Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The NFR Project #37: Animation takes off -- 'Gertie the Dinosaur' (1914)

Gertie the Dinosaur
Dir: Winsor McCay
Prod: Winsor McCay
Scr: Winsor McCay
Phot: Unknown
Premiere: Interactive, Feb. 8, 1914; Screen only, after Nov. 1, 1914

Winsor McCay wasn’t the first film animator, but he was the first great one. He moved with ease from illustration to cartooning to moviemaking, setting aesthetic and technical standards all along the way.

He rode the wave of popularity of the first-generation newspaper “funnies,” and his Little Nemo in Slumberland was proto-surreal, a wildly imaginative comic strip that still marks an apex of artistry. His work seemed destined to be adapted for film, despite its patent impossibilities. Edwin S. Porter had directed a live-action adaptation of McCay’s Dreamof a Rarebit Fiend in 1906.

Meanwhile, animated film had commenced in the hands of early practitioners such as J. Stuart Blackton and Emile Cohl. In 1911, McCayproduced some animated footage of his LittleNemo characters and used in conjunction with his vaudeville act – a logical extension of his early “chalk talks,” in which he would sketch and perform live on stage.

Narration had been done with magic-lantern shows for decades before, some with moving parts that prefigured full animation, but McCay was the first to unite separate mediums, making to-dimensional creatures that he could “play” with in person. McCay’s next animated short, How a Mosquito Operates, was derided for trickery, with viewers claiming that McCay traced or manipulated a dummy to achieve his lifelike drawing effect. McCay then determined to animate something next that could not have been photographed.

Enter the dinosaur. Although they had been discussed in popular culture for decades, speculative visuals of them didn’t take off until the turn of the 20th century, as museums began to display their skeletons and artists began to try to imagine what they looked like. The American Museum of Natural History’s “brontosaurus” skeleton, installed in 1905, inspired McCay. He drew 10,000 images to bring Gertie to life for approximately seven minutes.

As with Little Nemo, McCay crafted the Gertie footage as material to be incorporated into his vaudeville act. The simple but charming scene shows us an somewhat anthropomorphized, roly-poly, sassy, childish and playful creature who responds to commands, gets distracted, misbehaves, and finally pulls its creator onto the screen for a ride. The smooth jump between the real and unreal will come back again and again in films from Sherlock Jr. to the Purple Rose of Cairo.

Unfortunately for McCay, he had a contract with newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, who didn’t like McCay’s theatrical freelancing. Thwarted from performing, McCay shot eight minutes of live framing footage for Gertie, contextualizing the creation of the dinosaur as a bet McCay has with other animators that he can do it (a bit lifted from the earlier Nemo short).

While creating Gertie, McCay coined many foundational animation techniques. He used registration marks to keep the frame stable; he repeated sequences as needed to save labor, a process known as “looping”; and he invented key-framing, in which an animator draws the significant points and poses of action in a sequence, and then “in-betweens” the intervening drawings to bridge those vital points.

The most significant advance here of course is that an animated character is invested with personality. With that, it becomes an entity with which the audience can identify, that can bear the weight of a narrative.

The NFR Project is an attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry, in chronological order. Next time: In the Land of the Head Hunters.’

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The NFR Project #40: 'The Perils of Pauline' (1914)

The Perils of Pauline
Dir: Louis J. Gasnier, Donald MacKenzie
Prod: N/A
Scr: Charles W. Goddard and Basil Dickey
Phot: Arthur C. Miller
Premiere: March 23, 1914
410 min. original; surviving version, 199 min.

The idea of an episodic series is not new. Dickens, Tolstoy, and many other 19th-century writers published serially, building up a literate middle class in the process. When film adapted the idea, the result was nearly 50 years of once-a-week adventures that satisfied a faithful, mostly young public – until television wrested the form away.

The film serial was a byproduct of one of the first examples of transmedia storytelling. Two years before The Perils of Pauline, the first American film serial, What Happened to Mary, was released to theaters in 12 weekly chapters, in sync with the same story being published in The Ladies’ World magazine. The story was performed as stage play as well, and published as a novel.

The serial took time to assume its “cliff-hanger” form. The Adventures of Kathlyn in 1913 first introduced the concept, but it’s not to be found in Pauline. Instead, each episode is self-contained (and therefore interchangeable, a boon to exhibitors). The shooting style in unimaginative, functional – a stark contrast to the much more inventive camera of French filmmaker Feuillade’s Fantomas serial of the previous year.

The spring of the plot is that Pauline is a young heiress whose uncle has died, leaving his conniving secretary in charge. The secretary controls the inheritance until Pauline marries, or if she dies . . . As nice as it would be to see Pauline as a proto-feminist figure, we are a long way from Laura Croft here. Despite Pauline’s spunky and assertive persona, in each episode she is the damsel in distress. She can get herself into trouble, but rarely out of it. The emotional payoff for the audience is, of course, the hook of melodrama – the last-minute rescue, the triumph of virtue. It’s the mechanical tension-and-release component of narrative and game-play, repeated weekly. Addictive.

The series was so popular that it was expanded from 13 episodes to 20 while still in production. Pauline made a star of Pearl White, a spunky comic actress who did her own stunts. She went on to make 11 serials over the course of the next 10 years. When she retired, she had saved $2 million, and spent the rest of her life in Paris.

Other clich├ęs of the serial were in the air, but not in The Perils of Pauline. The heroine tied to the railroad tracks surfaced in1913 in Barney Oldfield’s Race for a Life; attempting to bisect the hero or heroine in a lumber mill with a big circular saw blade originated in the 1890 stage melodrama Blue Jeans, and crept into many serials.

The version of Pauline that exists is less than half its original length, a nine-reel version salvaged from French archives, saddled with badly translated intertitles. (At least it’s viewable – The Exploits of Elaine, from the same year and also starring White, can  be found on the National Film Registry but not in general circulation.)

An odd sidelight to this film’s story is how it frames the career of Spencer Gordon Bennet. This is Bennett’s first film credit, billed as assistant director and as a miscellaneous performer. A fast and competent worker, he wound up making more serials than any other director (over 100), eventually becoming known in Hollywood as “The Serial King.” He directed the last one, Blazing the Overland Trail¸ in 1956. His tombstone reads: “His Final Chapter.”

The NFR Project is an attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry, in chronological order. Next time: an early cliffhanger, ‘Gertie the Dinosaur.’