Sunday, 9 May 2010

Following up on Gifford: before 1910

The first in a series of posts using Denis Gifford's book British Animated Films, 1895-1985: A Filmography to provide a decade-by-decade analysis of British animation's history.

Disclaimer: Although wide-ranging Gifford's book is not perfect. He missed out several films and sometimes provided incorrect dates or crew information. I have done my best to correct any errors which I have found myself repeating in these posts.

Gifford's book begins in the nineteenth century, although the first five cartoon films that he lists are not animations but live action films of cartoonists drawing caricatures. Four of them star Tom Merry (drawing Kaiser Wilhelm, Bismarck, Lord Salisbury and William Gladstone); the fifth is titled Little Stanley: Lightning Cartoonist and is described by Gifford as a "One-minute film of a young boy cartoonist drawing a 'Lightning Sketch' in crayon". The five films were made between 1895 and 1898.

True animation enters the filmography in 1899 with Arthur Melbourne Cooper's Matches: An Appeal. As Gifford notes, "The date of this film is controversial, as recent research sets it as produced in the Great War of 1914. This may, however, be a reissue as the setting of this film is identical with Animated Matches (1908)."

There are no films listed for 1900 but in 1901 we see the arrival of Walter R. Booth's films: The Devil in the Studio (which "introduced both hand-drawing techniques that pointed the way to animated cartoons, and a taste for the fantastical that showed the influence of Georges Méliès", says Luke McKernan's Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors), The Famous Illusions of De Kolta and Artistic Creation, along with Dolly's Toys, whose director is unknown. "The plot is so similar to many later films made by Arthur Cooper that it could be his first production" says Gifford of this film about a little girl falling asleep and dreaming of her toys coming to life, which was released by R.W. Paul's Animatographe. "Cooper was working for Birt Acres at this time, and Paul released many of Acres' productions. Alternatively, it could be another of Walter R. Booth's regular trick films made at Paul's Animatographe Studio." I notice that online sources generally credit Cooper as the director.

There are no films listed for 1902 and six listed for the years from 1903 to 1907, while 1908 has a total of five films. All of these films were directed by the same two filmmakers, with Booth making Political Favourites (a return to live-action films of lightning cartoons being drawn), The Hand of the Artist, Comedy Cartoons, The Sorcerer's Scissors, The Lightning Postcard Artist and The Prehistoric Man while Arthur Cooper brought us The Enchanted Toymaker, The Fairy Godmother, Dreams of Toyland, In the Land of Nod and Animated Matches.

Dreams of Toyland, which can be viewed online here. This print opens with the title In the Land of Nod - a title shared by one of Cooper's other films.

While Cooper worked in stop motion, Booth tended towards the trick films, a form associated most closely with Georges Méliès. The trick film can be seen as a halfway point between a stage conjuring act and a special effects film (both Méliès and Booth worked as stage magicians before turning to filmmaking); a favourite trick was to show one person or object seemingly transforming into another by switching them between shots - a technique which, of course, serves as the basis of stop-motion animation. In Artistic Creation the main character draws a picture of a woman's head, which is turned using a jump cut into the live-action head of an actress; a further special effect allows the artist to take the head off the paper and places it aside. He then draws the rest of the woman's body piece-by-piece, each bit turning first into a dummy part and then into part of the actress. Booth worked on a number of trick films that are not included in Gifford's book; The '?' Motorist is a particular triumph, almost on a par with Méliès' famed A Trip to the Moon.

Walter Booth's 1906 trick film The '?' Motorist

And so we come to 1909, for which Gifford lists four films. Animated Cotton and Sooty Sketches were made by Booth, but the other two - The Sporting Mice and Votes for Women: A Caricature - are from a new face, Charles Armstrong. Amongst the few substantial mentions of him that I can find online is this Guardian article, in which film historian David Parkinson acknowledges him as a possible inventor of silhouette animation. Here are contemporary review of the two films, reprinted in Gifford's book:
The Sporting Mice
A distinct and remarkable novelty consisting of the evolutions of performing mice and the contortions of a grotesque physiognomy, the whole being executed in living silhouette. A few of the many acts are juggling with a mouse on his elastic proboscis, a mouse walking on stilts, performing a record hoop trick, climbing a ladder held and swayed by another mouse, and performing various mystifying acrobatic turns. (Bioscope 27 May 1909)

Votes for Women: A Caricature
One of this firm's noted series of silhouettes. A most grotesque film - a woman suffragette - Q.E.D. - all moonshine! (Bioscope 17 June 1909)

Other posts in this series:
1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6 - 7 - 8 - 9

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