The artist and cartoon pioneer Winsor McCay (1869?-1934) did not make the world's first animated film. That distinction goes to Emile Cohl and his 76-second long Fantasmagorie (1908). But McKay, who was also the author of the popular weekly Little Nemo comic strips, made a contribution to cartoons that is arguably even more important.
Sweet, mischievous Gertie, with her ready tears, excitable nature, and complete inability to miss a chance to get herself in trouble, is widely credited as the first character created specifically for animation, and the first to demonstrate a personality all of her own. Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, Bambi, even Wall-e... they all owe a debt to Gertie, the first of the line. One suspects the artist knew exactly what he was doing when he chose to draw her as an animal that is also our common ancestor.
The fetching brontosaurus may have been one of McCay's most famous creations, but there was magic in every film he made. Be sure to check out How a Mosquito Operates (1912), The Sinking of the Lusitania (1921), and his brief but magnificent The Centaurs (1921). You can find them all in our Free Movie collection.
Sheerly Avni is a San Francisco-based arts and culture writer. Her work has appeared in Salon, LA Weekly, Mother Jones, and many other publications. You can follow her on twitter at @sheerly.