Fantasmagorie (1908)

Fantasmagorie was the world’s first fully animated film. Emile Cohl, a Frenchman, constructed the short over several months by hand-drawing and photographing each frame of animation, eventually assembling around 700 individual drawings. Capitalizing on the popular Vaudeville trend of white-on-black chalk drawings, Cohl drew with black lines on white paper, then reversed the negative of each photographic frame to achieve the desired effect.

Even today, it’s a brilliant little bit of animation that benefits greatly from its improvisational creation. Eschewing any set script or storyline, Cohl opted rather to generate the animation on the fly. The result is the free-flowing, one-line-leads-to-another feel that’s pretty remarkable for the very first cartoon. And, since the short is readily available on youtube (and seemingly nowhere else), have a look before reading further:

Although incredibly brief, there are two interesting bits of content worth noting. First, the artist’s hand appears in the frame twice–once to begin the animation and later on to re-assemble the main character. Although this is a common animation trope today, it may have served a more subtle point of reference for early film audiences. It very clearly demarcates the film space as material that is literally ‘hand-drawn’. The artist’s hand conjures the animation into being and then later intervenes to keep it moving smoothly. For a viewer unaccustomed to animation and its blatant disregard for conventional laws of physics, time, space, or even the coherence of the body (lessons most of us now learn through a childhood immersion in Looney Toons and Nickelodeon), it may have made the transition less jarring. Keeping in mind that early cinema-goers were fooled by shots of oncoming trains and cowboys firing guns into the camera, featuring the artisan’s hand could help ground the fantastic in the realm of the ‘real’.

Second, around ten seconds in, we see two characters seat themselves in some sort of theater. Of course, the front row occupant is a lady with an enormous hat (glad to know some things never change, right?). It’s not clear whether they’re watching a stage show or a movie, but I’d like to think that it’s the latter. If so, it would be a clever self-referential trick for the theater viewer to watch a film with another set of viewers watching their own film. A minor detail, but fun nonetheless.

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