Tom Sito reflects back on the birth of animation, which dawned 100 years ago with The Humorous Phases of Funny Faces from James Stuart Blackton.
In 1906, Teddy Roosevelt was in the White House. Royalty ruled over most of the nations of the world. Upton Sinclair published The Jungle, Coca Cola replaced the cocaine in its formula with caffeine. Kelloggs introduced cornflakes, San Francisco was destroyed by a terrible earthquake. In 1906 weapons of mass destruction meant the dreadnought battleship, terrorism meant the anarchists. Immigration to the U.S. was mainly from Eastern and southern Europe. And in 1906, the first animated film was made.
James Stuart Blackton was born in England around 1875, and was brought to America as an infant. Having some aptitude for drawing and painting, he published a book of marine sketches while still a teenager.
Stage-struck at an early age, Blackton and his friends Ronald Reader and Albert Smith tried their hands in show business doing magic tricks and lightning sketches Blackton called himself the Komikal Kartoonist. At this time most of America was going to theater variety shows collectively known as vaudeville. For a nickel you saw a procession of jugglers, singers and magicians. A Lightning-Drawing act was just that, the artist lectured while he drew very quickly on a large pad and easel. Blacktons act used the crude racist humor of the period. He would draw a stereotype face formed from the words Coon (black man), Kelly (Irish man) and Cohen (Jewish man). Sometimes he did the routine in a spangled dress and wig and called himself Mademoiselle Stuart. But Blackton and Smith realized their act needed some more zing. Maybe a rendition of Rip Van Winkle illustrated with Magic Lantern slides?
During a lull in his theater work J. Stuart Blackton made money as a cartoonist for the newspaper the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. One day Blackton and his friends went to Koster & Bials Music Hall on 28th St in New York to see Mr. Thomas Edisons new sensation the Kinestoscope, the motion picture. Inspired, Blackton talked the newspaper into letting him go on assignment to interview the great inventor. On March 12, 1896, Blackton took the train out to New Jersey to interview inventor Edison at his East Orange laboratory.
As Blackton and Edison discussed motion pictures, he drew his portrait. Edison asked him if he could sketch that quickly in large size as he did in small sketches. Then, Thomas Edison touched on the possibilities of animated trickfilms. Animation toys like zoetropes and flipbooks had been around for years. Perhaps they could photograph flipbook-style cartoons onto George Eastmans new celluloid roll film and run them just like the new live-action movies Edison was developing? You should come out to the Black Mariah, Edison said. It would be a good ad for you. The Black Mariah was the nickname for his tarpaper-covered motion picture studio.
After further study, including consulting sequential photography pioneer Eadweard Muybridge, J. Stuart Blackton began his own experiments. In 1898, J. Stuart Blackton with his two friends went on to found the Vitagraph Film Co. and do many life action films. But the idea of doing frame-by-frame drawings still intrigued him. In 1900, Edison filmed him in The Enchanted Drawing, basically Blackton doing his lightning sketch act with a bit of movement. It was well received, so Blackton was ready to go further. But his growing responsibilities of the expanding Vitagraph studio occupied his attention.
It wasnt until 1906 that he began another frame-by-frame experiment. He drew a series of images on his pad in a sequential order to simulate movement. When filmed, they seemed to the eye to spring to life (in Latin animas to give life). A man puffing cigar smoke while his sweetheart rolled her eyes in disapproval, a dog jumping through a hoop and a juggler. James Stuart Blackton and Thomas Edison called the film The Humorous Phases of Funny Faces. It was released it into theaters on April 6, 1906. It was the first true American animated cartoon. It evoked gales of laughter, especially at the scene of the cigar smoker and his girlfriend.
J. Stuart Blackton went on to create more animated films that ran between his life action shorts. His second film The Haunted Hotel (1907) was a huge hit in Europe. Soon, other top cartoonists like Winsor McCay, Rudolph Dirks and Bud Fisher began playing with the new idea. Artists in France, England and Russia began making trickfilms. French artist Emile Cohl was the first to create an animated story. He called animation not just an optical trick, but a new medium of artistic expression. Cocteau, Dali and Picasso expressed interest.
By 1910, Blackton had largely abandoned his animation to focus on running his live-action film production. He also started an early film fanzine Motion Picture World in 1916. In 1926, he and his partners sold Vitagraph to the rising Warner Bros. Co. and made a fortune. Blackton mingled in high society, but he lost everything in the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and by the end of the 1930s he was penniless. James Stuart Blackton died when he was hit by a bus on Pico Blvd. in Los Angeles in 1941. In his autobiography he does not bother to even mention he invented animation.
But from the efforts of this erstwhile hustler the first animated film was born. 1906s Humorous Phases of Funny Faces is the forerunner for Felix the Cat, Mickey, Betty Boop, Snow White, Dumbo, Bugs, Daffy, Droopy, Mr. Rossi, Mr. Magoo, Fred Flintstone, Asterix, Ariel, Roger and Jessica, Buzz Lightyear, Homer Simpson, Laura Croft, Totorro, Wallace and Gromet. Also the Gollum, Jarr Jarr Binks, King Kong, The Death Star, the sinking of the Lusitania as well as the sinking of the Titanic and many more.
Happy 100th Birthday Animation! Long may you wave!
For further reading:Bendazzi, Giannalberto. Cartoons: One Hundred Years of Cinema Animation. Bloomington, IN: University Press, 1996Crafton, Donald. Before Mickey: American Animation 1898 -1928 Cambridge, MA: MIT Press 1987Solomon, Charles. Enchanted Drawings, The History of Animation. New York, NY: Knopf 1989Maltin, Leonard. Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 1980.Beckerman, Howard. Animation, The Whole Story Mattituk, NY: Amereon House, 2001Falk, Nate. How to Make Animated Cartoons. New York, NY: Foundation Books 1941
Tom Sito is an animator, teacher and co-founder of Gang of Seven Animation in Los Angeles. His new book Drawing the Line: The Untold Story of Animation Labor is due out this fall from University of Kentucky Press.