Winsor McCay was an early American animator who led a revolution in the field of animation.

He began working as a art-reporter for the Cincinnati Commercial Tribune where he was forced to draw actual events proceeding before him. This experience helped him to make finish drawings on the first try and remember previous images. Although McCay would later reject realism, he still benefited from this experience, as it prepared him to become an animator.

McCay then went to work for the New York Herald where he produced his most famous comics "Little Nemo in Slumberland" and "Dream of a Rarebit Fiend". These comics both featured the contrast between the fantastic and the mundane. In his comics, McCay was able to render amazing detailed drawings that conveyed motion and narrative. Even modern day comic artists marvel at how McCay was able to produce such a great quantity of exceptional drawings.

According to McCay, his son, Robert, introduced him to animation through the means of a flipbook. McCay claims that the flipbook made him realize the possibility of composing motion through sequential drawings. Undoubtedly Emile Cohl (credited as dissociated animation with trick film) and James Stuart Blackton ("Humorous Phases of Funny Faces") also influenced McCay. Whatever his inspiration was, McCay dove into the new medium and created his first film, Little Nemo, in 1911.

Little Nemo is a animated version of his comic strip “Little Nemo in Slumberland” and it was “motion for the sake of motion”. However, even in this experimental first film, McCay was able to convey surprisingly naturalistic motion, which had never been achieved before, with drawings, which lost no quality when transferred from the comic strip to film. These beautiful drawings moving so naturalistically ignited the animation field, exposing some of animation’s limitless possibilities.

McCay proceeded from Little Nemo to create Gertie the Dinosaur in 1914, with which he extended his groundbreaking animation. In Gertie, McCay attempted to instill his animated character with personality and life. This allowed him to move beyond “motion for the sake of motion”. He instilled personality in Gertie by moving her in certain ways, she shyly pokes her head out of the cave and then saunters up to camera, and having her do distinct things, she snaps at him when he bosses her around too much. With Gertie McCay continued to display remarkable naturalistic motion through his beautifully rendered drawings.

On both of these early films McCay drew every single frame (for Gertie he had an assistant, John A. Fitzsimmons copy the backgrounds onto each drawing, but McCay himself drew the original background), thus giving his animation a high kinetic energy. This kinetic energy coupled with the naturalistic motion gave McCay’s animations a very life-like quality that allowed viewers to submerge themselves in the worlds he created. He extended this interaction with the audience by incorporating his animations into Vaudeville acts and by experimenting with characters moving forward and backwards realistically in space, such as the ending of Little Nemo and when Gertie tosses the mammoth into the lake.

In these two animations and with his comics, McCay focused on the contrast of fantastic and mundane. His strips would always end with the character waking from a dream. The Gertie animation is about creating a visual representation of something people have never and never will see (a dinosaur). This fantastic quality in McCay’s work enhances the power and appeal of the worlds he creates in his animations.

Much of McCay’s work incorporates some form of reflexivity. Perhaps the most impressive McCay moment is when he enters his animated world on top of Gertie. This shows McCay’s interaction with his audience and his attachment to his animations. McCay employs other forms of reflexivity as well, such as in Little Nemo, Nemo draws the princess character and then she is “alive” in the animation. This references how the film was made, compares Nemo to McCay, and shows the artist as a creator and a giver of life. An important reflexive element McCay incorporated into his works was that he would show audiences his methods for creating the animation. This allowed the audience to look past the film as a technical marvel and view it as a film and also it allowed other animators to use and develop his methods in order to produce more animation. This development eventually destroyed McCay because animation progressed faster than he wanted. Prior to this amazingly fast expansion of animation, McCay was an extreme modernist in his approach to animation. He was willing to do things other animators laughed at, such as drawing 10,000 drawings for one animated film. He also pushed the boundaries of animation with his naturalistic motion and introduction of character personality. He then exposed his methods in order to further develop animation as an art. However, when animation began to progress rapidly, McCay became more conservative, because animation was becoming trade oriented while he wanted it to be purely an art.

The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918) marks McCays path away from radicalism in many ways. Lusitania was the next film after Gertie, and there weren’t any others in that four year period because William Randolph Hearst at The American was restricting McCay from producing animation, performing on vaudeville, and creating comics. Hearst was focusing McCay on creating editorial cartoons. This greatly depressed McCay, as he was not able to animate or perform, his true love. So when the opportunity to create an animated film arose, he jumped on it. He was commissioned to produce an animated version of the sinking of the ship “The Lusitania”. McCay produced this somber animation using cels for the first time. His drawings were more realistic because of their detail and the use of washes and shading. This created a more documentary feel, which he furthered by using cinematic camera angles, which also enhanced the drama of the animation. This film is much different from his previous work, but in many ways quite similar as well. Lusitania still focuses on an event which no one actually saw (thus making the event “fantastic”) and McCay pushes the boundaries of animation in the film by employing cinematic camera angles, realistic drawings, and cels.

The radical changes McCay presented to animation revolutionized the field to such a great magnitude that McCay himself was not able to handle it. After Lusitania, McCay fell away from the spotlight, producing smaller more conservative animations. At a dinner in his honor McCay addressed fellow animators; he concluded his speech with “Animation should be art. That is how I conceived it. But as I see what you fellows have done with it, is making it into a trade. Not an art, but a trade. Bad Luck!” (McCay quoted in Canemaker 159).


Template:Cite journal Template:Cite journal Template:Cite book Crafton, Don. “‘Watch Me Move!’ The Films of Winsor McCay”. 89-135. Template:Cite journal DeHaven, Tom. Masters of American Comics. Yale, 2005. Wells, Paul. “Animation and Modernism”. 19-37.