Monday, 5 March 2012

A Study on Winsor McCay

Born in 1869, Winsor McCay was one of the fundamental founding fathers of traditional, hand-drawn 2D animation and set the standard for 2D animation that would soon be followed by the renowned Walt Disney.
McCay first came into the light of fame in animation after moving to New York where his comic strip called 'Little Nemo in Slumberland', first published in 1905, became a roaring success and has become a large influence in the works of many animators after his era including Andre LeBlanc, Moebius, Chris Ware and William Joyce. This comic, which is widely thought to be the key to his success. However, eight years later he left his job at the New York Herald, a paper he was working for at the time, and worked for William Randolph Hearst at a different newspaper publisher, the New York American. After his job movement, he started experimenting with different ideas and techniques using the concept of animated drawings and created a number of highly popular short featurettes.

One of his very first attempts at animation was to bring his famous 'Little Nemo' comic to life in a short simply entitled: "Little Nemo" which was released in 1911 Jim Vadeboncouer states this in his article on with:

     "...he was the man who defined the industry. The quality of his cartoons would not be matched for another 25 years. His pacing and understanding of the medium was far ahead of his time. And he drew all of the 4,000 cels of his first film, Little Nemo, (natch!) himself!" (Vadeboncouer, 2000)

Hundreds upon hundreds of individually hand-drawn pictures were used to create this short alone and each were colored for a visually vibrant and surreal effect. The animated short was simply McCay's experimentation in the technique of movement and thus had little to no story. Despite this, "Little Nemo" still became a big hit.

After the success of "Little Nemo", McCay then began a one-year endeavour creating "How A Mosquito Operates", eventually being released in 1912. McCay encompassed this short film in a fairly straight-forward story about an abnormally large mosquito looking to feed on a man in his bed after invading his home. He sharpens his proboscis on a comedically conveniant sharpening wheel which he carries in his briefcase, then continues to stab it disturbingly deep into the man's head and face, sucking up as much blood as he can as the man repeatedly wakes and shoos the mosquito away. It performs some tricks on the man's bulbous nose before finally bursting after taking one more drink of blood. Despite being unnerving, this short is an amazing use of line and animation and it shows just how effecting a few simple lines can be in creating atmosphere and suspension; the mosquito repeatedly pauses before his feast, leaving the audience with a feeling of tension.

McCay finished his third short two years after called 'Gertie the Dinosaur' which was released in 1914 and is arguably his most renowned animation to date. The film begins with a mostly live-action sequence featuring McCay and a friend on a day out visiting the Natural History Museum where he makes a bet that he can bring dinosaurs back to life via a sequence of hand-drawn pictures. The short consists of ten-thousand individually-drawn pictures created over a period of six months. This was the largest amount of pictures ever done for an animated film at the time. McCay creates a fastastical, imaginary world through the charm of the simplistic drawings and animation, especially with the personality of Gertie who is disobedient when McCay gives her commands. The personality of Gertie brings the charm of the simple lines to life and is most likely what made it so successful.

"The Sinking of the Lusitania", released in 1918, was perhaps one of McCay's more moving and emotional films. It was an animated documentary of the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915 by German forces. This was the very first example of an animation based upon events that happened in real life. revealed by approximatelty a minute of live action coverage and details on the tragedy that shook 1500 lives that day. Throughout the animated short thereafter, we see various text boards further describing the event, followed by photographic portraits of the more well-known celebrities that died on the ship.The animation is black and white, but unlike his previous works, this isn't a standard line animation with aims to be a simplistic short. Each of the 25,000 frames used to create the animation were hand-crafted, shaded and exceptionally well drawn. The dark blacks and greys of the pencil help to express the tragedy and the black and white morality of the German forces and the ship victims. The animation was used as propeganda in order to let viewers feel the same disgust towards the actions of Germany as McCay did when creating the short.

McCay alone single-handedly crafted these animations with love and care which truely made them his own. Michael Crandol explains this in his essay posted on

"McCay animated his films almost single-handed; from inception to execution each cartoon was his and his alone. He took the time to make his films unique artistic visions, sometimes spending more than a year to make a single five-minute cartoon." (Crandol, 1999)

Shorts like these were the primary pioneering animations which have set the standards for most 2D animation and without which, traditional animation wouldn't be as it were today.


Fig 1:


  1. Great to see you getting stuck in straight away! :)