Cinematic Firsts: The First Animated Film - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Cinematic Firsts: The First Animated Film

Time to get animated...

April 6th, 1906 is a momentous day in cinematic history. The day the first animated film was released. It's no Walt Disney production, it's not even Felix The Cat, but it displayed several different animation techniques in a very advanced fashion for the day.

The animated short in question was directed by James Stuart Blackton. Born January 5th 1875, Blackton was a British-American film producer and director of the silent era. He co-founded Vitagraph Studios in 1897, and was one of the pioneers of early motion pictures.

Blackton's first foray in filmed 'animation' came in the year 1900 when he directed and starred in The Enchanted Drawing...

The Enchanted Drawing shows Blackton, then a cartoonist for the New York Evening World, drawing a cartoon face on an easel. He then draws a bottle of wine and a glass, then takes them off the paper and has a drink. He then gives the cartoon face a drink of wine, and the face breaks into a broad smile. He then draws a hat on the face's head, removes it, and puts it on. Next a cigar appears in the face's mouth, and the man removes it to the face's unhappiness. Blackton then places all of the objects back into the image, and the face's eyes and grin grow wider in appreciation.

Although this it is not an animated film, rather animation filmed, the origins of animated film can be glimpsed here The Enchanted Drawing was, though, really just a filmed vaudeville routine known as the "lightning sketch" supplemented by stop-camera tricks to give the illusion of bringing the drawn objects to life. Quite simply, after Blackton draws the bottle and glass the camera is stopped and the drawing is replaced with the real thing while Blackton stands still. The camera is then started again to create the illusion of the animated objects coming to life.

One day in 1905, Blackton was involved in filming another live-action feature with a complex series of stop-action effects, similar to the ones in The Enchanted Drawing but this time rather than being filmed on a stage with a still backdrop it was on the roof of Thomas Edison's New Jersey ""Black Maria"" studio. In the distance steam from the building's generator was billowing into the background of the filmed images. On playing the film back, Blackton's partner in Vitagraph Studios, Albert Smith, noticed the moving effect created by the steam puffs scooting across the screen every time the camera had stopped and started. After showing this to Blackton he decided to reproduce the effect deliberately and with drawings. Accidentally inventing stop-motion animation.

The following year the first ever animated film was released. Titled Humorous Phases of Funny Faces, the opening titles were animated with bits of paper, then once the film begins Blackton's hand is seen drawing a man on a chalkboard, like a standard live action feature, but after a few seconds Blackton's hand is absent and the remaining elements of this picture draws itself using this new form of stop-motion animation.

The film then seamlessly cuts back to live-action as Blackton rubs out the chalk on the board for more Humorous Phases Of Funny Faces to self-animate. Take a look...

Several other techniques are used, including playing the film backward to make the drawings appear to un-draw themselves, stick puppetry and cut-out animation to make objects move - like the clown's arms and hat, and the dog jumping through a hoop.

The flickering seen above was common to the earliest animation and resulted from the camera operators failure to achieve consistent exposure in manual one-frame cranking. But I don't suppose anyone minded the flickering at the time.

Blackton's interest in filmed animation continued for the next few years, and he experimented with several short features which are now mainly lost to time. Oddly, in 1990 he turned his back on animation and concentrated on running Vitograph and live-action features, and when he penned his own, unpublished, autobiography he didn't include any mention of his work in animation at all. Thankfully his pioneering features speak louder than any autobiography could, and today Blackton is widely considered a father of American animation.

View all our Cinematic Firsts articles here.

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