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Birth of An Industry: Blackface Minstrelsy and the Rise of American Animation

Nicholas Sammond, Author

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Performance, Page 50

When he designed both Little Nemo (1911), Winsor McCay chose to retain the conceit of the lightning-sketch as the motivating force from which his animation sprang. McCay played himself as animator, a character somewhere between a circus ringmaster and an interlocutor in a blackface minstrel show.

The setup for his early shorts was simple: McCay would make a bet with friends and fellow artists such as George McManus and Tom Powers, or comic film star John Bunny, about his ability to make still drawings come to life. A series of scenes then laid out the intense labor of cartooning, with McCay as the sole craftsman toiling over thousands of drawings, aided only by bumbling assistants. These performance films offered the spectacle of melding two distinct modes of presenting the act of animation, the lightning sketch and the cartoon proper.


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