Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Spring Lake: The Birthplace of Character Animation

Think of all the animated cartoon characters running around out there. Mickey Mouse. Bugs Bunny. Fred Flintstone. Buzz Lightyear. SpongeBob. Scooby-Doo. Dora the Explorer. There are thousands, perhaps millions, of characters that have been brought into this world. Do you know who was the first - the very first animated cartoon character ever created? A dinosaur named "Gertie" holds that distinction, and she was created in 1914 by Spring Lake native Winsor McCay.

Winsor McCay was born in the 1860's and grew up in Spring Lake. His artistic talent was evident at an early age. Spring Lake historians know that the village was plagued by a number of fires in those days. One of these destroyed the McCay home. In the shelter of a neighbor's house, young Winsor drew his very first noted picture. It was a scene recounting the tragedy, etched in the frost of a window pane. Later the steamer Alpena sank in Lake Michigan, and Winsor drew a picture as he imagined the scene on the school chalkboard. It was so impressive that a photographer heard about it, took photographs, and sold them. The foundations of the school (Union School) can still be seen in the park to the west of Spring Lake District Library.

McCay knew national fame in his lifetime, first as a newspaper cartoonist. He authored several comic strips, the most famous of which was "Little Nemo in Slumberland." It is a highly inventive fantasy that takes place within the dreams of a little boy named Nemo. The artwork continues to be hailed today for its wild imagination, intricate detail, and archetectural brilliance. It was the first comic strip to enter the Louvre. Children's author Maurice Sendak says, "Little Nemo is nearly pure gold."

Later McCay became a pioneer of animated film. The scant handful of experiments in animation previously attempted were extremely crude and had been conceived as mere "tricks" or "gimmicks." McCay's "Gertie the Dinosaur" was the first animated cartoon character with a distinct and engaging personality. The film was an amazing five minutes long, the typical length of a one-reel film in those days. It was a huge endeavor with thousands of painstakingly full, detailed drawings and sophisticated, fluid animation.

Today both Winsor McCay and his creations are known around the world. In art, cartooning, and animation circles he is universally known, beloved, and praised. Each year at the Annie Awards, the "Oscars" of the animation world, the Winsor McCay Award is given for lifetime achievement. It is the highest honor given to an individual in the animation industry.

Although in the art world McCay is internationally recognized, in his own hometown of Spring Lake he is virtually unknown. No monument or memorial commemorates his life here.

Recently the Spring Lake District Library has expanded their collection of wonderful books and videos highlighting McCay's life and work, and has hosted programs spotlighting illustration and animation. Additionally, representatives of the community have been meeting to work on ways to recognize McCay and his work in Spring Lake.

So yes, of all the places of the world, Spring Lake could be called "The Birthplace of Character Animation," for it is the hometown of Winsor McCay, pioneer of animated film.