The Silent Age star ensemble. note
"I hope and dream the time will come when serious artists will make marvelous pictures that will love and live in life-like manner and be far more interesting and wonderful than pictures you now see on canvas. I think if Michelangelo was alive today he would immediately see the wonders...The artist can make his scenes and characters live instead of stand still on canvas in art museums."
— Winsor McCay
, talking during a WNAC Radio Broadcast, New York, September 1927
The earliest age of mainstream animation known to man, lasting from the early 1900s to the late 1920s with the rise of sound technology.
Now, animation has existed for a very, very long time in some form of another
before this era came about, but this era is obviously when large amounts of people actually started taking notice of the medium and what it could do. This is owed in part to the rise of the motion picture to begin with during this time period. The earliest known/existing cartoon as we know it is the 1908 French short film Phantasmagorie
by Emile Cohl (while there were many experiments with stop motion and pictures earlier, this was apparently the first one to rely entirely on genuine hand drawn animation).
But here in the west, thanks to men like Winsor McCay
(who made Gertie the Dinosaur
, the very first cartoon character to have any distinct personality traits, and not to mention the man practically pioneered the use of animation as we know it in general. He experimented with animation as an "extension" of the comics he was working on during that time period) and not to mention Pat Sullivan and Otto Messmer, who both created iconic cartoon star Felix the Cat
, the cartoon industry quickly sky-rocketed, with many new cartoon companies with their own cartoon stars and imitators quickly popping up to cash in on the new cartoon craze.
Winsor McCay was not happy with the idea of "Assembly Line" cartoons and regarded their work as inferior to his own. This was justified, in that he spent years
working on his cartoons like Little Nemo
(he was also the same man who made the original comics), Gertie the Dinosaur
, The Sinking of the Lusitania
(considered by many hardcore animation fans to be his Magnum Opus
), and How a Mosquito Operates
, which are some of the most spectacularly animated works ever seen and were masterpieces compared to the quickly, cheaply produced toons that were being rushed out at the time. Not long after cartoons rose in popularity, he left the very animation industry that he helped get off the ground in the first place.
Cartoons at the time were both seen as and presented as moving comic strips, sometimes even incorporating Speech Bubbles
for their dialog. Fantasy was in full vogue during this period, but it tended to have a dull, heavy handed and literal minded feeling to it, not helped by the primitive, stiff animation, glacial pacing and floaty motion. And because animation was so experimental at the time in its early stages, this resulted in quite a few instances of Deranged Animation
, as animators experimented with the medium. Max and Dave Fleischer
actually got their start off in this era, with their Out of the Inkwell
series, starring Koko the Clown. During this time, the most prominent animation house was the studio of J.R. Bray
, who produced many hit series such as "Colonel Heeza Liar" and "Bobby Bumps".
got off to a brief start in this era with his doomed Laff-O-Grams
studios and Live Action/Animation shorts collectively called The Alice Comedies
, but he finally found success later at Universal
Studios with his character Oswald the Lucky Rabbit
. However, after losing Oswald and most of his animation staff over a contractual dispute, Disney quickly left Universal and formed his own studio. He and his friend Ub Iwerks
ended up creating their own Captain Ersatz
for Oswald: Mickey Mouse
. However, the first two shorts, Plane Crazy
and Gallopin' Gaucho
, were not particularly well received...and then came along Steamboat Willie, the first Mickey Mouse
cartoon to have sound. Also, contrary to what is generally believed, Steamboat Willie
the first sound cartoon-the Flieschers had pioneered sound cartoons as early as the mid 1920s, with their film Mother Mother Pin A Rose on menote
, and not long before Steamboat Willie came out, Paul Terry
, then an employee of Van Beuren Studios
, made a synchronized sound cartoon called Dinnertime
. However, Steamboat Willie was
the first sound cartoon that actually took genuine advantage of what could be done with sound in a cartoon (and reportedly, Walt Disney
himself and proclaimed it "terrible.").
Naturally, the silent age came to a screeching halt with the rise of sound technology in the late 1920s. Disney and many other studios quickly worked to take advantage of the new technology, while former stars like Felix the Cat attempted to make the jump to sound film and failed miserably, quickly fading off into obscurity until many years later, with an ill-fated Golden Age revival during the 1930s and the iconic TV series which debuted in the late 1950s.
This era was succeeded by the far better-known Golden Age of Animation
, which would last even longer and become even more influential and recognized than this era ever was.
Characters/Series associated with this era:
- Abie The Agent (1917), based in a popular Newspaper Comic of the era.
- Alice Comedies: early live-action/animation hybrid from Disney, also co-starring Felix the Cat Expy Julius, whom was forced into the cartoons by Disney's then distributor Charles Mintz, who distributed the Felix cartoons alongside the Alice shorts.
- Aesop's Film Fables (1921-1929): A pioneering series of Funny Animal cartoons, largely produced by Paul Terry prior to starting his own studio. The series was a prominent influence on Walt Disney, who claimed to have seen almost every one that was released. This series would continue into the early 1930s, only upgraded with sound and produced by Van Beuren Studios. The silent incarnation of the series lasted an impressive 347 shorts.
- Adventures of the Leadfoot Gang: A newsreel cartoon series.
- The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926): The third animated feature ever made, and the oldest surviving one (two had previously been made in Argentina, but both of them are lost), created by Lotte Reiniger. Lotte would make 45 other short films in her lifetime.
- The Animated Drawings of Benjamin Rabier (1917): A cartoon series adaptation of Benjamin Rabier's series of children's books. Only one film in the series survives, "Flambeau's Wedding".
- The Animated Grouch Chasers (1915): A largely live action series with animated segments produced by the Barre Studio.
- The Automatic Moving Company (1912)
- Bobby Bumps: The Bart Simpson of his day (1910s), created by Earl Hurd. Running in and out of trouble with his dour dog Fido and cynical Black Best Friend Choc'late, Bobby was always in bad with parents and teachers.
- Bonzo Dog (1924): A mischievous pooch from the first famous British cartoon series. Decades later, lent his name to the famous Doo-Dah Band.
- The Boob Weekly (1916): A series produced by the Barre Studio. Rube Goldberg was notably the head of the series.
- Bringing Up Father (1916-1917), based on George Mac Manus' comic.
- Camera Classics (1922); A short lived Canadian cartoon series included as part of a newsreel.
- The Cameraman's Revenge: The most famous short by Wladyslaw Starewicz (1892–1965), an influential European stop motion animator, who also made films such as "The Beautiful Lukanida" (1910), "The Battle of the Stag Beetles" (1910), and "The Ant and the Grasshopper" (1911).
- Cinegraph Sweepstakes
- Cartoons on a Yacht (1915): A oneshot film made by the Barre Studio.
- Charles Bowers films: A comedian in the 1920's, he made several novelty films that combined live action comedies with stop motion. He even continued making them well into the sound era. So far, only 11 of his silent films are known to exist, but it's possible many more exist in various film archives. The known films include;
- "Egged On" (1926)
- "He Done His Best" (1926)
- "A Wild Roomer" (1926)
- "Fatal Footstep" (1926)
- "Now You Tell One" (1926)
- "Many A Slip" (1927, exists in incomplete form)
- "Nothing Doing" (1927)
- "There It Is" (1928)
- "The Extra Quick Lunch" (1917)
- "A.W.O.L." (1918)
- "Say Ah-H !" (1928, exists in incomplete form)
- Charlie Chaplin cartoons (AKA Charley); An animated adaptation of Chaplin's Tramp character.
- Colonel Heeza Liar: Possibly, if not the very first recurring cartoon character ever created.
- Dinky Doodle (1924-1926): A hit series of cartoons made by Walter Lantz in his early years.
- Dreamy Dud (1915)
- The Debut of Thomas Cat (1920): A short film attributed to being one of the first, if not the first, color cartoon. Sadly, no print of it is known to exist.
- The Dinosaur and the Missing Link (1915): The first film made by pioneering stop motion animator Willis O Brien. Other films he made during this time include:
- The Birth of a Flivver (1916)
- Morpheus Mike (1916)
- Curious Pets of Our Ancestors (1917)
- In the Villain's Power (1917)
- Mickey and his Goat (1917)
- Mickey's Naughty Nightmares (1917)
- Nippy's Nightmare (1917)
- Prehistoric Poultry (1917)
- The Puzzling Billboard (1917)
- R.F.D. 10,000 B.C. (1917)
- The Ghost of Slumber Mountain (1918)
- The Lost World (1925)
- The Enchanted Drawing (1900): J Stuart Blackton's first film; a stop motion film made on blackboard, it is considered one of the earliest animated films ever made. Other works of Blackton include:
- The Humpty Dumpty Circus (1898)
- Adventures of Sherlock Holmes; or, Held for Ransom (1905)
- The Automobile Thieves (1906)
- A Curious Dream (1907)
- The Thieving Hand (1908)
- Macbeth (1908)
- Romeo and Juliet (1908)
- Antony and Cleopatra (1908)
- Oliver Twist (1909)
- Princess Nicotine; or, The Smoke Fairy (1909)
- Les Misérables (1909)
- A Midsummer Night's Dream (1909)
- A Tale of Two Cities (1911)
- Richard III (1912)
- The Battle Cry of Peace (1915)
- The Glorious Adventure (1922)
- The Virgin Queen (1923)
- On the Banks of the Wabash (1923)
- Bride of the Storm (1926)
- The American (1927)
- The Electric Hotel (1908)
- George Melies uses many stop motion effects in his films, although he made no individual animated films of his own.
- Goodrich Dirt (1917-1919)
- The Gumps (1920s): A series made by cartoonist Wallace Carlson and based on Sidney Smith's comic strip.
- Farmer Alfalfa: The first star character from future Terrytoons creator Paul Terry (whom would later go on to make Mighty Mouse during the Golden Age). A grumpy, pipe-smoking, alcoholic old hick, Farmer Al was perpetually at war with city slickers and his own livestock. Amazingly, Terrytoons would continue to produce the occasional Farmer Al Falfa cartoon into the 1950s.
- Fantasmagorie (1908): A landmark Emile Cohl short, considered to be the first real hand-drawn animated cartoon, consisting of 700 drawings exposed on twos, lasting two minutes. It was inspired by and based it's techniques on the works of George Mglies and J Stuart Blackton. It was followed by two more films, "Le Cauchemar du fantoche" ("The Puppet's Nightmare", now lost) and "Un Drame chez les fantoches" ("A Puppet Drama", called "The Love Affair in Toyland" for American release and "Mystical Love-Making" for British release), all completed in 1908.
- Cohl made many other films afterwards, 218 total in his lifetime, including "Les Joyeaux Microbes" ["The Joyous Microbes", aka "The Merry Microbes" (UK)] (1909)), "Clair de lune espagnol" ["Spanish Moonlight", aka "The Man in the Moon" (US), aka "The Moon-Struck Matador" (UK)] (1909)), "Le Tout Petit Faust" ["The Little Faust", aka "The Beautiful Margaret" (US)] (1910), and the color tinted film "Le Peintre néo-impressionniste" ["The Neo-Impressionistic Painter", 1910) and "Puppet Looks For An Apartment" / "Puppet Mansion" (1920 / 1921).
- Fun in a Bakery Shop (1902)
- Felix the Cat: One of the first recurring cartoon stars of this era, let alone the first one to recieve universal recognition and popularity.
- Gertie the Dinosaur: One of, if not the first genuine cartoon character ever made.
- Happy Hooligan (1916-1919, 1920-1921), based in an early comic strip.
- The Haunted Hotel (1907): An early attempt at mixing live action with stop motion effects.
- Humorous Phases Of Funny Faces (1906): A J Stuart Blackton short, generally considered to be one of the first pieces of animation ever made in the US.
- Ink Ravings (1922): Three short subjects made for JR Bray by cartoonist Milt Gross.
- Jerry on the Job (1919-1922)
- Jerry The Troublesome Tyke (1925-1927): The first animated series to be made in Wales.
- Joy and Glooms (1916)
- Judge Rummy (1920-1922)
- The Katzenjammer Kids (1916-1918): A series of cartoons based on the popular comic strip by Rudolph Dirks.
- Keeping Up With the Joneses (1915)
- Krazy Kat (1916-1917, 1920-1921, 1925-1929): There were three attempts at an animated adaptation of George Herriman's classic comic during this period. The third attempt would end up being helmed by the Charles Mintz cartoon studio and continued to run up to 1940 during the sound era of cartoons. Unfortunately, most of the silent Krazy Kat films were destroyed in 1949 when Margaret Winkler pictures found it too expensive to store the highly flammable nitrate negatives, making them exceptionally rare cartoons.
- Lampoons (1920): A series of shorts by animator Burt Gillett.
- Life Cartoon Comedies
- The Man Who Woke Up (1919): A live action film with an animated dream sequence, which is some of the earliest Canadian animation ever made.
- Maud the Mule (1916)
- Mechanics And Science Films (1918-1920): A series of educational shorts produced by JR Bray. Max Fleischer notably worked on some of them.
- Mickey Mouse: Initially he was a silent star in his first two films, "Plane Crazy" and "The Gallopin' Gaucho", both of which had sound retroactively added.
- Miracles in Mud (1916); A 54 short stop motion series made by Willie Hopkins.
- Miss Nanny Goat (1916-1917)
- Modelling Extraordinary (1912)
- Motoy Comedies
- Katsudō Shashin (Moving Picture), or the "Matsumoto fragment" (1907-1911): a 3 second long piece of animation by an unknown artist, considered to be the earliest known piece of Japanese animation. Drawn directly on film using a stencil.
- Namakura Gatana, or "Hanawa Hekonai meitō no maki". (Jun'ichi Kouchi, 1917): Early Japanese animation, it is a 2 minute silent short that tells a history about a samurai's foolish purchase of a dull-edged sword.
- The Story of the Concierge Mukuzo Imokawa: A lost film that was once considered to be the first professional Japanese animation film ever made. It was made by Ōten Shimokawa in 1917. It was preceded by Shimokawa's early work, "Bumpy new picture book – Failure of a great plan".
- "Urashima Tarō" (1918): An animated film produced by Seitaro Kitayama. The film is an adaptation of a folk tale Urashima Tarō about a fisherman traveling to an underwater world on a turtle.
- Mutt And Jeff (1913-1926): Bud Fisher's comics duo starred in hundreds of cartoons made by the Barre Studio, surviving various hard-luck jobs and engaging in numerous get-rich-quick schemes.
- Newman Laugh-O-Grams: Walt Disney's very first animated cartoon series.
- Newslaffs: A satirical cartoon series helmed by pioneering animator Bill Nolan.
- The Newlyweds (1913): An animated series produced by pioneer Emile Cohl, and the very first comic strip cartoon adaptation that became a series (Mc Cay's "Little Nemo" beat it by a couple years, but it did not become a series), lasting 13 shorts. Tragically, the series only lasted one year, and all but one of the films in the series was destroyed in a lab fire at their studio, with the only existing film ("He Poses For His Portrait") being a dupe print.
- Oswald the Lucky Rabbit: Mickey Mouse's precursor and Walt Disney's first genuine cartoon star (the Alice Comedies notwithstanding, as Alice was a live action girl in a cartoon world). The series was eventually taken over by Charles Mintz's studio, and afterwards Walter Lantz and his animation unit took over the series from 1929 and onward.
- Otto Luck
- Out of the Inkwell: Cartoon series at Fleischer Studios that featured Koko the Clown. Episodes showed him springing to life on the drawing board and playing tricks on his (live action) creators. He lived on well into the sound era as a co-star to Betty Boop.
- Paul Grimault Films: A notable French animator who made many animated films from the Silent Age all the way up to the 1980's.
- Phables (1915-1916): Produced by the International Film Service studio.
- Pete The Pup (1926-1927)
- Plastiques (1916)
- The Police Dog (1914-1918)
- Romeo and Juliet (1917): A stop motion film made by the very first woman animator, Helena Smith Dayton.
- Quacky Doodles (1917)
- A Sculptor's Welsh Rarebit Nightmare. (1908)
- The Sculptor's Nightmare (1908, not related to the above film)
- Shadowlaughs (1927): A very short lived Canadian cartoon series, produced at Filmart studios by animator Bryant Fryer. Only two films were made before the series folded; "Follow the Swallow" (a two-part short film, of which only the first half exists today) and "One Bad Knight".
- The Shenanigan Kids (1920), the Katzenjammers but with another name (because of WWI).
- Silhouette Fantasies (1916)
- Tad Cartoons (1918-1919), based on Thomas A. Dorgan's "Indoor Sports"/"Outdoor Sports" newspaper panels.
- Technical Romances (1922-1923)
- Tiny's Troublesome Tooth (1925)
- Tony Sarg's Almanac (1921-1923)
- The Trick Kids (1916)
- U.S. Fellers (1919-1920)
- Unnatural History (1925-1927)
Tropes associated with this era:
- Animated Adaptation: Several of these early cartoons were adaptations of popular newspaper comics of the day. The Trope Maker and Ur Example is Winsor Mc Cay's "Little Nemo" (1911) and Emile Cohl's brief lived animated series based in the comic strip "The Newlyweds" (1913).
- Animate Inanimate Object
- Circling Birdies
- Deranged Animation
- Disney School of Acting and Mime
- Everybody Do the Endless Loop: Seen quite a lot in the early days of animation.
- Forgotten Trope: There were plenty. One of which would be the series of little dotted lines which would go from the eye of a character to whatever object they're looking at, to let the audience in on what the character is looking at.
- Genre Throwback:
- Idea Bulb
- Mime and Music-Only Cartoon: Music was provided by piano players in the theater.
- Missing Episode: Unfortunately, most of the animated shorts made during this period have become lost films due to many factors, including carelessness with the source materials, the films simply deteriorating due to age, and in some cases, the cartoons being deliberately destroyed. The bulk of the Krazy Kat Silent shorts were destroyed circa the 1940's when storing them became too expensive and troublesome for Winkler. And even for shorts that still exist in some form, even fewer still exist in their original form; Winsor Mc Cay's films as they are today only exist in dupe prints, as the originals had long since deteriorated. Paul Terry's very first cartoon, "Little Herman" (1915) is probably lost too (the only evidence it even existed was an illustration and mention of it in the old Nat Falk's "How to Make Animated Cartoons" book), although this is not the case with his second film, which was the debut of Farmer Al Falfa—unfortunately, many of his silent Aesop's Fables have been lost. Even big series like Felix the Cat and the silent Disney's aren't immune to this; only a third of Felix's silent filmography still survives, many of the Alice Comedies are still missing, and only 15 of Disney's 26 Oswald the Lucky Rabbit shorts survive, and in the latters case, Universal did not properly care for the negatives, so reissued prints and dupes (many of which had scenes rearranged or removed altogether) had to be used in lieu—ironically, this is not the case with the Newman Laugh O Grams, as all of them have managed to survive. The Newlyweds cartoon series by pioneer Emile Cohl, considered the first animated adaptation of a comic strip, is all but completely lost forever, save for one duplicated short, due to a lab fire destroying all of the original negatives. In worst case scenario, entire series and several important films have become completely lost altogether, such as the very first full color cartoon, "The Debut of Thomas Cat".
- Pie Eyes
- Red Boxing Gloves
- Roger Rabbit Effect: More than one might initially think. Emile Cohl and Winsor McCay helped pioneer this concept in their animated films. Fleischer's "Out of the Inkwell" and Disney's "Alice Comedies" would also make use of this trope.
- Speech Bubbles: They were used from time to time as an alternative to the usual word cards used in live action silent movies.
- The Speechless
- Walking In Rhythm: Characters would often walk and move to the BGM (and yes, most cartoons and films in the silent era had BGM, it just wasn't part of the actual film. The film would come with sheet music which would be played by a piano player in the movie theater).
- What Do You Mean, It's Not for Kids?: In SPADES during this era, which predates the Animation Age Ghetto by about forty years.
- Written Sound Effect: Along with Speech Bubbles, written sound effects were another carry-over from the comics which showed up in a lot of silent cartoons, which made sense since they were silent.