Monthly Archives: December 2015

Below is a paper I wrote for a class titled History of the International Cinema: Part One.   Kind of a pretentious class title, right?  It was a wonder that I thought it was a good idea to turn in this paper on the trivial subject of animation, but thanks to this Leonard Maltin article, I was able to very quickly nail down a solid assertion, and simultaneously learn a whole lot about this period of animation that I hadn’t previously fully understood!  It was a real pleasure to write, and I hope it’s enjoyable to read as well!



     The history of animation, especially its early days in the 1910’s and 1920’s, is comparable to one major “near miss.”   Animation, had it remained grounded in the style of Émile Cohl and other contemporary European artists, and the grand artistic visions of Winsor McCay in America, could have found itself uniquely positioned as a leading form of high art over the next century, but profitability conquered auteur artistry. Walt Disney made a major effort to counteract this sacrifice of artistic achievement, but his failure ultimately led to the often marginalized genre as it is known today. In 1940, at a budget exceeding two and a quarter million dollars Disney released Fantasia (1940), which shall be shown to be the pinnacle of “animated high art.”  Compare this with the production budget of Casablanca (1943) which stood at just over one million dollars, and it is clear that animation was an industry that sought great heights just the same as live film during these early years.  Just as Casablanca was the culmination of film technique up to that point in time, Fantasia also was the culmination of the animated genre and its development up through that point in time.  Had animation and live film been compared side by side in the 1910’s and early 1920’s, viewers would be hard pressed to argue that either type of film was trivial in comparison to the other.  Arguably, prior to animation’s industrialization in the United States between 1915 and 1925, it was a medium of high art, and could have remained that way had profitability and consumer demand not effectively destroyed its prospects for anything other than character-focused narrative after the failure of Fantasia in 1940.

     To begin, animation origins are not quite as well defined as the origins of live motion pictures.  It is also hard to pinpoint what exactly qualifies as animation.  The trick films of Georges Méliés, G.A Smith, and others employed old theatrical wire tricks to make things move independently, but in 1907 James Stuart Blackton released L’Hôtel Hanté through Vitagraph in Paris, and audiences were astonished when close ups of a table setting itself revealed no wires or traditional tricks, thanks to the technique of animation (Crafton, Before Mickey 13-14).  On the other hand, animation as it is traditionally thought of was being explored by Émile Cohl in France in 1908.  Cohl was one of the pioneers of animation, and though animation’s origins are ambiguous, he can be credited with a fairly large hand in the development of the medium.  The style most attributable to Émile Cohl was the “Incoherent Cinema,” an aesthetic he originated in his 1908 short film Fantasmagorie, his first animated cartoon, and the first step forward in animation as its own art form.  He created this while simultaneously writing scenarios for the Gaumont studio, working alongside Louis Feuillade and Etienne Arnaud (Crafton, Before Mickey 65-66).  The picture was released under the Gaumont name, and with its nearly 2 minute running time, “most viewers were undoubtedly left puzzled by this curious apparition” (Crafton, Émile Cohl 121).  This incoherent cinema style is incredibly fluid and unpredictable.  At one point in the film, a man is swallowed by a cannon, which tilts upward to change into a bottle, but then suddenly peels to reveal the man standing in the center of a flower (Fantasmagorie).   Earlier experiments in animation allowed the artists to be present with their on-  screen creations, and Cohl does not entirely ditch this concept with Fantasmagorie.  What differentiated Cohl from more primitive animators was his prior experience as an artist.  Cohl’s interests actually heavily concentrated in painting and poetry, and as a member of the Société des Dessinateurs Humoristes, “Émile Cohl was the first artist with an established reputation to become a full time filmmaker” (Crafton, Before Mickey 65). 

     Émile Cohl was not the only artist to transfer into the medium of animation.  Take for example Hans Richter or Viking Eggeling and their work between 1915 and 1923.  Both were fine artists seeking to translate their still art into motion through animation.  Their inspiration coincided with the avant-garde movement taking place in cinema at the time, and some films were just as much about exploring cinematic potential as they were about artistic expression. For Eggeling, Symphonie Diagnole was, on top of being an experiment in kinetic art, an exploration in spatial relationship in a camera frame.  Hans Richter’s Rhythmus 21 was based on similar ideas.  In the same vein of experimentation, Walter Ruttmann in Berlin was creating new animated forms for his Opus series of films.  He presented a contrasting body of work for his time, for while “Richter and Eggeling used music as a structural model to analyze the movement through time and space, Ruttmann was more interested in translating the emotional overtones of music into moving colored images” (Lawder 62).  Ruttmann’s experience in creating his Opus films actually led to his contribution to live film work in his “city symphony” Berlin, Symphonie diner Grossstadt (1927).  His practice with the patterned rhythms and abstract forms of Opus allowed him to craft his choices of objects and shots in this film.  On top of all this, Opus I (1921) was created in color, showing that animation was able to keep pace with the technological advancements in live film.

      As this all began, Bernhard Diebold, a German film critic of the time, wrote in 1916 of a new medium of art that would combine movement with music through film.  Diebold expressed a desire for “film-as-painted-music…based on the theory of synaesthetic correspondences, which presumed the existence of specific auditory and visual stimuli to elicit identical inner emotional states” (Lawder 56).  This relates back to the earlier assertion that Disney’s Fantasia was a culmination of everything the animation industry had pushed to achieve in its early days.  It was both the peak of Diebold’s desire for “film-as-painted-music” and the end of this notion, as neither Disney nor any other animation studio would pursue such a film again. Esther Leslie, a professor at Birkbeck College in London, echoes Diebold’s sentiment in her essay “Animation and History.”  She invokes Diebold, paraphrasing his assertion that “if cinema was to be an art form…it needed animation, because that made possible a cinema that had broken free of a naturalistic template and conventional story lines” (Leslie 33). Clearly, animation had both its own evolving development as an art form for abstract, modern artists in Europe, but it also acted as a testing ground for filmmakers and artists to better understand the intangible elements of film like rhythm, form, and composition.

Colorful forms from Ruttman's "Opus" series.

Colorful forms from Ruttman’s Opus series.


     Moving from Europe to the United States, Winsor McCay, an American cartoonist, was busy developing his own animation process with slightly different intentions than Émile Cohl.  In fact, McCay’s attitude towards animation very much resembled the “cinema of attraction” displayed by early filmmakers like the Lumiére Brothers and Mélies trick films, and in his first film, “the four-minute sequence exploits movement for its own sake in a highly exploratory way” (Crafton, Before Mickey 103).  While McCay was able to work in to his early projects some semblance of narrative (something entirely lacking from Cohl’s Fantasmagorie), his first three and most famous productions were far more concentrated in spectacle than narrative.  As a cartoonist and vaudeville performer, McCay was an already established figure.  He wrote a newspaper comic strip at the time called Little Nemo in Slumberland.  Thus, when McCay translated this highly popular cartoon into the animated medium in 1911, it became a wildly popular piece of the exhibitionist cinema.  His first three cartoons, Little Nemo, followed by The Story of a Mosquito (1912) and Gertie the Dinosaur (1914), all featured between 3000 and 5000 drawings each, and they were all produced with the purpose of accompanying McCay in a traveling live stage act.  The most famous of these was Gertie, which featured McCay physically climbing up a ladder behind the screen and timing it so that he would then appear on screen with the dinosaur.  As an American, McCay’s vision for animation somewhat differed from what would come to be.  In an article published in a 1911 issue of The Atlanta Constitution, McCay was discussing his work on Little Nemo, and predicted “ a day when finished paintings will possess life and action” (Ormond 16). 

      The American animation industry would not concentrate on this path, however.  Instead, there was John R. Bray, “animation’s greatest proponent of the mass-production…[and] at once the Henry Ford, Harold Lloyd and Thomas Edison of the cartoon business” (Adamson 48).  John Bray can be thought of as the man who brought animation out of experimentation and capitalized on its potential for business.  When he got a chance to experiment with animation around 1915, Bray patented one of the vital pieces of the standardized animation process, the cel.  This allowed a translucent sheet to separate the body of the character or animated element from the stationary background.  A Bray studio advertisement from Moving Picture World in 1919 asserts, “The Bray Studios has always led in the development of improved processes for superior animation,” and considering the cel was continually used through the 1990’s, this arrogant advertisement is more or less justified (Bray).  For a while, Bray was contracted with Paramount, creating short educational segments, newsreels, and the first military training films.  His artists included Paul Terry, Max Fleischer, Walter Lantz, and several other influential men that went on to Disney and Warner Bros. in the 1930’s.  Though Bray never created any lasting property, he did establish the business model of mass production in animation which would be adopted by the most influential animators of the next two decades .

     After Bray’s withdrawal from animation, the medium declined.  European artists were no longer using animation as an artistic medium in the 1920’s, and thanks to Bray, animation had become industrialized in the pattern of Hollywood films, effectively stifling the expensive, labor-intensive productions McCay had been exploring a decade earlier.  It was only with Walt Disney’s bet on sound in 1928 with Mickey Mouse in Steamboat Willie that animation continued to stay technologically relevant with film.  Disney’s competitors would follow suit, transferring to sound in the 1930’s, until he took another major leap forward in 1932 with Flowers and Trees, the first film to ever use Technicolor’s three-strip full-color process.  Five years later, Disney would step forward again with Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937), the first feature length animated picture.  Again, the industry followed, and the Fleischer brothers would release their own picture in 1941, Mr. Bug Goes to Town. 

The pinnacle of animation as high art, "Fantasia" was able to incorporate abstract form alongside music driven and character driven story lines.

The pinnacle of animation as high art, Fantasia was able to incorporate abstract form alongside music driven and character driven story lines.

Throughout the 1930’s, Disney continually pushed for more cohesive stories when other studios were satisfied with cartoons that relied solely on gags.  All of this culminated with Fantasia in 1940, a full color film that was broken into eight segments and featured strictly no-dialogue in the story segments.  The only sound accompaniment — which was provided in the debut of stereophonic sound — was the symphonic orchestration.  The narrative, character, tone, and overall theme of each segment was wholly informed by the music, fulfilling Diebold’s prediction.  It was an effort to reverse the pattern of animation as a trivial accompaniment to major features and instead return to animation as a high art form.  It was, in fact, recognized as such at the Academy Awards where it received two special recognition awards for its advancement in technology and in the motion picture as an art form.  The goals of Richter, Eggeling, and Ruttmann’s experiments almost seem to directly inform this production, but box office returns turned out to be more influential in the future.

Animated form timed to music in "Fantasia," something reflected in the "Opus" series.

Animated form timed to music in Fantasia, something reflected in the Opus series.

Disney’s grand vision was shattered when the film saw abysmal box office returns, and it was only due to the major success of Snow White and relative success of Dumbo (1941) that the studio stayed alive.  Disney would not be able to produce another major motion picture until the 1950’s, and though he continued to push forward innovative filmmaking techniques — Lady and the Tramp being the first animated feature to be released in CinemaScope — Disney did not have the capital to innovate on such a grand scale, especially with his other ventures in theme parks and television.  According to film critic Leonard Maltin, “Creativity remained a hallmark of the animated features and shorts that came from his studio, but the bold era of experimentation was over.  The failure of Fantasia would remain a sore spot with Disney for the rest of his life” (Maltin).

     In spite of its best efforts, animation eventually tumbled into the mass-production form it is known for today, and Bray’s introduction of a business mindset won out.  Walt Disney, in his early years, made concerted efforts to reverse the pattern of lazy comic adaption and character inconsistency in animation with his elaborate shorts and innovative technologies, but his failure with Fantasia, followed by limitations brought on by World War II, resulted in the culmination and effective end of popular animation as fine art.  It was a hybridization years in the making and anticipated from nearly the beginning of the medium, but American industry more or less refused to let the two coexist. Nevertheless, the simple fact that in Fantasia Mickey Mouse can and does exist within a German poem and move in rhythm with a French symphony proves there is yet a potential for animation that will hopefully be further explored in the future.

Works Cited

Adamson, Joe. The Walter Lantz Story: With Woody Woodpecker and Friends. New York: Putnam, 1985. Print.

Bray, John R. “Bray Studios Pictograph.” Internet Archive. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Nov. 15.

Crafton, Donald. Before Mickey: The Animated Film, 1898-1928. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1982. Print.

Crafton, Donald. Emile Cohl, Caricature, and Film. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1990. Print.

Fantasmagorie. Dir. Émile Cohl. Gaumont, 1908. Web.

Lawder, Standish D. The Cubist Cinema. New York: New York UP, 1975. Print. Anthology Film  Archives.

Leslie, Esther. “Animation and History.” Animating Film Theory. Ed. Karen Beckman. London: Duke UP, 2014. 25-36. Print.

Maltin, Leonard. “When Disney Got Adult and Trippy.” BBC. BBC, 12 Nov. 2015. Web. 15 Nov. 2015.

Ormond, Sidney. “Pictorial Art of the Future Will Move; Pity the Poor Newspaper Cartoonist.” The Atlanta Constitution 1 June 1911: 1+. ProQuest. Web. 15 Nov. 2015.


Adamson, Joe. The Walter Lantz Story: With Woody Woodpecker and Friends. New York: Putnam, 1985. Print.

Barrier, J. Michael. Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age. New York: Oxford UP, 1999. Print.

Berlin: Symphony of a Great City. Dir. Walter Ruttman. 1927. Web.

Bray, John R. “Bray Studios Pictograph.” Internet Archive. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Nov. 15.

Bruckner, René, Dr. History of the International Cinema. Norris Cinema Theater, Los Angeles. 24 Aug. 2015. Lecture.

Crafton, Donald. Before Mickey: The Animated Film, 1898-1928. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1982. Print.

Crafton, Donald. Émile Cohl, Caricature, and Film. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1990. Print.

Fantasia. Prod. Walt Disney and Ben Sharpsteen. Perf. Leopold Stokowski and Deems Taylor. Walt Disney Productions, 1940. DVD.

Fantasmagorie. Dir. Émile Cohl. Gaumont, 1908. Web.

The Haunted Hotel. Dir. Stuart Blackton. Vitagraph, 1907. Web.

Heraldson, Donald. Creators of Life: A History of Animation. New York: Drake, 1975. Print.

Korkis, Jim. The Book of Mouse: A Celebration of Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse. N.p.: Theme Park, 2013. Print.

Lawder, Standish D. The Cubist Cinema. New York: New York UP, 1975. Print. Anthology Film Archives.

Leslie, Esther. “Animation and History.” Animating Film Theory. Ed. Karen Beckman. London: Duke UP, 2014. 25-36. Print.

Malevich, Kazimir Severinovich, and Oksana Bulgakowa. The White Rectangle: Writings on Film. Berlin: Potemkin, 2002. Print.

Maltin, Leonard. “When Disney Got Adult and Trippy.” BBC. BBC, 12 Nov. 2015. Web. 15 Nov. 2015.

Opus I. Dir. Walter Ruttman. 1921. Web.

Ormond, Sidney. “Pictorial Art of the Future Will Move; Pity the Poor Newspaper Cartoonist.” The Atlanta Constitution 1 June 1911: 1+. ProQuest. Web. 15 Nov. 2015.

Peary, Danny, and Gerald Peary. The American Animated Cartoon: A Critical Anthology. New York: Dutton, 1980. Print.

Schwarz, Arturo. Man Ray: The Rigour of Imagination. London: Thames and Hudson, 1977. Print.

Symphonie Diagonale. Dir. Viking Eggeling. 1924. Web.