Although Gertie is popularly thought to be the earliest animated film, McCay had earlier made Little Nemo (1911) and How a Mosquito Operates (1912). The American J. Stuart Blackton and the French Émile Cohl had experimented with animation even earlier; Gertie being a character with an appealing personality distinguished McCay’s film from these earlier “trick films”. Gertie was the first film to use animation techniques such as keyframes, registration marks, tracing paper, the Mutoscope action viewer, and animation loops. It influenced the next generation of animators such as the Fleischer brothers, Otto Messmer, Paul Terry, and Walt Disney. John Randolph Bray unsuccessfully tried to patent many of McCay’s animation techniques and is said to have been behind a plagiarized version of Gertie that appeared a year or two after the original. Gertie is the best preserved of McCay’s films—some of which have been lost or survive only in fragments—and has been preserved in the U.S. Library of Congress’ National Film Registry as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” in 1991.
Gertie the Dinosaur is the earliest animated film to feature a dinosaur. Its star Gertie does tricks much like a trained elephant. She is animated in a naturalistic style unprecedented for the time; she breathes rhythmically, she shifts her weight as she moves, and her abdominal muscles undulate as she draws water. McCay imbued her with a personality—while friendly, she could be capricious, ignoring or rebelling against her master’s commands.
Winsor McCay [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons