The Pioneer Animator

In 1906, Vitagraph cofounder and veteran cartoonist J[ames] Stuart Blackton (1875-1941) created an animated short subject entitled Humorous Phases of Funny Faces (Figure B4.1).[1] Blackton’s film showed an artist’s hand—his own—sketching caricatures whose eyes and mouths then proceeded to move and produce various effects (in particular, one face blows smoke into another). The technique was an application of stop motion (see Chapter 3.1):

“One Turn, One Picture”  

Blackton called the technique “one turn, one picture,” and the images, when projected sequentially, appeared to be changing or moving from one state to another by themselves. Basically, the trick mimics the illusion of movement created by ordinary cinematography, which consists of singly imprinted frames. The intent, however—putting into motion such inanimate objects as drawings, toys, puppets, and cut-outs—differs from that of ordinary moviemaking, which was developed in order to record continuous movement as it occurs (see Chapter 1). Blackton’s technique constituted an alternative means of using the motion-picture camera—namely, creating the illusion of “movement” by starting, stopping, and restarting it. In the broadest sense, it’s called animation, although it should not be confused with the animated cartoon, which creates the illusion of movement from the frame-by-frame sequencing of separate drawings on discrete sheets of paper and/or celluloid (“cells”).

See the moving Picture


                      The Thieving Hand

No claim to having discovered the technique can be verified conclusively, and the discovery might well have been made independently by Blackton and others. As head of operations at Vitagraph, however, Blackton was certainly in a unique position to exploit it commercially. In 1906-1907, he made six films, including The Haunted Hotel (1907), in which he used a process for frame-by-frame animation called pixillation to give inanimate objects apparent lives of their own (in Hotel, for example, a knife slices a loaf of bread and a bottle of wine pours itself—see Figure B4.2). A year later, Blackton produced The Thieving Hand, a curious live-action story about a one-armed beggar who receives a prosthetic limb which, thanks to the magic of pixillation, exercises a stubborn will of its own. The results are by turns whimsical and darkly comic (see Figure B4.3 [2]). Films like The Haunted Hotel and The Thieving Hand proved especially popular in Europe, and although Blackton abandoned the the amalgam of live action and animation when the novelty wore off, his inventive use of it influenced many of the pioneers of the animated film, both European and American.


                  Winsor McCay

Winsor McCay and Little Nemo  

In 1911, Blackton teamed with Winsor McCay, a former newspaper cartoonist who had used animated drawings in a vaudeville act, to create the first motion-picture subject to feature a technique that one historian of the medium characterizes as “frame-by-frame animation and fluid, sophisticated movement”—the technique, in other words, of the animated cartoon.[3] For Little Nemo, some 4,000 drawings were carefully retraced on separate cards, each of which was photographed for placement on a single reel and then hand-colored by McCay. Blackton directed the live-action prologue in which McCay displays his thousands of drawings and explains the flipping apparatus for testing and timing the movements (see Figure B4.4).[4]

The Pioneer Director/Producer

The Series and the Feature Film  

Blackton’s creative energies were hardly limited to experiments in animation. In 1900, for example, he created—and starred in—the Adventures of Happy Hooligan, a series of slapstick comedies that Vitagraph issued through 1903.[5] In the first installment, Happy Hooligan, the hero, a well-intentioned tramp, meddles in the affairs of an organ grinder, an irritable housewife, and a beat cop with predictably chaotic results. In the much more ambitious The Twentieth Century Tramp; or, Happy Hooligan and His Airship (1902), a split screen shows Hooligan aboard the titular vehicle as it churns over a panorama of familiar New York City landmarks until it explodes. (Figure B4.5 features a third installment in the 11-film series.)

It’s interesting to note that the installments in the Hooligan series could be screened either singly or as a more or less coherent group of simple gag-oriented tableaux in the life of the title character. In this respect, the “structure” of the series bears a certain resemblance to that of such nonserial films as Raffles, the Amateur Cracksman, which Blackton produced for Vitagraph in 1905. Based on a series of stories and a stage adaptation, Raffles (which is apparently lost) seems to have used long establishing shots to punctuate a series of dramatic episodes in the life of the hero, a high-society criminal.[6]

Clearly, this mode of extending the length of a subject, both in Hooligan and Raffles, treats it more as a commodity—a product designed for distribution and exhibition—than as a coherent narrative, but the tactic was a crucial stepping stone on the way to the “feature” film, which, by about 1909, could be characterized as a subject, often multireel, of approximately 1,000 feet and with a running time of perhaps 15 minutes (Raffles came in at 1,050 feet and 15 minutes). By 1914, features could range in length from five to eight reels, although comedies generally remained one-reel program fillers, and it wasn’t until about 1913 that studios began to turn out comedies longer than a single reel.[7]


    John Bunny in The Pickwick Papers

By 1910, Vitagraph had become the most prolific U.S. producer of comic films, specializing in domestic and social comedies starring such popular performers as the veteran stage comedian John Bunny, and the studio was among the first to exploit the possibilities of the longer comic subject.[8] The Locket; or, When She Was Twenty (1913), in which the rotund comedian is accused of cheating when his wife finds a locket in his pocket, ran for 12 minutes; Fox Trot Finesse, in which the hero fakes an injury in order to get out of dancing lessons, was 13 minutes long. In 1912, Vitagraph had already sent Bunny to London (where the company maintained a branch office) to star in three films based on Charles Dickens’ episodic novel The Pickwick Papers. The venture resulted in three single-reel episodes that Vitagraph packaged as a two-reel feature the next year.[9]

The Quality-Control Pioneer  

Surprisingly, we have relatively few specifics concerning Vitagraph studio operations, but we do know that cofounder Albert E. Smith handled business matters while Blackton served as head of production, overseeing, according to Charles Musser, the activities of three production units, each headed by a director who reported to him.[10] In this capacity, adds British historian Anthony Slide, Blackton was particularly active in fostering the studio’s output of so-called “quality films”—subjects based on “respectable” literary, historical, and biblical sources.[11] Between 1908 and 1912, Blackton wrote, produced, and directed dozens of one-reel “adaptations” of classics from Shakespeare and other great writers, along with historical epics and renderings of stories from the Bible.


                            Life of Moses

Most of these were 15-minute condensations, but the nature of Vitagraph’s organizational structure made it possible for Blackton and his production teams to undertake more ambitious variations on the themes of the “quality film,” which was typically more expensive than subjects in other genres. By about 1907, for instance, labor at the studio had been divided into what one historian describes as “autonomously functioning in-house departments”—an arrangement that made it possible to allocate specialized resources to elaborate productions as management saw fit.[12] In 1909, Blackton was able to produce and direct a five-reel Life of Moses (see Figure B4.6), which was designed to be exhibited in five parts but which was often screened in its entirety—“1˝ Hours of Biblical Narative [sic],” according to advertising issued by one exhibitor.[13]

Postwar Ventures  

Blackton left Vitagraph in 1917, when the United States entered World War I, to become an independent producer of patriotic subjects.[14] In 1921, he returned to his native England, where he directed three lavish costume dramas, all in an early color process called Prizmacolor. The first of these films, The Glorious Adventure (1922), was a historical romance mounted on an epic scale and the first full-color feature made in Great Britain (see Figure B4.7 [15]). Blackton returned to the United States in 1923, rejoining Vitagraph as a junior partner to Albert Smith and directing a handful of films before Smith sold the company, in 1925, to Warner Brothers. Blackton retired in 1926 but lost his fortune in the crash of 1929 and worked, again in England, as a production executive until his death, in an automobile accident, in 1941.

It’s perhaps an overstatement, but one popular reference work goes so far as to say that “next to [D.W.] Griffith, Blackton was probably the most innovative and creative force in the development of the motion-picture art, not only as the director of hundreds of films but also as organizer, producer, actor, and animator.”[16]

[1] This section is based on Donald Crafton, “Tricks and Animation,” in The Oxford History of World Cinema, ed. Geoffrey Nowell-Smith (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1996), pp. 71-73; Conrad Smith, “The Early History of Animation,” in The American Animated Cartoon: A Critical Anthology, ed. Danny Peary and Gerald Peary (New York: Dutton, 1980), pp. 4-7; Leonard Maltin, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons (New York: New American Library, 1980), pp. 9-10. See also Malcolm Cook, “The Performative Origins of Animation,” animationstudies 2.0 (September 2, 2013), at (accessed June 13, 2016); Origins of American Animation, Library of Congress, at (accessed June 13, 2016).

[2] For Figure B4.3, see Justus Nieland, “Archives of Modernist Cinephilia,” Modernism/Modernity 14:2 (2007), pp. 347-55, at (accessed June 13, 2016). See also Alison Landsberg, “Prosthetic Memory: Total Recall and Blade Runner,” in The Cybercultures Reader, ed. David Bell and Barbara M. Kennedy (New York: Routledge, 2000), pp. 190-204.

[3] Smith, “The Early History of Animation,” in The American Animated Cartoon, ed. Peary and Peary, pp. 7-8.

[4] See esp. John Canemaker, “Winsor McCay,” in The American Animated Cartoon, ed. Peary and Peary, pp. 13-23. Canemaker has also published a book-length biography: Winsor McCay: His Life and Art, rev. ed. (New York: Henry N. Abrams, 2005). For overviews of McCay’s life and work, see Stefan Kanfer, “Pop Art’s Pop,” City Journal (Spring 2012), at (accessed June 13, 2016), and Russell Merritt, “Winsor McCay: His Life and Art,” San Francisco Silent Film Festival (2014), at (accessed June 13, 2016). For more detailed studies of McCay’s work, see J.P. Telotte, “Winsor McCay’s Warped Spaces,” Screen 48:4 (2007), pp. 463-73, and Kerry Roeder, “Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland,” Children and Youth in History (2010), at (accessed June 13, 2016). For Figure B4.4, see Charles Musser, “Winsor McCay or Little Nemo,” Kino on Video (New York: Kino International, 1994).

[5] See Peter Kramer, “Vitagraph, Slapstick and Early Cinema,” Screen 29:2 (1988), pp. 98-105.

[6] Charles Musser, The Emergence of Cinema: The American Screen to 1907 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1994), p. 406. There is an entry for Raffles in the AFI Catalog of Feature Films at (accessed June 13, 2016).

[7] Eileen Bowser, The Transformation of Cinema 1907-1915 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1994), p. 191; David Robinson, “Comedy,” in The Oxford History of World Cinema, ed. Nowell-Smith, pp. 82-83.

[8] See Kalton C. Lahue, A World of Laughter: The Motion Picture Comedy Short, 1910-1930 (Norman: Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 1966), p. 11. See also Wes D. Gehrig, “John Bunny: America’s First Important Comedian,” Literature/Film Quarterly 23:2 (1995), pp. 120-24; Gerald Mast, The Comic Mind: Comedy and the Movies (London: New English Library, 1974), pp. 40-42.

[9] See esp. Caroline Millar, “Pickwick Papers, The (1913),” Screenonline (British Film Institute, 2003-2014), at (accessed June 3, 2016).

[10] Musser, The Emergence of Cinema, p. 473; William Urrichio and Roberta E. Pearson, Reframing Culture: The Case of the Vitagraph Quality Films (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 1993), p. 57.

[11] The Big V: A History of the Vitagraph Company, rev. ed. (1976; rpt. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 1987), p. 21. See also Urrichio and Pearson, “‘Films of Quality,’ ‘High Art Films,’ and ‘Films de Luxe’: Intertextuality and Reading Positions in the Vitagraph Films,” Journal of Film and Video 41:4 (Winter 1989), pp. 15-31; Urrichio and Pearson, Reframing Culture, p. 59.

[12] Jon Gartenberg, “Vitagraph before Griffith: Forging Ahead in the Nickelodeon Era,” Studies in Visual Communication 10 (Fall 1984), p. 8; quoted by Urrichio and Pearson, Reframing Culture, p. 57. See also Urrichio and Pearson, pp. 56-58.

[13] On Life of Moses, see Urrichio and Pearson, Reframing Culture, pp. 160-94. See also Bowser, The Transformation of Cinema, pp. 196-97; Rudmer Canjels, Distributing Silent Film Serials: Local Practices, Changing Forms, Cultural Transformation (New York: Routledge, 2011), pp. 11-12, at (accessed June 13, 2016).

[14] For brief overviews of Blackton’s career, see Bryony Dixon, “Blackton, James Stuart (1875-1941),” Screenonline (British Film Institute, 2003-2014), at (accessed June 13, 2016); Denis Gifford, “James Stuart Blackton,” Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema (British Film Institute, 2016), at (accessed June 13, 2016). See also Marian Blackton Trimble, J. Stuart Blackton: A Personal Biography by His Daughter (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1985).

[15] For Figure B4.7, see Sarah Street, “Glorious and Other Adventures in Prizma,” in Color and the Moving Image: History, Theory, Aesthetics, Archive, ed. Simon Brown, Sarah Street, and Liz Watkins (New York: Routledge, 2013), esp. pp. 59-66, at (accessed June 13, 2016). Also consulted: “The Glorious Adventure,” Moving History (British Film Institute, National Film and Television Archive), at (accessed November 30, 2012).

[16] Ephraim Katz, The Film Encyclopedia, 2nd ed. (New York: HarperCollins, 1994), p. 132.

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