Tag Archives: early animated films

A Creative Little Theatre

Followers of the Chief surely know of my fascination with the early days of cinema.  Recently the UCLA Film & Television Archive preserved and restored a 1906 piece by pioneering Spanish film director and cinematographer Segundo ChomónBob’s Electrical Theatre (also known as Miniature Theatre) features puppets engaging in a variety of routines, including wrestling and fencing.  It’s a follow-up to Chomón’s 1905 The Electrical Hotel, a short about a modern hotel, where luggage appears to unpack itself.

Both film and electricity were new inventions at the start of the 20th century and were naturally synchronous.  Chomón’s made innovative use of early splice-based tricks, which complimented his penchant for optical illusions.  He is often compared to another pioneer of animated films, France’s Georges Méliès.  Méliès is best known for such classics as “The Vanishing Lady” (1896) and “A Trip to the Moon” (1902).  Though there are similarities between the two, Chomón differs from Méliès in the variety of his movie subjects and his overall use of animation, an art form he played a key role in developing.

Although Bob’s Electrical Theatre is one of the earliest stop-motion puppet films ever made, it is sophisticated and unique.  The lifelike use of puppet dolls here predates the work of Ladislas Starevitch, another pioneering stop-motion puppeteer, and Willis O’Brien who is best known for such classics as The Lost World (1925) and King Kong (1933).


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“Steamboat Willie” Goes for a Ride


On this day in 1928, Walt Disney premiered the first cartoon with synchronized sound, “Steamboat Willie.”  Crude by today’s standards, it was innovative for its time.  Walt Disney himself performed all the voices, although the dialogue is often hard to understand.  The cartoon was a parody of the Buster Keaton film, “Steamboat Bill, Jr.,” which was a reference to a 1911 song, “Steamboat Bill,” performed by Arthur Francis Collins.  The film lasts all of 7 minutes and 23 seconds and came out as the film industry was making the inevitable and sometimes difficult transition to sound.  “Steamboat Willie” also marks the first appearance of that Disney icon, Mickey Mouse.  With an estimated budget of $4,986, there were some initial concerns about the believability of cartoon characters producing their own sound.  Thus, Disney arranged for a preview of the film even before the sound track was produced.  The audience responded positively to it and subsequent audiences liked it even better with the sound.  The film would later become the subject of controversy because of perceived animal cruelty, including one scene where Willie swings a cat around by its tale.  But, it was just a product of its time.  Regardless, it remains a landmark of early sound cinema and a true pioneer in both animation and overall filmmaking.

A poster produced for the film’s 50th anniversary.

A poster produced for the film’s 50th anniversary.

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Dead Bugs and Other Classics of Early Stop-Motion Animation

Bugs cavort in Wladyslaw Starewicz’s “The Cameraman’s Revenge.”

Bugs cavort in Wladyslaw Starewicz’s “The Cameraman’s Revenge.”

As a film buff and former film student, I have a natural affinity for silent movies.  They’re a mark of cultural history, even though in those early days, many considered the medium little more than a passing fad.  But, almost from the start, film captured some historical events; such as the 1896 coronation of Nicholas II, the last tsar of Russia, and the moments before Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria – Hungary and his wife, Sofia, were assassinated in 1914 – an event considered the trigger for World War I.

But, many early filmmakers also saw the potential in cinema.  Among them was Wladyslaw Starewicz, a Russian-born artist now considered one of the pioneers of film animation.  In 1912, he produced “The Cameraman’s Revenge,” which combined his fascination with insects and the then-revolutionary stop-motion method.  The result is amazing, even by today’s standards.

The earliest stop-motion animated movie, “The Humpty Dumpty Circus” from 1898, has been lost.  But, a 1902 piece, “Fun in a Bakery Shop,” made by Edwin S. Porter and produced by Thomas Edison, has stop-motion animation elements.  Porter is best known for “The Great Train Robbery,” which came out in 1903, and has a scene where a character fires a gun directly at the camera lens; a stunt that terrified audiences and made them duck.

Also in 1903, Edison produced the first example of claymation with “Dream of a Rarebit Friend.”

In 1905, Spanish filmmaker Segundo de Chomón released “El Hotel Electrico,” which features bags flying around.

In 1906, Edison presented “Humorous Phases of Funny Faces,” which features the first example of direct digital manipulation: an image is moved, changed, or erased in each frame.

All of this proves you don’t need fancy graphics or design to make good animation – just a great story and a wild imagination.

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