With how fast technology progresses and how indelibly this affects animation, it can be fascinating to look back at technical achievements accomplished by early animated cinema. In our current cinematic landscape, it’s easy to take for granted just how far animation has come from its inception— or even how far it has come in the past few decades. Even just focusing on the progression of CGI, audiences have seen 3D animation prosper from a type of animation that could somewhat replicate real-life, kind of, if you were polite about it (Tin Toy, Toy Story, Cassiopeia), to later achieving photo-realism (Piper, Rango, The Adventures of Tintin), to finally understanding the technology enough to add more experiential stylizations (Into the Spiderverse, The Peanuts, Turning Red). In a way, the evolution of animation remains similar to how artists often learn to draw— starting with crude and rudimentary interpretations of realism before developing their skills and sensibilities to a point where they can add readable yet personal touches— understanding the rules before they break them. Nonetheless, that beginning period in itself holds captivating artistic merit, which still has lessons for contemporary artists to learn. How do you approach a new medium, especially when— in the case of the 1906 film, The Humorous Phases of Funny Faces— said medium is unique to the entity of cinema as an art form?
Animation as a medium of film has existed for nearly as long as cinema itself, with the 1900 film The Enchanted Drawing acting as the first film to contain an animated sequence. The Enchanted Drawing begins with an artist quickly completing a caricature in front of an audience, and then he proceeds to perform a lighthearted comedy routine with the character— utilizing clever camera cuts to make it appear as if he and the drawings are interacting with each other. Although its approach to cinema and montage may seem rudimentary by modern standards (especially considering that the director’s heavy use of jump-cuts has an echoed contemporary parallel in how social media users, particularly YouTubers, edit videos and vlogs— a phrase I’m happy is published now) the expert use of the then-advanced techniques in 1900 (possibly earlier, according to some accounts) was far beyond its time. While a film that makes strides towards establishing the principles of cinematic language years before teabags were invented may seem like it would appear as dated entertainment now, I would argue that The Enchanted Drawing still holds up as a charming comedic short. The performances— both natural and animated— remain exuberant, and watching the excitement of the artist character grabbing a bottle from the page or drawing a small hat on the cartoon man’s head remains charming.
Indeed, the seed planted by The Enchanted Drawing had immediately begun inspiring the creativity of other filmmakers. For example, the 1902 short, Fun in a Bakery Shop utilized a similar “lightning sketch” technique but instead used clay to create its characters— becoming the first film to implement an early form of claymation. An important note to mention: cartoonists and animators of that time (and, indeed, well into the Golden Age of Animation) developed techniques like “lighting sketch” from vaudeville performances and frequently were vaudeville showmen who adapted their shows to film— an unfortunate fact in the history of animation which remains imperative for contemporary animators to acknowledge, reckon with, and prevent the perpetuation of these appalling tropes in the medium. Nevertheless, early cut-out stop-motion first was implemented in the intertitles of How Jones Lost His Roll and The Whole Dam Family and the Dam Dog. However, filmmakers of the time had yet to bring animation to the forefront of their pictures. In other words, filmmakers had utilized animation in film, but there had yet to be an animated film.
However, in 1906 the American Vitagraph Company would release the film The Humorous Phases of Funny Faces— widely seen as the first animated film. From the same director as The Enchanted Drawing, The Humorous Phases of Funny Faces, too, begins with a scene of an artist swiftly drawing a caricature, yet, we can immediately observe the evolution of sophistication through how the two films choose to portray the character of the artist. In The Enchanted Drawing, the artist acts as the focus, whereas the titular enchanted drawing fulfills a supporting role. Conversely, the artist in The Humorous Phases of Funny Faces appears only for a moment and only to set the stage for the animated characters— the film’s real star. The film portrays a series of comedic vignettes like a man smoking a cigar, a circus performer doing his best, and a dog jumping through a hoop. Furthermore, the film utilizes a range of different animation techniques throughout, from chalk drawings to stop-motion paper cut-outs; in this way, the film serves as a culmination of the experimentation undergone throughout the preceding half-decade.
Moreover, what sets The Humorous Phases of Funny Faces apart from its contemporaries, beyond its pioneering status, remains its liveliness compounding the technical achievement on display. In this way, the influence of The Humorous Phases of Funny Faces and its forerunners persists today. Animators continue to approach such a creatively challenging and labor-intensive medium with the unwavering confidence and passion for evolving their craft further and improving on the past. From simple chalk drawings to CGI, animation endures as an ever-evolving medium capable of withstanding the consistently innovative spirits of decades of artists.