Brain Pickings

The Enchanted Drawing: Blackton’s Early Animation


Lightning sketches, journalistic sycophancy, and what Thomas Edison as to do with Pixar.

It’s a well-established fact that we have a longstanding obsession with Pixar animation and the occasional racy side project by the crew. But we also think it’s important to understand the historical roots of today’s creative obsessions.

Case in point: The Enchanted Drawing, a silent animated film from 1900 by British filmmaker J. Stuart Blackton, who pioneered animation in America. (He was also among the first to use stop-motion as an animation technique, another piece of modern-day ubiquity.) In it, Blackton sketches a face, cigars, and a bottle of wine, then “removes” these last drawings as real objects so that the face appears to react.

Before his filmmaking career, Blackton made his living as a vaudeville performer known as “The Komikal Kartoonist.” It was in this entertainment act that he first began drawing “lightning sketches” — high-speed drawings on an easel pad, modified rapidly before the audience’s eyes as he delivered an equally rapid verbal stream.

Eventually, Blackton became a reporter for the New York Evening World newspaper and in 1896 was sent to interview Thomas Edison about his brand new Vitascope invention. In an age where wooing reporters was critical to success, Edison took Blackton to Black Maria, his studio-cabin, and created an impromptu film of Blackton doing a lightning sketch of Edison himself. Blackton became so infatuated with the technology that he soon founded the American Vitagraph Company and began producing films, debuting with The Enchanted Drawing in 1900.

Six years later, Blackton created Humorous Phases of Funny Faces, the earliest animation exploring the intricacies of human expressions and the human face. (Something else we’ve been notoriously fascinated with.) The film is now in the public domain and thus available for all the remixing your heart desires.

Blackton’s work is part of The Origins of American Animation, 1900-1921 — a fantastic collection of the work that sparked what became one of the most powerful creative movements in visual media.

We highly recommend it.

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