On Thursday, April 13th, Donald Crafton presented "The Gertie Project: Animating Liveness" at the Chicago Film Seminar. Working with collaborators Marco de Blois and David Nathan, Crafton is restoring Winsor McCay's 1914-15 animated short, popularly known as "Gertie the Dinosaur." A multi-media work that toured as part of a vaudeville act, the film was produced and distributed as a standalone short film, but this version, the version with which most people are familiar, neglects the live performance aspect of the original. Thus, the Gertie project also involves research into McCay and exploration of how modern multi-media technologies could be incorporated into the live performance of the film. The restored version will premiere in 2018, and the research on the film has raised a variety of important points about agency, performance, and "liveness" in animation.
Crafton discussed the history of the film and its emergence out of McCay's own explorations of cartoons and proto-animation, drawing attention to how reviews of the film emphasize the apparatus. This interest in the mechanical process that brings McCay's drawings of Gertie to life raises intriguing questions about the experience of "liveness" in animation. Crafton suggested that the film's interest turns in part on the possibility that the animated dinosaur might escape from her creator's control, a possibility that is produced through the work itself, which is designed to appear responsive to the showman -- originally McCay, but here, performed by Crafton. According to Crafton, this indicates the extent to which "liveness" is always the result of mediating technologies.
In his response, W. J. T. Mitchell discussed why there is a particular charge to the re-animation (or resurrection) of the dinosaur, a creature that no human has ever seen. Describing the emergence of the image of the dinosaur in 1851, Mitchell shared images of these early Victorian imaginations of the dinosaur, including a hollow sculpture designed to hold a dinner table for a meeting of paleontologists. Mitchell also discussed the significance of the dinosaur as totem, describing how humans, as the currently dominant species, are invested in the dinosaurs as a representative of the previous dominant order. Mitchell noted that the human imagination of the dinosaur's rapacious appetite provokes interesting reflections upon the transition to consumerism, and he showed a McDonald's commercial that rips off "Gertie" and continues the theme of the dinosaur as voracious eater.
In the Q&A, Tom Gunning followed up on this topic with a comment about other early films about consumption and swallowing, including of course "The Big Swallow." Crafton responded by noting that McCay displayed an interest in consumption in other works, including works in which the animation eats the animator. Mitchell noted that the theme of consumption extends to the connection between the totem animal and the totem meal.
This final meeting of the Chicago Film Seminar for the 2016-2017 academic year was attended by the following people:
J. D. Wang