Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Winsor McCay – Something from Nothing

I took the week off from Otto to do some odds and sods including this rough 
for Know Magazine on Winsor McCay. It got me to thinking …

I took a break this week from working on my comic to do some other stuff that had wandered across my desk. One of those things was a bi-monthly installment for Know Magazine, a children’s science magazine that I have a regular gig with, producing a one-page comic called Great Moments in Science. This month’s issue was on animation and I was given the choice of a piece on Walt Disney or the lesser-known Winsor McCay.

Like a shot I opted for Winsor McCay, (as Disney already gets far too much press!)
For those of you who don’t know, Winsor McCay was a cartooning and animation pioneer who created the first commercially successful animated film, Gertie the Dinosaur. He was also the creator of the comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland, a strip that still stands head and shoulders above most because of its beautifully designed panels and intricately realized artwork.

But while researching the history of his early animation attempts, two things struck me. The first was that, prior to making his film, McCay used to entertain audiences in Vaudeville shows where he would speed draw characters and tell stories. I found this interesting, the whole idea of producing visual art as live entertainment, because in some ways this is an idea that really has come back to the forefront via the Internet and Youtube. There are a plethora of visual-art-as-live-entertainment videos out there, one of the most striking examples being the evocative sand drawings of Ukranian artist Kseniya Simonova.

On a personal note, I’ve been toying with the idea of filming my drawing of one of the pages from Big City Otto and putting it out there for people to take a peak at. I’ve already made one failed attempt (as I got into my work my head gradually impeded into the frame until all you could see was a giant bald spot!) I figure now that this will be something I will tackle when I have finished the first book and have some more time on my hands. And I will wear a hat.

But I want to do this because I know people love to watch others draw. I do. It’s that magic of pulling something from nothing which is - just that - magic. When I visit schools I usually do a bit of drawing for the kids and you can hear a pin drop when I’m in the middle of doing that, the kids are so engaged in watching me work. I remember once sitting by a roadside in the Azores with my wife Esperança, and the two of us were sketching some Portuguese cottages. A group of country kids came up and started watching us and for more than an hour they just stood there in rapt attention, not uttering a word, until their mother, worried they were bugging us, called them home. It was remarkable.

Which leads me to the second thing I discovered while working on this one-page comic. I thought that it was interesting that when Winsor McCay created his first film, Little Nemo, the audiences didn’t really understand what was going on up on the screen. They thought that the animation was created somehow with wires, filmed in real time. But it wasn’t just a failure to grasp the technical aspect of it, a succession of drawings flowing together to create the illusion of movement. When you think about it, those first animated films really had done something truly remarkable. For the first time in human history the images in a person’s mind had been taken out of their shell and made to move and interact in front of the audience. Today’s audiences, glutted with special effects, take all of this for granted, but those very first audiences were simply baffled by something that had arrived in their world that they had never experienced before. In a sense it was the next quantum leap from when a caveman picked up a stub of charcoal and captured a beast from the fields and placed it on the wall.

Winsor McCay had created something from nothing.


  1. Thanks, Sam. I'm going to take a look at your web comic later today, too. It looks great.