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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