A BRIEF HISTORY OF GERTIE THE DINOSAUR
Winsor McCay had made two animated films before "Gertie". The first, "Little Nemo"(using characters from his popular newspaper strip), debuted in 1911. "Little Nemo" used four thousand animation drawings. McCay then hand-colored the 35mm frames to achieve a very striking effect. The film was used in his vaudeville act. There is no storyline to "Little Nemo"; it is more of an experiment in movement. The animation is
quite precise and the effect very dreamlike.
"Little Nemo" was well received, and McCay began work on his second film, "The Story Of A Mosquito". The film took one year to complete. "The Story of a Mosquito" tells a comic story of a mosquito's encounter with a drunken man.
The film also made a big hit, but theatre patrons suspected that McCay was performing some sort of trick with wires. Motion pictures were quite new, and movie audiences were quite naive and still getting accustomed to the idea. The
idea of a drawing coming to life was almost unheard of.
McCay decided to animate a Dinosaur to prove that his drawings were moving. The notion of bringing a dinosaur "to life" was astonishing. Thus, in 1913 McCay began to animate "Gertie The Dinosaur".
McCay enlisted the help of a young neighbor, John A. Fitzsimmons. Fitzsimmons traced the backgrounds onto rice paper, and McCay did all the drawings of Gertie. Ten thousand drawings were inked on
rice paper and then mounted on cardboard for registration. By mounting them on cardboard, McCay was able to flip the drawings through a primitive machine to check his work.
Without guidance, or anything but his own experience to rely on, McCay produced an astonishing piece of animation that holds up even to today's standards. McCay painstakingly animated details such as particles of
dirt falling, and water dripping. He gave Gertie personality and emotions. We see her eating, drinking, playing, and even crying.
In February of 1914, "Gertie the Dinosaur" debuted in Chicago as part of McCay's vaudeville act.
McCay, brandishing a whip, would appear onstage to the right of a movie screen. He would first speak to the audience, explaining how animated films were made, photographed, and projected. He would then introduce Gertie as "the only Dinosaur in captivity". At the crack of the whip, the film would start.
At first, Gertie shyly pokes her head out from behind some rocks in the distance. She is hidden, and the audience has no indication of her height and girth.
McCay encourages Gertie and cracks the whip several more times. Finally, Gertie hops out from behind the rocks, and lumbers towards the audience. On her way to the foreground, Gertie
picks up a rock and swallows it whole. As she reaches the foreground, she casually, bites off most of a tree and eats it.
McCay cracks his whip, and commands Gertie to bow to the audience, and to raise her foot. At one point Gertie gets angry and snaps at McCay. The animation here is tremendous as Gertie lunges forward towards McCay.
McCay scolds Gertie, and she begins to cry.
McCay appeases Gertie by offering her an apple. In a wonderful example of interaction with Gertie, McCay appears to toss an apple towards Gertie. The apple appears on the screen, and Gertie catches it in her mouth.
As the act proceeds, Gertie continues to be distracted from obeying McCay. A sea monster momentarily appears in the lake, a four-winged lizard flies across the background. At one point a Wooly Mammoth, "Jumbo" walks across the screen in front of
Gertie. She picks him up by the tail and hurls him into the lake. While Gertie dances in triumph, Jumbo squirts her with water. She retaliates by picking up a rock and throwing it at him.
Gertie becomes thirsty from all of her activities, and decides to take a drink from the lake. She drinks the lake dry.
In the films finale, McCay himself walks onto the screen and becomes part of the animation. He cracks his whip, and Gertie obediently places him on her back. Together they walk off camera.
The act was an instant sensation, and Gertie became one of the first cartoon "stars". Although no film exists of McCay performing the act, in September of 1914 a film with a live-action prologue and epilogue was produced. In the film McCay makes a bet with friends that he can bring a Dinosaur to life. McCay's stage dialogue with Gertie was replaced with inter-titles,
and the film still kept much of its charm.
A film with a "star" and a storyline, "Gertie the Dinosaur" became a landmark in the history of animation.
Of the ten thousand drawings used to make the film, only about four hundred are known to exist.
McCay went on to create several more animated films, and made one of the first to use Cels rather than paper. "Gertie" still stands as his masterpiece, and the most influential animated film of all time.
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