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Beyond Gertie: 9 Films of Winsor McCay

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On February 8, 1914, famed cartoonist Winsor McCay demonstrated before a live audience his considerable talents “controlling” Gertie, the “only dinosaur in captivity.” A painstaking blend of onstage performance and hand drawn animation, McCay made his creation dance, scolded her, fed her and then got carried away by her. He wasn’t the only one. The audience in Chicago’s Palace Theatre loved it. A theatrical release followed, with new scenes filmed to replace McCay’s live interactions. It is the best known film of a pioneering artist and illustrator—but he made others.

1. Little Nemo (1911)

McCay’s Sunday strip featuring the dream-addled boy, Nemo, was his longest-running continuous work and the only strip to move with McCay to William Randolph Hearst’s newspaper empire. The intricate detail and hand painted panels provided McCay a large field to play with perspective and experiment with just how fine a line he could draw.

All of the film’s characters and design elements, including the cartoon plasticity, come from the strip, though it has little of the strip’s intricate nature. Four thousand rice paper drawings provided all the action, done by McCay himself in about a month. Much of the film is just McCay drawing and getting laughed at by his friends. Featured is a handy crank device for quickly flipping finished pages to check their continuity. For the animated portion, Nemo mostly bends his friends Flip and (the now deeply offensive) Impie out of shape. The character is the artist’s revenge.

2. and 3. Dream of the Rarebit Fiend series – The Pet; The Flying House (1921)

McCay’s other popular dreamscape strip, Dream of the Rarebit Fiend, traded on the belief cheese on toast gives you nightmares.

The Pet takes off an actual Rarebit strip where a couple’s puppy grows to monstrous size, including the attempts to kill it. McCay’s penchant for large mouthed animals eating everything is again on display, as is his love for flying machines.

"The Flying House" was drawn by McCay’s son Robert under dad’s supervision; word balloons replaced standard dialogue frames. McCay makes special mention that the flyover of the Earth and Moon is astronomically correct—until the Moon giant shows up with a fly swatter. Well, it was a good dream.

4. How A Mosquito Operates (1912)

McCay’s first Rarebit short was based on an actual strip from 1907. The artist really liked giant mosquitos, putting them into several Rarebit strips, as well as his editorial work and Little Nemo in Slumberland. 

5. Sinking of the Lusitania (1918)

McCay completed this film, his most ambitious, on his own time. A prolific and sought-after editorial cartoonist, McCay had been prevented by Hearst from honoring the 1915 U-boat attack on the passenger liner Lusitania.

Twenty-five thousand drawings done by a team of artists create a poetic depiction of a tragedy. The waves reach for the liner’s deck while it steams powerfully along. A theatrical curtain pulls across the ship after we are told all aboard ignore warnings for their safety. In a technical detail, the film states the first work was capturing “the moving sea.” Even there, the U-boat is hunting, seen only briefly by its periscope.

6. Flip’s Circus (1918-1921)

Probably McCay’s best recurring character from the Nemo strip, Flip gets top billing failing to do what McCay had done—tame the cartoon beast. Unreleased in McCay’s lifetime, Flip’s Circus gives a glimpse of his film process. Chalk slates stand in for interstitial cards and serve as editing notes, reminders of where to cut down to the individual drawing. Pause at the 1:00 mark for a grand McCay animal menagerie.

In the clip above, Flip’s Circus is followed by a third Rarebit Fiend, Bug Vaudeville. It has technical prowess but it’s a little boring. The potato bug boxing is fun though, and it all comes together in the end.

7. The Centaurs (1921)

McCay imbues his centaurs with their expected grace, poise, and ability to kill a bird with a stone for no reason. Poor storage damaged much of this film, so only this fragment survives. The line quality of its main characters and watercolor nuance of its scenery show a masterful touch years before Disney’s Bambi or Snow White. That said, as inventive as McCay was, he also went too easily for caricature. Grandma Centaur’s spectacles and Victorian bob take us right out of the picture.

8. and 9. Gertie (1914) and Gertie on Tour (1921)

McCay took several months in 1913 completing 10,000 drawings for Gertie, again on rice paper. About the only person who didn’t like Gertie was McCay’s boss, Hearst. McCay was allowed to continue the Nemo strip on occasion, but taking time off to animate a dinosaur went a stretch too far, and Hearst curtailed him. The movie house version, above, was produced to dodge Hearst and keep McCay’s name in lights. Gertie’s 1921 sequel, Gertie on Tour, remained unreleased.

One of the 20th century’s most prolific illustrators, McCay thought his animation was his greatest work, but he produced no more films for the last 13 years of his life. His animation technique, however, pioneered the modern industry. Walt Disney knew that. In the 1950s, in regards to the mammoth Disney animation studio, Disney said privately to McCay’s son Robert, “Bob, all this should be your father’s.”

15 Super Facts About Megamind

In 2010, the superhero craze was on the rise in the wake of such hits as Spider-Man, The Dark Knight, and Iron Man. which made it the perfect time to launch a silly sendup of the genre. And so came Megamind, an animated action-comedy about a clumsy villain whose world turns upside down once he actually defeats his superhero nemesis.


Essentially, the pitch boiled down to "What if Lex Luthor defeated Superman?" Except instead of Luthor being a wealthy, vicious human, the film offers Megamind (Will Ferrell), a cowardly, odd-looking (but still bald!) misfit from another planet. Metro Man (voiced by Brad Pitt) is more the Superman type, an alien from another planet who is strong, handsome, and can fly. It's easy for the people of Metro City to love Metro Man, whereas the oddball with the big blue head is instantly regarded as "other" and "bad." It's up to Megamind to prove himself, and find his true path.


The original script by Alan Schoolcraft and Brent Simons was pitched to Ben Stiller's production company, Red Hour Films, with hopes he'd star as its titular baddie. "[It] was written as a live-action movie," Stiller explained in the spring of 2008. "But we thought it would work as an animated movie so we brought it to Jeffrey Katzenberg [CEO of DreamWorks Animation], and now we're in pre-production."


Instead of voicing Megamind, Stiller opted to executive produce the movie—but he does pop by for a quirky audio cameo as the curmudgeonly curator Bernard, who works at the Metro Man Museum.


Riding high off the career revitalization of his live-action superhero hit Iron Man, Downey was game to bring his sarcastic charms to Metro City's menace. But scheduling conflicts ultimately killed the deal. So producers turned to beloved funnyman Will Ferrell, who brought a zany charisma to Megamind, and some crucial gags.


In the fall of 2008, Stiller was teasing the movie as Master Mind. In that version, Megamind's longtime foe was named Uberman (a more overt spoof of Superman), but by spring of 2009, the title had changed to Oobermind, while Uberman had become Metro Man.


"There were two or three sets of directors on the movie, each of which started making a different version of the movie before it went to someone else," illustrator/author Jason Porath, who helped with the film as an employee at DreamWorks Animation, told Mental Floss.

The project was kicked off by Gary Trousdale, who had co-helmed a string of Disney animated movies including Beauty and the Beast, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Atlantis: The Lost Empire. Next, Kyle Jefferson and Cameron Hood, who'd directed the DWA short "First Flight," were brought on. But the final version of Megamind is credited to Tom McGrath, who had co-directed Madagascar and Madagascar 2: Escape 2 Africa with Eric Darnell, and would go on to helm Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted (also with Darnell) and Boss Baby. For their earlier efforts, Trousdale, Jefferson, and Hood ultimately received a special thanks credit on Megamind.


In the case of DreamWorks's How To Train Your Dragon, credited directors Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders were brought on about one year before the film's release. Then, the beloved movie about a boy and his pet dragon would have been unrecognizable to its fans. "At that point, I think Hiccup was like 9 or 10 years old, all the dragons could talk, and Toothless as we know him didn't exist," Porath tells us. "Those little bug-eyed tiny green dragons he fights for fish in the first movie, one of those was supposed to be his companion dragon. It was a lot closer to the book source material."

This practice extends far beyond DreamWorks: At Pixar, The Good Dinosaur went from Bob Peterson to Peter Sohn. Mark Andrews replaced Brenda Chapman on Brave, and Brad Bird took over directing duties from Jan Pinkava on Ratatouille. At Sony Pictures Animation, Hotel Transylvania cycled through six directors before committing to Genndy Tartakovsky.


DreamWorks Animation

One version of Megamind had its eponymous fiend as part of a supervillain league known as the Doom Syndicate. To concoct this crooked but colorful crew of criminals, DreamWorks had an open call, encouraging its artists to pitch villain ideas. Story artist Ryan Savas has publicly shared his sketches for such quirky baddies as White Zombie, The Barista, The Ectopus, the Liberace-inspired Rhinestone, and Alec Baldwin, who can "hypnotize his victims with awesome acting skills." But as the script became streamlined (and the budget got tighter) the Doom Syndicate was cut from Megamind, meaning characters like Destruction Worker, a smoking skeleton, and "geriatric flame-wielder" Hot Flash never made it to the big screen—but they didn't disappear completely.

Three years after the film's release, DreamWorks unleashed the video game Megamind: Ultimate Showdown for the Xbox 360 and PS3. Some of the Doom Syndicate characters reappeared here, including Hot Flash. But Porath told us the fiery old broad made her mark at the animation's offices as well. "Every year, DreamWorks Animation has a big Halloween costume contest," he shared. "And the winner one year was one of the producers who dressed up as Hot Flash."


Concept art reveals that love interest/journalist Roxanne Ritchie (Tina Fey) had a variety of longer haircuts before the filmmakers settled on her perky pixie cut. During his Uber Man days, Metro Man's Elvis-inspired look toyed with some more outlandish iterations, which involved fur collars, sunglasses, and plenty of glitter. Some test sketches even showed Megamind with spiky hair. But the biggest transformation came to the cunning character's devoted sidekick.

Though fans of the film have come to know Minion as a fanged, talking piranha who gets around in a robo-ape mechasuit, his origins were once far less fantastical. Early concept art shows a version of the character imagined as a chubby man with a tiny jetpack.


This is an image of Ben Stiller.
Theo Wargo/Getty Images

"This genre's been done so many times, that it's always interesting to try to find a postmodern version of it," Stiller told MTV. So he spearheaded a story about how people are not always what they seem.

Notably, this wasn't Stiller's first tme parodying superheroes and villains. In 1999, Stiller starred in the comedy Mystery Men, which followed a batch of wannabe superheroes as they face off with a nefarious foe who was way out of their league. Their powers included farting, bowling, being furious, and shoveling "well."


In an informative blog post, Porath explains that a "gag pass" is essentially the part toward the end of production where filmmakers find opportunities to work in more jokes. In this case, the writers and storyboard artists crafted humorous dialogue and visual gags. Meanwhile, Ferrell was encouraged to improvise to bring some more of his unique brand of comedy to the mix.


To promote the film, Ferrell invited all wannabe superheroes to suit up and join him for a party on October 4, 2010, just a month before the film's opening. But the event also set a Guinness World Record for Largest Gathering of Superheroes. With 1580 costumed attendees, Ferrell and his friends made hero history, breaking the old record by 79 superheroes.


Toward the end of the movie, Megamind is channel surfing and crosses a news report about a water-skiing squirrel. A very similar story is covered in Ferrell's 2004 comedy, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy.


Cruel timing meant that Megamind opened four months after audiences went wild for Universal's Despicable Me, an animated movie about a villain who goes good. While Megamind pulled in a decent $321 million worldwide, Despicable Me boasted $543 million, spawning sequels and a spinoff for its cuddlier Minions.

The closeness of their premises and release dates hurt Megamind with critics, too. Roger Ebert wrote, "This setup is bright and amusing, even if it does feel recycled from bits and pieces of such recent animated landmarks as The Incredibles with its superpowers and Despicable Me with its villain." USA Today's Claudia Puig was even more cutting, concluding, "Do we really need Megamind when Despicable Me is around?"


Released on Blu-ray and DVD on February 25, 2011, Megamind pulled in another $74 million in domestic sales. Readily available in this fashion, its popularity grew. Today, Megamind is warmly remembered and rewatched by fans happy to mispronounce "Metro City," "school," and "spider" like the lovable villain at its center. And despite its bumpy ride through production, it's fondly remembered by the fleets of artists who brought it to life.

You can see their enthusiasm in the blogs linked above, where they've proudly shared concept art and sketches. But perhaps Porath puts it best, declaring, "To put in perspective: almost every movie goes through radical shifts like this. Megamind had a bit longer journey than others, but not by much. I would by no means consider it an outlier. There were a phenomenal number of talented, funny people working to make it great, and it was a fun time at the studio. DreamWorks treated us all really well; I will never work for somewhere that took better care of me."

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Courtesy Fathom Events // GKIDS
Hayao Miyazaki's Greatest Hits Are Coming Back to Theaters This Fall
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STUDIO GHIBLI FEST: Castle in the Sky
Courtesy Fathom Events // GKIDS

Get ready, anime fans. As part of an upcoming film festival, some of Japanese animation icon Hayao Miyazaki’s best-loved films will be coming back to U.S. movie theaters this fall.

Fathom Events and the North American animation distributor GKIDS are running a film festival devoted to Studio Ghibli, Miyazaki's Tokyo-based animation studio. As part of a series of monthly events that began in June, the festival will be showing Castle in the Sky, Nausicaä, Spirited Away, and Howl’s Moving Castle. Earlier this summer, the festival showed My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service.

Due to the festival’s popularity, Studio Ghibli Fest is adding an extra day of showings, beginning with the August re-release of Castle in the Sky. Instead of two days of movies, there will be three screenings on three different days.

The films will be shown on the last Sunday of the month, with subsequent screenings the following Monday and Wednesday. The Sunday and Wednesday films will be dubbed in English, while the Monday showings will have subtitles. The festival runs until November 29.

Since it’s through Fathom Events, the films will be shown at hundreds of theaters around the country. You can check where screenings are available near you by entering your ZIP code here.

Miyazaki is technically retired, but he hasn't been able to resist the call of Studio Ghibli. He's scheduled to release Boro the Caterpillar, a film he's calling his last (several years after saying the same about 2013's The Wind Also Rises) in 2019. So maybe we can expect an extended Studio Ghibli Fest in a few years.


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