Bringing Gertie to Life

January 5, 2008

Winsor McCay’s ingenious creation Gertie the Dinosaur took New York by storm. Though it is frequently mistaken as the first animated cartoon, it is in fact the first animated cartoon with a charming personality that captivated a wide audience attention. Gertie’s humanistic traits drew interest in the animation process, making the public notice this new art form, and in turn, inspiring countless generations of future animators.

Bringing Gertie to life was an extremely tedious process. McCay fashioned a series of thousands of drawings, each a little different than the one before it, however the background needed to stay the same. McCay and his assistant, John Fitzsimmons, used rice paper to trace the background and images. Then, using the stop-motion technology of the early 1900s, mounted the tracing paper to cardboard and filmed one picture for each frame of film. When played back, it appears that Gertie the Dinosaur is actually alive! People of the time were so astonished by this that they accused McCay of filming men in a papier-mâché dino costume!

Though Gertie was the animated success of its time, she was not McCay’s first animated cartoon. He began with his famous comic strip character, Little Nemo in 1911. Drawing four thousand individual pictures and using stop-motion technology, McCay breathed life into Nemo and his friends. Audiences viewing the animated short believed they were witnessing some sort of live action deception. A silent short of McCay illustrating the process of this animated success can be viewed here.

One year later in 1912, McCay drifted from animating Little Nemo and instead created “How a Mosquito Operates.” He drew a giant mosquito wearing a top hat, flying after and biting a bald man who is trying to sleep. This blood sucking bug did not have the same appeal and charm as Gertie did, however, and never became as successful. People were still in disbelief and thought that McCay had somehow made a real mosquito perform and then drew it frame by frame.

In 1960, approximately 400 Gertie the Dinosaur drawings were obtained from a business associate of Winsor McCay’s son. It is unknown where most of these timeless novelties ended up.

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