Since the earliest moving picture, the animation industry has gone through incredible developments and evolution, constantly pushing the boundaries of technology. Especially in the 25 years since the release of Toy Story — the first feature length CGI film- animation has become an immensely powerful tool and, at times, frighteningly realistic. This 3D animation style seems like an unbelievable development from the Saturday morning cartoons of the 60s and 70s. Yet even works like Scooby Doo and The Jetsons are the product of over 50 years of artists developing and building upon tools and techniques that allowed animation to reach its current standard.
Out of the many chapters of early animation, few stand out more than that of Gertie the Dinosaur. In creating Gertie, artist Winsor McCay established the first cartoon with personality and breathed life onto the screen, thus changing the field of animation forever.
Animation in the Early 20th Century
In the early 1900s, the notion of having movie stars and character-focused films only just began to emerge. Also at the time, vaudeville actors utilized animation to enhance their sets and incorporate aspects that they couldn’t perform in real life. Winsor McCay merged these two ideas, creating a vaudeville act which combined animation and live action while also establishing Gertie the Dinosaur as a main character with an endearing personality and overall lifelike quality.
A Jurassic Act
During a performance, the animation accompanied a live actor who interacted with Gertie, encouraging her to come out of her cave, asking her to do tricks such as dancing and playing dead, and either praising or scolding the dinosaur for her various behaviours. Finally, the act concluded as the performer walked into the animation, became an animated figure, and rode offscreen on top of Gertie
Creating a Creature
Completing the grueling process of making this short film was an incredible feat on its own. Neglecting to use cels — where animators paint characters on a transparent sheet and place it over a static background- McCay instead opted to individually draw over 10,000 frames with the help of only one assistant. In fact, McCay created the entire concept of Gertie in an attempt to prove his talent to viewers who accused him of ‘cheating’ by tracing over existing footage in his previous work. For the dinosaur, McCay obviously couldn’t trace or rely on video reference, ultimately proving that he actually was that talented.
Revolutionizing the Field
So what made this dinosaur so special? How could a 12 minute short film created over a century ago affect an entire industry?
Ultimately, Gertie’s impact continues to resonate within the industry after 107 years for the same reasons she resonated with the people of the time. Audiences — for the first time in animation history- could relate to and laugh with a character they saw on screen, watching Gertie act shy to come out of her cave, behave stubbornly when asked to perform tricks, cry when yelled at, and eat everything in sight. Playing fetch with the actor and doing various tricks, Gertie’s mannerisms most closely resembled those of a dog. Recognizing this led audience members to immediately fall in love with the dinosaur. Since 1914, countless animated creatures like Elliot from Pete’s Dragon, Dino from The Flintstones, Max the horse from Tangled, or Rufus the naked mole rat from Kim Possible, demonstrate how animators throughout history mirrored this concept time and time again.
Winsor McCay’s attention to detail also made Gertie the Dinosaur come alive in an incredible way. Today, detailed animation means seeing every single strand of hair or fur and each individual stitch in a character’s costumes. In 1914, viewers witnessed such conscientious design as they saw Gertie’s torso expand and contract as she breathed, watched her shift her weight as she walked, and witnessed physical changes in her mannerisms as her mood shifted. Gertie the Dinosaur represents the first occurrence of such subtleties we take for granted in modern animation. The film allowed a cartoon dinosaur- something viewers knew was not real or alive- to appear as a living character with thoughts, personality, and emotion.
This same principle allows for animals in animation to convey more complex personalities which audiences can relate to and allows normally inanimate objects to appear alive in the first place. Wall-E is able to portray two robots falling in love while the Pixar short Lava gives faces and emotions to volcanoes. Thanks to Gertie the Dinosaur, imagining animation as a medium without any lifelike characters is nearly impossible as it is these relatable and engaging characters which reside at the heart of most animated works and of the industry itself.
A Century of Inspiration
McCay’s short film also served as inspiration for other key moments of animation history such as the establishment of the keyframing or ‘tweening’ method. The process of tweening starts by drawing several key motions of the character, then going back later to fill in the frames in between. This streamlined method became the standard and major studios today continue to use this practice for 2D animation. 3D animation utilizes the same idea, except computer programs calculate the positioning for frames in between two set points.
Gertie the Dinosaur’s incorporation of live-action performance with animated cartoons also directly inspired Walt Disney’s early Alice shorts in the 1920s, eventually leading to Disney’s Alice in Wonderland feature length film. Today, in the middle of Echo Lake at Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Orlando, there lives a life size statue of a dinosaur named Gertie, paying homage to her and Winsor McCay’s contributions to the animation industry.
Until Gertie, society didn’t truly consider animation as a form of art. With one lovable dinosaur and 10,000 pieces of paper, Winsor McCay created a piece which would inspire animated works for over a century and will continue to do so for years to come.
A part of a performance of the act:
The Animator’s Survival Guide by Richard Williams
The Illusion of Life — Disney Animation by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston
Drawn: The Story of Animation Podcast — Before There Were Icons