Standing on the corner of Innovation and Propaganda

A study of the smoke in Winsor McCay’s “Sinking of the Lusitania” By Neal Von Flue


Part 1: Death sends a letter
My earliest memory of propaganda was a leaf.
I was looking through a book on WWII when I was a kid (I guess that was the kind of kid I was) and I turned a page to see an image of this leaf:

It stopped me cold. Thinking about it now, I must have been flipping through pages full of war images; conditioned to expect something abrasive and violent at each turn and then- just this leaf. That jarring transition now seems to me to be exactly the intent. I caught a tiny sliver of what it must have felt like to the French in the months before the invasion, when this newpropaganda was used. When they heard planes coming and scrambled to their cellars, covered the heads of their children and tensed every muscle, waiting for the whistle of falling bombs and the chaos of explosions- the start of a war that will ruin their lives. But instead, nothing. And after emerging into the fading sound of planes, instead found the silent gentle chaotic descent of hundreds of thousands of autumn leaves. Each one covered in delicate script and printed with the skull of their soldier son. As if Death himself had sent them a warning.

Leo J. Margolin wrote in his book, Paper Bullets:

“This Nazi leaflet was one of the most effective ever dropped, and did more to break France’s will to resist Germany than any other single piece of propaganda.”

My recollection of what was written on the leaflets was “Surrender, or your soldiers will fall before us like autumn leaves.” The real inscription I’ve found seems not quite as scary as my memory, and I’m relieved. But the effectiveness of this idea isn’t bound to the words alone- it is in the unique way that the message was delivered.

Even when it’s not in our best interest, we pay attention to innovation. And when our expectations are confused or ignored completely, it can frighten us into submission, or rouse us to action.

This is an essay about a piece of propaganda that was also an innovation. And had it never been made, our lives would be poorer indeed.

Part 2: Little Nemo in Propagandaland

Before these leaf-leaflets- actually before the first world war- Winsor McCay was poised to be the American father of animation. Inspired by a drawn flip-book that his son had brought home, McCay began making experiments with drawing and film around 1911. It’s likely that he was also inspired by a handful of European artists like Émile Cohl or Charles Reynaud and his “Theatre Optique” system. But McCay is uniquely poised to bring a real artistic legitimacy to the idea of animation. And, as with most everything McCay does, his experimental works come with a flourish and dedication that most others can’t touch.

His first film utilizes the characters from his incredibly popular “Little Nemo” newspaper strip, but is supported by a couple of live action scenes; he bets a group of his famous artist friends that he can make his drawings move, then we cut to his studio where he and an assistant put on a slapstick scene amidst towering stacks of drawings and barrels of ink.

But in the animation sequence you can see him working out the capabilities of the form; He’s the first to squash and stretch objects, to bring characters into close-up and back out in a single scene, to repeat frames forward and backward to create repetitious actions- things that won’t be codified as principles of animation for decades to come.

For his second film How a Mosquito Operates”, he tells a story about a bloodthirsty insect in a tired man’s room. With this film McCay moves animation forward by unearthing more of its potential. He moves the camera in a scene to follow the action. He employs a sense of comedic timing and rhythm that is unlike any other animation (something that isn’t easy when you consider that it’s made entirely of 6000 individual drawings on rice paper, unattached to any kind of audio track.) And he employs a more naturalistic drawing style than his contemporaries. It was considered so natural looking in its movement, that critics accused him of having traced his images from photographs or film.

So to prove them all wrong, Winsor McCay chooses a subject for his next film that has never been seen alive.

“Gertie the Dinosaur” debuts in February of 1914, a few months before War is declared in Europe. And she is such a sensation- and so well-crafted- that earlier experiments in this new art form are immediately relegated to a legacy in Gertie’s (admittedly massive) shadow.

He makes use of his status as a popular vaudeville talent to introduce Gertie- and the value of animation as an artistic medium- to the world.

He would stand on the side of the stage with a whip, stating that he had the only living dinosaur in captivity, and would call her out to say hello to the audience. As the animation played next to him on-screen, Gertie the shy brontosaur would poke her head out of a crag of rocks in the background. What ensued was 12 minutes of absolute magic. Gertie is gregarious and playful, curious and emotional. When asked to raise her foot, she rocks back and forth nervously. She eats a tree and a rock, she is preoccupied with her surroundings, and the other beasts in her environment. When McCay scolds her for not paying attention she snaps at him and when he cracks his whip, she cries. He calms her by producing a treat and when he throws it towards the screen, she catches a pumpkin in her mouth and swallows it whole. In the finale, McCay announces that Gertie will take him for a ride, and he walks into the dark towards her, as an animated McCay, complete with whip, walks onscreen and up to Gertie’s lowered head, climbs into her mouth as she lifts him to her back and he waves as she lumbers off stage.

Gertie’s innovations are many- He creates the idea of registration marks for each drawing, in order to keep the animation fluid. And he designs his subject as naturally as possible. He studies with scientists in order to understand her physiology. He times his own breathing patterns in order to animate her naturally. When a mammoth sprays her in the face, she picks up a rock with her mouth and hurls it in retaliation but it slips from her grip 3 times, simply because McCay knows that her face would be wet (that action alone added at least a hundred drawings to the work.) And when he’s not exactly sure how a real dinosaur would take to its feet, he creates a distraction in the background in order to hide any inaccuracies that people may see in the fluidity of the motion.

Gertie places McCay at the forefront of this new medium of animation, and as one of the most popular vaudeville acts. But his employer William Randolph Hearst is not impressed with his time away from editorial cartoons and his Little Nemo comic. Hearst puts pressure on McCay to stop his vaudeville work, and he forces the industry to blockade him by threatening to pull advertising for theaters that intend to feature McCay and his films. Hearst gets McCay to sign a new contract which prohibits him from performing outside of New York. He is made to report daily to the Hearst Publications office and draw cartoons, leaving animation alone. And it stays this way for a year, until McCay is so moved by world events that he can’t help but raise his pen and draw thousands of drawings in order to stir the hearts of men.

Part 3: “A distant ship smoke on the horizon”
On May 1st 1915, an ocean liner leaves New York bound to arrive in Liverpool 5 days later. It’s the 202nd such voyage that the RMS Lusitania has made, but things are changing.

Two months prior, Germany declared the waters around the British Isles as a war zone and on April 22nd, the German Embassy in Washington DC takes out an ad in 50 American newspapers specifically stating Germany’s intention to sink British ships with their new innovation; the Submarine.

There are over 1900 people on board. And 18 minutes after the first torpedo hits the ship, the Lusitania is completely underwater, killing 1,198 people- 128 of them American. This outrages many- Winsor McCay included- and the debate about whether America should join the war heads towards a fever pitch. But Hearst is against America’s involvement and uses his newspapers to preach his point of view. And McCay is made to draw cartoons that go against his own feelings.

So he decides to use his skills to make an entirely new kind of animation. And having no support at the paper, McCay and his team worked after-hours for almost 2 years in order to produce his next animated feature.

In his version of the “Sinking of the Lusitania”, McCay uses a number of innovations. One of the most important developments for animators had been in celluloid film. With these new “cells” he could separate parts of the action from the background and each other. The cells of his day were not entirely slick, they had a slight texture which enabled him to use different mediums in combination. And in typical Winsor McCay style, he takes full advantage.

His use of perspective and drawing abilities won’t be matched in animation for another decade. His storytelling and character development also takes an incredibly interesting turn.

McCay has refined (and some say defined in our modern sense) anthropomorphism with his films. With his nervous and singularly-focused little mosquito, and his childlike and emotionally-complex dinosaur, he has set up for animation an idiom that will persist to this day; in talking mice and cats, rabbits and ducks, skunks in love, baby elephant vacuum cleaners and every manner of creature that the medium of animation will imbue with human thoughts and feelings.

Anthropomorphism is a cornerstone of animation, as important as superheros are to comic books. But before all of that history can even be made- in order to bring the emotion of the Lusitania tragedy to an audience- he chooses an inanimate object to breathe life into: Smoke.

From the beginning of the film, the smoke from the funnels lays low. It skulks near the horizon while the boat moves with confidence. He doesn’t exaggerate the actions- It flows out and down to stream behind the ship and hovers above the wake reluctant, describing the history of it’s arc through the water. Until the torpedo is fired.

And with the attack, the smokes changes- it shudders. It ripples and gets sucked into the heat over and again and tries vainly to pull away. As the explosion settles, all the smoke is pulled together, tangling like fabric, as the thick choking layer from the epicenter billows. The smoke from each funnel is unique; when it would have saved him a great deal of time to animate each one moving in unison, he decides to give them their own mournful movements.

McCay has turned his smoke into our emotions. He uses multiple mediums in tandem- grainy charcoal, ink and paint. In something less like drawing and more like modern dance, the smoke mourns.

From there, it lingers as the boat sinks. He knows there are different physical things happening and he pays equal attention to each; fires, explosions, boiler steam, water filling cabins. As the boat sinks, he uses just three repeating values of grey in order to make all of that depth, and places it all on a rolling and uncaring ocean. He hand-draws a Parallax Scrolling Effect in the water- an amazing visual observation that will take the animation industry almost two decades to create a method and machine to match.

A piece of white smoke pulls from the fire and two holes open in it while a jagged edge forms, making the merest suggestion of a skull.

It’s subtle, but when you take into account that each frame is labored over by-hand, it seems too deliberate to be ignored.

As he completes the narrative, he switches the camera to the stern lifted into the air, while bodies jump into the ocean. Ropes sag as lifeboats slip, and he moves the Lusitania’s only crime- the English flag- in to focus, billowing against the smoke.

And this final scene of the sinking, as the black smoke in the background becomes a torn fabric, people cling to ropes at the stern as debris rises and falls again. And the hold belches smoke as it takes on water and gives up.

In terms of the message, he pulls no punches with this film. He even animates a scene of a mother trying in vain to hold her baby above the waves. The finale focuses in on the survivors treading in the stormy waves- then like the Lusitania itself- the camera drops below the water line and into black.

Part 4: Propaganda has a shelf-life

It is clear that Winsor McCay saw animation as a force for change, a way that people with dedication and skill can move men’s minds. Simply put, there may have been other people working with the medium but he had the foresight to make it an Art. He said of animation’s potential:

I hope and dream the time will come when serious artists will make marvelous pictures that will be loved 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.

Due to its 25,000 drawings and 22-month working schedule, the Sinking of the Lusitania wasn’t released until July of 1918, almost a year after America joined WWI. It was advertised as “The picture that will never have a competitor” and while received decently, it was nowhere near the blockbuster that Gertie was..

There had been a window of opportunity, and what had been conceived as a work of art to rouse America to join the war- and the world’s first animated documentary- had missed it’s time, which further stifled it’s chances of consideration as a serious work of art. Winsor McCay learned that propaganda has a shelf life, and a war-time country doesn’t need to be lectured to hate the enemy.

He made a few other films but the culture was deciding that animation ought to be light and funny. McCay had also been quoted as saying: “Any idiot who wants to make a couple thousand drawings for a hundred feet of film is welcome to join the club.” And there were other idiots. He had been sued by J.R. Bray, another animator who had posed as a journalist in order to learn how McCay made his movies, then patented the systems and attempted to charge McCay to use them. The Fleischer and Walt Disney studios were gaining steam and their brand of short factory animation was winning. Hearst continued his pressure for more editorial cartoons. His son Robert came home from the war with shell-shock, and he did his best to coach him in the drawing trade, but Robert never attained the level of success that his father had enjoyed.

Winsor McCay continued working until his death in 1934. And as animation grew into a business, his own contributions were largely forgotten. The animators at Walt Disney’s studio remembered however, and produced their own book on the history of animation which also became the subject of an episode of the Disneyland TV series.

Walt Disney himself hosts this episode exploring the roots of the medium, and they cover Émile Cohl and Charles Reynaud’s “Theatre Optique” system, but they settle for a long while on McCay. Disney Studio’s clear admiration for McCay shines as they reenact a performance of Gertie the Dinosaur, and it’s just as magical now as I’m sure it was on television in 1955- and on the vaudeville circuit in 1914. During production of the episode, Walt Disney invited Robert McCay to the studio and after showing him around, said “Bob, all of this should be your father’s.”

Winsor McCay wasn’t used to compromise. And he didn’t like to see this medium which he helped create, and on which he had pinned his hopes for the future of art, turned over to people with less exacting standards and inferior drawing skills. People who listened to the public sentiment in order to make a product of compromise. He wasn’t used to listening to others. Winsor McCay might not be a household name in our age, but his uncompromising spirit made him formidable in his own age.

In 1927 there was a banquet to honor his achievements in animation. Every animator of note was there- Walt Disney included. After an introduction by Max Fleischer, a drunk McCay took the stage. And upon finding his audience not paying close attention to his speech, he chastised them all saying:

“Animation is an art. That is how I conceived it. But as I see, what you fellows have done with it, is made it into a trade. Not an art, but a trade. Bad Luck!”


All images are in the public domain or © their respective owners and are used for review purposes only.

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