Core Seminar 4D
February 23, 2018
Fantasmagorie Essay Assignment
Fantasmagorie, a revolutionary animation created by Emile Cohl in 1908, is considered to be the world’s first fully filmed cartoon, and one whose novel ideas and subject matter, impact, and influence cannot be overstated or denied. Out of all this animation’s aspects, one thing that immediately caught my eye when I first viewed Fantasmagorie was its intriguing use of a “stream of consciousness” narrative, complete with seamless transitions between one scene and the next, and accompanied by absurd morphing transformation techniques that pay a homage to the obscure, ephemeral, and long forgotten Incoherent art movement of France, who Emile Cohl was a large proponent of. Prior to Fantasmagorie, most animations made with the magic lantern, zoetrope, and other antique animation toys were choppy and not nearly as seamless in its transition between its frames. They were also fairly standard, short, and simplistic in their plots since they were primarily used by audiences as a form of brief afternoon entertainment, or seen as a oddity. Fantasmagorie, however, broke the ice since it was not only substantial in its composition when it was first shown in theatres, but nuanced and complex amidst its chaotic presentation. It was fantastical and Surreal as opposed to the realistic, almost Impressionistic animations at the time that dealt with real-life and love triangles, anticipating the arrival of later art movements that would allow the early animation industry to thrive (especially with the birth of Disney). This was especially true given the previously unforeseen transformations occurring between the characters of this animation reel into objects, and the integration of Cohl himself in the drawing of his characters using a “chalk-line” drawing technique (his hand on the screen being a live-action sequence), reversed into its negative, giving it the appearance of being done with white chalk on a black chalkboard.
Story-wise, Fantasmagorie involves the humorous escapades of both a clown and gentleman, but the actual events of the narrative, as silly and as zany as they might seem to a viewer of the time, are not as crucial as they way they were animated and presented to audiences of the early 1900s. What fascinates me about the context behind Fantasmagorie the most was its heavy inspiration and tribute to the dead Incoherent avant-garde art movement in France (called Les Arts incohérents by the French) at the time the animation was made. The Incoherent art movement, through my research about it, was founded by Jules Lévy in the late 1880s, and was philosophically, very satirical, comedic, and tongue-in-cheek in nature, never taking itself seriously. Incoherents made artworks which were purposefully irrational and “iconoclastic”, and this embodies Fantasmagorie with its silliness in its core attempt at making people laugh with its almost amateurish, childish drawing style (especially given the stick figures). Cohl as an artist might have been inspired to fashion the various elements of Fantasmagorie not only by the art movement he attached himself so closely to (as an editor and caricaturist for the satirical newsletter La Nouvelle Lune), but also by his early love for comedic Guignol puppeteering shows in the French theatres, which might have set the tone and character movements of his Fantasmagorie years later down the road.
Because of Fantasmagorie’s revolutionary techniques and its incorporation of Incoherent ideas into animated form, its impact on the blossoming animation industry is undisputed. Using the same or similar stylistic techniques as Cohl’s groundbreaking work, Osvaldo Cavandoli, an Italian animator, created the La Linea animation series in the 1970s and 1980s that centered around a single character (Mr. Line) drawn with a single, unbroken chalk line. In 1914, Winsor McCay borrowed from the character animation style of Fantasmagorie, and created Gertie the Dinosaur— one of the very first successful animated shorts. The beloved works of Walt Disney, and other animators during his day very clearly used the seamless, rubbery, morphing transformations first pioneered in Fantasmagorie as a foundation for how iconic characters like Mickey Mouse would organically move across a scene, and how objects and sometimes other characters in the animation shorts would cartoonishly transform with exaggerated fantasy. The satirical, cheeky humor of the Incoherent art movement no doubt translated into the humorous, overblown antics of early animated characters like Felix the Cat, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, and of course, Mickey Mouse (as well as all of his “descendants” in other animated films). You could say that even the “modern” cartoons of today (and those made within the past 20 to 40 years a la Looney Tunes), with their bombastic comedy, pay tribute to the Incoherent art movement, at least in principle. Though the Incoherents may have disbanded in the late 1890s, the philosophy of the Incoherent movement still remains in some form in the cartoons and shows we as kids (and sometimes as older people) watch to have a good laugh. Likewise, the influence of Emile Cohl’s Fantasmagorie has spanned entire generations of an entertainment medium that would have never seen the light of day (and would have been seen as nothing more than a curiosity) if Cohl had not decided to push the boundaries of what animation was capable of doing, and experiment with previous techniques of animation while also modifying or inventing some of his own.