Animated films are big business today. They dominate Family audience releases on the big screen which now sees dozens of films released each year from three major American production companies and others from around the world. These days most are either computer generated or stop action clay modeling. Many are in 3-D. Only a relative handful are animated by hand in the laborious process of shooting individual cells. That process still dominates television cartoons from prime time network and cable shows like The Simpsons and Family Guy to Saturday morning kiddy fare.
It all started modestly enough in Paris, France in the spring of 1908. That year Émile Chlo was a 51 year old characterist and cartoonist with a minor reputation for contributing to French avant-guard periodicals.
He had been inspired in his work by a form of popular street puppetry, Guignol which employed marionettes and Fantoche in which a puppeteer stuck his head through a Curtin a manipulated small puppet bodies underneath. Both forms often were used to make political statements, which became tolerated again after the repressions of the Communards. Cohl was a close associate and follower of André Gill, the leading characterist in Paris in the last decades of the 19th Century.
Cohl had become deeply involved with a now nearly forgotten artistic movement, Les Arts Incohérents—the Incoherents. Founded by Jules Lévy in 1881, the movement featured work that was “irrational” and absurd. Although it petered out by the mid 1890’s, Cohl was a major figure in it and contributed staged photographs the presaged much later work by the Surrealists.
Sometime after the turn of the Century, Cohl became intersected in the new art form of film. He struck on the idea of making his cartoons move. There had been crude animation before—flip books were recorded on film and the very first movie with a plot, A Trip to the Moon, made in 1902 by Georges Méliès contained some stop-action animation.
Cohl hit on a new way of making his drawings move. He began in late February or early March of 1908. He made scores of simple line drawings. Laying them on a glass plate over a light source he traced those making incremental changes. He shot photos of all of the resulting drawing twice. There were over 700 individual images put together they made a film almost 2 minutes long.
Although the drawings were charcoal on white paper, Cohl used the negatives, giving the effect of chalk drawings on white paper. This mirrored popular Magic Lantern shows of earlier decades—the fantasmograph, which projected ghostly images that floated across the walls.
The resulting film Fantasmagorie was released on August 17, 2008. It took French audiences by storm. It began with shots of an artist’s hand creating the simple characters, a clown and a gentleman. These figures morphed and changed in all sorts of fantastic ways.
Cohl continued to make short animated films for the Gaumont studios and later Pathé and other studios before coming to the United States in 1912. His films became more elaborate, but his surreal themes and style remained constant.
In America Cohl quickly found work in the early film industry center at Ft. Lee, Virginia. He contributed to travelogues and developed a series of animated shorts The Newlyweds based on a popular newspaper strip. This series was so successful that it set off the stampede to animate popular print comics. In this way Cohl can be said to be the founder of American, as well as European animation.
Cohl returned to France with the outbreak of World War I. Most of his American films were lost when his main American studio, a branch of the French studio Éclair burned down shortly after he left for Paris. Other films were destroyed when most of the Ft. Lee studios moved to Arizona only a couple of his American films survive.
The war in Europe disrupted Cohl’s production. The few films he did make were put on the shelf and not released until it was over.
After the war Cohl made only one more significant film, La Maison du fantoche in 1920. After that animation became too expensive to produce compared to live action films. And the public taste was running to comedies like those by American stars Charles Chaplain and Ben Turpin. Cohl was forced into retirement. He died largely forgotten and in obscurity in 1938. Just as an American named Walt Disney was elevating hand drawn animation to new heights.