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Icons of Animation
  -  Animation History   -  Winsor McCay
Winsor McCay busy at work in 1911.

Winsor McCay (1869-1934) is one of the most revered artists from the 20th century.  McCay significantly influenced two art forms – comic strips and animation.  His comic strip, Little Nemo in Slumberland, is hailed as one of the most beautifully drawn strips.  His full-page, Sunday offerings were visual delights.  The following website provides a glimpse of McCay’s talent, and I urge you to take time and sift through the many amazing entries.  Today, an original Winsor McCay comic strip would easily sell for $100,000+ at auction.

As if his comic strip talent wasn’t enough, McCay also set the bar for early animation, and his artistic style was extremely influential.  His attention to detail was unparalleled, which gave his films a quality that would only be matched in the modern era.  At least three of his films are recognized as masterpieces. 

Little Nemo (1911)

Patterned after his comic strip, the animated part of this short starts at the 7:25 mark.  Three amazing parts of this piece.  First, this animation sequence looks vastly different from other early 20th century animation.  It is very polished and extremely stylized.  Second, you’ll notice the addition of color, as each drawing was hand colored.  Extremely rare for that era.  Third, notice the smooth movements of the characters, particularly from 9:32-10:00.  There’s a lot going on in that sequence and it’s choreographed quite well.  Note the movement of the dragon as it turns to leave and walk away.  Very, very smooth.

Gertie the Dinosaur (1914)

Gertie is one of the most popular animated shorts from the early 20th century.  McCay was extremely precise and he consulted with paleontologists to learn how dinosaurs might have moved.  At the 6:57 mark Gertie takes a nap, and McCay was concerned about how a dinosaur might rise from a nap.  He couldn’t get a definitive answer, so he employed a diversion at the 7:16 mark.  When Gertie rises from the nap, a dragon flies by, which diverts your attention from a rising Gertie.  Nice trick.  It’s hard to emphasize how wildly popular this film was.  

The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918)

The sinking of the Lusitania contributed to America’s entry into WWI.  Keep in mind that television did not exist, so there’s no film record of the sinking.  This depiction by McCay enabled the animator to become a political voice.  This is a powerful piece of animation.  In addition to the message, it is beautifully animated.  Consider the following: the movement and lighting of the sea (1:09), the depiction of the sky throughout the short, the torpedo and ship explosion (4:00), release of the lifeboats (6:50), sinking ship with people jumping off (8:40), survivors in the water (9:55), mother and baby drowning (11:50).  A truly impressive piece of work.  Much like Gertie, this film was all hand drawn, and it consists of 25,000+ individual drawings. 

The combination of his comic strip and animation prowess made McCay an early 20th century superstar.  We’re pleased to showcase his work during the Icons of American Animation exhibit.