What a bizarre, fantastical creature can teach us about human nature and social concerns.
Last year, I raved aboutThe Lost Thing, a lovely cross-platform gem by acclaimed Australian author and illustrator Shaun Tan. (Who recently gave an interview only in drawings.) The film incarnation of the project won the 2011 Academy Award for best animated short film and the book, though classified as children’s literature, is an ageless treat of whimsy and quirk, telling the humorous story of boy who finds a bizarre creature at the beach and sets out to discover where it came from and who owns it, but is met with indifference by everyone he encounters. Magnificently illustrated and vibrantly poetic, the story is really about the search for belonging, a fine addition to these must-read children’s books with philosophy for grown-ups.
What started out as an amusing nonsensical story soon developed into a fable about all sorts of social concerns, with a rather ambiguous ending. I became quite interested in the idea of a creature or person who really did not come from anywhere, or have an existing relationship to anything, and was ‘just plain lost’. I wanted to tell the story from the point of view of a character that would represent how I might personally respond to this, so the unnamed narrator is essentially me.” ~ Shaun Tan
The film itself is an absolute treat, its sound effects alone a work of art:
What a shape-shifting egg has to do with racehorses and the science of facial expressions.
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.
COHL: FANTASMAGORIE (1908)
French 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.
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 forty 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.
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 us in supporting it.
BLACKTON: THE ENCHANTED DRAWING (1900)
British filmmaker J. Stuart Blackton is credited with creating the first animation in America and was among the first in the world to use stop-motion as a storytelling technique. In 1896, Blackton, a reporter for the New York Evening World, 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.
In the film, previously featured here, 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. Although the stop-motion sequence isn’t considered “true” animation in technical terms the way Little Nemo, which Blackman co-directed with McCay, is, the technique offered an early glimpse of what animation could become.
Though the work of English photographer Eadweard J. Muybridge isn’t animation, his animal locomotion studies are among the earliest visual experiments with moving images, laying the foundations for later forms of videography.
In 1872, the Governor of California took a public position on a commonly debated question of the era: When a horse gallops, are all four of its hooves off the ground simultaneously. Most paintings of galloping horses at the time showed the front legs extended forwards and the rear legs extended backwards, so Governor Stanford sided with the “unsupported transit” theory and took it upon himself to prove it scientifically. He hired Muybridge to settle the question, who enlisted a series of large cameras using glass plates placed in a line, each triggered by a thread as the horse passed. He paired that with a clockwork device. The images were then copied as silhouettes onto a disc, later viewed on a zoopraxiscope. In 1877, Muybridge finally settled Stanford’s question with a single photographic negative showing Stanford’s racehorse, Occident, fully airborne in the midst of a gallop.
In 1893, Muybridge used the phenakistoscope — an early animation device that harnessed the “persistence of vision” principle to create an illusion of motion — to extend his visual studies to animation.
What a non-pipe has to do with transfixing time and tracing the roots of modern advertising.
Belgian surrealist René Magritte remains one of the most relevant artists in modern history, his work exploring the intersection of art and philosophy through arresting, mind-bending imagery that leads the viewer to question the most fundamental givens of agreed-upon reality. In this mesmerizing motion-graphics homage to the great painter, London-based studio Box of Toys and video art outfit flipEVIL explore Magritte’s most iconic pieces in a haunting third-dimension, complete with an original piano score inspired by his work.
Given the context we wanted to take a very traditional and unadorned route, and so composed a bespoke piano piece in and around the motion. The piano leads the way in terms of pace and characterization, backed by subtle sound design that reinforces the dream-like state of the visuals.”
For more on Magritte’s genius and legacy, look no further than Magritte: Attempting the Impossible — an absolutely stunning, lavish anthology featuring more than 300 works, including many unpublished material. The six-pound volume opens each chapter with a close analysis of one of Magritte’s most influential masterpieces amidst a reconstruction of its historical and intellectual contexts. Additional essays explore Magritte’s photography, drawings and influence on German and American contemporary art and advertising.
Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s an example. Like? Sign up.
Brain Pickings has a free weekly interestingness digest. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week's best articles. Here's an example. Like? Sign up.
donating = loving
Brain Pickings remains ad-free and takes hundreds of hours a month to research and write, and thousands of dollars to sustain. If you find any joy and value in it, please consider becoming a Member and supporting with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:
(If you don't have a PayPal account, no need to sign up for one – you can just use any credit or debit card.)
You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:
Brain Pickings participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn commissions by linking to Amazon. In more human terms, this means that whenever you buy a book on Amazon from a link on here, I get a small percentage of its price. That helps supportBrain Pickings by offsetting a fraction of what it takes to maintain the site, and is very much appreciated.