Winsor McCay: The Master Edition
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Winsor McCay is one of the most highly regarded American cartoonists. In a survey by The Comics Journal, McCay's Little Nemo in Slumberland was named the fifth best comic strip or comic book of all time, ranking just behind George Herriman's Krazy Kat, Charles Schultz's Peanuts, Walt Kelly's Pogo, and Art Spiegelman's Maus. That's rare company. Of course, McCay also contributed to the development of animation with his pioneering work on "Gertie the Dinosaur" and other silent era shorts. Now all of McCay's surviving animation has been collected in an excellent DVD from The Milestone Collection (with distribution by Image Entertainment). All 10 of McCay's surviving films are collected here on one disc, along with a short documentary by John Canemaker. This DVD package provides a superb opportunity for animation aficionados to behold these rare films.

When McCay started work in animation in 1911, every frame had to be drawn by hand. All the background was redrawn in each frame, and McCay completed much of the work himself, although he did hire assistants to help redraw backgrounds. This was before cell animation and other time saving approaches had been devised, so the work required to put together an animated film was daunting. McCay worked through many of these problems in his films. For example, he discovered the benefits of looping, which allowed for a set of drawings to complete a loop of action that could be repeated multiple times on film without requiring the creation of any additional drawings. And after he had been working in animation for a handful of years, McCay began using a cell animation technique, which allowed him to create detailed background drawings that would appear behind multiple animation frames.

McCay wasn't the first to create animated films. He was preceded by Emile Cohl and J. Stuart Blackton, but Mc Cay's use of animation shows a degree of sophistication far in advance of his peers. He understood how to imbue his creations with personality. Whereas other early animation primarily existed to show an object or character in motion, McCay used animation to tell stories and to reveal characterizations, as in "Gertie the Dinosaur."

The films contained on this DVD from the Milestone Collection are primarily historical documents. Don't expect children weaned on modern Disney products to find much here of interest. But nonetheless these films are graced with a charm and wit that looks surprisingly sophisticated compared to the work that followed McCay for many years to come.

The following is a quick rundown of the contents on the Milestone Collection's DVD release.

"Little Nemo" (1911) is the very first animated film created by Winsor McCay. Much of the film is a live-action introduction in which McCay shows his talents for drawing his characters quickly, without construction lines. Standing before a group of associates, who include comedian John Bunny, fellow comic-strip artist George McManus, and several Vitagraph executives, McCay rapidly draws each of the cartoon's main characters head to foot, introducing us to Flip (a circus barker), Imp (a rascally jungle native), Little Nemo (the cartoon's star, who arrives dressed in the fanciful garb of royalty), and Doctor Pill (a chubby middle-aged doctor in top hat who carries a valise). McCay agrees to make a moving picture with these characters—4,000 drawings in a month. The following sequence shows McCay in his office, where barrels of ink and cases of drawing paper are delivered. The short film he creates has no plot. The animated characters appear magically, like iron filings drawn to an invisible magnet. Flip and Imp cavort until Little Nemo appears, who magically makes them stretch (as if they're looking at themselves in fun house mirrors). The animation is frequently quite striking. Instead of placing characters in a single plane in front of the camera, as typical of most animation for the next several decades, McCay allows Flip and Imp to circle each other, moving close to the camera and then far away. McCay also hand colored the print of "Little Nemo" with muted colors (pink, orange, and red).

"How a Mosquito Operates" (1912) tells a story about a persistent mosquito who follows a man into his apartment and proceeds to suck blood liberally from the man's face as he sleeps—or attempts to sleep. The mosquito's stomach grows bigger and bigger, until he finally explodes. Here you'll find several instances of looped animation. McCay had discovered in "Little Nemo" that work could be saved by reusing the same animation drawings in loops. Unfortunately, however, these loops aren't always very effective. As the man turns and looks down the hall, McCay uses looped animation to repeat the man's turns, but the resulting movements are mechanical and robot-like (unlike the wonderfully fluid animation in "Little Nemo"). The strength of "How a Mosquito Operates" is its humor. Here, McCay uses animation to imbue the mosquito with a personality. The mosquito's a bit of a show off, and this personality trait quite likely leads to his demise.

"Gertie the Dinosaur" (1914) begins much like "Little Nemo" with a live action introduction. Here, McCay and several colleagues venture to the Museum of Natural History in New York to see the dinosaur exhibits. McCay places a bet that he can make a dinosaur come to life. The following scene takes us to a dinner party setting, where McCay draws Gertie on a large drawing easel. Gertie then walks around on the paper. She's a prankster who doesn't always behave McCay's commands. Her actions provide much of the animation's humor, as she tussles with a woolly mammoth and drinks a lake dry. Every drawing here was done by hand. All backgrounds were laboriously recreated for every frame. So the animation is fairly simple: Gertie is mostly just an outline with a few details. And the background contains little texture or shading. The drawings are simple black lines on white rice paper. However, McCay creates remarkably fluid animation and he imbues Gertie with a strong personality.

Sometime after creating "Gertie the Dinosaur," McCay discovered the benefits of cell animation, which he used for his next film, "The Sinking of the Lusitania" (1918). McCay was incensed at the wanton destruction of human life that followed when a German submarine torpedoed an ocean liner off the coast of Ireland. He used this animated film to show the horror of the situation. Beyond simply focusing on the mechanics of the situation—a torpedo, an explosion, the ship sinking—McCay shows us people leaping from the burning ship and descending to the ocean on long ropes. Most memorable is the nightmarish image of people floating in the waves, with empty eyes and a death-like pallor.

"The Centaurs" (c. 1918-21) only exists in a relatively brief fragment. Here McCay showcases cell animation to even better effect than in "The Sinking of the Lusitania." While the backgrounds of "Gertie the Dinosaur" were relatively simple, here the backgrounds are filled with intricate details of flowers and trees. In a woodland and glade, a family of centaurs cavort. The movement of the characters is remarkably life-like and fluid.

"Gertie on Tour" (c. 1918-21) also exists only as a fragment. It begins with Gertie watching a frog and interrupting a trolley car, and it ends with Gertie dreaming about telling a story to a large gathering of dinosaurs. This is a strange little cartoon. It's hard to envision what the rest of the short might have looked like.

"Flip's Circus" was neither completed nor exhibited. It appears here from McCay's own work print. The title cards were merely drawn on a chalkboard that was then photographed. This short simply shows us Flip with an animal that looks like a combination of a dinosaur and a hippopotamus. Several other characters make brief appearances before the short comes to a sudden conclusion.

The disc ends with three shorts in the tradition of Winsor's own Dream of the Rarebit Fiend comic strip series. These shorts include "Bug Vaudeville" (1921), "The Pet" (c. 1921), and "The Flying House" (c. 1921). The shorts follow the same format as the comic strip: a man goes to sleep after eating a rarebit and has a wild dream. These are imaginative fantasies in which incredible things happen. "Bug Vaudeville" is the tamest of the lot. It takes the form of a circus and shows us a procession of bugs performing in the center ring. Here, the format becomes somewhat repetitious, with McCay utilizing extensive looping sequences to extend the length of the short. "The Pet" is much better. It's a genuinely bizarre cartoon in which a small pet (it's not quite a dog and it's not quite a cat) continues to grow with no end in sight. Soon it's as big as a house, and then it's the size of an office building. Fighter planes are called out (as would happen in King Kong over a decade later) to dispatch the oversized (and in this case insatiably hungry) creation. According to the title cards, "The Flying House" was created by Winsor McCay's son, Robert, using the "Winsor McCay process of animated drawing." In this cartoon, a man affixes a propeller to the front of his house, and then with engine machinery working furiously in the attic, the house lifts off and flies through the sky and into the cosmos.

This DVD is backed with a solid batch of extras: 1) a documentary by John Canemaker, 2) an audio commentary track featuring Canemaker, and 3) a large selection of stills, posters, comic strips, and other material related to McCay and his creations.

The documentary, Remembering Winsor McCay, takes the form of an 18-minute interview with John A. Fitzsimmons, an assistant to McCay who drew the backgrounds for "Gertie the Dinosaur." The repetitive nature of this work caused Fitzsimmons to give up all thoughts of becoming an animator. The documentary was made in 1976 and features extended examples from McCay's shorts. The quality of the excerpts is quite murky compared to the restored shorts included on this disc. So this documentary is not as relevant as it once was in introducing audiences to McCay's work. Nonetheless this documentary contains many valuable insights on McCay and his working method.

The disc's audio commentary track allows John Canemaker to step forward and provide us with many additional insights about the production history of these shorts. The disc's stills gallery is quite extensive, containing many photos of McCay and his family, drawings for "Gertie the Dinosaur," poster artwork, drawings of McCay at work in his vaudeville act, and generous samples of McCay's comic strip art. Unfortunately, however, while it's great to see the sampling of such classic comic strips as Little Nemo in Slumberland, Little Sammy Sneeze, Dream of the Rarebit Fiend, and others, the resolution of the reproduced comic strips isn't high enough that the artwork can really be appreciated. And the captions are almost all illegible. McCay's work was so detailed that the presentation here needed to allow for close ups of the comic strip panels, but we simply get full page reproductions. So if you'd like to appreciate McCay's comic strip artwork, you'll need to look elsewhere. This is a small drawback on an otherwise outstanding DVD.

Winsor McCay: The Master Edition is now available on DVD from the Milestone Collection (distribution by Image Entertainment). This disc contains the 10 surviving films by Winsor McCay: "Little Nemo," "How a Mosquito Operates," "Gertie the Dinosaur," "The Sinking of the Lusitania," "The Centaurs," "Gertie on Tour," "Flip's Circus," "Bug Vaudeville," "The Pet," and "The Flying House." Special features: audio commentary by John Canemaker; Remembering Winsor McCay, an 18-minute documentary by John Canemaker; a stills gallery from the Canemaker Collection. Suggested retail price: $29.95. For more information, check out the Milestone Film & Video Web site.

Photos: © 2003 Milestone Film & Video. All rights reserved.