Little Nemo (1911) A Silent Film Review

Famed cartoonist Winsor McCay wagers that he will be able to create drawings that move. And what do you know, he succeeds! This film is a mixture of live action, animated sequences and drawing demonstrations.

Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.

Adventures in Slumberland

When discussing film history, issues of “the first” invariably come up. Matters are not helped by the propensity of both films and the people who made them laying claim to invention. The 1911 film Little Nemo (or, as it is more properly called, Winsor McCay the Famous Cartoonist of the New York Herald and His Moving Comics) lays claim to the first in its opening title card:

The film was released by Vitagraph and the studio’s very own J. Stuart Blackton is usually credited with the first animated film with the 1906 release of Humorous Phases of Funny Faces and Edison’s Edwin S. Porter made use of stop motion around the same time. It would also be unthinkable to leave the pioneering hand-drawn animation of Émile Cohl out of the conversation as he is generally credited with creating the first fully-animated film in 1908. But, hey, why let that sort of thing get in the way of marketing? But next time somebody says: “But the film/director/star said it was the first!” you can give them an indulgent sigh.

Claims of firstliness are tied up in caveats and stacks of “actually…” but this does not make Winsor McCay’s accomplishments in Little Nemo any less impressive. A true artist whose talents and imagination have rarely been rivaled, McCay had launched two popular strips in the early part of the twentieth century: Dream of the Rarebit Fiend and Little Nemo. With trick films still a major box office draw, adaptation to the big screen was inevitable.

“He says he can make drawings that move!”
(Read Picture Story.)

The story of Little Nemo is as slight as can be. While meeting with his friends (including popular Vitagraph comedy star John Bunny), McCay announces that he will create drawings that move and he will deliver his thousands of pieces of artwork in a month.

“I can do it, I tell you!”
(Read Picture Story.)

Giant boxes of paper and barrels of ink are delivered to McCay’s workroom as his collection of drawings grows. A goofy messenger boy manages to knock over and mix up the stacks of paper but, proving that this is a reenactment, McCay does not murder him. In fact, he still manages to deliver his “drawings that move” to his delighted friends. And hand-colored, yet!

“4,000 drawings in one month!”
(Read Picture Story.)

We are shown Nemo, a small boy who dreams his way to Slumberland every night, as well as Impie and Flip, African and Irish stereotypes, respectively. Finally, we are shown the Princess of Slumberland for a triumphant conclusion. All told, the animated sequence lasts short of two minutes. Take a bow, McCay!

The artist at work overseen by cartoonist icon Napoleon Bonaparte.

Little Nemo was launched almost exactly a year after McCay’s hit strip Dream of the Rarebit Fiend and it reflects the artist’s fascination with the subconscious mind. The indulgent dreamers in the Rarebit strips changed regularly but Nemo followed one small boy in his adventures. However, he was often thrown back into bed by his dreams or admonished for indulging in treats before bed, especially in the earlier strips. While the first Little Nemo strip showed him falling back into consciousness in elaborate detail, later strips kept the awakening to a single small panel.

(Should you care to see these strips on paper, both Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend and Little Nemo have been republished in dead tree format.)

No awakening for Little Nemo is required in the motion pictures.

In the 1911 film, Nemo’s awakening is a moot point as the characters from the strip are essentially special guest stars in their own film. They are present to demonstrate the magic of animation and they perform their function rather well.

Technique is king in this film. While the 1906 live-action Dream of a Rarebit Fiend made use of elaborate special effects, it had a plot of sorts and was able to stay inside its own world.

See Winsor. See Winsor draw. Draw, Winsor, draw.

Little Nemo, on the other hand, is an elaborate frame story for a relatively brief (though impressive) animated sequence. It’s pretty obvious that McCay’s laborious, detailed animations required an enormous investment of time—the film itself even mentions that the brief animated sequence took one month of constant work—and so the frame story was necessary to avoid releasing a two-minute motion picture. In fact, McCay worked on his film for a year whenever he found time in between his task of delivering regular strips for the Herald, illustrations for advertisements and other paid gigs.

The hard way.

Animation had not yet entered its assembly line phase and everything that McCay did was done the old-fashioned way. Each and every frame was drawn by hand on rice paper. Cel animation, associated with the golden age of hand-drawn cartoons, was not yet invented. (Cel animation is the process of painting the moving figures on a clear sheet and laying it on top of the cartoon’s background. This saves the animator the trouble of redrawing the background for every frame. Its 1914 invention is generally credited to Earl Hurd, who worked for the Bray animation studio.)

I’ll wager that McCay sketched in his cartoons ahead of time with blue pencil, which wouldn’t have shown up on the film being used at the time.

I have seen it mentioned that McCay hand-colored all 4,000 Little Nemo drawings himself but this shows a lack of understanding of how movie color worked in 1911. Color film did exist at the time but the process did not capture the full color spectrum and there were problems with syncing up the colors on the screen, resulting in blue-green or red fringing if anything went wrong. Using color motion picture film would have resulted in FEWER colors showing up on the screen.

Color fringes due to time parallax, screenshot; photochemical reconstruction, see Mazzanti (2002). Credit: Cineteca di Bologna. Film: Banks of the Nile (1911).
Image courtesy of the Timeline of Historical Film Colors by Barbara Flueckiger, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

When a film was hand-colored, it meant that each individual release print had to have its colors painted on with a fine brush. There was no mass production and “hand-colored” meant exactly what it said on the tin. The French had invented stencil color at this point, which meant that each color had its own hand-cut stencil for each frame. The color was then mechanically applied to each release print, which sped up the process but was hardly Henry Ford levels of automation.

Delicate shades of hand-color were not possible in natural color film of the period.
French stencil color from the 1908 film “An Excursion to the Moon”

Other sources state that McCay hand-colored the film print rather than the drawings. Generally speaking, film colors were selected by a head colorist (for example, France’s Madame Thuillier) and then the actual application was left to small armies of skilled young women. While it is likely that Winsor McCay personally selected the colors of the film, I am not sure that he hunched over a pile of celluloid and applied the colors with a tiny brush. And, of course, if McCay hand-colored his drawings, the colors would simply have shown up as shades of grey on the screen.

Look, ma, no computers!

Again, this is in no way meant to take away from McCay’s accomplishments. He managed to capture the beauty of his own creations in a new medium and he did it all the hard way. The scenes where Impie and Flip distort themselves is particularly impressive when you consider that McCay was doing it all himself. What an eye for detail!

Note the plain background, which streamlined production.

McCay would, of course, later create the iconic Gertie the Dinosaur and would return to the Rarebit stories with a series of surreal animated films in the 1920s. Unfortunately, his accomplishments are not celebrated as they should and the history of animation too often falls into Disney worship. It’s worth our time to remember the pioneering animators who invented the techniques that would make Disney’s fortune.

Ooo, dragon!

Little Nemo is an utter charmer of a film and highly recommended to anyone who wishes to learn more about the history of animation. It’s a quirky little time capsule that manages to charm over a century after its initial release.

Where can I see it?

Little Nemo has been released on DVD by Milestone as part of their Winsor McCay: Master Edition disc.


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  1. Shari Polikoff

    I first saw ‘Gertie the Dinosaur’ at the Museum of Modern Art and just fell in love with her. She really has a personality all her own! Later there was an animation film retrospective, somewhere, so I was introduced to Little Nemo as well. I’m very impressed with McKay’s work.

  2. Ross

    Thank you for this and your original extras. So pleased that my collection has grown such that I can watch this and other McCay’s animated films.

    I figured that the name ‘Nemo’ may have been an homage used by Pixar for the title ‘Finding Nemo’?

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