Hollywood History: When Live Action First Met Animation

computer-generated imagery. We’ve not only become accustomed to seeing it, but filmmakers are working hard to master it. Take a look at “Avatar” for example. James Cameron waited 10 years after writing the concept script to begin filming because he was waiting for technology to catch up to his vision; and when technology still wasn’t up-to-par, Cameron worked with experts to create a new realm of technology that would meet his standards. “Avatar” was groundbreaking and it won’t be the last of its kind.

Most movies use CGI on a smaller scale, but it is still present in enhancing explosions, changing the expressions of animals, adding depth to studio sets, and much more. It wasn’t too long ago that filmmakers created movies only with what could realistically be produced. This was the era of full-scale studio sets and thousands of extras. Yet even in the earliest of film history, filmmakers toyed with the idea of merging live action with the limitless world of animation.

Movies were still a novelty 100 years ago. There were no dinner and a movie date nights or Saturday afternoon family matinees. Instead these shorts, which often ran under 15 minutes, were an experiment. Film opened up a realm of possibilities that had not previously been imagined. There were so many things to learn, so many things to discover and try, and early films are solid examples of this newfound sense of exploration.

As filmmakers learned the separate arts of live action filming and animation, it’s no surprise that they soon began experimenting with using both in the same short. These early examples were no Roger Rabbit, but they were incredible in their own right.

The Enchanted Drawing – 1900

I know plenty of people who do not even realize movies were being made in 1900 – though granted they were nothing like what we have now – let alone that experiments with combining live action and animation were already underway. “The Enchanted Drawing” is one of the very first of these shorts.

The movie depicts a man drawing the face of a cartoon man onto an easel. While the cartoon is never animated in the sense that we think of today, you can tell that the filmmaker is having a bit of fun with the idea.

Stuart Blackton is both the filmmaker and star of the short, and audiences watched in amazement as he drew a wine bottle and glass onto the canvas, then proceeded to seemingly pull the drawings off the canvas and into real life. The cartoon man reacts accordingly as these objects as well as a top hat and cigar are moved back and forth between the canvas and the real world.

Today this trick is really not that impressive, but for its time it was fresh and innovative. It was also the foundation upon which future live action / animation combo features would be based. Shorts like “Gertie the Dinosaur” which would come 14 years later.

Gertie the Dinosaur – 1914

Gertie actually began as a vaudeville act by Winsor McCay before becoming a marketable film short. The act consisted of a live performer who gave “instructions” to the animated dinosaur. The same concept was used in the film and though it only uses a few seconds of live action and animation in the same frame, the concept of the film was still cutting-edge for its time.

Gertie was far from being the first animated feature created. Winsor McCay had created other animated shorts prior to Gertie himself. But Gertie was the first foray into animation that contained a character with a personality and not just the novelty of moving images. In fact, McCay’s work is often said to have been an inspiration to Walt Disney.

Something quite amazing about Gertie is that McCay drew every single drawing himself. He even redrew the background with each new sketch because the technology to use only one background and transfer the moving images on top of it was not yet being used. Yet as entertaining as the accomplishments in animation were, it was that few seconds of the live action McCay riding away on the animated Gertie that would lead to the next great film of its time: “Alice’s Wonderland”.

Alice’s Wonderland – 1923

When we think of Walt Disney and his early work we think of Steamboat Willie, but our favorite mouse wouldn’t be released on film until 1928. Although Mickey (as he would later be called) became the legacy, Disney released a short film that was far more innovative in 1923.

“Alice’s Wonderland” is not a retelling of Alice in Wonderland, though the storyline does hint that Carroll’s novel was used as a bit of inspiration. In Disney’s short, a young girl named Alice visits the animation studios and she and the animators enjoy an afternoon of watching the animations carry on dancing, fighting, and bothering cats.

At first this sounds as simple as watching Gertie, but Disney took the concept a step farther. The audience isn’t left to watch only the animations, the live actors are a part of nearly ever screenshot as well. We get to watch the actors watch the animation. This is 1923, can you believe it? Real people and line drawings on the same screen, at the same time!

It gets even better, however, when Alice goes home and falls asleep. As she dreams she is whisked away to Cartoonland where a welcoming committee awaits her arrival with a parade in which she is the star. She rides an elephant, dances with the locals, and is even chased by lions in a world where everything is animated but her.

Today we take the world of animation and computers for granted. We can’t even begin to imagine making such epics as “Harry Potter” or “The Lord of the Rings” without it. Where would “The Matrix” have been? What about the recent release of “Thor?” Without CGI, that film and countless others would be unrecognizable.

The world of CGI is expanding every year. New technology is being developed and the expansion of new, more creative uses for it refuses to slow down. But while we look forward to what film has yet to bring us, don’t forget about the pioneers. It looks like dinosaurs impacted history much more recently than we thought. According to some animation studios in Singapore, through the continuous advancement of technology, there will be more movies in the past that will be converted into anime. This is a good news for those who are anime fanatic.