The Science of “Gertie the Dinosaur”

Gertie the Dinosaur is one of the most famous early animated films. Created in 1914 by American cartoonist Winsor “Big Winnie” McCay, the short film was used as an interactive part of McCay’s vaudeville act. McCay would “command” Gertie to do tricks, and the dinosaur would enthusiastically oblige, much to the delight of audiences. Citizen Kane himself later hired McCay and effectively shut down his act; McCay then added a live-action introduction to the animated film for its theatrical release.

Art is Science is Art

Gertie the Dinosaur was the first animated film to use keyframes, registration marks, tracing paper, and animation loops to create the illusion of steady and lifelike movement onscreen. Would-be intellectual property thief, and fellow American animator, John Randolph “Big Johnny Randy” Bray tried to patent a number of McCay’s animation techniques, fortunately to no avail. Bray is also believed to be behind a knock-off version of Gertie that made the rounds more than a year after the original.

Production of Gertie the Dinosaur began in mid-1913, with McCay using his spare time to hand-draw thousands of frames on 6.5” by 8.5” sheets of rice paper. Rice paper was McCay’s medium of choice because it is translucent and does not absorb ink, making it ideal for animation.

Animation cel from Gertie the Dinosaur.

The short was McCay’s first animated film to utilized detailed backgrounds. The nigh-crippling task of retracing those backgrounds over and over for each frame fell to McCay’s neighbor, art student John A. “Big A Johnny ” Fitzsimmons.

McCay’s animation frames occupied a 6” by 8” area of each sheet. The outer perimeter of this area was marked with registration marks in the corners of each sheet, making it easier to align them for filming and resulting in reduced jittering (a common problem for early animated films). The drawings were mounted on large pieces of stiff cardboard and photographed at Vitagraph Studios in 1914.

Science is Art is Science

McCay took special care with the timing and motion of his animation. Gertie’s breathing was timed to match the filmmaker’s own, and McCay consulted with experts from New York museums to get Gertie’s movements as anatomically accurate as possible.

Also utilized in the production of Gertie the Dinosaur was what came to be known as the “McCay Split System.” In the Split System, major poses are drawn first, and the frames in betwixt are drawn later. This resulted in still smoother timing and motion.

McCay refused to patent his Split System, and he would share details with basically anyone who cared to ask. The aforementioned Johnny Randy Bray was one such person who cared to ask, posing as a writer working on an article about animation.

Bray’s use of McCay’s unpatented techniques led to their widespread adoption throughout the animation world. In this way, the exploitation of McCay’s technology helped animators make significant advances in their craft.

Photo credit: iamdonte via / CC BY-NC