By Joan Amenn
The first animated film star wasn’t a mouse or a rabbit. It may have seemed like “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” (1988) was one of the first times animation and live-action interacted but Roger and his other inked on acetate pals all owe a debt to Gertie the Dinosaur.
Yes, Gertie was a decidedly female animated star, even though she sprang from the imagination of a particularly gifted male artist named Winsor McCay. McCay was largely self-taught though he did do a brief stint as a student at Eastern Michigan University. Ambitious and rebellious of his family’s hopes of him entering the world of business, McCay headed to Chicago to try to support himself in his own way. It wasn’t long before McCay relocated once again to Cincinnati, finding employment in painting signs and other promotional material for circuses and amusement parks. It was there that he met his future wife and with the start of a family, the need for more stable employment became obvious.
McCay became a newspaper cartoonist, at first drawing realistic illustrations that ran alongside the daily news. He became quite famous for his comic strip, “Little Nemo” which is still considered remarkable for its use of colour and perspective. However, McCay had a taste for fine clothes and comfortable living. He and his family had several homes at the height of his fame, but he had to constantly work to keep them in the style they were accustomed to. This meant McCay also occasionally indulged himself by creating vaudeville acts showcasing his amazing ability to quickly draw elaborate scenes in front of an audience. Little Nemo himself took to the stage in a Broadway adaptation of McCay’s comic in 1908. But McCay’s ambitions were still not satisfied.
He had experimented with creating “flipbooks” which gave the sense of a drawing moving when their pages were quickly flipped through. Now he planned to recreate that effect on a much larger scale, through animation. He was not the first American animator, but he would innovate methods that would be used for years afterwards by many others. McCay experimented with the medium of animation in a couple of short films, most notably in “How a Mosquito Operates” (1912). But McCay wanted to go deeper into what animation could do so he could create something much, much bigger than a mosquito.
“Gertie would be born from many hours of agonizingly detailed work as each of thousands of pages were hand-drawn.”
Dinosaurs had just recently caught the imagination of the New York public due to discoveries in palaeontology. McCay set out to make the first animated film with a fully drawn background and decided his star would be a female dinosaur. Gertie would be born from many hours of agonizingly detailed work as each of thousands of pages were hand-drawn. McCay enlisted a young neighbour to trace the background drawings and taught him how to line up each so they were consistent using registration marks on the corners of each page. He also innovated how to animate a cycle of action, such as when Gertie was breathing deeply while sleeping, by photographing a series of drawings sequentially.
Perhaps McCay’s greatest breakthrough was making Gertie his partner on stage in his vaudeville show. To do this, he planned out sequences where Gertie would seem to obey his commands to walk, fetch and even dance. She also pouted, got distracted by a pterosaur flying overhead and even cried when scolded for misbehaving. McCay drew himself into the finale by having Gertie carry him off in her mouth, much to the shock and delight of his audience.
“Gertie the Dinosaur” was released in theatres in 1914. It would take decades later for Gene Kelly to dance with Jerry Mouse in “Anchors Away” (1945) or for Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke to enjoy tea served by animated penguins in “Mary Poppins” (1964). Gertie became a huge hit but McCay soon felt the displeasure of his employer, William Randolph Hearst, who did not appreciate him being away from his drawing board. Hearst was a bit of a curmudgeon but McCay would not give up on his girl Gertie so easily. He simply edited the film to include an introduction of himself betting friends he could bring a dinosaur to life through animation.
“McCay saw animation as an art form, not a means of commerce and strongly objected to its being turned into a factory type production. He knew that the future was bright for animation as a means of storytelling even if he did not live to see it come into its full potential.”
Gertie was as much a sensation as a film as she was as an act and was soon touring around the country making McCay even more famous than he was before. She might have become too famous since McCay found himself in court fighting against copyright infringement against someone who stole his animation techniques and tried to pass of a counterfeit Gertie film to the public. He prevailed and was planning a sequel to Gertie at the time of his death.
However, McCay saw animation as an art form, not a means of commerce and strongly objected to its being turned into a factory type production. He knew that the future was bright for animation as a means of storytelling even if he did not live to see it come into its full potential. Sadly, he was right, but Gertie is preserved in the U.S. Library of Congress and remains a landmark of creative filmmaking.