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Animation History: Winsor McCay and Gertie

The Father of American Animation: Winsor McCay and Gertie the Dinosaur

by Robert James, Ph.D.

So who doesn’t love dinosaurs?

For a century now, American animators have used dinosaurs to entrance the eyes and minds of audiences. As a child, the dinosaurs in Walt Disney’s Fantasia left me with a love of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rites of Spring. The tyrannosaurus rex and stegosaurus from stop-motion animator Willis O’Brien’s King Kong still thrill me every bit as much as that big ape does. O’Brien’s disciple Ray Harryhausen brought more wonderful dinosaurs to life in One Million Years B.C. and The Valley of Gwangi, which are still very impressive. I’d rather be eaten by one of Harryhausen’s creatures than by the slick CGI work in Jurassic Park.

Heck, I’d rather be eaten by Dino from The Flintstones. My children probably feel the same way about Don Bluth’s kid dinosaurs from The Land Before Time franchise.

Well, not about getting eaten by them. They’re not that enthusiastic.

Winsor McCay 1906

Winsor McCay 1906

But the father of them all, and a man who deserves to be known as the father of American animation, is Winsor McCay, whose creation Gertie the Dinosaur was the very first dinosaur to be on the big screen.

McCay was one of those enormously important innovators who create whole new art forms. As important as Walt Disney and Chuck Jones are in the history of animation as the ultimate masters of the form, McCay was the man who brought together many of the technical innovations that animators still use today, as well as being the first to create characters with whom audiences fell in love.

Granted, McCay is not the first animator, American or otherwise (James Stuart Blackton and Émile Cohl tried the form sooner). But animation historian Michael Barrier, the author of the indispensible Hollywood Cartoons, calls McCay “the first American animator of consequence” because he “made films that people wanted to see.” McCay had already been instrumental in helping to originate the comic strip in newspapers. To this day, his Little Nemo in Slumberland has to be seen to be believed in all its baroque majesty.

McCay was also famous on the vaudeville circuit, where he supplemented his income as a cartoonist by doing what are still called “chalk talks.” With a large easel and a crayon, McCay would draw caricatures of audience members, or transform one picture into another while he kept up a comic patter. One of his favorite routines was based on Shakespeare’s monologue about “The Seven Ages of Man” from As You Like It. McCay would recite the famous lines “All the world’s a stage / And all the men and women merely players” while he drew the faces of a man and a woman – and then aged the pictures until he reached the final lines. McCay was a very popular entertainer, but every vaudeville act needed a new gimmick now and then to keep things fresh.

And that’s where Gertie the Dinosaur lumbers into the picture in 1914.

Winsor McCay 1911

Winsor McCay 1911

McCay had already made a cartoon version of his famous Little Nemo in 1911, releasing it to both movie theaters and then using it in his vaudeville act. The original idea came from his son playing with flipbooks, in which a child rifles the pages of a book rapidly with his finger, thus causing the individual drawings to appear to be in motion. McCay realized the same principle could be used on separate film frames. McCay proceeded to use four thousand pieces of rice paper for his original cartoon, inventing the idea of numbering each drawing to maintain the sequencing. He mounted the rice paper on cardboard to facilitate shooting, then used a rotary machine to flip the cards so he could check the animation (another innovation, which can be seen in the short). When the black and white release proved successful, McCay then hand-tinted the frames to further reproduce the look of the original Little Nemo comic. Little Nemo is still worth watching, from the quaint ridicule that meets with McCay’s announcement that he can make pictures move to the somewhat silly behind the scenes creation of the cartoon. The animation itself only lasts about four minutes, and is largely a demonstration of stretching and squashing two of the characters at the behest of Nemo. The ending is more charming, as Nemo and the Princess are carried away in the mouth of a friendly dragon, which has become a kind of throne.

 

McCay decided to try another short for his vaudeville act the next year, going for the gross-out with How a Mosquito Operates. The mosquito is rendered with comic exaggeration, but with realistic details. McCay provides the insect with a personality and a narrative, unlike Little Nemo, which really didn’t tell a story as McCay relied on the fame of the characters and the novelty. A man tries to sleep; a mosquito enters, and proceeds to drink its fill (until the gruesome end). McCay made six thousand drawings this time; the final scene was hand-tinted in red. McCay introduced the idea of repeated cycles of animation loops, an economically necessary step for someone animating by themselves, but one which has been used ever since to cut corners. Nothing like How a Mosquito Operates had been seen before. With its success, McCay was emboldened to go all out with a new idea: Gertie the Dinosaur.

 

McCay realized that he could not produce longer, more elaborate animations without assistance, so he brought in an assistant, John A. Fitzsimmons, to draw the backgrounds. McCay then produced one of the critical techniques in animation by doing the transitional points of animation (called key frames) first, to help lay out the overall action of the cartoon. He then went back and did what is called “inbetweening” or “tweening.” In the future, animation studios would use secondary artists to do these intermediary drawings, so as to allow their master animators to focus on the creative aspects of animation. McCay also invented the use of registration marks in the corners of the paper, so as to help maintain stability of the image when the actual photography took place (the paper and marks were later replaced as an industry practice with animation cels with registration pegs to do the same stabilization more effectively). With these new tools and Fitzsimmons, McCay was able to create Gertie the Dinosaur, his most innovative, interactive, and enduring cartoon.

McCay would enter the stage, cracking a whip, and calling forth Gertie. The cartoon would then roll, and McCay would put Gertie through her various “tricks” as if she were real and he was her trainer. McCay also inserted himself into the cartoon, thus combining live action and animation (imitated by the Fleischer brothers in their Out of the Inkwell series and by Walt Disney in his Alice in Wonderland silents). The version we still have is the one released later in movie theaters, with a frame story largely cloned from the one that introduced Little Nemo three years earlier, and McCay’s patter reproduced by title cards. Walt Disney and his animators produced a loving recreation of the vaudeville version in 1955 for his television show Disneyland, with the help of McCay’s son Robert. Today, a large version of Gertie acts as an ice cream stand in Disney World. In the cartoon, Gertie eats pretty much everything she can. She’d probably eats the ice cream too. On reflection, I’d rather eat the ice cream too, than get eaten by Gertie. I’d probably give the poor thing indigestion.

 

Suggested Reading:

Michael Barrier, Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in its Golden Age. Oxford University Press, 1999.

John Canemaker, Winsor McCay: His Life and Art (Revised ed.). Abrams Books, 2005.

Winsor McCay, The Best of Little Nemo in Slumberland. Edited by Richard Marschall. Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1997.

Photos from Wiki Commons

How Others Are Using Artograph Products

InFocus by Artograph
We LOVE seeing how you use your Artograph tools!

LightTracer IIHere are some bits of inspiration we’ve found around the Internet on how and why people are using Products For the Creative Mind from Artograph.

If you’d like to have your web page or blog post included here (we’re happy to include your affiliate links to where you purchased our products, too!), please email
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From PAPER AND INK ARTS BLOG, about using the LightPad for Calligraphy:

Diana Brown and the Amazing Artograph Lightpad: Diana found the lightpad to be one of her favorites as well. “…I love this tool, ” she says, “This Artograph Lightpad is a wonderful investment… saves time and frustration!!! I’m delighted with this purchase!”

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From MAKING A NAME FOR MYSELF, by driftwith, using the LightPad 930:

I drew my first draft of the logo entirely by hand, then for each version after that, I used my light box to trace over the last, while making changes and tweaking it until I was satisfied.

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From PICKING A LIGHT BOX FOR YOUR QUILTING STUDIO by Domestic Anarchy, using the LightPad 930:

Everything from very serviceable and simple models like the Artograph Glo Light Boxes to the big and beautiful Artograph – 17×24 Inch Light Pad . So from $22 to over $200 there is a price for every budget as they say!

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From HERE’S WHY WE LOVE THE ARTOGRAPH LITE BOX by Quilting-Tidbits.com, using the LightTracer:

I find a lite box a must to own and it makes tracing all my designs really easy and quickly done within minutes. I use mine constantly especially for applique work and pattern transfers! Click To Get Your hands On The Light Tracer box!

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From A STACK OF BOOKS AND A NEW TOY by Sew French, using the LightPad 930:

I studied them all, read all the reviews and finally decided on the Artograph Light Pad Light Box in the 12″ x 9″ size.  After finally deciding on this brand, I struggled deciding which size to order. I let reasoning take over and came to this decision based on most often using the printer, in conjunction with tracing, and with traditional sized printer paper size this would be a perfect fit. And it is. I love this thing!

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From ARTOGRAPH LED300 DIGITAL ART PROJECTOR by Doug Hoppes, using the LED300 Digital Art Projector:

I found that I no longer have the issues of transferring details from my drawings or photos onto my canvas.  When I was using a light table, the canvas was a bit too thick and I would lose some information.  Definitely one of the better investments that I’ve made.

*We recently released the LED500 Digital Art Projector, which is very similar to the LED300 in features and functions, and is sold at the same price. -Artograph

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LightPad® PadPucks®

Brighter. Stronger. Smarter. ELEVATED.

PadPucksA convenient and simple method for tilting or adjusting any model LightPad® or LightPad Revolution™ to a variety of convenient heights and angles. Includes 4 unique PadPucks® which are designed to be used individually or stacked to tilt or support any size LightPad® in any number of ways for a more convenient and ergonomic tracing experience.

Other Lightpad® Accessories

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LightPad® Storage/Carrying Bags

Brighter. Stronger. Smarter. PORTABLE.

Lightpad-Carrying-Case-smallThese handy carrying bags are made up of very durable material and will accommodate THREE sizes of the LED LightPads: The 920, 930 and 940. These bags have multiple pockets and slots for all of the LightPad® accessories you may need to carry around with you such as the PadPucks® and the Portable LightPad® Battery. Externally there are 5 pockets and internally 2 slots which offer the possibility of carrying up to two LightPads®. Emblazoned on a pocket on the outside of the bag in bold stitching is the name ARTOGRAPH.

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LightPad® Portable Battery Pack

Brighter. Stronger. Smarter. ANYWHERE.

Take your LightPad® or LightPad Revolution™ anywhere with this long-life Lithium-ion portable battery. This compact battery will power any size LightPad® or LightPad Revolution™ from 3 to 10 hours (varies by light box model, weather conditions and USB usage). This unique rechargeable battery (up to 1000 charges) also features a power level meter to visually see charge status and a convenient USB port for charging any 5v USB device including cell phones. Power supply and LightPad® cable included.

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LightPad® Revolution™

Putting a Whole New Spin on Drawing, Tracing, Designing & Animating

LightPad RevolutionPut a whole new spin on drawing, tracing, designing or animating with the New LightPad Revolution™ light box. A new tool for artists, designers and animators. This unique revolving light box provides artists the option of conveniently rotating their project for more comfortable and accurate tracing or designing.

The rotating disc can also be locked in place with the included exclusive Disk-Brake™ – securing any project from unwanted movement for detailed drawing or lettering. A 5⁰ indexed disk guide around the disk allows for precise measurement.

The maintenance-free (50,000 hrs.) Super Bright LEDs provide a brilliant, energy efficient and cool tracing surface, suitable to trace through 300 lb. water color paper.

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RevolutionProduct Highlights

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Available in Three Sizes (size of drawing surface)

  • 80 – Approx. 8.75 inches/222 mm
  • 120 – Approx. 12.75 inches/324 mm
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LightPad® Revolution™ Accessories:

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LightPad® 950

Brighter. Stronger. Smarter.

PDF Info Product ManualsLightPad_StraightThe LightPad’s® sleek, contemporary design makes it more user-friendly than ever. Advanced Super Bright LED technology allows the LightPad® Series to shine brighter, run cooler and use less energy—providing up to 50,000 hours of maintenance free creative brilliance.

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  • 17″ x 24″ / 432mm x 610mm illuminated area
  • 19.6″ x 26.6″ x .7″ / 498mm x 676mm x 17.5mm total size
  • Super Bright LED lamps provides a perfect, evenly illuminated surface
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  • Durable and attractive extruded aluminum frame and chrome steel corners
  • Double layered illuminated surface for a firm work surface
  • Compact 5/8 in profile (15.87 mm)
  • Includes custom protective storage sleeve
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  • 1-YEAR WARRANTY

LightPad® 950 Additional Accessories:

Other LightPad® Sizes Available:

LightPad® Series

LightPad® 940

Brighter. Stronger. Smarter.

PDF Info Product ManualsLightPad_StraightThe LightPad’s® sleek, contemporary design makes it more user-friendly than ever. Advanced Super Bright LED technology allows the LightPad Series to shine brighter, run cooler and use less energy—providing up to 50,000 hours of maintenance free creative brilliance.

Product Highlights

  • 12″ x 17″ / 305mm x 432mm illuminated area
  • 14.6″ x 19.6″ x .7″ / 371mm x 498mm x 17.5mm total size
  • Super Bright LED lamps provides a perfect, evenly illuminated surface
  • Maintenance free LED lamps last up to 50,000 hours = 4 hours a day x 35 years
  • Durable and attractive extruded aluminum frame and chrome steel corners
  • Double layered illuminated surface for a firm work surface
  • Compact 5/8 in profile (15.97 mm)
  • Includes custom protective storage sleeve
  • Power supply: AC/DC Adapter /100V – 240V, 50/60 Hz
  • 1-YEAR WARRANTY

LightPad® 940 Additional Accessories:

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LightPad® Series

LightPad® 930

Brighter. Stronger. Smarter.

PDF Info Product ManualsLightPad_A930_4CThe LightPad’s® sleek, contemporary design makes it more user-friendly than ever. Advanced Super Bright LED technology allows the LightPad® Series Light Boxes to shine brighter, run cooler and use less energy—providing up to 50,000 hours of maintenance free creative brilliance.

LightPad_StraightA930Product Highlights

  • 9″ x 12″ / 229mm x 305mm illuminated area
  • 11.6″ x 14.6″ x .7″ / 295mm x 370mm x 17.5mm total size
  • Super Bright LED lamps provides a perfect, evenly illuminated surface
  • Maintenance free LED lamps last up to 50,000 hours = 4 hours a day x 35 years
  • Durable and attractive extruded aluminum frame and chrome steel corners
  • Double layered illuminated surface for a firm work surface
  • Compact 5/8 in profile (15.87 mm)
  • Includes custom protective storage sleeve
  • Power supply: AC/DC Adapter /100 – 240V, 50/60 Hz
  • 1-YEAR WARRANTY

LightPad® 930 Additional Accessories:

Other LightPad® Sizes Available:

LightPad® Series

LightPad® 920

Brighter. Stronger. Smarter.

PDF Info Product ManualsLightPad_StraightThe LightPad’s® sleek, contemporary design makes it more user-friendly than ever. Advanced Super-Bright LED technology allows the LightPad® Series to shine brighter, run cooler and use less energy—providing up to 50,000 hours of maintenance free creative brilliance.

Product Highlights

  • 6″ x 9″ / 152mm x 229mm illuminated area
  • 8.6″ x 11.6″ x .7″ / 218mm x 295mm x 17.5mm total size
  • Super Bright LED lamps provides a perfect, evenly illuminated surface
  • Maintenance free LED lamps last up to 50,000 hours = 4 hours a day x 35 years
  • Durable and attractive extruded aluminum frame and chrome steel corners
  • Double layered illuminated surface for a firm work surface
  • Compact 5/8 in profile (15.87 mm)
  • Includes custom protective storage sleeve
  • 1-YEAR WARRANTY
  • Power supply: AC/DC Adapter 100V-240V, 50/60 Hz

LightPad® 920 Additional Accessories:

Other LightPad® Sizes Available:

LightPad® Series