Saturday, 26 June 2010

The first American animated film - 1906 - Humorous Phases of Funny Faces - James Stuart Blackton

One of the brilliant repercussions of Melies’ trick film-making is the discovery of animation. Humorous Phases of Funny Faces is widely considered to be the earliest surviving American animated film – and it is as primitive as it is delightful.

The film was directed by John Stuart Blackton, who alongside Albert E. Smith formed one of the first movie studios, Vitagraph Motion Pictures. Before entering the world of film, Blackton had been a vaudeville cartoonist.

An important question to ask as we evaluate the first animated film on this list is: how much of a difference is there between animated films and ‘moving pictures’ (I think moving pictures is a more appropriate phrase than motion pictures when referring to early silent films)? I would suggest that there is a substantial gulf between the two categories.

For example, if we were to draw a family tree of the genealogy of the arts, animated film would stem from a different branch to the ‘moving picture’. The moving picture can be traced back to the earliest photograph, which was produced by the French inventor Joseph Nicéphore Niépce. Animation, on the other hand, can trace its roots back far earlier to the earliest drawings that were made thousands of years ago.

Yet again, the answer of how the contemporary audience would have responded to this film would be extremely helpful. Although seeing the earliest Lumiere Brothers’ films would have startled the audience for obvious reasons, what they were witnessing were things which they could experience witness in their day to day activities. A film like Humorous Phases of Funny Faces, however, surely would have completely 
bamboozled them, as they were seeing a drawing come to life.

Also, unlike with the Lumiere Brothers’ first film, La Sortie de l'Usine Lumière à Lyon, where the workers could not help staring at the camera, the animated film would offer its creator complete control of his/her entire environment. 
The Animation Archive provides us with a helpful background to the film as well as the process behind it:
Smith and Blackton created what were then called "Trick Films"... the camera was stopped for a moment while the scene was changed, making things magically appear and disappear; images dissolved from one to another; and shots were double exposed to create ghostly images. In 1900, Blackton experimented with putting his lightning sketch act on film in a movie called "The Enchanted Drawing", but it was in April of 1906 when he made his most important breakthrough. In a trick film titled "Humorous Phases of Funny Faces" Blackton created what is regarded as the first American animated film.
Humorous Phases of Funny Faces sees several of Blackton’s drawings come to life. The most sophisticated animation is reserved for the final character, the clown, who instructs a lion to dance on his arm and then jump through a hoop.

It is an awfully simple film and its joy partly derives from the possibilities that the film hints at. When you think of the incredibly sophisticated and layered animation work that goes into the latest Pixar or Miyazaki release, it is important to understand the humble and simple beginnings of animated films.

But it also serves an important lesson for modern animated film makers – animated film is a completely different entity to moving pictures and this should be embraced – I hope that the success of Toy Story 3 does not mean that most major animated films will be shot in 3D. More often than not, simplicity trumps all, Humorous Phases of Funny Faces exemplifies this point.   


  1. Another fascinating point about the film is the way that it focuses on animation as 'magic' (the word comes from the Latin 'animus' or 'soul'), and the animator as conjuror. It is no coincidence that the very first animated film ever made does this: indeed, it was a veritable cliché in the early years of the form (for the most brilliant examples, check out Fleischer's 'Out of the Inkwell' series from 1918-29).

    This highlights the immense importance of Walt Disney: he was the figure who self-consciously tried to create a 'world within' for animation, from Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, to Mickey Mouse, to Snow White. None of his classic works made any allusion to the 'animator' standing outside the world of the cartoon, ending the genre's 'novelty' quality. Just take a look at one of his early colour masterpieces, The Old Mill, 30 years after 'Humorous Phases...':

    The leap forward is so immense as to be unmatched, arguably, in the history of any other art form. (A jump of 30 years in sci-fi, for example, just takes us from 'The Empire Strikes Back' to 'Avatar').

    For a final word on the 'animator as conjuror', take a look at this witty joke on the theme in Chuck Jones's 'Duck Amuck', almost 50 long years after the Blackton Funny Faces film:

    The comic revelation at the conclusion of this WB short is a knowing nod back to the 'animus' joke that runs all the way through half-a-century of early animation. And it all started here...

  2. @ Rob - This is an incredibly informative response that adds a new dimension to our understanding of this landmark animation film. The etymology of animation is intriguing, and early animator's post-modern self-awareness of this fact only adds to the inventiveness of their work.

    Thank you for highlighting the importance of Walt Disney - after watching The Old Mill, I shall certainly be adding some of his early shorts to the Film Ab Initio List.

    The point you make about animation's leap forward is unnerving. Watching the Old Mill straight after watching Humorous Phases of Funny Faces feels as though we have stumbled into a new dimension. The only comparable leap forward I could think of is the development of Mario from the NES to the Wii in the space of 20 years, but even that seems unimpressive when compared to the leap animation takes with Walt Disney's imaginative scope.

    The WB short does appear to pay homage to early animators at the end of the short you linked to - it also reinforces the importance of Blackton's work. Therefore surely more can be done to give this film more exposure. I long for the day when an early silent goes viral...

  3. I just realised a blunder in my comment above....

    For the animator as magician, I was thinking of this J. Stuart Blackton film from 1900:

    As you can see, Humorous Phases is, in part, a 'remake' of this earlier film, which cuts down on the direct onscreen presence of the animator.

  4. @ Rob - Many thanks for the link to the earlier link. From watching the film, I can see why your point has more resonance with this earlier film - but I still think it is applicable to Humorous Phases of Funny Faces.