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Useful Notes / The Silent Age of Animation

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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 had existed for centuries in some form of another before this era came about, but this era is when large numbers of people actually started taking notice of the medium and what it could do. This had a lot to do with the invention of the motion picture camera using photographic film. The ancient method of painting images onto plates of glass—used since the 17th century in magic lanterns and improved by 19th century inventions such as the zoopraxiscope and praxiniscope—had a number of drawbacks. It was expensive and labor-intensive to paint the figures, it was difficult to make multiple copies, and the length of animation that could be fed through the projector was limited by the mechanical medium on which the image was stored. Thus, even though it was possible to make animations before the invention of photography or the film camera, the ability to transfer a sequence of drawings onto film using photography made duplication easier and allowed for longer, more sophisticated animations to be exhibited using a film projector.

The earliest known/existing cartoon as we know it is the 1908 French short film Fantasmagorie by Emile Cohl (while there were many experiments with stop motion and drawn pictures earlier, most famously J. Stuart Blackton's The Enchanted Drawing, but this was apparently the first one to rely entirely on genuine hand-drawn animation).

But in the West, thanks to men like Winsor McCay (who made Gertie the Dinosaur, the very first animated character to have any distinct personality traits, and who also practically pioneered the use of animation as we know it. 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 rapidly expanded, with many new cartoon companies with their own cartoon stars and imitators 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, 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.

At the time, cartoons were presented and viewed 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".

Walt Disney got off to a brief start in this era with his doomed Laugh-O-Grams studios and Live Action/Animation shorts collectively called 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 along came Steamboat Willie, the first Mickey Mouse cartoon to have sound. Also, contrary to what is generally believed, Steamboat Willie was not the first sound cartoon-the Fleischers 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 took full advantage of what could be done with sound in a cartoon (and reportedly, Walt Disney saw Dinnertime 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): Taken from Harry Hershfeld's comic strip of the same name; one of many adaptations of Newspaper Comics of the era.
  • 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 were lost in a fire), created by Lotte Reiniger. Lotte would make 45 other short films in her lifetime.
  • Adventures of the Leadfoot Gang (1917): A newsreel cartoon series.
  • 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.
  • Alice Comedies (1923): Early live-action/animation hybrids from Disney, also co-starring Felix the Cat Expy Julius, who was forced into the cartoons by Disney's then distributor Charles Mintz, who distributed the Felix cartoons alongside the Alice shorts.
  • 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 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 MacManus' comic.
  • Camera Classics (1922): A short-lived Canadian cartoon series included as part of a newsreel.
  • The Cameraman's Revenge (1912): 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).
  • 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;
    • "The Extra Quick Lunch" (1917)
    • "A.W.O.L." (1918)
    • "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)
    • "Say Ah-H !" (1928, exists in incomplete form)
  • Charley (1918) An animated adaptation of Charlie Chaplin's Tramp character.
  • Charlie Cartoons (1916) Another series based on the Tramp.
  • Cinegraph Sweepstakes
  • Colonel Heeza Liar (1913): Possibly the very first recurring cartoon character ever created.
  • 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)
  • Dreamy Dud (1915)
  • The Electric Hotel (1908)
  • 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)
  • 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).
  • Farmer Alfalfa (1915): 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.
  • Fun in a Bakery Shop (1902)
  • Georges Méliès uses many stop motion effects in his films, although he made no individual animated films of his own.
  • Gertie the Dinosaur (1914): One of the first genuine animated characters ever made, if not the first.
  • Goodrich Dirt (1917-1919)
  • The Gumps (1920s): A series made by cartoonist Wallace Carlson and based on Sidney Smith's comic strip.
  • Happy Hooligan (1916-1919, 1920-1921), based in an early comic strip by Frederick Burr Opper.
  • 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) Based on Walter Hoban's comic strip. Another Walter (Lantz) got his start in cartoons with this series.
  • Jerry The Troublesome Tyke (1925-1927): The first animated series to be made in Wales.
  • Joy and Glooms (1916) Movie versions of T.E. Powers' newspaper cartoons often seen on the editorial pages of Hearst papers.
  • Judge Rummy (1920-1922) Based on Tad'snote  comic strip.
  • The Katzenjammer Kids (1916-1918): A series of 39 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 (1926)
  • 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) Based on another Opper comic.
  • 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 (1928): 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 (1917)
  • 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.
  • Mutt and Jeff (1913-1926): Bud Fisher's comic strip duo starred in hundreds of cartoons made by the Barre Studio, surviving various hard-luck jobs and engaging in numerous get-rich-quick schemes.
  • 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.
  • The Newlyweds (1913): An animated series produced by pioneer Emile Cohl, and the very first comic strip cartoon adaptation that became a series (McCay'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.
  • Newslaffs (1927): A satirical cartoon series helmed by pioneering animator Bill Nolan.
  • Oswald the Lucky Rabbit (1927): 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 (1917)
  • Out of the Inkwell (1918): 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.
  • Pete The Pup (1926-1927)
  • Phables (1915-1916): Produced by the International Film Service studio.
  • Picto-Puzzles (1917)
  • Plastiques (1916)
  • The Police Dog (1914-1918)
  • Quacky Doodles (1917)
  • Reynaud Films (1892): That's right, 1892. Two of Charles-Émile Reynaud's pioneering cartoons, totaling five minutes together, survive.
  • Romeo and Juliet (1917): A stop motion film made by the very first woman animator, Helena Smith Dayton.
  • The Sculptor's Nightmare (1908)
  • A Sculptor's Welsh Rarebit 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)
  • Unnatural History (1925-1927)
  • U.S. Fellers (1919-1920)

Tropes associated with this era:

  • Idea Bulb
  • Mime and Music-Only Cartoon: Music was provided by piano players in the theater.
  • Missing Episode: As with most silent movies, most of the cartoons made during this era are lost for good, either from carelessness with the source materials, the negatives 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 McCay'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 17 of Disney's 26 Oswald the Lucky Rabbit shorts survive, and in the latter's 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.


Video Example(s):



This trope can be found Even in the earliest days of animation

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