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Winsor McCay: How his vaudeville act led him to animation (+video)

Google is honoring Winsor McCay with a vivid animated reproduction of 'Little Nemo.' How did vaudeville lead Winsor McCay, a famous 20th century newspaper cartoonist, to create animated films?

By Staff writer / October 15, 2012

Google's Doodle today pays homage to Winsor McCay, the creator of the "Little Nemo in Slumberland" comic strip, who later pioneered animated film.

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Google is honoring Winsor McCay with a vivid animated reproduction of 'Little Nemo.' (No, not the Pixar film about the little clownfish – that's 'Finding Nemo.")

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Winsor McCay was a popular early 20th century newspaper cartoonist who pioneered animated films. In fact, McCay couldn't be contained by his artist studio. He was a performer and took his skills to the stage, which led to his creation of animated films.

After the hugely popular success of comic strip "Little Nemo in Slumberland" in 1905 – the subject of today's Google Doodle – McCay began performing on vaudeville. His act included 'lightning sketches' –  with chalk on a blackboard –  of various cartoon characters from his comic strips. But McCay wanted to do more.

Even as he continued to produce several comic strips and editorial cartoons, McCay was inspired by some advertising flip books shown to him by his son. He decided to produce his first animated film for his vaudeville act. The 1911 film, "Winsor McCay and His Moving Comics" (also known as Little Nemo), shows McCay wagering with his friends that he can produce 4,000 drawings in a month. The result is a 10-minute silent film (see above) including some of the characters from his weekly comic strip "Little Nemo in Slumberland," according to Silentera.com.

McCay went on to create "How a Mosquito Operates" in 1912, his first attempt at story narrative and characterization, says Silent Era. McCay's best known film was "Gertie the Trained Dinosaur" which came out in 1914 and was again created to be part of his vaudeville act. With "Gertie" McCay created an animated film that would allow him to interact on stage with the cartoon dinosaur being projected on the screen. Gertie was an instant hit, and the first original character developed solely for the animated cartoon, and not based on a pre-existing comic strip, according to Van Eaton Galleries.

Check out this video of the Gertie vaudeville act, recreated by film and animation historian Steve Massa.

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