Monday, 8 November 2010

Animation Comes Alive - 1911 - Little Nemo - J. Stuart Blackton & Winsor McCay

            Little Nemo functions as a promotional vehicle for the multi-talented Winsor McCay; in fact, the film's alternate title is Winsor McCay, the Famous Cartoonist of the N.Y. Herald and His Moving Comics. The majority of the film involves McCay preparing his ‘moving comic’ of Little Nemo for his sceptical friends.

Before entering the world of animated film, McCay was famous for his cartoon strips (we have already looked at a live action cinematic adaptation of one of his cartoon strip Dream of a Rarebit Fiend). Of his various strips, Little Nemo has proved to be his most enduring legacy:

Simply put, Little Nemo revolutionized the comic strip. At 38, McCay was at the very peak of his talent and the New York Herald had the most talented and creative colour printing staff in the business. Together they crafted a weekly fantasy that week by week revealed Slumberland to be more magical than even L. Frank Baum's Oz (created in 1899) and more wonderful than Lewis Carroll's Wonderland (1865). Books and websites abound praising Nemo far more than I could possibly do in this short bio. Nemo was published in the New York Herald until July 23, 1911. The strips have been reprinted many times. Find them and lose yourself in this masterpiece.

            Unfortunately, the strips were not as popular during McCay’s own era:
The strip was not a great popular success in its time. Most readers preferred the slapstick antics of such strips as Katzenjammer Kids, Happy Hooligan, and Buster Brown to the surreal fantasy of Nemo, and other comic strips like Krazy Kat. 

            Therefore, although some of the contemporary viewers will have been familiar with McCay’s work, others audience members would have been unaware of McCay’s background as a cartoonist. This meant his background was similar to that of his co-director J. Stuart Blackton, who also began his career as a cartoonist. Furthermore, the symbolism of America’s earliest animation pioneer passing the baton to his immediate successor is evident with the co-direction credits for both Blackton and McCay.
            One of the reasons the film portrays McCay’s thought process behind his creation of his ‘moving pictures’, is that as well as being a cartoonist McCay was also a vaudeville artist. McCay had begun his vaudeville act five years earlier and the film served as a great promotional tool for his act.

             Unfortunately, the weakest part of the film is this lengthy explanation of why and how he went about creating the 4,000 images that began his career as an animator. The section is overtly long, which often undercuts the intended effect of a particular scene. For example, the audience is presented with the fascinating image of McCay surrounded by his thousands of drawings (see image below).

A co-worker or cleaner continually interrupts him and eventually knocks over the majority of the images that have clearly been placed in sequential order. The scene’s unnecessary length stifles the humour of the scene and McCay’s reaction to the spillage further dents any humour that may have been intended. Little Nemo compares unfavourably to the Max Linder film that we just looked at in terms of drawing humour from self-referential scenes in an early silent film.
I also feel that the film missed an opportunity in choosing to evade the question of how the ‘moving images’ were put together. Although we see McCay draw several images and then later witness him in his office surrounded by his images, what would have interested me most would have been to see how he put together the various drawings in order to conjure the fantastical animation that closes the film.

It is the animation that the film should be judged by; under this criterion the film is a great success. The level of detail and the introduction of colour mean that Little Nemo is light years ahead of its predecessors. Although, it does not share the rapid inventiveness of The Hasher’s Delirium or Fantasmagorie, it has no need to do so because the characters that McCay draws are far more concrete and realised. 

The scene where a ‘prince’ give his ‘princess’ a rose (see image above) and their subsequent seating in a dragon’s mouth (see image below) is the most breathtaking image that we have witnessed thus far in animation’s brief history. The addition of a multitude of colours provides the animation with a richness that animation craves far more than live action films do.

Little Nemo marks a significant step in animation’s maturation as an art form. Although its live action sequence is arduous and over-long, the brief animated sequence’s concentrated brilliance more than makes up for this earlier shortfall.   


  1. I am a huge fan of comics. Today's Google display of Little Nemo on Firefox brought back long forgotten memories about these fantastic comics. Also, I can see similarities with contemporary comic artists that clearly draw on McCays style. About the film, I quite liked it, but I agree that there might be many people asking themselves, "where is this heading to", closing the film early and missing out on the amazing last couple of minutes. What a great piece of work. In the early 70s, my brother and I used the super-8 of my dad for stop motion and we only did sequences a few seconds long. If you only work with a single layer and have to redraw the entire scenario on every sheet it becomes a hell of a lot of work. Even though super-8 works with 8 pictures/second rather than 24, like the big formats do. 

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