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Top 10 animated silent shorts

Silents by numbers

This is a guest post for Silent London by Robyn Ludwig,. The Silents by Numbers strand celebrates some very personal top 10s by silent film enthusiasts and experts.

Gertie the Dinosaur (Winsor McCay, 1914)

Long before there was Bambi or Simba, there was Gertie. The simple ink dinosaur charmed vaudeville audiences with her feisty attitude, and she remains to this day a masterpiece of keyframe animation.

Humorous Phases of Funny Faces (J Stuart Blackton, 1906)

The first entirely animated film, Humorous Phases is a classic lightning sketch film, with chalkboard characters brought to life through stop-motion and cutout animation.

Felix in Hollywood (Otto Messmer, 1923)

Here the iconic kitty meets Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and film censor William Hays, in the first cartoon to feature caricatures of Hollywood celebrities.

Fantasmagorie (Emile Cohl, 1908)

The morphing stick figure clown, inspired by Humorous Phases, is considered the earliest frame-by-frame hand-drawn animation.

Aschenputtel (Lotte Reiniger, 1922)

Reiniger’s elegant silhouette animation creates a surreal fairytale world that is both shadowy and sharp.

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Arthur Melbourne-Cooper: matchstick man of the early silent era

This is a guest post for Silent London by Robyn Ludwig.

The British Animation Showcase at the 2012 London International Animation Festival screens this Thursday evening. Yet 113 years before these contemporary animators would bring their cartoon characters to life and to audiences, St. Albans-born Arthur Melbourne-Cooper (1874–1961) began making primitive stop-motion films, arguably the first and oldest surviving animations.

Trained by his father in photography, Melbourne-Cooper began his career in 1892 as an assistant to Birt Acres, another cinematic forerunner who has been credited as the first person to take 35mm film in Britain. Melbourne-Cooper was a cameraman on a number of Acres’ newsreels and trick films, until 1899, when he directed his first stop-motion animated short, Matches: An Appeal.

The film is a highly inventive advertorial piece, both a fundraising appeal and an advertisement for Bryant & May matchsticks. Using matches jointed by wire and captured frame by frame, Matches: An Appeal features a sprite little stick figure writing a propagandistic message on a wall, asking the audience to donate one guinea to send a free box of matches to a British soldier fighting overseas.

But with the original 35mm reel long lost, the release date of the film remains a contentious issue. Melbourne-Cooper, along with his descendants, insisted that the film dated to the beginning of the Second Anglo-Boer War, ahead of J. Stuart Blackton’s vanguard animation The Enchanted Drawing of 1900. Researchers, however, have argued that Matches was released in 1915, as an appeal for the First World War. Film historian Denis Gifford adds to the confusion by suggesting: “Recent research sets it as produced in the Great War of 1914. This may, however, be a reissue as the setting of this film is identical with Animated Matches (1908).”

Debate over provenance also surrounds Animated Matches Playing Cricket (1899) and Dolly’s Toys (1901). The latter is a live-action and stop-motion puppet animation, credited variously to lightening sketch artist and trick filmmaker Walter R Booth (1869-1938) or to stage hypnotist and filmmaker George Albert Smith (186-1959). Again Gifford seems uncertain, noting that “the plot is so similar to many later films made by Arthur Cooper that it could be his first production” or conversely, that “it could be another of … Booth’s regular trick films made at… Animatographe Studio”.

Less controversy over authorship surrounds Melbourne-Cooper’s Dreams of Toyland (1908) though the film is often listed as A Dream of Toyland (1907). In Dreams, a little boy falls asleep and his toys come to life, a surreal but spasmodically animated fantasy with a confounding array of playthings. The film, undeniably, replicates the motif from Dolly’s Toys, only this time with a male protagonist, and Melbourne-Cooper would repeatedly revisit these storylines, themes, characters and techniques in such films as The Enchanted Toymaker (1904), The Fairy Godmother (1906), In the Land of Nod (1908), The Toymaker’s Dream (1910) and Road Hogs in Toyland (1911).

Clearly Melbourne-Cooper was a prolific animator, in the nascent years of cinema to the outbreak of war in 1914, producing dozens of short films combining stop-motion and live-action. Regrettably he has become a dubious footnote in silent animation history, and has been consigned to an obscurity shared with Walter Booth, George Smith, Anson Dyer and other British animators of the era.

Animated Matches Playing Cricket, Matches: An Appeal, Dreams of Toyland and Road Hogs in Toyland can be viewed online at the East Anglian Film Archive.

References

Gifford, Denis. British Animated Films, 1895-1985: A Filmography. Jefferson: McFarland & Co. Inc., 1988.

Robyn Ludwig holds a Master of Film and Literature from the University of York, U.K., and a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from the University of British Columbia, Canada. Her current research interest is animation from the silent film era. In addition, she has been an administrator in the charitable arts and culture sector for the past ten years, a fundraising consultant for film festivals, and a television critic for the Vancouver Observer.

Anson Dyer: Britain’s forgotten animation pioneer

This caricature of Anson Dyer is probably a self-portrait (Source: ukanimation.blogspot.com)
This caricature of Anson Dyer is probably a self-portrait (Source: ukanimation.blogspot.com)

This is a guest post for Silent London by Robyn Ludwig.

The animators whose films will be showcased at the British Animation Film Festival this Sunday owe a debt to Anson Dyer – though many may not even know it. 2012 marks the 50th anniversary of the death of Ernest John Anson Dyer (1876-1962), a masterful animator and pioneering director in the silent-era years of the British animation industry. Much less is known about Dyer and his early films, than of his peers in America and continental Europe. Yet film historian Geoff Brown notes: “For all the current lack of critical attention, Anson Dyer was a major figure in British animation for over 30 years, from the first world war to the aftermath of the second … [He] was promoted for a time as Britain’s equivalent of Walt Disney, with a prolific and popular output of children’s cartoons” (Brown, BFI Screenonline). Donald Crafton, in Before Mickey: The Animated Film (1898 – 1928), credits Dyer as helping British animators come “closer than anyone else in Europe to establishing a significant cartoon industry” (Crafton 252).

Dyer began his animation career in 1915, at the late age of 39, having spent 20 years as an ecclesiastical artist designing stained-glass church windows on commission. Yet most of his earliest films were secular in theme: propagandistic political satires in the “topical sketcher” tradition. When he joined Kine Komedy Kartoons in 1919, however, he began directing children’s material, including the Phillips Philm Phables series (also known as the Uncle Remus series). Later that same year, Dyer signed with Hepworth Picture Plays in Walton-on-Thames, and during this prolific period, he produced a number of Shakespearean parodies, and the family-friendly Kiddie-Graphs fairy tale series, including The Three Little Pigs (1922) and Little Red Riding Hood (1922).

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