Thoughts On: Every Year in Film #29 - Fantasmagorie


Every Year in Film #29 - Fantasmagorie

Thoughts On: Fantasmagorie (1908)

Today we will be taking a brief look at early animation and Émile Cohl.

1908 is quite a significant year for American, and world-wide, cinema. As we discussed previously, we are moving away from the 'cinema of attractions' era, which means that, in one sense, cinema is starting to become standardised, and in another, people are beginning to take it more seriously. It should be noted that the recognition of cinema as an art form or a serious venture is still quite some time away from being more generally accepted in the world. Way back in the late 1890s, you will find the first examples of people beginning to write about film as a powerful tool. One of the first to do this is would be the Polish filmmaker, Bolesław Matuszewski. In 1898 he would write an article on the importance of films as historical documents and, previous to the Lumières founded theirs, would suggest the need for creating archives to preserve actuality films for the sake of education. However, whilst there would have been people thinking about film as important in this respect in as early as the 1898, movies were still a novelty that the Lumières infamously never thought would last. So, despite filmmakers and spectators marvelling at the new invention, it was often seen as a fad. But, when cinema began proving that it was here to stay and develop around the 1910s, it was nonetheless often relegated to being a mere commercial product - which was the basis of many legal cases that would ban films and censor them on the grounds that they were not art and so weren't protected under the laws of free speech.

What was then significant about cinema around the 1910s was its standardisation through narrative and newsreel filmmaking, the formation of international infrastructures and the building of national film industries comprised of production studios, distribution networks and, of course, cinemas. 1908 is then notable for American cinema because this year saw Edison found his Motion Picture Patent's Company. As we have discussed previously, Edison's Trust united studios, distributors and suppliers as to begin regulating the market. One side of the company was its efforts to control piracy, to provide growing audiences with films and to ensure that there was a commercial network that connected, for example, France (Pathé and Méliès' Star Film company) to America. However, the other side of the company was merely concerned with controlling the film market and establishing a monopoly. Thus, Edison's company made it very difficult for independent filmmakers to even shoot without the threat of being ruffed up and shut down by company thugs. As many will know, this was one of the main reasons why filmmakers would then run off to the other side of the country and set the foundations of America's to-be new film capital: Los Angeles, California.

Also in 1908, and staying with America, we also have the directorial debut of D.W Griffith whilst he works for American Mutoscope and Biograph Company. To many people, it is Griffith who signifies a new era of filmmaking defined by narrative, complex stories, editing and a plethora of other cinematic devices--which he certainly didn't invent, rather, helped standardised. However, in France of 1908, there also emerged one of the first films to have an original score and a screenplay written by a recognised writer. Before and after 1908, most filmmakers would work with a loose scenario or a vague plan. Sometimes people would have written this down, other times not. For instance, Charlie Chaplin, pretty deep into the 1910s, would often bring his team to a location or set with a rough idea, often no script, and then figure out details and work on the stunts and gags in the moment. Though this was costly and, in some respects, bad practice, many filmmakers would work this way and, in the case of Chaplin, to great effect. Nonetheless, in 1908, we'd have one of the very first instances in which a writer was hired and paid to write and adapt a script; the end result being The Assassination of Duke de Guise. The script or screenplay would, of course, eventually become an integral part of filmmaking - especially when we move into the sound era.

However, though 1908 is significant in these respects, today we won't be looking at any of these details. Instead, we will be looking at animation. This post will then be in conflict with our idea that we are moving out of the cinema of attractions period because, by 1908, animation was a form that still need major steps of development and, as most will know, it took all the way until the late 30s for the first feature-length cel animated film - Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs - to emerge, which would be 30 years after the first ever feature-length live-action film. This is slightly paradoxical as animation has been around far longer than motion picture photography.

If we think back to the very first post of the series, we referenced in passing some of the earliest known cave paintings that have implied motion within them:

What this serves to be is a reminder from our ancient, pre-historical past that we have not only always been interested in capturing and re-representing the world, but also giving it motion. So, though painting that implies motion is not necessarily animation, we have the seeds of such an idea deeply embedded into human history. This incentive manifests over time in countless civilisations through comic-strip-esque drawings which show progressions through space in separate drawings and also various forms of projection. In regards to projection, the magic lantern, and its ancient Chinese predecessors, would start people on the roads towards more modern ideas of animation through shifting imagery and shadow play. Most tangibly, however, motion pictures and animation have links to toys of the 1800s such as the zoetrope, phenakistoscope and praxinoscope - which we have touched on before in quite some detail and so won't delve into again. Other forms of these toys would of course be the flip book, which would later evolve into the mutoscope and kinora. But, moving into the rapid evolution of actual motion pictures, before the days of the kinetoscope, would come Muybridge's zoopraxiscope and then Reynaud's Théâtre Optique - which both utilised a kind of animation and, again, we have already covered.

Though Reynaud made the discovery that motion pictures could, relatively easily, be projected just by drawing hundreds of small pictures and circulating them as is depicted, this idea didn't take hold. This meant that the popularity of Reynaud's invention quickly waned as the kinetoscope became popular. And so what this signalled was the importance of mass production in motion picture photography. Because motion pictures were such a profoundly ingenious invention that could, despite the complex machinery, easily capture life and then be reproduced and projected on huge scales, hand-drawn animation only ever seemed like a waste of time; it was too much effort and pain for too little pay. This is precisely why animation took quite a lot of time to get off of the ground and has often struggled.

If we take a moment to consider more contemporary filmmaking, it becomes very obvious that animation has a complex market that is heavily reliant on its audience. In such, most animation is either really popular or very independent. This is true of film, too, as there has always been defining gaps between high-end, mid-range and low-end filmmaking, but, this is more obvious with animation. If we look to Disney for instance we will see that at numerous points throughout the company's history, they were on the brink of complete destruction. The same is quite true of other famous studios such as Studio Ghibli; there is a lot of high risk involved in hand-drawn animation, simply because it is such an arduous and costly process. And if we consider stop-motion animation in modern times through companies such as Laika (Coraline, Kubo and the Two Strings, etc.) we will find the same paradigm intensified. Keeping this in mind, we can transition all the way back to the 1890s with an understanding of why, despite its directness and mechanical simplicity, animation wasn't all too common.

In 1899, many years after Reynaud's 'pre-film' animation and the Lumières had screened their first films, a British photographer, Arthur Melbourne-Cooper, created the first stop-motion animated film.

As you would have just heard, Matches an Appeal was the first animated, stop-motion film and was a promotional advertisement for Bryant and May matches as well as a call for charity donation. Cooper constructed this short film using match sticks, held together by wire, that write on a blackboard: "For one guinea, Messrs Bryant & May will forward a case containing sufficient to supply a box of matches to each man in a battalion; with name of the sender inside". There is some dispute as to when this was first made, however. Whilst it is generally accepted that this came out in 1899, some film historians suggests this was possibly made around WWI and so would have come out way over a decade later.

If we then take the idea that this was the first ever stop-motion animated film with a pinch of salt, we can use this as a provisional symbol of what animation means. Whilst most would immediately think of traditional hand-drawn animation when they hear 'animation', stop-motion was, arguably, a more prevalent and poplar form in the early 1900s. How do we then define the term animation if not by drawing?

In short, animation is the manipulation of motionless objects or figures; it is controlling what moves in already moving images. There is then a purity in animation as it considers cinema frame-by-frame and as a construction of still pictures. Animation is nonetheless not necessarily congruous with some definitions of cinema. Cinema, in regards to live-action, is a camera reducing active space into static space before manipulating it back into motion; moving people are turned into a plethora of static pictures and then back into motion. Animation on the other hand takes an inactive space, turns it into a single static picture that is then manipulate into motion through a large collection of photographs. Whilst it could be noted that space-time isn't stopped when an animator's scene is set for the exposing of a frame, it is equally important to recognise the illusion that time has stopped and that the space is inactive. And so that is the subtle difference between cinema and animation: active sets vs. inactive sets.

As intuitive and simple as this sounds, this difference between animation and live action is profound and incredibly important as it is the of inactivity that allows an animator to have greater control; they get to meticulously and precisely set up every single one of their frames. To take a step back, however, this idea of animation can be seen to have emerged from the stop-edit trick - which dates all the way back to 1895 with a film we have mentioned many times before, The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots.

When filmmakers such as Clark, Méliès and Chomón have all their actors pause so they can change the set slightly or set an explosion before continuing to film, we have the stop-edit tick and, through this, we see the same principal of creating cinema in between the frames instead of in front of the camera that is in animation. This is arguably why, and this is most true of Chomón, trick filmmakers naturally gravitated towards forms of animation: the magic of cinema, to them, was in the edit.

This relationship between animation and stop-editing manifests itself through one of the earliest animators, James Stuart Blackton. Blackton, most famously, was the co-founder of Vitagraph. As a reporter and, more importantly, an illustrator, in 1896, he went to interview Thomas Edison and to investigate the process of filmmaking at his studio. At the Black Maria he actually made a lighting sketch film with Edison that has since been lost. This is another lightning sketch from 1907:

Blackton would continue to make films with Edison's studio until, alongside Albert E. Smith, he decided to create a studio that would compete and work with Edison: Vitagraph. One of the most famous and significant films that Blackton ever made was The Enchanted Drawing.

This is less animation and more stop-motion or a trick film, but The Enchanted drawing is considered one of the first movies - released in 1900 - to contain hand drawn 'animation'. This would then preempt a plethora of similar movies in the early 1900s that would combine animation with live action as a new form of the trick film that was essentially born out of the Méliès magic trick film that used stop edits. However, as the form developed, truer modes of animation would quickly emerge. An example of this would be Blackton's 1906 film, Humorous Phases Of Funny Faces:

What shorts like this emphasised was the control that an animator had, and this manifested largely in the gradual progression from one state of being - one facial expression - to another. This short, in an abstract way, is then a study of phases and the edit itself whose main attraction was the manipulated transformation of static objects over time. The novelty embedded into this is then quite surface level; Blackton shows how he can take a man's hat and cigar to make him unhappy. And this surface level novelty is quite similar to the stop edit itself. If we take a closer look at another significant film of Blackton's we can see why:

The stop-edits throughout this film are there to directly say to an audience that this is film; they draw attention to the fact that reality is being manipulated through the shock of the main character and so the embedded attraction is an idea of what cinema, this relatively new invention, can do.

We see strong similarities between the stop edit and Blackton's earlier animation as they draw attention to the contrivance of film in a regulated manner; people come to films to see the novel tricks for the sake of novelty and the new, there is no abstract and more complicated reason as there is in narrative and avant-garde films which use cinema as a window into hypothetical spaces of thought and experience. This is all because audiences are merely being shown something, they are not necessarily provoked into thinking about the film as more than a set of moving pictures.

We will take a moment to stop and jump back in time again to talk a little bit about the historical context of our subject for today. France in the late 1800s was a place that was changing at an significant pace - and had been for a numerous decades. Coming into the 1800s, France would have been through its Revolutionary period which saw the rise of Napoleon. Napoleon signified the expansion of the French Empire and so conflict with European powers and further internal conflicts between monarchy, emperors (Napoleon and his descendants) and democratic government. Though this is a gross simplification, this political upheaval and change would have coincided with the momentum of modernism and industrialisation. Some off-shoots of this concerned the development of French press, media and journalism across the 1800s and early 1900s that flourished with developing freedoms and with a lot of history to capture and disseminate to its nation - cinema, as we know, even played its hand at this to some degree with early newsreels and actualities.

It was in the middle of this age, 1857, that Émile Cohl was born. His early life is, like the times, characterised by upheaval, change and movement with his short-lived mother often being ill when he was a child and his estranged father's job often being in the balance. His family would then move around a lot, he'd have to change boarding schools because of the Franco-Prussian War and, later, he'd often be jumping between jobs. A few things remained quite constant in Cohl's life, however, and they were stamp collecting/studying (philately) as well as an interest in politics and drawing. Cohl would in fact be inspired by political art - caricature - firstly through his contact with puppet theatre as a teenager and then by his meeting with André Gill.

Gill was a famous caricaturist and political commentator that Cohl would work for and be in contact with throughout his life - including when his mental and physical health declined. It was through him that he came into contact the marionette-inspired, big-head style of caricature. Here, for example, is Gill's portrait of Charles Dickens:

Developing a similar style, Cohl would attack political figures with his caricatures and would even be put in jail for this. However, this mainly did Cohl a favour as incarceration made him famous. As a result of this and his contact with Gill, he came into contact with more artists and would be apart of a bohemian club called the Hydropathes whilst he learnt English and wrote two unsuccessful plays. Moving into the 1880s, however, the Hydropathes would disband and Cohl would join a new movement with the "Incoherents". This was a group of artist who apparently 'could not draw' and that produced bizarre, surreal and childish works.

These contacts with various artists shaped Cohl's sensibilities, but in the late 1880s, Gill would die, his marriage would fall apart and he would leave the Incoherents. After re-marrying, he would explore other approaches to art and would work with children's toys whilst sustaining a political edge. This all preempted his transition into filmmaking, when he was 50, around 1907.

It is not known how Cohl specifically joined the film industry, but it was through Gaumont who could have possibly stolen from his comic strips or could have just hired him as he was a well-known artist. In Gaumont, he would have, of course, come into contact with various filmmakers who would have helped him create the various types of shorts they were distributing. An example of one of these films would be The Hotel of Silence, which Cohl worked on with Étienne Arnaud - a friend who he'd work with many times in the future. But, whilst Cohl would work on live action chases and trick films, his speciality was always animation.

As Arnaud later said, one of Cohl's first animated productions was inspired by Blackton's 1907 film, The Haunted Hotel. This, as we saw, has an animated sequence and, because of its huge success across the world, Gaumont wanted Cohl to recreate the effect. Whilst there are speculations as to how much Cohl learnt from Blackton's film, whatever did come through is evident in Fantasmagorie:

Considered the first all-animation film ever made, Cohl's Fantasmagorie is clearly a product of his contact with caricature artists and, more importantly, his involvement in the Incoherents movement. Whilst the existence of this film, and all animation in the early cinematic period, has much to do with a few successful pictures that implied there was a market that made the arduous work appear worthwhile, it seems that there is more than mere novelty and commerciality in this short.

Though he came from an art movement that didn't take itself seriously, Cohl undeniably brings hints of a long-lived art form to cinema to produce something new. In such, Fantasmagorie doesn't conform to the sensibilities of animators such as Blackton as his animated films were staged like magic tricks and so had structure and rules that left the animation feeling like a mere show. This begins to imply why Fantasmagorie, as an all-animation short, is such a significant film. By not being introduced to the fact that this is animation (we do, however, see the and begin to draw) as we do in Blackton's films - and even in many later animated films of the 1910s - we are immersed into the world of animation that is governed by an absence of rules. This means that Cohl brings the Incoherent sensibility alive with motion and metamorphosis. The difference between the space in which Blackton animated and Cohl animated is then stark. Emphasising this, however, would be the fact that Blackton animated, often, using a chalk board. Cohl would animate on white paper and with black pen, but would shoot onto negative film with a vertically-mounted camera that would reverse the colours and so provide the 'chalk board aesthetic'. These many details hugely differentiate the kind of animation seen in Cohl's films and those before, leaving Cohl's space to be defined by a stronger sense of artistry and (non-)narrative as opposed to that of a show.

Like at a few similar animated shorts from 1908 - The Puppet's Nightmare and Drama Amongst the Puppets for example - Fantasmagorie represents a subtle revolution in cinema. Through the theme of metamorphosis Cohl re-defines the boundaries of cinema. In such, whilst Méliès and Chomón showed the possibilities of working with live action as to re-define the rules of reality, Cohl blasts their ideas out of the water. In having complete control of space and time, Cohl is able to have absolutely anything happen and so he animates in the style of free association. Nonetheless, his cinematic space is cohesive and we understand, or at least accept, what is going on. This is the paradox of animation - the fact that we can understand what is almost the equivalent of visual gibberish - and Cohl exploits it brilliantly. Thus, there is a strong sense of the avant-garde in Cohl's work which he brings over from the art world. We discussed the avant-garde and early film with some scepticism in regards to Gunning's idea of the cinema of attraction previously, but, with Cohl, it is clear that there is some link to the avant-garde--his films are somewhat representative of an art movement after all--and so there aren't many characteristics of basic attraction in these works.

We can contradict, to a degree, these notions with some of his other films that merely integrate animation into live action:

Like Blackton's films, The Magic Hoop has the set up of a magic trick and so the abstract and surreal animation is reduced to a more basic attraction that doesn't immerse an audience in a realm of no rules, rather, gives the animation structure by heavily implying that 'this is just a trick film'. This tension remains throughout Cohl's filmography as he moved on in his career to leave Gaumont for Pathé and later America. However, as animation became more of a standard practice, his approach to metamorphosis and a lack of rules that is present in his early shorts, remains - as everyone who has seen a wacky cartoon is familiar with. He would also directly influence other early animators such as Wladyslaw Starewicz, who made one of the most impressive and sophisticated animated shorts of the early 1910s, The Cameraman's Revenge (which we've covered before). Moreover, it is thought that Cohl also had some influence on Winsor McKay, who not only made Little Nemo, but also Gertie The Dinosaur.

This is sometimes said to be the first animated film ever made. It is not. Made in 1914, this is the first known keyframe animated film - which meant that it utilised reference drawings that became start and end points which would be used to create smoother animation. What's more, this also used looped footage, tracing paper, registration marks and a few other important techniques, and so would preempt important figures such as Fleischer and Disney who, in the 20s, were some of the biggest faces for animation.

There is quite a direct lineage of animation that streams through the late 1900s and into the 1910s. From Cooper to Méliès, Blackton and Chomón to Cohl to Starewicz and McKay to Fleischer and Disney, animation made many evolutionary jumps in a short period of time. And whilst there is so much more that could be said about the figures we covered today, Blackton and Cohl in particular, this is where we will end our initial look at animation with the inevitability of us having to return to the topic soon.

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