Winsor McCay had already established his reputation as a comic-strip artist with his creation of Little Nemo in Slumberland – an art nouveau comic strip reproduced in full colour and syndicated around the world – when he began to extend and enhance his drawings into animated films, live lectures and stage performances with projected images. McCay’s storytelling genius – the seemingly endless variations of what happened every night between Little Nemo falling asleep and waking up in the morning – is revealed in this masterpiece of visual narrative – his ‘framing’ just beginning to reflect the innovations in lenses and cinematography introduced in the previous decade or so. Look at the page above – the storyboard-cinematographic framing and styling, even the colour gel ‘tints’ used to colour monochrome frames – all reveal how much McCay was aware of the explosion of imagery he was witnessing at the end of the Belle Epoque.
His very original conversion of Little Nemo to an animated film (1911) is a landmark in the history of animation. McCay combines live-action, over-the-shoulder live-action drawing, frame by frame animation, cell-colouring and captions in this lively essay on the art of drawing animation. McCay’s Art Nouveau style was not a great commercial success – his American immigrant audience preferring The Katzenjammer Kids, and other rough and tumble slapstick strips like The Brady Boys. But the standards of drawing, colouring and animation set by McCay, make him immortal. McCay stands out above all other comic artists, for his delightful and quintessential Art Nouveau drawing and colouring, but it is the imaginative animation that inspires. Like Norman McLaren some 30 years later, McCay is not afraid to improvise and innovate. In Little Nemo, he combines frame-by-frame drawing, live drawing to camera, live action, colour and caption – mixing these styles to both capture the magic of animation, and hinting at his stage performances to be developed fully in 1914 with his Gertie the Dinosaur shows. The breakdown of the audiences’ cognitive framework – their suspension of disbelief – by revealing the technique of the animator and illustrator, is McCay’s original contribution to the history of animation.