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Fantasmagorie – a 1908 French animated film is the first animated cartoon

Ian Smith

Fantasmagorie is a 1908 French animated film by Émile Cohl. It is one of the earliest examples of traditional (hand-drawn) animation, and considered by film historians to be the first animated cartoon.

The film largely consists of a stick man moving about and encountering all manner of morphing objects, such as a wine bottle that transforms into a flower. There were also sections of live action where the animator’s hands would enter the scene. The main character is drawn by the artist’s hand on camera, and the main characters are a clown and a gentleman.

The film, in all of its wild transformations, is a direct tribute to the by-then forgotten Incoherent movement. The title is a reference to the “fantasmograph”, a mid-Nineteenth Century variant of the magic lantern that projected ghostly images that floated across the walls.

The film was created by drawing each frame on paper and then shooting each frame onto negative film, which gave the picture a blackboard look. It was made up of 700 drawings, each of which was exposed twice (animated “on twos”), leading to a running time of almost two minutes. It borrowed from J. Stuart Blackton, the “chalk-line effect”; filming black lines on white paper, then reversing the negative to make it look like white chalk on a black chalkboard. Blackton and Cohl also borrowed some techniques from Georges Méliès, such as the stop trick.

The more detailed hand-drawn animations, requiring a team of animators drawing each frame manually with detailed backgrounds and characters, were those directed by Winsor McCay, a successful newspaper cartoonist, including the 1911 Little Nemo, the 1914 Gertie the Dinosaur, and the 1918 The Sinking of the Lusitania.

During the 1910s, the production of animated short films, typically referred to as “cartoons”, became an industry of its own and cartoon shorts were produced for showing in movie theaters. The most successful producer at the time was John Randolph Bray, who, along with animator Earl Hurd, patented the cel animation process that dominated the animation industry for the rest of the decade.