Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Winsor McCay

Winsor McCay

Figure 1, Winsor McCay

Winsor McCay was a North American illustrator, born between 1867 and 1934. His first stable job was in Cincinnati working as a newspaper cartoonist, which brought him success. He later moved to New York in 1903 to work on the Evening Telegram. While in New York, McCay created comic strips that brought him international fame, such as Hungry Henrietta, Little Sammy Sneeze, Dream of the Rarebit Fiend, Pilgrim’s Progress, and Little Nemo in Slumberland. Little Nemo generated a huge amount of success for McCay, a surreal story about the adventures of a boy in Slumberland, a domain he entered while dreaming. The comic strip was based on his son Robert McCay, but more importantly his personal life which bordered on the childish. Jeet Heer from The Virginia Quarterly Review quotes a granddaughter of McCay on the cartoonist’s demeanour, “he was like a child himself of about eight to ten years old” (Heer, 2006). This affinity towards fantasy could be accounted to his child-like outlook on the world, which facilitated in losing himself in his own fantastic imagination. Nemo, the character, was not the only inspiration Robert McCay imparted to his father, but also his love of flip-books moved his father to experiment with moving images, animation.

Figure 2, Nemo in Slumberland comic-strip

A quote from Lauren Rabinovitz highlights Winsor McCay’s animation of Nemo in 1909, “McCay set to work on making an animated film of Little Nemo in Slumberland. (He credits his son's interest in flip books as the source of inspiration for his cinematic experiment.) After drawing and hand-coloring more than 4,000 detailed images on rice paper, McCay employed his animated film in his vaudeville act while Vitagraph, the company that shot and produced the film, simultaneously announced its release of Little Nemo” (Rabinovitz, 2011). McCay being in vaudeville and a natural performer played a huge part in his animations, incorporating live-action of himself and his animated creations. Around 1911 McCay made his second animation, How a Mosquito Operates, a more simple and traditional style of animation. McCay does not appear in this film, but relies on his tried and tested illustrative techniques to convey the behavior of a mosquito with a sleeping man. McCay creates a larger than life caricature of the insect, as it moves from pose-to-pose comically exaggerating every ounce of its movement, annoying the sleeping man while enacting its feeding ritual. In 1914 McCay introduced Gertie the Dinosaur into his vaudeville act to enhance his performance. McCay would perform on stage and command the animated dinosaur, Gertie, as though she were a well trained dog. Jim Vadeboncoeur, Jr describes McCay’s show, “McCay projected the film on his white sketch pad and in a carefully choreographed sequence interacted with the animated dinosaur and actually joins her on screen for the finale” (Vadeboncoeur, 2000). McCay’s command of this genre of live-action and animation allowed him a great understanding of the interaction of a real person with his fictional creation. Gertie moves fluidly to McCay’s orders bringing to life a relationship between the two beings with their surroundings. Gertie’s motions seemed effortless, with drawings that showed an understanding of the dinosaur’s feelings and reactions. This allowed the major achievement of live-action with animation to blend seamlessly together. Keith Phipps highlights these animated emotions with other cartoon characters, “It's almost too perfect that virtually every emotionally affecting cartoon animal can trace its roots back to a prehistoric creature. But the sequence in which Gertie, the emotionally fragile star of “Gertie the Dinosaur" and its sequel (“Gertie on Tour"), starts sobbing at her creators' reprimand, then brightens up to play, anticipates everyone from Bugs Bunny to Dumbo” (Phipps, 2004).

Figure 3, Gertie The Dinosaur poster

McCay’s ability to graphically convey motion from memory showed how observant he was at creating mental maps of how things moved. However, as a vaudeville performer, he himself would have been very animated, and would have been knowledgeable in communicating actions and emotions to an audience in real-life. Although, Jeet Heer finds reassurance in Chris Ware’s theory of animation from memory, “McCay’s reliance on memory as his chief storehouse of images is further evidence of his deep insight into the nature of comics. Chris Ware, a sharp theorist of art as well as a greatly talented cartoonist, has repeatedly argued that comics are memory-drawings rather than life-drawings. “A cartoon is not an image taken from life,” Ware notes. “A cartoon is taken from memory. You’re trying to distill the memory of an experience, not the experience itself.” Unlike a painter or an illustrator working in front of a model, a cartoonist is drawing images in sequence that must possess narrative flow. Memories, which are fleeting images in a hazy sequence, are the closest cognitive parallel for how comics work” (Heer, 2006). Whichever technique was used to convey Gertie, real-life or memory, it also needed a master of illustration, spacing and timing to deliver such a classic.
Following the success of Gertie and the continuation of his comic strips in the newspaper, McCay and most Americans were rocked by the First World War. McCay suffered personally during this event when the Lusitania, which was carrying friends of the artist, was sunk by a German U-boat. McCay was soon rallied into action to create anti-German sentiment in the only way he knew how, animation. The Sinking of the Lusitania was shown in 1918 and depicted with great fluidity and motion the tragedy that the passengers would have faced. Keith Phipps recollects his views on McCay and his film, “An angry, propaganda-minded McCay made "The Sinking Of The Lusitania," and watching a woman clutch a child to her breast as she disappears beneath the waves, it's hard not to want to take up the fight against "the Huns"’ (Phipps, 2004). Phipps’ sentiments shows his concern of McKay’s real motives behind the film, but yet McCay’s ability to convey the plight of those onboard the ship through his fluidity of motion resonated with the audience, drawing sympathy from an honest recreation of real events.
McCay’s development as an artist has seen his growth from the ambitious yet child-like young man who became a vaudeville act creating illustrations to compliment his routine, to the more mature family man who utilised his skills to propagate his political agenda. His works reflected his personal development giving a linear and prosperous timeline to one of animations greatest pioneers.

Heer, Jeet (2006) The Virginia Quarterly Review, University of Verginia, USA, Spring 2006, http://www.vqronline.org/articles/2006/spring/heer-little-nemo-comicsland/ Accessed 12/3/2011, 21:00

Phipps, Keith (2004) Winsor McCay: The Master Edition, A.V. Club, 7 June 2004, http://www.avclub.com/articles/winsor-mccay-the-master-edition,11425/
Accessed 12/3/2011, 21:30

Rabinovitz, Lauren (2011) Winsor McCay, Film Reference, http://www.filmreference.com/Writers-and-Production-Artists-Lo-Me/McCay-Winsor.html
Accessed 12/3/2011, 21:15

Vadeboncoeur, Jim Jr (2000) Winsor McCay, Been Publishing, I’m Back, 2000, http://www.bpib.com/illustrat/mccay.htm Accessed 12/3/2011, Accessed 12/3/2011, 21:30

1. McCay, Winsor poster (2011) Winsor McCay, Wikipedia, 19 March 2011, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Winsor_McCay Accessed 12/3/2011, 21:35
2. Nemo in Slumberland, comic-strip (2011) Winsor McCay, Wikipedia, 19 March 2011, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Winsor_McCay Accessed 12/3/2011, 21:40
3. Gertie the Dinosaur, poster (2011) Winsor McCay, Wikipedia, 19 March 2011, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gertie_the_Dinosaur Accessed 12/3/2011, 21:45

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