Fantasmagorie (1908)

Any claim at a “first” in cinema history is going to be filled with asterisks and provisos. But the narrative, as I understand it, would place the 105-second Fantasmagorie by Émile Cohl as the first animated short film in cinema history, by the most intuitive definitions of the words “first,” “animated,” “short,” “film,” and “cinema.”

And Fantasmagorie makes for a wonderfully poetic selection as the first animated movie because it contains within it a mission statement about the philosophy and possibilities of animation as a medium.

What is animation? It is, in essence, a series of illustrated images presented in sequence to create the illusion of motion and life. What separates animation from still visual art is the sensation of real motion generated by our brains viewing differing, slightly-changing images in short succession. Most typically, this creates a mental projection of continuity that more-or-less resembles what we could see in the natural world. For example, a dinosaur raises its foot, and a shadow is created underneath. That’s a depiction of physical, literal, understandable laws of physical reality, even though none of us are likely to ever see such a thing in real life.

But the unlimited power of animation is that it really doesn’t have to obey the physical rules of reality. Great animation delivers visual ideas that break our sense of reality in exciting and pleasing ways. And what I love about Fantasmagorie is that it points this out. It effectively says “within animation, visual space is not bound to the physical reality… and here is proof.”

Cohl, a politically inflammatory caricaturist and influential early animator, opens the film as essentially a PSA not to wear tall hats in a theater, before descending into abject absurdism. Characters and perspectives change in non-natural ways as the lines on the screen rearrange. A person turns into a pie. A plant turns into an elephant which turns into a door. It feels, in some ways, like the book Harold and the Purple Crayon come to life. It’s a living doodle, one that feels more tightly coupled with the wandering and associative potential of human creativity than most other artforms.

It is, of course, a silly little trifle, entirely in black and white, entirely on a single flat plane, and within one scene. It is as primitive as animation could be from a technical perspective. But it was, again, the first, so we’ll cut it at least a little bit of slack in that regard. Innovations would come rapidly, and they would render Fantasmagorie as its medium’s equivalent of a cave painting. It’s unrecognizable viewed through a modern lens.

Except maybe that’s not true. Fantasmagorie still is kind of recognizable because it contains within it that spark of creation that all great animated movies have. When I watch Fantasmagorie, I see Fantasia and My Neighbor Totoro and Into the Spider-Verse. It’s all there as a tiny nascent seed.

Is It Good?

Good (5/8)

A few words on "Is It Good?" ratings for early cinema.

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