 is probably the last time a cartoonist dressed up to go to work.

Though not the first animated cartoon, Gertie is an animation pioneer, appearing years before Mickey Mouse's "Steamboat Willie." She was evidently a popular sensation, the first real animated character in an extended story, and years ahead of her time. Compared to her rubber-limbed, stick-figure contemporaries, Gertie had volume, mass, personality and life. I particularly love how she breathes and flicks her tail. Watch Gertie's tail as she drinks the lake dry: that's superior animation in any era.

I've written before of my enormous admiration and respect for McCay's work, particularly his classic "Little Nemo in Slumberland" newspaper strip, and the fact that the first (and only) self-indulgent thing I bought with my advance for Mom's Cancer was one of the hand-drawn animation cels that comprised the film above. My cel appears at about the 8:41 mark, as Gertie licks her lips after eating a tree trunk. In fact I think it appears twice, as McCay--no dummy--has Gertie lick her lips twice and re-uses the same drawings for each motion. Here's mine:

This drawing is ink on rice paper, about 6 x 8 inches (15 x 20 cm). Animation was at a very early stage; artists hadn't yet figured out the trick of drawing the characters on transparent plastic so they didn't have to redraw the entire background for each frame. For Gertie, McCay and an assistant redrew every mountain, rock, and ripple in the water thousands of times (the movie says 10,000 cels, but I believe that number is disputed. As I indicated, McCay very sensibly used many drawings more than once, as when Gertie sways in time to the music.) Some 300 to 400 of the cels have survived the nearly 100 years since they were drawn. I'm very happy and grateful to be the temporary steward of one of them.

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