How Animated Cartoons Are Made: A Vintage Primer Filmed Way Back in 1919

Many techniques shown in Bray Studios’ 1919 short How Animated Cartoons are Made, above, were rendered obsolete by digital advancements, but its 21-year-old star, animator Wallace Carlson, seems as if he would fit right in at Cal Arts or Pratt, Class of 2017.

Like many of today’s working animators, the industry pioneer got started early, getting attention (and a distribution deal!) for work made as a young teen.

His comic sensibilities also suggest that young Carlson would’ve found a place among the 21st-century’s animation greats (and soon-to-be-greats).

It doesn’t hurt that he’s cute, in an indie Williamsburg Dandy sort of way.

The vintage feel of his little instructional film is pretty hip these days. It could be the work of a very particular kind of millennial, familiar to fans of Girls, Search Party, or other shows whose characters spend a lot of time in cafes, making art that will find its greatest audience on the internet.

You know, download some silent clips from the Prelinger Archives, browse the Free Music Archive for a suitably jangly old time tune, and put it all together in iMovie, messing around with title fonts until you achieve the desired effect. That’s what Carlson might have been doing, had he been born a hundred years later.

Some of his (silent) observations about his craft still ring true.

Unless you’re working on your own thing, it’s a good idea to get the boss’ blessing on your script before embarking on the painstaking animation process.

And character eyebrow movements remain an excellent storytelling device.

Animators whose talents are more visual than verbal could take a lesson from Carlson’s kicky period dialogue—“Gee I just busted a window! Hope I don’t get pinched.”—though I’d advise against turning a character’s disability into a punchline.

While today’s young animators have little to no experience with film processing, Carlson’s exhaustion after pumping out drawing after drawing may strike a chord. The devil is still in the details for anyone seeking to produce work of a higher quality than that which can be achieved with purchase of an app.

It’s also pretty cool to see Carlson prefiguring white board animation 56 years before the invention of dry erase markers, as he demonstrates how to set a scene using his Little Rascals-esque characters Mamie and Dreamy Dud.

Related Content:

Gertie the Dinosaur: The Mother of all Cartoon Characters (1914)

Early Japanese Animations: The Origins of Anime (1917-1931)

Winsor McCay Animates the Sinking of the Lusitania in a Beautiful Propaganda Film (1918)

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  She used one of the alluded-to archives to create the trailer for her play, Zamboni Godot, opening in New York City next month. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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