On This Day

Fantasmagorie, Fantasmagorie cohl, Fantasmagorie elephant
A still from “Fantasmagorie”

On This Day: Emile Cohl Releases “Fantasmagorie,” the First Full-Length Animated Film

August 17, 2011 05:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On Aug. 17, 1908, Cohl released the cartoon “Fantasmagorie,” which amazed viewers and instituted a new form of art.

Cohl’s “Fantasmagorie” Debuts

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Animation predated Emile Cohl’s “Fantasmagorie” by decades, in the form of flipbooks and other primitive techniques. Some earlier films even included drawn or stop-motion animation, but Cohl was the first to produce a fully animated film.

Cohl began working on “Fantasmagorie” in February 1908, and completed it weeks later. The animation consisted of 700 drawings that were filmed as black lines on white paper; the film’s negatives were then reversed to make the image resemble a chalkboard with white lines on a black background.

Cohl would place a drawing on a lightbox, photograph it, and then slightly change it and photograph it again. “This simple technique produced consistent movement and continuity between the drawings, and allowed just Cohl and a camera assistant to create the film,” explains AnimationXpress.com.

The French word fantasmagorie (in English, phantasmagoria) is defined as “a constantly shifting complex succession of things seen or imagined.” This is a fitting title for Cohl’s work, a succession of rapidly shifting images and shapes. The film is “a hectic jumble of jumping about, fishing, sword-fighting, canons, flowers, milk bottles, elephants turning into houses and, for the grand finale, a character departing into the left-hand side of the screen on a horse,” says AnimationXpress.com.

“Fantasmagorie” debuted Aug. 17, 1908 at Paris’ Theatre de Gymnase. Although lacking a coherent storyline, the film was extremely influential for its creativity and energy, demonstrating the potential that animation could yield to a creative mind.

Les Independants du Premier Siecle writes that Cohl “gave animation a sense of poetry, a plethora of innovations, and made it an art in its own right, dubbed by some as the ‘eighth art,’ which combined cinema, drawing and painting.”

Biography: Emile Cohl

Emile Cohl, born Emile Courtet 1857, was a Parisian caricaturist and cartoonist who belonged to avant-garde artistic movements the Hydropathes and the Incoherents. He joined the studio Gaumont in the early 20th century, where he began working on films.

In addition to creating the first animated film, he also created “the first puppet animation film, the first animation films in color, the first animated commercial, the first animation films based on comic strips,” according to Les Independants du Premier Siecle.

Cohl’s innovations inspired the work of animation greats such as Max and Dave Fleischer, Walt Disney and Tex Avery.

The Evolution of Cartoons

As new animation techniques were developed, the cartoon exploded in popularity. The invention of the animation cel, “a sheet of transparent celluloid that is placed on top of a background drawing,” allowed artists to redraw only the portions of an image that moved, according to the Museum of Broadcast Communications.

Gradually, cartoons added sound and color, and became more life-like, cheaper and easier to create. Legendary animator Walt Disney was responsible for many innovations in the animation process.

In the 1990s, a new trend in computer-generated, or CG, animation began to emerge. Thanks to CG animation, “animation is now an astonishing universe in which textures are photo-realistic, light and shadow are flawless, crowds and armies can be almost infinite and virtual cameras go anywhere, anyhow in 3D environments,” writes Australian paper The Age.
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