Ancient Rockets

Ancient Rockets: Gertie the Dinosaurus

All right, all right, I’m sorry I called you a Brontosaur…

Canadian cartoonist Winsor McCay (1867-1934) deserves a chapter of his own in animation history. He wasn’t the first artist to complete and exhibit an animated film; his best-known cinematic work Gertie the Dinosaurus wasn’t even his first effort. He did, however, invent keyframe animation, and Gertie holds a place of honor as the first dinosaur on film.

McCay was a well-known newspaper cartoonist at the turn of the century, creating Dream of the Rarebit Fiend for the Evening Telegram and Little Nemo in Slumberland for the New York Herald. Both strips were surreal dreamscapes, beautifully drawn, in which dream-logic was played out against shifting monumental architecture. (Go Google either strip, and look at some of the detailed pages; I’ll wait here. Awesome, ain’t they?) Rarebit Fiend’s protagonist changed with each strip, the unifying thread for the series being that each dreamer had overindulged in Welsh Rarebit before sleeping and consequently suffered digestive upsets that brought on bizarre and funny nightmares.  Little Nemo’s protagonist, on the other hand, was on a nocturnal quest: summoned by King Morpheus, he had to reach the gates of Slumberland, where he was to become the playmate of the king’s daughter.

In 1911 McCay produced a brief animated feature mixed with live action, usually referred to as Little Nemo but in fact titled Winsor McCay, the Famous Cartoonist of the N.Y. Herald and His Moving Comics. The animated sequences are jaw-droppingly smooth and detailed, featuring some of McCay’s characters from Little Nemo going through various cycles of motion. McCay followed this a year later with the film How a Mosquito Operates, which has only survived in truncated form. In both cases, many audiences refused to believe that they were seeing animated drawings, and McCay was accused of hoaxing. People insisted he must be presenting real actors somehow disguised to look as drawings. Maybe he did it with wires! Maybe he did it with mirrors!

Understandably annoyed, McCay chose a subject for his next film that no one could possibly imagine was a live-action fakeout: a dinosaur! (Or dinosaurus, as the movie posters of the time had it.)

Gertie the Dinosaurus required over ten thousand drawings to create, each one reproduced by hand by McCay and his assistant in every detail; McCay was animating on rice paper, rather than modern cels, and hadn’t worked out that he only needed to re-draw the main character, not the unchanging background. Bear this in mind when you watch the film, and marvel at the constancy of McCay’s frames. The film was designed as part of a vaudeville show in which a live actor (usually McCay) would greet the audience and then introduce the amazing Gertie, a diplodocus in a primeval setting. The film was designed to enable the actor to appear to interact with Gertie onscreen: McCay would produce an apple, appear to toss it toward Gertie, and palm it as a red-tinted drawing of an apple sailed into frame and was caught by Gertie. In the grand finale, McCay would step behind the screen, appearing to walk into frame as an animated figure, and ride off with Gertie. 

by 1914, when Gertie the Dinosaurus was first exhibited, McCay had gone to work for William Randolph Hearst, who disapproved of McCay’s stage career. Accordingly, McCay produced a re-edited Gertie with new live action footage, and this is the version most people know today. In the final edit, McCay and some of his cronies (including fellow cartoonist George McManus and silent film comedian John Bunny) are shown out on a joyride in their motorcar. The car suffers a flat tire outside a museum, and while their chauffeur fixes the puncture, the gents go check out the museum. There they behold the skeleton of a diplodocus on display. McCay bets McManus he can bring the extinct creature to life.

Reams of paper and gallons of ink later, McCay invites his friends to a dinner. As they’re passing around the port and cigars, McCay makes good on his bet: he sets up his drawing board and draws Gertie. When he’s called on this by his friends, he tears off the sheet and the animation begins to run. From here the act proceeds: McCay summons Gertie, who emerges from a cave and prances for the audience. A sea serpent emerges from the lake in the background, now and then; at one point a four-winged dragon flies across the sky. Gertie answers questions with nods and shakes of her head, cries when McCay scolds her, and mischievously tosses a passing mastodon into the lake. She is the first real example of an animated character with a personality. To audiences who had never seen anything of the kind, the effect must have been magical. McCay’s sleight of hand with the apple is dropped, apparently after McCay worked out the proportions, and Gertie is instead treated to a “pumpkin.” In the end, McCay steps into the action as before and rides away in triumph. The gentlemen decide that McManus has lost the bet and needs to pay for the dinner.

It would have been nice if the triumph had carried over into real life. While Gertie was in production, McCay was visited by one John Randolph Bray, who introduced himself as a journalist writing an article on animated features. McCay innocently showed him all the techniques he had developed. Bray, who was not, in fact, a journalist but a rival animator, took careful notes and ran straight out and patented McCay’s ideas as his own. Not only did he later attempt to sue McCay for patent infringement, he went to far as to produce a plagiarized version of Gertie the Dinosaur, and continued to swipe and patent ideas from other animators.  As an example of Mean Animator Tricks, Bray is pretty much unrivaled, though I personally feel that Ralph Bakshi claiming to have invented the rotoscope comes close.

McCay did, at least, win out in court and received royalties from Bray for years afterward. He went on to produce a few other animated shorts, including three episodes of Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend and a wartime propaganda film on the sinking of the Lusitania. These survive, but what might have been a triumph to surpass Gertie, his 1921 film Centaurs, exists only as a sad fragment due to poor storage. In what remains, a family of centaurs engage in various activities and end up taking their little boy to visit the grandparents. Both lady centaurs are shown unashamedly bare-breasted (the grandma centaur wears only a pair of pince-nez spectacles) and it’s unknown whether Centaurs was something McCay actually finished and meant to exhibit or whether it was only an experimental work. It certainly shows McCay was once again trailblazing, attempting for the first time to match mouth motion with spoken syllables. We can only lament what crumbled to silver nitrate dust in a garage in Long Island.

Gertie, however, continues to grin and stamp her immense feet and dance, all complete in her little antedeluvian world, almost a century on. There have been various VHS and DVD collections of McCay’s existing work, most recently from Image Entertainment, but most can be viewed on YouTube as well. Go visit the old girl! She’s the matriarch of a long line that has trailed through the Lost World and Skull Island, through the Valley of Gwangi to Jurassic Park. Her descendants aren’t nearly as friendly or biddable, but Gertie will always give you a smile.


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