A Frame By Frame Chronicle of a Unique Collection: Animation at the Cinémathèque Québécoise

by Jean Hamel

The Cinémathèque Québécoise.

The Cinémathèque Québécoise chose to specialize in animation under special circumstances. One must admit that because of the presence of two National Film Board of Canada offices in Montreal, there was already an exceptional interest in animation in Quebec and Canada. Since Norman McLaren, animation was the one area in which the Canadian cinema became known worldwide. These factors, combined with the interest the Cinémathèque had already shown on the origins of the animated film, led to the organization, within the framework of the Eighth International Film Festival of Montreal on the occasion of the World Fair in 1967, of a global retrospective of animation films from their beginnings to the present.

Two hundred and fifty films were presented, programmed in 18 screenings, from the American primitives to Grand Prize winners of the Annecy Festivals, by way of Canadian films and various thematic shows. About 200 animators met at this festival, and experienced new techniques. These film retrospectives were accompanied by a World Animation Exhibition, tracing the evolution of the animated film, and underlining its connection with comic strips. More than 15 countries participated. With patronage from the International Federation of Film Archives [FIAF], and the International Animated Film Association [ASIFA], and with the collaboration of the National Film Board of Canada, the event was a smashing success.

A Solid Beginning
The great scope of this enterprise made it possible for the Cinémathèque to research the beginnings of animation, interview some of the pioneers, and also acquire, and in some cases restore, a large number of film prints. Also some filmmakers, artists and companies donated to the Cinémathèque the documents that had been on display at the exhibition. We were from then on in possession of an important collection that allowed us to maintain a specialization in the field.

At that time Louise Beaudet (1927-1997) was confirmed in the post of Animation Curator at the Cinémathèque Québécoise.

Before then, the Cinémathèque only owned a number of National Film Board films and some rare films from the private sector. The collection really only took shape in 1967 when 250 silent films from the American pioneers were acquired for the retrospective devoted to them at the Festival. We made sure a historical logic followed by systematically acquiring 300 more Hollywood cartoon titles from the golden era of the 1930s to the 1950s.

Opening the doors to the vault. Photo © Cinémathèque Québécoise.

Further Acquisitions
An exchange with Eastern Europe was particularly fruitful. We now have an inventory of several hundred films from the best Polish, Bulgarian, Yugoslavian and Czechoslovakian productions. Furthermore, this figure does not include episodes of television series which were also archived with us by the countries that produced them. We must also stress the generosity of Russia's Gosfilmofond in this respect. We received from them no less than seven animated features, as well as numerous short films both old and new.

In 1982 the Cinémathèque presented the exhibition, "The Art of Animated Cinema" at the Museum of Fine Arts of Montreal. On this occasion the National Film Board deposited the greater part of its animated productions with the Cinémathèque, completing the collection that had accumulated over the years. Furthermore, the film screenings that accompanied the exhibition at the museum allowed us to buy about 70 film prints which brought the collection more up to date with contemporary titles. In effect, the collection was enriched by adding computer generated films, advertising spots, and experimental films by younger Canadians, Americans and Europeans.

Some distributors, both national and foreign, ceded to us their prints when the rights expired, contributing in this fashion to diversify and add a greater range to our collection. In this manner, we obtained a sizable number of films from Hungary, Switzerland, France and Italy.

The retrospectives and special programs prepared by the Cinémathèque for various festivals constituted another source of acquisitions. The research implicit to this work led to the discovery of prints formerly unknown, which now occupy a place of honor among our most prized titles.

In the mid-1980s an agreement with Radio-Canada resulted in the deposit of animated films made by their French section since 1968, along with the relevant documentation, including negative and positive prints, storyboards, cels, cut-outs, soundtracks, and key drawings. This represented a happy addition to the national heritage already entrusted to our care.

Inside the film vault. Photo © Cinémathèque Québécoise.

Special Collections
Today the animation collection comprises approximately 5,000 titles. Among the rarest are some of the works of Raoul Barre, Oskar Fischinger, Otto Messmer, Charlie Bowers and Winsor McCay, plus, the famous Matches: An Appeal made in England in 1899. This film is considered to be the earliest animation film of all.

On the topic of McCay, the Cinémathèque possesses his complete works or at least all that survives. One generally concedes to him the authorship of the first genuine animation film made in the United States. An exceptional draftsman, he instinctively understood the principles of modern animation and the grammar of their structure. He also experimented, in unpublished projects, with the subjects of progressive movement, rhythm, and the characterization of personalities. Because of this, McCay played a major role in animation history, and his films influenced a whole generation of American animators. Thanks to the efforts of individuals and organizations, including the Cinémathèque, certain films were preserved in authentic full copies. In the 1920s, 75 cans of nitrate film were given to a friend of McCay's, who kept them in his garage for years. In 1947, an advertising film producer examined and catalogued the film prints and negative elements that hadn't already decomposed. They were then kept in cold storage for another 20 years by McCay's friend. At the time of the 1967 retrospective, the entire bunch of cans were shipped to the Cinémathèque, which quickly made safety copies of them all, since their time had run out.

One can also find in our collection many impeccable first-generation 35mm prints of Otto Messmer's "Felix The Cat" films. The films we hold from both Messmer and McCay have been commercially distributed on laserdisc in collaboration with the U.S. company Lumivision.

In 1996, the Cinémathèque received the most important donation in its history from the Cinar Film company. This production house, specializing in animated series for television, gave us some 750 feet of cels from the following programs: C.L.Y.D.E, White Mane, The Irresistible World Of Richard Scarry, Lulu, Robin Hood Jr., Albert The Fifth Muskateer, and others. The Canadian commission for examining cultural goods for exportation gave this exceptional gift the value of roughly $8,138,817 Canadian dollars.

Since the opening of its new quarters in February 1997, the Cinémathèque reaches a larger public that discovers, through our weekly screenings, the great diversity of international animation. Furthermore, the Cinémathèque will open "Forms in Movement" in the Spring of 1999, an exhibition devoted to animation which will remain on display in the Raoul Barre Hall until the year 2001.

The late Louise Beaudet. Photo © Cinémathèque Québécoise.

The Cinémathèque in Brief
Founded in 1963 by a group of passionate film lovers and filmmakers, the Cinémathèque Québécoise has the mission of preserving and documenting the heritage of film and television animation in order to distribute, make known and render it accessible to a larger and more diversified public. Its expertise is universally recognized in the domain of Canadian and Quebecoise film production, as well as that of international animation. Over the past 30 years, the efforts devoted to the preservation of this film heritage, and the efforts deployed more recently in the area of television archiving, have allowed the Cinematheque to assemble invaluable collections. Consecrated to the past and turned toward the future, the Cinémathèque Québécoise is the museum of the moving image at Montreal!

Contact Information
We are a place which welcomes all those interested in the history, present and future of the cinema, television and new media world:

Information: (514) 842-9763

Translated from French by William Moritz.

The essentials of this article are derived from a text prepared by Louise Beaudet, published in 1988 in issue No. 38 of the magazine Copie Zero.

Jean Hamel has been director of communications for the Cinémathèque Québécoise for the last eight years. He has been working in the field of cinema since 1978.

Note: Readers may contact any Animation World Magazine contributor by sending an e-mail to

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