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Milestone Film & Video presents
Winsor McCay: The Master Edition (1911-1921)

"I made ten thousand cartoons—each one a little bit different from the one preceding it."
- Winsor McCay

Review By: Mark Zimmer   
Published: May 31, 2004

Stars: Winsor McCay
Other Stars: John Bunny, George McManus, Roy McCardell
Director: Winsor McCay

Manufacturer: Deluxe
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (nothing objectionable)
Run Time: 01h:34m:42s
Release Date: June 01, 2004
UPC: 014381198225
Genre: animation

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A- BB+A- C+

DVD Review

Winsor McCay was one of the great masters of sequential art, conquering and developing two different forms in the early 20th century: the newspaper comic strip and the animated cartoon. Although he proclaimed himself the inventor of animation, that wasn't quite true, though he did more than anyone else to show what marvels were possible through the magic of a sequence of drawings that, by illusion, appeared to move. This collection, the third DVD incarnation of all McCay's surviving animation work, is fascinating viewing for any animation fan.

The 10 shorts (some fragments) are presented in roughly chronological order, as best as can be determined. The first, a demonstration of animation techniques using McCay's newspaper strip Little Nemo already shows how quickly McCay had taken to the new form, even though he doesn't yet attempt to tell a story of any kind. But by using funhouse mirror techniques and some dramatically shifting perspective, McCay gives a taste of what can be done in the art. With How a Mosquito Operates, McCay anticipates the Merrie Melodies of the 1930s with some deft character animation and comically exaggerated effects of a mosquito on his beefy prey.

McCay's most famous animated work is Gertie the Dinosaur (1914), and it is here, finally fully restored in 35mm; all prior editions having been made of marriages of 16mm and 35mm material. This was a vaudeville standard for McCay, who would appear onstage and provide commands to Gertie, who would perform her tricks on the screen. Although McCay fell back on repeated movement quite a bit, there are still some segments that are quite astonishing, considering that he was working on rice paper, not yet cels. This meant that every element of the picture had to be redrawn for every single frame, so McCay is hardly to be blamed for cutting a couple corners.

McCay would take up cel animation shortly thereafter, and his propaganda film on the Sinking of the Lusitania is highly striking and technically innovative; he gives us underwater angles, as well as all manner of views of the carnage, and in best propaganda form ends with a drowning mother and child futilely straining towards the surface. Three fragmentary films, The Centaurs, Gertie on Tour, and Flip's Circus are present in their truncated states, the remainder having been lost to nitrate decomposition many years ago. Rounding out the set are three imaginative takes on McCay's early strip Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend, which anticipated the dreamlike quality of Little Nemo. The addition of movement to the bizarre subject matter of the strips helps make these shorts memorable. That's particularly the case in The Pet, in which a tiny stray animal taken in as a pet grows to monstrous Gertie-like proportions, and The Flying House, which features some very dry wit and the usual McCay wild imagination. These last three are the closest to what one thinks of now as cartoon shorts, and McCay stands up with the best of the practitioners of the art.

The beginnings of the art form do move a bit tentatively at first; both Little Nemo and Gertie include substantial live-action framing material and show off the vast piles of paper supposedly used to create them. Even if McCay made it look easy, he was determined to show that animation was by no means actually so. According to the supplements, McCay got disenchanted by the cheap and limited animation that one sees in such items as the early Felix cartoons, and gave up the form. Whether that may be true, our film heritage is the poorer for it. But luckily these ten gems have been lovingly archived and restored so that they at least may be enjoyed.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: B


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: A new digital transfer was done for all of the films, and the improvement over the old recycled LD transfer is significant. McCay's linework is much clearer, especially on the restored Gertie the Dinosaur. The delicate drawings of The Centaurs and Gertie on Tour also look very nice indeed. There's the expected flicker for films 90 years old, and random bits of speckling and damage, but in all the films are highly watchable. Only some of the shorts are windowboxed on this edition, unlike the earlier ones which were all windowboxed. But that wasn't, as it turns out, quite all it was cracked up to be, since the former "windowboxing" actually cropped off significant portions of the picture, and even with overscan more is now visible on the screen than before. The Flying House appears to be cropped at the sides, but it was that way on the old edition from Lumivision as well, so it appears to be a problem with the source elements; perhaps an audio track was slapped on at some point, obliterating one side of the picture? Little Nemo suffers a bit from vertical roll, with the bottom of the picture printed at the top; no doubt that was one of the reasons why the earlier DVD relied on cropping, but surely at this stage of digital manipulation it should be easy enough to move the bottom of the frame back where it belongs, even if it's printed onto the source material that way? How a Mosquito Operates has a lengthy bit that is marred by hairs at the top of the frame, but it appears to be printed-in damage since it looks the same on the old Lumivision disc.

Image Transfer Grade: B+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0(music only)yes

Audio Transfer Review: Gabriel Thibodeau provides an all-new piano score for the films. He tends toward an impressionistic character for the music, which suits McCay's moods quite well. The sound is 2.0 and decodes to fill the surrounds as well as the main speakers. As expected for a new track, it's quiet and free of noise and hiss. The performance is well-miked, with the entire range of the piano sounding quite vivid.

Audio Transfer Grade: A-


Disc Extras

Animated menu with music
Scene Access with 11 cues and remote access
1 Documentaries
1 Feature/Episode commentary by John Canemaker
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL
Layers Switch: 01h:00m:23s

Extra Extras:
  1. Stills gallery
Extras Review: Instead of the lengthy text essay by John Canemaker in the earlier DVD set, that author instead contributes a full-length commentary. Unfortunately, that was a mistake. He falls immediately into the trap of narrating the films, and even worse, he apparently hadn't seen them for a while and frequently anticipates onscreen action incorrectly, so what we're left with is an inadequate commentary for the blind. He doesn't begin to convey the information in the old essay either, making it a double disappointment.

The 18m:29s documentary, Remembering Winsor McCay (1976), is invaluable for including footage of the elderly John Q. Fitzsimmons, who as a young man had repeatedly drawn the same backgrounds over and over for Gertie the Dinosaur, freeing McCay up to do the actual animation. Most importantly, the second half of the film includes the un-intertitled version of Gertie, which is how it was shown with McCay present, and Fitzsimmons carries out the narrative duties that would have been undertaken by McCay. The whole flows much better this way, even though it's pre-restoration. Wrapping up the package is a huge still gallery featuring photos of McCay and members of his family, running over 47m. The layer change is thoughtfully placed between shorts.

Extras Grade: C+


Final Comments

The third time round makes these shorts look better than ever, and it's certainly worth owning for the quality and historic import of the films themselves. But there are still some issues, especially with the extras, so perhaps the fourth version will be the charm.


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