-------- Original Message --------
From: Daniel Sapen <[log in to unmask]>
Subject: Re: Winsor McCay
To: Institute for Psychological Study of the Arts <[log in to unmask]>

(377 lines) ------------------
Wow!  What a nice surprise.  Last year, I played sax and percussion in
the Masters Recital of a musician/composer friend; in addition to a
couple of Partch pieces, and an original composition by my friend
Elizabeth Walsh written for those unusual Harry Partch instruments, I
participated in an original soundtrack written and improvised to
accompany a screening of Bug Vaudeville!  Delightful, weird,
beautifully drawn, and a blast to interpret.

Thanks for the article -


On Sep 12, 2004, at 1:43 PM, Murray Schwartz wrote:

> Dear Psyarters,
> Here is a long message from Bill Benzon.  It's worth reading all the
> way through.
>    --Best, Murray
>         From: William Benzon [mailto:[log in to unmask]]
>         Subject: Winsor McCay
>         Iıve just rented a Winsor McCay DVD from Netflix (Winsor
> McCay: The Master
>         Edition) and I am stunned.  The hardcore PSYART stuff doesn't
> come 'till
>         midway through this note.
>         Winsor McCay is a cartoonist and animator who worked in the
> United States at
>         the end of the 19th century and in the first quarter of the
> 20th. Iıve known
>         about him for a number of years, seen pages and panels from
> his comic strips
>         in various places (but Iıve never looked at any of the
> complete books of
>         such) and have known about his pioneering animation, ³Gertie
> the Dinosaur,²
>         for awhile as well.  Well, now Iıve seen ³Gertie² and  the
> rest and, as Iıve
>         said, Iım stunned.  In terms of drawing quality and movement
> quality, this
>         is the finest work we have until we reach the mature Disney of
> the feature
>         length films in the late 1930s. OTOH, thereıs very little in
> the way of a
>         story in any of these films.
>         This DVD consists of the following films plus a few special
> features:
>         Little Nemo (1911, complete)
>         How a Mosquito Operates (complete)
>         Gertie the Dinosaur (complete)
>         Sinking of the Lusitania (complete)
>         The Centaurs (fragments)
>         Gertie on Tour (fragments)
>         Flipıs Circus (fragments)
>         Bug Vaudville (complete)
>         The Pet (1921, complete)
>         The Flying House (complete)
>         Plus: an interview with a man who worked with McCay; a bunch
> of photos,
>         individual images, and panels and pages from the strips; and
> verbal
>         commentary by John Canemaker on the films.
>         Now, McCay didnıt invent film animation, there were others a
> bit before him
>         ­ not to mention flip books and various mechanical devices
> that graced
>         Victorian parlors and arcades ­ but he was one of the earliest
> and claims to
>         have invented, e.g. the practice of cycling through a set of
> frames to
>         create repetitive motion. Canemaker credits him with being the
> originator of
>         ³personality² animation (the mosquito in ³How a Mosquito
> Operates²), that
>         is, animating a character so that its movements suggest an
> identifiable
>         personality.
>         One thing that interests me about these films is that there is
> a
>         self-consciousness about the medium from the very beginning.
> In both ³Nemo²
>         and ³Gertie² we see live action segments where McCay is
> drawing images on a
>         large vertically-mounted sketchpad.  Within the animated
> portion of ³Nemo²
>         there is an astonishing sequence where:
>         1)    Nemo draws the image of his girlfriend,
>         2)    presents her with a rose (that just appeared to the
> left),
>         3)    a large dragon head moves in from the left with its
> mouth open,
>         4)    Nemo and friend sit down side-by side on a seat in the
> mouth (as
>         though this were a seat in an amusement park ride)
>         5)    The dragon continues moving in from the left and then
> makes a
>         right-angle turn and heads off into the distance away from the
> audience.
>         That last shot shows astonishing control of perspective
> drawing and fluid
>         movement.
>         Why does this self-consciousness interest me?  Well, when I
> was growing up
>         in the 50s and 60s, one of the standard segments on
>         Walt Disneyıs TV show was a behind-the-scenes look at how
> animation was
>         done.  I also saw such segments on Walter Lanzıs Woody
> Woodpecker show.  It
>         was part of the deal.  Now I know that in some measure it was
> part of the
>         deal from the beginning.
>         Equally interesting is the fact that both ³Little Nemo² and
> ³Gertie the
>         Dinosaur² are staged in a way that derives from McCayıs
> vaudeville act.  A
>         few years before his first animation McCay started appearing
> on Broadway as
>         a chalk artist.  Heıd make rapid sketches on a blackboard.
> Presumably the
>         fun of the act was in the speed and fluidity of the drawing
> and the ability
>         to make remarkable transformations in appearance with
> relatively little
>         drawing effort.  In his first act McCay would sketch the heads
> of two
>         characters, a male and a female, and then age them by doing
> this and that to
>         the images.  Thus the act was a sort of
>         animation-drawing-before-your-very-eyes.
>         Thus both ³Nemo² and ³Gertie² involve a live action frame as a
> setting for
>         the focal animation.  In both cases the frame is the same,
> McCay bets some
>         friends that he can bring still characters to life by making a
> prodigious
>         number of drawings.  In ³Gertie² the first half of the frame
> is set in NYCıs
>         Museum of Natural History where we see a dinosaur skeleton.
> THATıs what
>         MacCay says heıs going to bring to life.
>         In the case of ³Gertie² the animated portion of the film was,
> in fact,
>         created for use in the vaudeville act.  MacCay, whip in hand,
> would be
>         standing next to the screen as the film was projected.  At
> various points he
>         would utter a command, crack the whip, and Gertie would
> respond, sometimes
>         immediately, sometimes not (Gertie had a personality).  At the
> end of his
>         act McCay would walk off the stage and then reappear standing
> on Gertieıs
>         head. In the full movie McCay dispenses with his whip.
> Instead of him
>         giving commands to Gertie we see title frames with the
> appropriate commands.
>         It seems pretty clear to me that what ³Gertie the Dinosaur² is
> ³about² is
>         the virtuoso display of McCayıs skills in creating (the
> illusion of) life
>         and personality.  That in itself is so impressive, wondrous,
> and difficult
>         that story-telling is not a serious consideration.  His last
> two films, ³The
>         Pet² and ³The Flying House,² have a bit more of a plot.  But
> not much.
>         First, both of these films are framed as well.  In this case,
> the frame is
>         that of a dream (a frame McCay knew well from his comic
> strips).  We see a
>         couple in bed at the beginning, talking about dreams, and we
> return to them
>         at the very end.  But the bulk of the film is the dream
> itself, the
>         husbandıs dream in the case of ³The Pet² and the wifeıs dream
> in the case of
>         ³The Flying House.²  In ³The Pet² the wife has acquired a
> dog-like pet that
>         just grows and grows and grows until, at the end, itıs walking
> through the
>         city, towering over buildings, eating smaller ones at a single
> gulp, and so
>         forth, until it is finally destroyed by bombs.  That ends the
> dream; we then
>         get a few closing seconds with the couple in bed and thatıs it.
>         ³The Flying House² opens the same way.  But this time we have
> a wifeıs dream
>         about her husband.  The mortgage is due, the husband canıt
> pay, so heıs
>         busing transforming the house into a flying house.  Once the
> engine,
>         propellor, and wings are installed, the house takes off and
> flies around.
>         After awhile they fly the house to the moon and we get shots
> of the earth,
>         moon, and stars.  Some giant in space swats them with a
> fly-swatter as
>         theyıre on the moon, so they fly back into space and are
> flying around.
>         When they run out gas.  Meanwhile back on earth some bald
> scientist type
>         (with glasses and a full beard) is about to demonstrate this
> giant canon
>         heıs made to sent a rocket to the moon at 10,000 miles per
> second.  He
>         fireıs the canon, the rocket hits and destroys the house, and
> husband and
>         wife come tumbling back to earth and land ­  would you know? ­
> right back in
>         bed.  She wakes up with a start and realizes that it was only
> a dream. End
>         of movie.
>         So, weıve got two movies framed as a dream by one party of a
> married couple
>         we see in bed at the beginning and the end of the movie. Both
> dreams end in
>         an explosion.  Now letıs look at McCayıs second movie ³How a
> Mosquito
>         Operates.²  The premise is simple, a man goes to sleep and a
> mosquito lands
>         on his head a proceeds to suck blood from the manıs rather
> large nose (think
>         of a caricature of WC Fields, whom McCay had met in vaudeville
> though I have
>         no idea whether he had Fields in mind when creating this
> character), scalp,
>         and neck.  As the mosquito draws blood, his belly becomes
> larger and larger
>         (I bet you can guess how this oneıs going to end).  Before
> beginning to draw
>         blood the mosquito makes a big deal of sharpening his
> proboscis on a grind
>         stone; he also doffs his top-hat to the audience at various
> points.  He
>         doesnıt draw all the blood in one penetration; there are
> several.  And he
>         doesnıt just stick it in the leave it there while sucking the
> blood out.
>         No, he pokes his proboscis in and out, in and out, several
> times in each
>         penetration.  During one interval the mosquito makes a big
> deal of doing a
>         head-stand on the manıs up-turned nose ­ which he had already
> penetrated for
>         blood two or three times.  He goes for one final drink from
> the manıs nose,
>         overdoes it, and explodes, body parts flying all over the
> place.  The man
>         awakens and the film ends.
>         It seems to me that all this in-and-out exploding dreaming has
> unmistakable
>         sexual undertones.  These films were made during the 19-teens
> and early 20s,
>         and the bald, bearded, spectacled rocket scientist in ³The
> Flying House²
>         looks more or less like Freud (though the beard is a bit too
> long and full).
>         Remarkable stuff.
>         But perhaps the most remarkable of these films is ³The Sinking
> of the
>         Lusitania.²  Itıs not a vaudeville act, not an experiment in
> artificial
>         life, not a dream.  Rather, itıs a more-or-less realistic
> depiction of a
>         real event; and itıs also war propaganda.
>         Technically, this was the first of McCayıs films to use
> cel-animation. The
>         first three films had been drawn on rice paper which was then
> pasted to thin
>         boards for shooting. The backgrounds had to be re-drawn for
> each frame. In
>         ³Lusitania² background and foreground images are drawn on
> separate acetates.
>         The animation consists of a variety of shots, long-distance
> shots of the
>         Lusitania and of the submarine, under-water shots, close-ups
> of people in
>         the water, middle-distance shots of life boats being lowered
> into the water.
>         That last shot shows a woman attempting to hold her infant up
> out of the
>         water and she sinks below the surface.  There are two
> explosions in the
>         film, which McCay does brilliantly.  Perhaps his most elegant
> animation is
>         that of the smoke trailing from the shipıs stacks; the
> movement is
>         exquisitely sensual.
>         The whole film, however, is marred by the mid-film inclusion
> of still
>         photographs of a hand-full of notables who died in the
> sinking.  This may
>         have increased the propaganda value of the film, but it wrecks
> the dramatic
>         motion.  I say this not so much in criticism, but by way of
> observing that
>         McCay had no models for what he was doing and so had to figure
> it out for
>         himself.  Some things work, some donıt; but you canıt tell
> until you try.
>         This is the first time anyone had tried THAT.
>         * * * * *
>         Why didnıt McCayıs contemporaries and successors attempt to
> emulate his
>         work? Why is he the only one to have produced work of that
> quality?  We
>         donıt really know, of course, but Iıd think McCayıs virtuosity
> is a
>         significant part of the reason.  We was a superb draftsman; he
> could draw
>         well and he could draw quickly.  I would have been very
> difficult to produce
>         work of that quality on a one-a-week basis, which was the
> schedule of the
>         commercial animation houses.
>         But I think thereıs more to it than that.  He thought of his
> work as Art.
>         Other animators did not. It wasnıt simply that they didnıt
> have time to do
>         Art; they werenıt interested in doing Art no matter how much
> time they had.
>         In a way, I almost think he was a 19th-century man who just
> happened to do
>         his most innovative work in the first quarter of the 20th
> century.  He was
>         working at the end of an old cultural era while his fellow
> animators were
>         working at the beginning of a one.  It isnıt until Disneyıs
> maturity (not
>         the early stuff) that we have comparable draftsmanship and
> fluidity.  And,
>         however conscious Disney was of working in a new and important
> medium, he
>         didnıt think of himself as being in the Art business.  He was,
> at best,
>         ambivalent about the cachet he and his work had in high-art
> circles and that
>         cachet pretty much evaporated after WWII.
>         My sense is that, if you want to find the aesthetic spirit of
> McCay in
>         animation, youıve got to go to Japan.  But thatıs another
> story, etc.