For the next few weeks, we’re going to dedicate our semi-weekly “Saturday Morning Cartoons” feature to the men who set the stage for the art of animation in American film-making–the largely forgotten pioneers whose innovative work eventually inspired and facilitated the creation of Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, and scores of other classic cartoon figures.
The roots of animation run almost as deeply as the roots of film itself. It began in the waning days of the nineteenth century as fledgling filmmakers began experimenting with the new medium of “moving pictures,” playing with the possibilities of bringing inanimate objects to life. Many of these early animators began their careers, appropriately enough, as artists, before finding themselves in the world of movie-making.
J. Stuart Blackton was one such figure. The British-born Blackton first began his show business career as a vaudevillian “lightning sketch artist” (a type of speed sketching/performance art in which an illustrator draws a series of “lightning-quick” sketches and manipulates them in various ways while telling a related story to an audience). After his act failed, Blackton began working for Joseph Pulitzer’s popular, sensationalist New York Evening World newspaper as a journalist and staff artist.
After one life-changing assignment–meeting and interviewing noted inventor Thomas Edison in 1896–Blackton purchased a Vitascope (Edison’s groundbreaking film projector) and began showing Edison-produced films. In 1897, in the wake of his new-found success, Blackton (along with fellow filmmaker Albert E. Smith) founded the American Vitagraph Company, one of the most successful early film studios, and began producing his own pictures. Not content with merely filming short, live-action sequences, Blackton soon started exploring the possibilities of a crude form of stop-motion animation (a method pioneered by the influential French filmmaker Georges Méliès). A year later, Blackton and Smith created what is now widely recognized as the first stop-motion animated short–1898’s The Humpty Dumpty Circus, in which a toy carnival was brought to flickering life using the technique. Sadly, Circus has since been lost, but thankfully, other early Blackton and Smith collaborations remain.
A surviving example of their early experimentation with stop-motion is The Enchanted Drawing. In it, Blackton is seen in front of a large easel, sketching a man’s face. He then draws a bottle of wine and a glass, “magically” plucks them from the paper, and pours himself a drink. The drawn face morphs into an expression of surprise, then pleasure as Blackton “feeds” the sketched man from the bottle. Blackton adds a hat to the man’s head, then plucks it from the paper, and does the same to the man’s cigar (much to the sketch’s discontent). The short skit ends with Blackton returning all of the removed objects to the paper. Though the film is dated from 1900, the Library of Congress indicates that Drawing was likely three or four years old by the time it was finally released, which means that, in actuality, this short may predate The Humpty Dumpty Circus.
[As an aside, it's worth noting that this film was copyrighted not by Vitagraph, but by Edison's film company. Blackton and Smith, trying to avoid being sued by Edison--who, as the owner of multiple motion picture patents at the turn of the century, spent a great deal of time, money, and lawyers protecting his investments--sold several of their creations to Edison, giving the inventor sole distribution rights over those films. In order to stay viable, Vitagraph eventually joined Edison's Motion Picture Patent Company (MPPC) in 1908. The MPPC was a trust comprised of ten American film companies, giving Edison a veritable stranglehold on the industry. Interestingly, the MPPC was partly responsible for the growth of Hollywood as the premier movie-making destination in the United States, as rival filmmakers essentially fled the New York and New Jersey areas to escape from Edison's litigious reach.]
In 1906, Blackton created Humorous Phases of Funny Faces, which is credited by many scholars as the first truly “animated” film. The film shows several “chalk” drawings (actually simulated largely through the use of cutout animation) coming to life after Blackton’s hand “sketches” and manipulates them on the screen. Some elements of stop-motion, stick puppetry, and live-action were also used to bring the drawings to life.
By the end of the decade, as the demands of running a motion picture studio grew, Blackton eventually lost interest in his animation experiments and moved away from film-making altogether in order to handle the day-to-day business of managing Vitagraph. Ironically enough, though, his company’s name would eventually become synonymous with a powerhouse of animation. Vitagraph was sold to Warner Bros. in 1925, where its name was changed to Vitaphone. However, for a short period from 1960-1964, Warner issued a series of their popular Looney Tunes shorts as “Vitagraph releases” in order to utilize the old name and thus protect their ownership of it.
Blackton’s influence on the emerging genre of animation is undeniable. Yes, his animated vignettes are little more than exhibitions of movie trickery. There is no attempt to tell a story; these short films were instead intended to wow the audience with the “magic” of the silver screen. Cartoons as we now know them–that is, animation marked by characterization and narrative–would not begin to emerge until several years after Blackton put down the camera for the last time. Still, these primitive shorts demonstrated the tantalizing possibilities of film and ultimately provided much inspiration for further advancements in the blossoming field of animation. As curious, new filmmakers stepped up to the drawing board, they drew upon some of the techniques used by Blackton and his contemporaries and improved upon them, constructing the foundation for modern animation in the process.