Winsor McCay, His Life and Art

Winsor McCay, His Life and Art, by John Canemaker. Forword by Maurice Sendak, New York, Abbe mile Press 1987.

David Williams and Robin Allan have been reading a book which pays tribute to a neglected artist and animator of genius.

Those familiar with John Canemaker’s editorship of Funnyworld and his beautifully researched documentary films on Otto Messmer and Winsor McCay, will need no more than that acquaintance to recommend this sumptuous book. Its large format can accommodate, with little or no reduction, coloured reproductions of pages from comics illustrated by McCay, and its heavy binding can hold firmly the 224 heavy art paper pages.

Winsor McCay, the showman, allowed claims to be made for him as the inventor of the animated cartoon. Of course, this is not a defensible claim, but his concern for the crafting of animation makes him one of the most important figures of its early history. The book chronicles this third phase of his life’s work with new and remarkable material. The precious two phases show his development as a graphic artist and as a Vaudeville entertainer.

The section opens with a full colour, full page reproduction of a poster used by Vitagraph in France to advertise the release of Little Nemo in June 1911, that is worth the price of the book alone. McCay credited his son with introducing him to animation through showing him ‘flip’ books in 1909, but John Canemaker demonstrates that he clearly understood the processes of animation well before this, and could hardly have missed the work of James Stuart Blackton, and Emile Cohl on his Vaudeville tours. Indeed it was at the Vitagraph studios of Blackton, that his first film, Little Nemo was actually photographed. Extracts from interviews with John A. Fitzsimmons, McCay’s assistant, give authentic details of the laborious process used to get smooth animation with as little vibration as possible. It was Fitzsimmona who had the unenviable task in Genie the Dinosaur (1914) of tracing the background around McCay’s sketches on thousands of six-and-a-half inch rice paper sheets.

McCay’s “Split System” of producing key-drawings and then inbetweening is familiar practice today, but it was not immediately accepted by the animation industry, and some Terrytoon films of the Thirties appear to have been made with A to Z animation. McCay also noticed that ‘cycling’ was possible, and he was thus able to re-use some of his drawings. It was in this area that, in my opinion, some of his most laboured takes occur. He researched carefully his movements in frame. For instance, he observed the acceleration and deceleration of a thrown object. But his timing in sequences was much less precise, and How a Mosquito Works (1912) is slow and repetitive. By the time he was able to use ‘cels’ in his Rarebit Fiend series in the 1920s, he had lost his way as far as innovation was concerned.

But that must not be the final statement. The animation sequences of The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918) are still magnificent enough to hold the attention of a modern audience. The making of this film is described in brilliant detail, and it is illustrated with two full-size cels.

There is a valuable ‘notes’ section and an even more valuable bibliography. With the coloured illustrations, frame-blow-ups, and photographs, it all adds up to a fascinating and valuable contribution to animation history research.

Review by David Williams.

Winsor McCay, His Life and Art, by John Canemaker is a long overdue tribute to the genius of a popular artist extraordinaire, creator of the most beautiful comic strips ever devised, political cartoonist, brilliant animator and much loved family man. Mr Canemaker has given us not only a scholarly study that is in no way aridly academic but his carefully selected illustrations – many of which have never been published – show the development of the artist and also the changing features of the man.

Born probably in 1867 Winsor McCay was the son of a lumber contractor who wanted him to be a businessman, but the boy had, from a very early age, a compulsive urge to draw. He grew up in Spring Lake, Michigan, and there is a family story, possibly apocryphal, of the young Winsor etching, on the frosted windowpane of a neighbour’s house, the burning of his
own home after the family had escaped one of the frequent fires that plagued Spring Lake. The story demonstrates “McCay’s abilities to work quickly in a variety of media, even during occasions of stress and trauma, with detachment. Ironically, the fragile frost drawing that soon melted anticipated the temporality of the form McCay chose as his major vehicle of expression: the easily discarded daily newspaper.”

Winsor McCay is probably best known to those of us interested in animation as the creator of Gertie the Dinosaur (1914). However, through television, we have also had the opportunity of seeing at least extracts from other McCay films such as Little Nemo (1911), How a Mosquito Operates (1912) and The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918). Mr Canemaker, himself a practising animator, is particularly interesting on all these films but he places them in the context of the rest of McCay’s professional and domestic life, the genius culminating perhaps in the comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland.

Young McCay learnt his craft by observation and practice, and with little formal instruction. “I just couldn’t stop drawing everything and anything,” he said later. “I drew alone to please myself… I drew on fences, blackboards at school and old scraps of paper, slates, sides of barns – I just couldn’t stop.” He sketched every thing he saw, outdoors and in, and appears to have had the cognitive skill to recall totally the details of what he had seen. This he called “memory sketching” and the magical ability that enabled him to recall visual details always astonished his newspaper colleagues and the audiences who later flocked to his blackboard drawing presentations in variety shows. He also paid tribute to a Professor Goodison who gave him his only formal private lessons in art and from whom he learnt the strict application of the fundamentals of perspective, a vital characteristic of all his work.

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