Exploring the Early Days of Animation: Let’s Start with Stop Motion

This is a guest post by Amy Ribakove, a Young Readers Center intern who is currently pursuing an MLIS at Pratt Institute. This September she begins her first year as the school librarian at International School of Brooklyn.

Special thanks to Sara W. Duke, Curator of Popular & Applied Graphic Art in the Prints & Photographs Division for help with this post.

What do kids picture when they hear the word “animation”? Perhaps they think of the technologically advanced computer animated movies and television shows that have become so popular. However, there was animation long before anything digital was invented! In fact, a whole group of innovative people worked to create this type of film. On August 22nd, we celebrate the birthday of one of them, the cartoonist George Herriman, by discussing the history of American animation and by learning how his zany comic strip Krazy Kat became the inspiration for one of the earliest American animated films. So let’s explore what early animation looked like!

Krazy Kat. The moon is full to-night. Artist George Herriman, 1917. Library of Congress Cartoon Drawings Collection.

Americans first began experimenting with different animation techniques in the early 1900s. They tried clay, puppets, cut-out animation, and pen drawings. We can learn more about these techniques by delving into the Library of Congress collection, Origins of American Animation.

One of the first creators was J Stuart Blackton, and he directed The Enchanted Drawing in 1900. As a leading pioneer in the field of animation, Blackton is sometimes referred to as “the father of American animation.” He used the stop-motion technique, where objects are physically manipulated in tiny increments between individual frames while filming. Observe the movements with your kids in The Enchanted Drawing. Do they notice how jerky they are? That is because each time the “enchanted drawing” appears to move on its own, the camera has stopped filming, someone has changed the drawing a little bit, and then the camera has started filming again. In the final product, the animators speed everything up to make it look like the camera has been rolling the entire time. A few years later, Blackton made Humorous Phases of Funny Faces using the same stop-motion technique, but he also added cutout animation. Cutout animation is a type of stop-motion made using shapes cut from materials such as paper or photographs. The cutouts can move independently from the background, making the scene more dynamic. Watch from the 2:40-3:00 minute mark in Humorous Phases of Funny Faces. Can you tell which object is cutout? (Hint: it’s round and the clown tosses it between his hands!)

Once these basic techniques were established, there was more room for creative story telling. When looking for inspiration, many animators turned to popular comic strips of the day. As both comic strips and animated films depict movement and motion, this makes a lot of sense. One of the first was called Keeping up with the Joneses made in 1915 by Harry S. Palmer. It was based on a series of newspaper comics by “Pop” Momand which told the story of an American family trying to keep up with the fancy lifestyle of their neighbors. To make this film, Palmer used a transparent celluloid sheet (also known as a “cel”) on which objects are drawn separately and then laid over a static (still) background drawing. Cels allow animators to save time by using the same background over and over again. Years later, Walt Disney used the same techniques in his feature films Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and Pinocchio (1940).

This brings us back to George Herriman and his comic strip, Krazy Kat. Take a look at the film Krazy Kat, bugologist (here, a “bugologist” is someone who studies insects) from 1916 for an example of this popular animated series. Even though the animation looks very simple to us now, when compared to the films made just a few years earlier, it is quite advanced! It is also one of the earliest surviving examples of an animal protagonist which led to the creation of many of our most beloved animated characters.

So, for kids interested in trying their hand at animation, there is really no need for fancy tools or even a camera! In fact, the animator Winsor McCay was said to have been inspired to make his Gertie the Dinosaur films when he saw a simple flip-book his son brought home. Creating an original flip-book can be a fun activity for kids and families who are interested in animation! To give it a try, follow the instructions below.

[The following instructions are adapted from Scholastic’s Create a DIY Flip-book With Your Little Artist]

Materials You Will Need:

  • Paper or index cards
  • Pens, crayons, or markers
  • Scissors
  • Masking tape
  • Stapler

Instructions:

  1. Cut your paper into about 3”x6” pieces or use index cards. The more pieces of paper/cards you have, the better!
  2. Brainstorm some ideas for your animation! You don’t have to be a realistic artist to make a fun flip-book. Think of something simple that moves across the page. For example, you can draw a rising sun or an animal crawling across the bottom of the page. Maybe you can take a character, like Krazy Kat, and give them a whole new story.
  3. On each page, change the image slightly to make it appear as though it is moving. You can change the smallest details, like raising an eyebrow. The more small changes you incorporate across many pieces of paper, the more believable your animation!
  4. When you finish drawing each page, bind your paper with a stapler and give it a spine with masking tape to make it into a book. Make sure your pages line up straight so that you can flip the pages easily with your thumb.
  5. Flip quickly through your flip-book to watch your animation in action!

What kind of movement can you animate? What does your flip-book look like? Share with us your favorite animated moments in the comments!

Works cited:

  • Canemaker, J. (2005). Winsor McCay: His Life and Art (Revised ed.). Abrams Books.
  • “Create a DIY Flip-Book With Your Little Artist.” Scholastic.
  • The Animated Century! (2010). Animation, 26-28.
  • Tisserand, M. (2018). Krazy: George Herriman, a Life in Black and White. Harper Perennial Edition.

 

2 Comments

  1. Paul
    August 20, 2021 at 2:40 pm

    What an interesting blog post! Always nice to learn something new, and I especially appreciate the instructions for a flip book.

  2. Weon8
    August 21, 2021 at 9:15 am

    I really enjoyed this blog, very informative. When did animation become so violent? It did not start out that way.

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