Winsor McCay was an American cartoonist and animator. He is best known for the comic strip Little Nemo and the animated film Gertie the Dinosaur. For contractual reasons, he worked under the pen name Silas on the comic strip Dream of the Rarebit Fiend.
From a young age, McCay was a quick, prolific, and technically dextrous artist. He started his professional career making posters and performing for dime museums, and in 1898 began illustrating newspapers and magazines. In 1903 he joined the New York Herald, where he created popular comic strips such as Little Sammy Sneeze and Dream of the Rarebit Fiend. In 1905 his signature strip Little Nemo in Slumberland debuted—a fantasy strip in an Art Nouveau style about a young boy and his adventurous dreams. The strip demonstrated McCay’s strong graphic sense and mastery of color and linear perspective. McCay experimented with the formal elements of the comic strip page, arranging and sizing panels to increase impact and enhance the narrative. McCay also produced numerous detailed editorial cartoons and was a popular performer of chalk talks on the vaudeville circuit.
McCay was an early animation pioneer; between 1911 and 1921 he self-financed and animated ten films, some of which survive only as fragments. The first three served in his vaudeville act; Gertie the Dinosaur was an interactive routine in which McCay appeared to give orders to a trained dinosaur. McCay and his assistants worked for twenty-two months on his most ambitious film, The Sinking of the Lusitania, a patriotic recreation of the German torpedoing in 1915 of the RMS Lusitania. Lusitania did not enjoy as much commercial success as the earlier films, and McCay’s later movies attracted little attention. His animation, vaudeville, and comic strip work was gradually curtailed as newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, his employer since 1911, expected McCay to devote his energies to editorial illustrations.
In his drawing, McCay made bold, prodigious use of linear perspective, particularly in detailed architecture and cityscapes. He textured his editorial cartoons with copious fine hatching, and made color a central element in Little Nemo. His comic strip work has influenced generations of cartoonists and illustrators. The technical level of McCay’s animation—its naturalism, smoothness, and scale—was unmatched until the work of Fleischer Studios in the late 1920s, followed by Walt Disney’s feature films in the 1930s. He pioneered inbetweening, the use of registration marks, cycling, and other animation techniques that were to become standard.
Little Nemo – 1911
McCay made the 4,000 rice-paper drawings for the animated portion of the film. The animated portion took up about four minutes of the film’s total length. Photography was done at the Vitagraph Studios under the supervision of animation pioneer James Stuart Blackton. During the live-action portion of the film, McCay bets his colleagues he can make his drawings move. He wins the bet by animating his Little Nemo characters, who shapeshift and transform.
How a Mosquito Operates – 1912
Also known as The Story of a Mosquito and Winsor McCay and His Jersey Skeeters. It’s one of the earliest examples of line-drawn animation.
Gertie the Dinosaur – 1914
Gertie is the earliest animated film to feature a dinosaur. McCay first used the film before live audiences as an interactive part of his vaudeville act; the frisky, childlike Gertie did tricks at the command of her master. McCay’s employer William Randolph Hearst curtailed McCay’s vaudeville activities, so McCay added a live-action introductory sequence to the film for its theatrical release. McCay abandoned a sequel, Gertie on Tour in 1921, after producing about a minute of footage.
The Sinking of the Lusitania – 1918
The Sinking of the Lusitania, released in 1918, is an animated short film by American artist Winsor McCay. It features a short 12 minute explanation of the sinking of RMS Lusitania after it was struck by two torpedoes fired from a German U-boat. The film was one of many animated silent films published to create anti-German sentiment during World War I. McCay illustrated some 25,000 drawings for the production. The film is stylized as a documentary, informing viewers on details from the actual event, including a moment by moment recap, casualty list, and a list of prominent figures who were killed.
Dream of the Rarebit Fiend: Bug Vaudeville – 1921
After eating a cheese cake, a hobo falls asleep and dreams of a strange vaudeville show performed by bugs.
Dream of the Rarebit Fiend: The Pet – 1921
After eating a rarebit, a man has an odd dream in which his wife takes in a strange-looking animal that eats everything in sight and keeps growing until it threatens the entire city.
Dream of the Rarebit Fiend: The Flying House – 1921
Against the backdrop of the rapidly urbanizing United States of the 1910s and 1920s, one house from the artificial grid of modern, planned America takes flight in the dream of a woman who has feasted on Welsh rarebit.
The Centaurs – 1921
In this animated silent short, a female centaur enters a clearing in the woods and picks flowers. She is met by a male centaur and the two romance each other. They then seek parental consent for their union. Unfortunately, only a small fragment of this beautiful animation survives as the rest is considered lost.
Flip’s Circus – 1921
Unfortunately, only fragments of this beautiful animation survives as the rest is considered lost.
Gertie on Tour – 1921
Gertie the Dinosaur encounters the modern era.