Animation at 100: Drawn of a new era

I can't let the month end without celebrating the 100th anniversary of animated movies. On Aug. 18, 1908, French animator Émile Cohl released the animated short “Fantasmagorie.”

It ran 77 seconds and consisted of 700 drawings in a comical stream of consciousness. He reportedly filmed black lines on white paper, then reversed the negative to make it look like white chalk on a black chalkboard. He took its title from the fantasmograph, a 19th-century projector. (The short has been posted on www.youtube.com.)

We're more technologically sophisticated 100 years later, but no more clever. This short is as inventive and psychedelic as modern art: It might have inspired the “Pink Elephants on Parade” number from “Dumbo” and countless other works. Cohl belonged to an art group called The Incoherents, who specialized in irrational or ironic work and predated the Surrealists.

Cohl and other early animators, notably American artist Winsor McCay, expected adults and children to appreciate their art, and they tackled both humorous and serious subjects (such as alcoholism in McCay's “Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend” series).

They didn't look on animation as a style that needed to simplify stories or make every narrative visually lovely and emotionally sweet. That trend came along decades later, and we didn't start to recover from it until the late '70s. Even now, filmmakers don't realize any story can be told via animation, if it's done well.