Animated films in the United States date back to at least 1906 when Vitagraph released Humorous Phases of Funny Faces.[1] Although early animations were rudimentary, they rapidly became more sophisticated with such classics as Gertie the Dinosaur in 1914, Felix the Cat, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, and Koko the Clown.

Originally a novelty, some early animated silents depicted magic acts or were strongly influenced by the comic strip. Later, they were distributed along with newsreels. Early animation films, like their live-action silent cousins, would come with a musical score to be played by an organist or even an orchestra in larger theatres.[2] Silent cartoons became almost entirely obsolete after 1928, when sound synchronized cartoons were introduced with the debut of Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse in Steamboat Willie, thus ushering in the golden age of American animation.


The 1906 cartoon Humorous Phases of Funny Faces by J. Stuart Blackton

British-American filmmaker J. Stuart Blackton was possibly the first to use animation techniques in the US for film versions of his "lightning artist" routine. The Enchanted Drawing (1900) utilized the stop trick to make drawings appear to change magically. In Humorous Phases of Funny Faces (1906) he had blackboard drawings go through series of changes and used animated cutout drawings in the same style for more fluent motion. It is regarded as the oldest known theatrically released animation on standard film (lithographed film loops for home use and Charles-Émile Reynaud's Théâtre Optique films had already been popular in Europe for years).

Gertie the Dinosaur by Winsor McCay, 1914

Following the successes of Blackton and of French animator Émile Cohl (whose Fantasmagorie (1908) is regarded as the first traditional animation on standard film), many other artists began experimenting with animation. One such artist was Winsor McCay, who created detailed animation with painstaking attention to detail. Each frame was drawn on paper; which invariably required backgrounds and characters to be redrawn and animated. Among McCay's most noted films are Little Nemo (1911), Gertie the Dinosaur (1914) and The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918).

During the 1910s larger scale animation studios were becoming the industrial norm and artists such as McCay faded from the public eye.[3] The production of animated short films, typically referred to as "cartoons", became an industry of its own during the 1910s, and cartoon shorts were produced to be shown in movie theaters.

Around 1913 Raoul Barré developed the peg system that made it easier to align drawings by perforating two holes below each drawing and placing them on two fixed pins. He also used a "slash and tear" technique to not have to draw the complete background or other motionless parts for every frame. The parts where something needed to be changed for the next frame were carefully cut away from the drawing and filled in with the required change on the sheet below.[4] After Barré had started his career in animation at Edison Studios, he founded one of the first film studios dedicated to animation in 1914 (initially together with Bill Nolan). Barré Studio had success with the production of the adaptation of the popular comic strip Mutt and Jeff (1916–1926). The studio employed several animators who would have notable careers in animation, including Frank Moser, Gregory La Cava, Vernon Stallings, Tom Norton and Pat Sullivan.

In 1914, John Bray opened John Bray Studios, which revolutionized the way animation was created.[5] Earl Hurd, one of Bray's employees patented the cel technique.[6] This involved animating moving objects on transparent celluloid sheets.[7] Animators photographed the sheets over a stationary background image to generate the sequence of images. This, as well as Bray's innovative use of the assembly line method, allowed John Bray Studios to create Colonel Heeza Liar, the first animated series.[8][9] Many aspiring cartoonists started their careers at Bray, including Walt Disney (later of Mickey Mouse fame), Paul Terry (later of Heckle and Jeckle fame), Max Fleischer (later of Betty Boop and Popeye fame), and Walter Lantz (later of Woody Woodpecker fame). The cartoon studio operated from circa 1914 until 1928. Some of the first cartoon stars from the Bray studios were Farmer Alfalfa (by Paul Terry) and Bobby Bumps (by Earl Hurd).

In 1915, Max Fleischer applied for a patent[10] for a technique that would become known as rotoscoping: the process of using live-action film recordings as a reference point to more easily create realistic animated movements. The technique was often used in the Out of the Inkwell series (1918-1929) for John Bray Productions (and others). The series resulted from experimental rotoscoped images of Dave Fleischer performing as a clown, evolving into a character that would become known as Ko-Ko the Clown.

Newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst founded International Film Service in 1916. Hearst lured away most of Barré Studio's animators, with Gregory La Cava becoming the head of the studio. They produced adaptations of many comic strips from Heart's newspapers in a rather limited fashion, giving just a little motion to the characters while mainly using the dialog balloons to deliver the story. The most notable series was Krazy Kat, with an early anthropomorphic cartoon cat character. Before the studio stopped in 1918 it had employed some new talents, including Vernon Stallings, Ben Sharpsteen, Jack King, John Foster, Grim Natwick, Burt Gillett and Isadore Klein.

The 1919 Feline Follies by Pat Sullivan

The most popular cartoon series during the silent era was Australian-American film producer Pat Sullivan's Felix the Cat. Felix the Cat (Originally named Master Tom) first appeared in Feline Follies (1919) and became hugely successful throughout the 1920s. The studio later came into trouble during the advent of sound cartoons in the early 1930s when the popularity of Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse was rising above Sullivan's Felix. Sullivan tried to adapt Felix by creating Felix sound cartoons, but they failed to please audiences and Sullivan closed the studio in 1930. He died three years later due to health problems related to alcoholism.[11]

Charles Bowers was a comedian and animator who made many bizarre films in the 1920s combining stop-motion animation and comedy. Many of them have been lost, but some have been released on DVD.

List of US animated silent films

Gertie on Tour

Very incomplete list (most of the early films in general are lost, many were not documented, forgotten and/or insignificant). Listed filmmakers can be creators, directors, producers, animators or complete studios. If a series was taken over by other filmmakers, not all filmmakers will be listed.

Date Filmmaker Title Note
1906 J. Stuart Blackton Humorous Phases of Funny Faces
1911 Winsor McCay Little Nemo character Flip returned in Flip's Circus (circa 1918–1921, survives only in fragments)
1912 Winsor McCay How a Mosquito Operates
1913–1915 Sidney Smith Old Doc Yak (20 episodes) first series with a recurring character
1913–1917, 1922-1924 John Randolph Bray Colonel Heeza Liar (58 episodes) second series featured live-action/animation
1914 Winsor McCay Gertie the Dinosaur follow-up Gertie on Tour (circa 1918–1921) survives only in fragments
1915 Willis O'Brien The Dinosaur and the Missing Link: A Prehistoric Tragedy stop motion
1915-1955 Paul Terry Farmer Al Falfa (series) produced for several studios, with sound since 1928
1915-1916 International Film Service Phables (series)
1915-1925 Bray Productions Bobby Bumps (series) first cel-animated series
1916–1923, 1925-1926 Barré Studio Mutt and Jeff (series) licensed from the comic strip by Bud Fisher
1916–1917, 1920–1921, 1925-1940 International Film Service, Bray Productions, Winkler Pictures, Screen Gems Krazy Kat (series) with sound since 1929
1916–1918, 1920 International Film Service The Katzenjammer Kids / The Shenninigan Kids (37+5 episodes)
1918 Winsor McCay The Sinking of the Lusitania regarded as the first animated documentary
1919-1930 Pat Sullivan Felix the Cat (series) with sound since 1928, revived in 1936, 1959–1962, 1988, 1997, 2001, 2004
1918-1929 Dave Fleischer / Max Fleischer Out of the Inkwell live-action/animation featuring Koko the Clown
1921 (September) Winsor McCay Bug Vaudeville, The Pet, The Flying House three separate shorts, forming a Dream of the Rarebit Fiend anthology
1921 Winsor McCay The Centaurs survives only in fragments
1921 John Coleman Terry Joys and Glooms
1921-1923 Laugh-O-Gram Studio (Walt Disney & Ub Iwerks) Laugh-O-Grams (series)
1924–1927 Walter Lantz Dinky Doodle (series)
1923-1927 Walt Disney & Ub Iwerks Alice Comedies (series)
1921-1929 Paul Terry Aesop's Fables (series)
1927-1928 Walt Disney & Ub Iwerks Oswald the Lucky Rabbit (series) taken over by other studios until 1938, with sound since 1929, additional short in 1943 and cameos in other films
1925 Willis O'Brien The Lost World feature with stop motion creatures

Significant distributors of animated films: Margaret J. Winkler, Charles Mintz, Educational Pictures, Red Seal Pictures, Bijou Films


Three films by Winsor McCay (Little Nemo, Gertie the Dinosaur, The Sinking of the Lusitania) were each inducted into the National Film Registry[12]

See also


  1. ^ Jeff Lenburg 1991 The Encyclopedia of Animated Cartoons ISBN 0-8160-2252-6
  2. ^ Janis Johnson (January–February 2005). "Saving the silents". Humanities magazine. National Endowment for the Humanities. Archived from the original on September 8, 2008. Retrieved March 17, 2008.
  3. ^ Crandol, Michael. "The History of Animation: Advantages and Disadvantages of the Studio System in the Production of an Art Form". Archived from the original on August 21, 2011. Retrieved April 18, 2012.
  4. ^ Lenburg, Jeff (August 23, 2006). Who's who in Animated Cartoons: An International Guide to Film & Television's Award-winning and Legendary Animators. Hal Leonard Corporation. p. 22. ISBN 9781557836717 – via Internet Archive.
  5. ^ Solomon 1989, pp. 22–23.
  6. ^ Crafton 1993, pp. 153–154.
  7. ^ Crafton 1993, p. 150.
  8. ^ Solomon 1989, pp. 24–26.
  9. ^ McLaughlin, Dan (2001). "A Rather Incomplete but Still Fascinating History of Animation". UCLA. Archived from the original on November 19, 2009. Retrieved April 18, 2012.
  10. ^ US1242674A - Method of producing moving-picture cartoons. - Google Patents
  11. ^ Gordon, Ian (2002). "Felix the Cat". St. James Encyclopedia of Pop Culture. Retrieved June 24, 2009.
  12. ^ Brief Descriptions and Expanded Essays|Film Registry|Library of Congress


Further reading