April 6, 2006
ASIFA-Hollywood has been promoting April 6 as animation's centenary, because James Stuart Blackton's Humorous Phases of Funny Faces made its debut on this date in 1906. Of course, Humorous Phases wasn't actually the first animation per se; people had been playing with optical toys like zoetropes long before then. But Humorous Phases marked the first time that people saw drawings move without seeing the mechanism of that motion—the images were seemingly coming to life of their own will.
In the years that followed, innovation piled on top of innovation. Segundo de Chomón introduced stop-motion in 1908's El Hotel Electrico; Vladislav Starewicz's 1912 Revenge of the Kinematograph Cameraman, in which he animated insects on tiny sets, took the technique to incredible heights. In 1910, J.R. Bray patented the cel animation process. In the early teens, Montreal-born Raoul Barré invented the peg system to keep animation drawings aligned. Cartoonist Winsor McCay started creating films in the teens, some (Little Nemo, Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend) based on his strips. He also created the first animated documentary, The Sinking of the Lusitania.
(One can only imagine what Blackton thought of all this; by the time he died, there had already been a handful of animated superstars, from Felix the Cat to Betty Boop to Mickey Mouse, and several features had been released, the most ambitious at the time being Fantasia.)
This story, of course, doesn't end. But if you'd like to see its humble beginnings, visit the Library of Congress's American Memory website, which archives Humorous Phases of Funny Faces and many other early animated films I've mentioned:
Humorous Phases of Funny Faces
The Centaurs, Gertie on Tour (Winsor McCay)
Never Again! The Story of a Speeder Cop, The Phable of a Busted Romance, The Phable of the Phat Woman (Raoul Barré)