Gertie the Dinosaur

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USA, 1914

Director: Winsor McCay

Production: Black and white, 35mm, animation, silent; running time: about 7 minutes (length varies). Released as one-reel film in 1914, though the character was created and seen in a short cartoon in McCay's vaudeville act circa 1909.

Script, animation, photography, and editing: Winsor McCay; assisted by: John Fitzsimmons.



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Schwerin, Jules, "Drawings That Are Alive," in Films in Review (New York), September 1950.

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Blonder, R., "Mosquitoes, Dinosaurs, and the Image-ination," in Animatrix (Los Angeles), no. 8, 1994/1995.

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Gertie the Dinosaur is the masterpiece of early animation. It employed 10,000 animated drawings inked on rice paper and mounted on cardboard. Artist Winsor McCay used full animation—a new drawing for each individual frame of film—and while he himself did all the drawings of Gertie, he hired his young neighbor John Fitzsimmons to assist him in tracing the stationary background of trees, rocks and water. Gertie is the improvement and development of McCay's animation experiments in his first two films, Little Nemo and The Story of a Mosquito.

McCay originally made Gertie for his vaudeville act as a lightning-sketch artist. In the routine, McCay announced that he could make a drawing come to life; then a projected film depicting an animated dinosaur walking from the background into the foreground appeared. McCay talked to the cartoon Gertie and gave her commands to which she would respond. Gertie raised her left leg, devoured a tree stump, became distracted by a sea serpent, lay down and rolled over, tossed a passing elephant into the lake, cried like a child when scolded, and caught a pumpkin supposedly tossed to her by McCay. As the first cartoon star, she displayed the charm, personality, and mischievousness of a playful puppy. For the finale, Gertie bent down and as she got up and walked away, carried an animated man on her back, thus appearing to take McCay into the screen with her.

For wider distribution, McCay turned his Gertie the Dinosaur into a one-reel film which frames the animated sequence with a live-action story. In the live-action portion, McCay accepts a bet from fellow cartoonist George McManus that he can make the dinosaur come to life. McCay is then shown with his stacks of cards demonstrating the laborious process by which he made Gertie. At a dinner of cartoonists, he unveils his masterpiece, and the animated sequence incorporates a series of title cards for McCay's dialogue with Gertie. After the animation ends, the dinner party toasts McCay's achievement, and McManus winds up losing the bet as well as footing the bill for dinner.

In its own time, Gertie the Dinosaur overshadowed all prior animated films, and it inspired a generation of animators who would begin their careers over the next decade. Audiences today still marvel at the fluidity of the movement and the amount of animated detail— Gertie's sides expanding and contracting as she breathes, particles of dirt falling from the tree trunk she devours, Gertie swaying back and forth. The shimmering or vibrating lines in the background (due to a primitive retracing process) hardly matter and do not detract from the captivating dinosaur in the foreground.

McCay also used for the first time an animation method known as the split system. Instead of drawing an "action" in sequential order, he split it up into poses, drawing the first pose, the last pose, the halfway pose, and then continuing to draw the poses in between the last two drawn. In this manner, he was able to simplify timing and placement with a method that underwent further refinement only after the advent of sound cartoons in 1928, when Walt Disney insisted upon its use. McCay also discovered another labor saving device in Gertie by re-using drawings for repeated cycles of action. He drew Gertie making a gesture—breathing or swaying—and rephotographed the same series of drawings several times.

While it was neither the first animated cartoon nor McCay's first animated cartoon, Gertie the Dinosaur is generally regarded as the first important cartoon in film history.

—Lauren Rabinovitz