This year marks the 80th anniversary of the premiere of Walt Disney's "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs." So, in retrospect, it's a little surprising that this year's Society for Animation Studies conference did not acknowledge that milestone. But then many of the historically oriented presentations looked further back than that.
Somewhat ironically, the institution hosting a conference on that most modern of art forms, animation, which infuses not only films and television shows but also computer games and virtual reality displays, was the 800-year-old University of Padova in Padova (Padua), Italy. And most of the presentations occurred on the grounds of its nearly 500-year-old botanical garden.
Most people believe "Snow White" was the first feature-length animated film, but that is simply not true. It was the first American animated feature.
In 1926 Germany, Lotte Reiniger released her feature-length, cut-out animated film, "The Adventures of Prince Achmed," based on Arabian Nights stories. Reiniger spent three years cutting out delicate cardboard figures with filigreed detail work and lighting them from beneath to achieve charming shadow play images. To create that sort of backlighting, she invented a camera structure that anticipated the multi-plane camera developed by William Garrity for Disney in the 1930s.
As a couple of papers at the conference revealed, though, critics and historians who dealt with Reiniger's work until recently tended to marginalize it and discuss it in patronizing terms. Only in recent years, with an increase in female animation scholars and in a corresponding heightened historical interest in female animators, has Reiniger begun to receive the recognition and scholarly attention she deserves.
Several sessions of presentations were devoted to women in animation both historically and in the contemporary industry. In brief, more and more women are involved in animation at all levels, but they are still seriously under-represented at the highest creative levels.
But even Reiniger's work was not the first animated feature. In 1917, in Argentina, Quirino Cristiani released his political satire "El Apostol" ("The Apostle"). The following year, he made another feature, "Sin dejar rastros" ("Without Leaving a Trace"), based on a World War I event. And in 1931, he did another political satire on Argentina's senile president, Hipolito Yrigoyen, and his corrupt government, titled "Peludopolis" ("City of Peludo" — "Peludo" was the nickname given to Yrigoyen by his critics; it means "hairy" but also has the slang meaning "idiot"). "Peludopolis" was the first animated feature with sound.
Unfortunately, none of Quirino's films still exist. They were either seized by the Argentine government or lost to fire or the natural decay of early celluloid film stock.
At least in part because Quirino was born in Italy, the conference organizers brought his grandson, Hector Cristiani, as a keynote speaker to discuss his grandfather's work. Though the talk was interesting, it would have been great to have had some sort of visual accompaniment — drawings, photos of the animator and his studio, anything.
A milestone in animation history that has survived, however, is Winsor McCay's 1914 "Gertie the Dinosaur." It's being given new life by Donald Crafton, the Joseph and Elizabeth Robbie Professor Emeritus of Film, Television and Theatre at the University of Notre Dame, who reported on the project's progress and discussed aspects of the original work.
McCay was a successful, prolific creator of popular comic strips when he turned his attention to animating cartoons (the first American to do so). "Gertie," based on a couple of episodes of his "Dream of the Rarebit Fiend" comic strip, was McCay's third film, but it was actually more than a film. McCay originally created it to be part of a vaudeville act in which he would stand at the side of the stage and "direct" Gertie as she presented herself to the audience, did a little dance and interacted with other fantastic creatures in her cartoon environment. In the grand finale, McCay would enter the screen and ride off on Gertie's back.
When the film was distributed widely, a live-action introduction and intertitles imitating McCay's comments to Gertie were added. Crafton, working with collaborators Marco de Blois and David Nathan, has had the film remastered and reconstructed without the titles. McCay's original remarks have also been reconstructed as a script so that a live performer can take his place in re-creations of the original mixed-media performance. The premiere will take place in a few months, and then the event will be generally available for performances.
Animated features decades before "Snow White" and a 100-year-old mixed-media performance — what more historical surprises could there be at such a conference? How about image editing before the cinema even existed?
Christine Veras, a doctoral candidate from Nanyang University in Singapore, reported on the combination of images possible in the 19th-century optical device known as the zoetrope. The zoetrope was a rotating cylinder with slits cut in its top and strips of sequential images positioned at the bottom of its interior.
When you looked through the slits as the drum rotated, you would see the images appearing to move — generally, a simple action repeated over and over as long as the drum rotated. Virtually everyone who knows about zoetropes thinks of them as using one strip at a time; to see more action, you changed strips and spun the drum again.
But Veras displayed an ad from a 19th-century supplier of zoetrope strips that described how two different strips could be overlapped to produce surprising transformations from one moving image to another — thereby prefiguring film editing, and even the cinema itself, by several decades.
The ad even made specific recommendations on combinations of its strip offerings to provide the most interesting effects. Veras demonstrated what some of these would have looked like with her own reconstructions.
One doesn't expect the reordering or reinterpretation of relatively recent history or at least one's perceptions of it in such a historical setting, but the Society for Animation Studies conference in Padova overturned quite a few received notions involving animation history.
Richard J. Leskosky taught media and cinema studies at the University of Illinois and has reviewed films for more than 30 years. He can be contacted at email@example.com.