The Silent Age of Animation
"I hope and dream the time will come when serious artists will make marvelous pictures that will love and live in life-like manner and be far more interesting and wonderful than pictures you now see on canvas. I think if Michelangelo was alive today he would immediately see the wonders...The artist can make his scenes and characters live instead of stand still on canvas in art museums."
—Winsor McCay, talking during a WNAC Radio Broadcast, New York, September 1927
The earliest age of mainstream animation known to man, lasting from the early 1900s to the late 1920s with the rise of sound technology.
Now, animation has existed for a very, very long time in some form of another before this era came about, but this era is obviously when large amounts of people actually started taking notice of the medium and what it could do. This is owed in part to the rise of the motion picture to begin with during this time period. The earliest known/existing cartoon as we know it is the 1908 French short film Phantasmagorie by Emile Cohl (while there were many experiments with stop motion and pictures earlier, this was apparently the first one to rely entirely on genuine hand drawn animation).
But here in the west, thanks to men like Winsor McCay (who made Gertie the Dinosaur, the very first cartoon character to have any distinct personality traits, and not to mention the man practically pioneered the use of animation as we know it in general. He experimented with animation as an "extension" of the comics he was working on during that time period) and not to mention Pat Sullivan and Otto Messmer, who both created iconic cartoon star Felix the Cat, the cartoon industry quickly skyrocketed, with many new cartoon companies with their own cartoon stars and imitators quickly popping up to cash in on the new cartoon craze.
Winsor McCay was not happy with the idea of "Assembly Line" cartoons and regarded their work as inferior to his own. This was justified, in that he spent years working on his cartoons like Little Nemo (he was also the same man who made the original comics), Gertie the Dinosaur, The Sinking of the Luisitania (considered by many hardcore animation fans to be his Magnum Opus), and How A Mosquito Operates, which are some of the most spectacularly animated works ever seen and were masterpieces compared to the quickly, cheaply produced toons that were being rushed out at the time. Not long after cartoons rose in popularity, he left the very animation industry that he helped get off the ground in the first place.
Cartoons at the time were both seen as and presented as moving comic strips, sometimes even incorporating Speech Bubbles for their dialog. Fantasy was in full vogue during this period, but it tended to have a dull, heavy handed and literal minded feeling to it, not helped by the primitive, stiff animation, glacial pacing and floaty motion. And because animation was so experimental at the time in its early stages, this resulted in quite a few instances of Deranged Animation, as animators experimented with the medium. Max and Dave Fleischer actually got their start off in this era, with their Out of the Inkwell series, starring Koko the Clown. During this time, the most prominent animation house was the studio of J.R. Bray, who produced many hit series such as "Colonel Heeza Liar" and "Bobby Bumps".
Walt Disney got off to a brief start in this era with his doomed Laff-O-Grams studios and Live Action/Animation shorts collectively called The Alice Comedies, but he finally found success later at Universal Studios with his character Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. However, after losing Oswald and most of his animation staff over a contractual dispute, Disney quickly left Universal and formed his own studio. He and his friend Ub Iwerks ended up creating their own Captain Ersatz for Oswald: Mickey Mouse. However, the first two shorts, Plane Crazy and Gallopin' Gaucho, were not particularly well recieved...and then came along Steamboat Willie, the first Mickey Mouse cartoon to have sound. Also, contrary to what is generally believed, Steamboat Willie was NOT the first sound cartoon-the Flieschers had pioneered sound cartoons as early as 1926 (with their film My Old Kentucky Home), and not long before Steamboat Willie came out, Paul Terry, then an employee of Van Beuren Studios, made a synchronized sound cartoon called Dinnertime. However, Steamboat Willie was the first sound cartoon that actually took genuine advantage of what could be done with sound in a cartoon. (and reportedly, Walt Disney saw Dinnertime himself and proclaimed it "terrible.")
Naturally, the silent age came to a screeching halt with the rise of sound technology in the late 1920s. Disney and many other studios quickly worked to take advantage of the new technology, while former stars like Felix the Cat attempted to make the jump to sound film and failed miserably, quickly fading off into obscurity until many years later, with an ill-fated Golden Age revival during the 1930s and the iconic TV series which debuted in the late 1950s.
This era was succeeded by the far better-known Golden Age of Animation, which would last even longer and become even more influential and recognized than this era ever was.
- Alice Comedies: early live-action/animation hybrid from Disney, also co-starring Felix the Cat Expy Julius, whom was forced into the cartoons by Disney's then distributor Charles Mintz, who distributed the Felix cartoons alongside the Alice shorts.
- Bobby Bumps: The Bart Simpson of his day (1910s), created by Earl Hurd. Running in and out of trouble with his dour dog Fido and cynical Black Best Friend Choc'late, Bobby was always in bad with parents and teachers.
- Bonzo Dog: mischievous pooch from the first famous British cartoon series. Decades later, lent his name to the famous Doo-Dah Band.
- Colonel Heeza Liar: Possibly, if not the very first recurring cartoon character ever created.
- Dinky Doodle: A hit series of cartoons made by Walter Lantz in his early years.
- Farmer Al Falfa: The first star character from future Terry Toons creator Paul Terry (whom would later go on to make Mighty Mouse during the Golden Age). A grumpy, pipe-smoking, alcoholic old hick, Farmer Al was perpetually at war with city slickers and his own livestock. Amazingly, Terrytoons would continue to produce the occasional Farmer Al Falfa cartoon into the 1950s.
- Felix the Cat: One of the first recurring cartoon stars of this era, let alone the first one to recieve universal recognition and popularity.
- Gertie the Dinosaur: One of, if not the first genuine cartoon character ever made.
- Koko the Clown: Resident cartoon star at Fleischer Studios; Out of the Inkwell episodes showed him springing to life on the drawing board and playing tricks on his (live action) creators. He lived on well into the sound era as a co-star to Betty Boop.
- Krazy Kat: The extremely low budget shorts based on the newspaper comics. Many episodes featured Ignatz Mouse trying to hit Krazy with bricks—or simply trying to ruin whatever pastime Krazy might be engaging in at the moment.
- Mickey Mouse (at first)
- Mutt and Jeff: Bud Fisher's comics duo starred in hundreds of cartoons, surviving various hard-luck jobs and engaging in numerous get-rich-quick schemes.
- Oswald the Lucky Rabbit: Mickey Mouse's precursor and Walt Disney's first genuine cartoon star (the Alice Comedies notwithstanding, as Alice was a live action girl in a cartoon world). Flanderized beyond recognition during the Golden Age, when Disney lost the rights to him and Walter Lantz and his animation unit took over.
- Animate Inanimate Object
- Anthropomorphic Objects
- Circling Birdies
- Deranged Animation
- Disney School of Acting and Mime
- Everybody Do the Endless Loop: Seen quite a lot in the early days of animation.
- Forgotten Trope: There were plenty. One of which would be the series of little dotted lines which would go from the eye of a character to whatever object they're looking at, to let the audience in on what the character is looking at.
- George Lucas Throwback: WALL-E is intended to be a modern throwback to silent cinema in general, and it's pulled off in spades. Well, at least the first half of it, anyway.
- In fact, many of Disney's theatrical shorts in general seem to be throwbacks to the simplistic, generally dialogue free slapstick comedy and stories of films made during this era in general, let alone animation.
- Two Stupid Dogs did an entire episode ("Hobo Hounds") that was made to look like a silent cartoon, complete with outdated tropes such as Damsel in Distress and Chained to a Railway.
- The Powerpuff Girls episode "Silent Treatment" involved the girls getting trapped in a silent cartoon, with an Art Shift that made it look something akin to an old Felix the Cat short.
- Idea Bulb
- Mime-and-Music-Only Cartoon: Music was provided by piano players in the theater.
- Public Domain Animation
- Red Boxing Gloves
- Roger Rabbit Effect: More than one might initially think. Winsor McCay started this off with Gertie the Dinosaur. Fleischer's "Out of the Inkwell" and Disney's "Alice Comedies" would also make use of this trope.
- Speech Bubbles: They were used from time to time as an alternative to the usual word cards used in live action silent movies.
- The Speechless: Well, obviously
- Walking in Rhythm: Characters would often walk and move to the BGM (and yes, most cartoons and films in the silent era had BGM, it just wasn't part of the actual film. The film would come with sheet music which would be played by a piano player in the movie theater).
- What Do You Mean It's Not for Kids?: In SPADES during this era, which predates the Animation Age Ghetto by about forty years.
- Written Sound Effect: Along with Speech Bubbles, written sound effects were another carry-over from the comics which showed up in a lot of silent cartoons, which made sense since they were silent.
- In order: Otto Messmer's Felix the Cat, Winsor McCay's Gertie the Dinosaur, Bobby Bumps and Colonel Heeza Liar of the J.R. Bray studio, Farmer Alfalfa of Van Beuren Studios, Koko the Clown of Fleischer Studios, Mutt and Jeff of J.R. Bray, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit of Universal, and Walter Lantz's Dinky Doodle.