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(I've decided to start announcing the winners of the previous week's trivia contest in a separate post, since my comments on them are getting longer.)

A few weeks ago, my husband and I were driving home and listening to a story on NPR about the 2009 selections for the National Film Registry. Every year, the National Film Preservation Board selects up to twenty-five films to be preserved for posterity at the Library of Congress. NPR mentioned a few of this year’s particularly interesting picks, including the Muppets’ big screen debut The Muppet Movie and Michael Jackson’s game-changing music video Thriller. Another film that got a brief mention was “a 1911 mix of live action and animation that influenced Walt Disney.” Curious, and slightly embarrassed that I didn’t immediately know what film was being described, I looked it up online once we got home. I discovered that the short in question was Little Nemo, which left me feeling both glad that the film would be preserved to be enjoyed by future generations and slightly annoyed at NPR. It turned out that their description was a very condensed version of the National Film Preservation Board’s own blurb on the short, but I still felt that it missed much of the point. I like Disney plenty, but I’m not a fan of the idea that in the world of animation, all roads lead to Disney. To suggest that animator Winsor McCay and his work are important chiefly because of their influence on Walt Disney is far from the whole story.

Winsor McCay was an amazingly prolific and influential artist, born sometime in the late 1860s or early 1870s. Despite having very little formal art training, he became a newspaper cartoonist, producing a number of comic strips for various papers. His best-known creation is Little Nemo in Slumberland, which told the story of a young boy and his nightly visits to a fantastic dreamworld. The strip features superb draftsmanship and attention to detail, wonderfully intricate architecture, and a playful inventiveness in story and layout. Today, it is considered a sequential art masterpiece.

McCay developed an interest in the then fledgling medium of animation and partnered with J. Stuart Blackton – another animation pioneer, to create a short film based on MccCay’s comics. The National Film Preservation Board’s description of the resulting short as “a mix of live-action and animation” is somewhat misleading. It brings to mind shorts like the Fleischers’ Out of the Inkwell series or Disney’s early Alice Comedies: animated characters entering the live-action world or a live actor in an animated setting. Little Nemo is neither. It is two minutes of animation with a live-action frame story.

The title card identifies the film as “Winsor McCay, The Famous Cartoonist of the N.Y. Herald and His Moving Comics,” though it is known to most people by the much less cumbersome title “Little Nemo.” The text goes on to proclaim McCay “the first artist to attempt drawing pictures that will move.” This is hyperbole at best and very strange, given that McCay’s co-director Blackton had himself experimented with using film to bring drawings to life. His Humorous Phases of Funny Faces is considered by some to be the first animated film and predates Little Nemo by at least five years. Blackton himself is not mentioned anywhere in the film, though the title card notes that the film was produced by the Vitagraph Company, which Blackton founded.


The live-action portion of the film deals chiefly with McCay explaining his idea for an animated short using his comic strip characters and then producing the drawings. Since there is no sound (beyond the jaunty, repetitive piano score attached to my copy of the short), the parts of the story that cannot be conveyed visually are explained in text. The story is a fictionalized version of the creation of the animated portion of the film. McCay explains his idea for creating moving film versions of his Little Nemo in Slumberland characters to his fellows artists, who laugh at him. He then demonstrates his drawing prowess by producing on the spot ink drawings of his creations. The text tells us that McCay promises his colleagues that he will return in one month with four thousand drawings that will create the illusion of movement. (This tight deadline is likely a gross exaggeration. Though McCay was capable of drawing very fast, a skill that was necessary for one of his other careers as a vaudeville “chalk-talk” artist, I’ve seen the actual time he spent working on this short piece of animation identified as not four weeks, but four years.) McCay sets about creating the four thousand individual drawings while enormous packages of drawing paper and barrels of ink are delivered to his studio. The packages, barrels, and door are labeled “drawing paper,” “ink,” and “studio,” for the audience’s convenience. Inside, McCay must deal with various interlopers whose nosing around threatens to knock over McCay’s numerous stacks of drawings and eventually does so. Finally, McCay presents his finished work to his peers.

Why bother with this fictional version of the film’s creation? My first thought was that it was intended as self-promotion for McCay. Selling his name to the public was an important aspect of all of McCay’s various careers. Showing McCay actually creating the animation could have been intended to create a stronger link in the minds of the audience between his name and his work. Animation was still very new to the public and few people understood exactly how it worked. So maybe the live-action footage was intended to both entertain and inform the public, filling out what would otherwise be a mere two minutes of animation with a fun and educational (if somewhat inaccurate) segment on the animation process. McCay may have simply wished to give himself some additional recognition for his hard work. This piece by Lauren Rabinovitz suggests that the live-action segments are further evidence of McCay the formalist. McCay’s comics are more focused on investigating and experimenting with the medium than the story itself. He was never afraid to call attention to or play with the structure of his comics, shattering panel borders and letting his hungry protagonists devour the letters from the strip’s title. So perhaps the scenes of McCay at work reflect the artist’s belief that the process and experimentation are as important as the finished product.

There’s an odd little moment before the animation begins in earnest. After McCay gathers his friends together and starts the camera rolling, an image of McCay’s character Flip appears line by line. But instead of continuing directly into the rest of the animation, the film then shows us McCay’s hand drawing the exact same image of Flip and sliding it into a three-sided wooden box, presumably to be filmed. It’s as if McCay is taking one last opportunity to remind his audience that no matter how magical the following scene may appear to be, he did actually draw the whole thing. The drawing of Flip is labeled “No. 1” referring back to McCay’s promise of four thousand drawings. The drawing of Flip suddenly goes from black and white to color. Since color film had not yet been invented, the film itself had to be painted by hand, one frame at a time.

Among the main characters in the Little Nemo comics and the animation is the Imp, an unfortunate racist caricature. In the strip, he is a boy from a tribe of cannibals who speaks either incomprehensible nonsense or fractured English. Fortunately, the Imp does not do anything particularly offensive in the animation and, like all of the characters, he never speaks. But he is still drawn as a sterotype of a native African, an image that would likely not have raised an eyebrow at the time of the film’s debut but looks horribly dated and ignorant today. I certainly do not approve of such imagery, but I also believe that art should be judged in the context of its time and not solely on the basis of whether or not it contains such problematic characters. Trying to ignore or erase the existence of racism in the past will neither change the fact that it happened nor prevent it from occurring in the future. If knowledgeable adults can be allowed to watch films like Gone With The Wind in spite of its rather idealized vision of the American South and the slave experience, then they should be able to watch Little Nemo (and Coal Black and De Sebben Dwarfs, but that’s another article.)


As the animation starts, the words “Watch me move” appear above Flip’s head, which is pretty much all the animated segment of the film is. There is no plot whatsoever, just the characters cavorting about. Animation was still such a new thing at the time that audiences could be entertained just by the novelty of seeing drawings brought to life. Much of the animation consists of the characters chasing each other around, assembling onscreen, and magically distorting like funhouse mirror reflections. As the animation comes to an end, the camera zooms out to show McCay’s hand holding the final drawing, triumphantly labeled “No. 4000.”

So if there’s no story to speak of, what makes Little Nemo so special? As with McCay’s comics work, the visuals are what stand out. Not only is Little Nemo one of the earliest examples of an animated short; it’s also one of the most sophisticated of the early animated shorts. McCay’s drawings are amazingly detailed, and yet they move surprisingly well. From his very first actions of removing the cigar from his mouth and waving away the smoke, Flip looks like he exists in three dimensions. Details like Flip’s spiky tufts of hair and the Imp’s jewelry stay consistent as they run around. The distortions of the characters are not haphazardly drawn. They stretch and squash according to particular rules. While parts of their forms elongate, others compress at the top or bottom of the screen, depending on the direction they’re being stretched in. The motion isn’t always perfect: McCay seems to have trouble keeping Nemo’s large hat moving convincingly as he turns or bows his head. There are some jumps in the animation, which may be due to parts of the film being lost or damaged beyond repair over the decades. These are minor flaws though, and do not detract from the overall amazing quality of the work.

The blurb from the National Film Registry, along with many animation fans, notes how technically superior Little Nemo is t animated films that came before it. What I find equally stunning is how superior ir is to films that came after it. McCay would go on create more animation including Gertie the Dinosaur, widely regarded as the first animated character with true personality, but it would be years before the rest of the animation world would catch up with McCay. Throughout the 1920s and into the 1930s, all American animation would utilize a much simpler style of drawing. Why? Because animation was becoming a business, a transition that McCay took a very dim view of. McCay saw the potential of animation to become a new art form and even imagined a day when the public would be so accustomed to moving art that they would regard works like the Mona Lisa as curious, static relics of a bygone era. But animation was growing into a studio product, and one man reportedly taking four years to make two minutes of animation was not a financially viable model. Dismayed by the commercialization of the medium, McCay later chastised his colleagues at a dinner held in his honor and wished them bad luck with their future endeavors.

To be selected for the National Film Registry, a film must be deemed significant either historically, aesthetically, or culturally. Little Nemo is a film that fits all three criteria. It is historically significant as an early work of American animation by one of the first masters of the medium. It is aesthetically significant because its visuals are literally years ahead of their time. And it is culturally significant both for helping to introduce the American public to animation and the animation process, and for influencing a new generation of animation pioneers, including – but certainly not limited to – Walt Disney. Little Nemo is certainly deserving of a place in the National Film Registry, where it can continue to amaze and inspire future animators for years to come.

Trivia Time! I’ll be pretty surprised if anyone – aside from a few of my animator friends – is familiar with the answer to this week’s trivia question. Little Nemo was one of two animated films to be picked for inclusion in the National Film Registry for 2009. What’s the name of the other film?

Copyright has expired on this film, but the images are taken from the DVD Animation Legend Winsor McCay

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