Something which is often overlooked when studying media history is the history of individual pieces -- you can find a history of "silent film" or "Charlie Chaplin's silent films" or "Charlie Chaplin's last silent film", but rarely if ever do you find an investigation of one particular copy of that work. Most media historians I've met don't even know how to do this sort of archaeological excavation of a image. Some A/V engineers I've met have, but they don't; they're more concerned with observing the various tell-tale aberrations and eliminating them from the signal chain. The closest thing I know of would probably be a forensics position of some kind, dedicated to identifying sources and forgery.

Watching the picture -- not the contents of the picture, necessarily, but the raw unprocessed image -- can tell you a lot.

In 1914, a man named Winsor McCay made a short animated film called "Gertie the Dinosaur". It was uploaded to YouTube because of course it was uploaded to YouTube; it's still there, because it's long since passed into the public domain, and hence no one cares. Here it is:



In the early 20th century, dinosaurs were crazy popular. The first reasonable description of a giant fossil bone as belonging to a giant fossil lizard was just before the turn of the 18th century; the earliest citation I can find for the word "paleontology" is from 1822. The first dinosaur discovered in the US was in 1858. That one was found in New Jersey, but a lot of the subsequent successful digs were out in places like Utah, which were still hot, dry, untamed territories at the time. Americans lose their damn minds over this kind of thing, especially if making progress in the field involves ponying up wheelbarrows full of money and hiring a load of unsorted warm bodies to do what amounts to pernickety manual labor. If there are two things of which Americans have always had a massive surfeit, they are ready cash, and a willingness to work other people's fingers to the bone.

The entire idea of dinosaurs immediately became cool as fuck, to the point where several scientists built their entire careers on digging up new dinos before other scientists did. They were the kind of good old-fashioned sociopathic assholes the American public loves best -- they trashed each other in the press, sabotaged one another's efforts, blackmailed their colleagues, got each other fired, the whole nine yards. Many of them had no official credentials (or higher education, for that matter), other than the magical ability to convince investors that they were a genuine dinosaurologist. One of them managed to fabricate an entire dinosaur that didn't exist just to get credit for discovering something new, scientific accuracy be damned. Just picture Gordon Gekko running an archaeological dig and you have the right general idea.

Gertie appears to be an apatosaurus, or something like it. Big, stompy, flat elephant feet, a hefty tail for balance, and a longish neck for eating stuff from higher up on the nearby trees. The spinal ridges look a wee bit odd, but the ideas of "accuracy" and "logic" took a bit of a beating during the Dinosaur Wars, so all in all it's pretty reasonable. McCay took the unusual step of asking actual scientists how dinosaurs would have moved, and from the look of things, he supplemented it with knowledge of elephants and horses.

From the beginning:




The live action footage is not original to the work. McCay made the film in the first place as a part of a vaudeville act where he would call out orders to Gertie and she would respond by carrying them out -- or refusing to carry them out, as the mood took her. This was a billion times more entertaining in 1914, when no one was yet accustomed to shouting at the TV in the hopes that the protagonist in whatever you're watching will hear you and be less stupid. McCay's employer, William Randolph Hearst (who owned approximately everything in those days), decided at some point that vaudeville was passé, so instead of scrapping the short, McCay just added a live-action frame story and some intertitles.

The film print used here is quite old, and probably a copy of a copy. Camera mechanisms were not fantastic in those days, but in-camera wobbles were not normally as pronounced as you see here; that kind of ticking randomly up and down is most characteristic of a film being copied on a kinescope, via projection. If the ratchet mechanisms of the projector and camera don't quite line up, then the image from the old piece of film is not quite exactly on the new piece, and the picture looks like it jumps around in frame. The random wobble in all directions tends to happen when copying off an old length of film that's been well-used, as the sprocket holes in the edges get stretched out by the repeated projector runs and make it harder to keep the picture centered.

The black blots on the picture are dirt on the print, either the old one or the new copy. The white blots are dark dirt on either the original negative or the internegative generated from the copy process. The thin vertical lines are called "tramline scratches", and happen when some kind of schmutz gets caught in the projection mechanism and gouges the film as it speeds past. Absolutely no effort has been made to stabilize the picture or correct the wobbling brightness levels, two things which are easy to do in software these days; the release this copy was sourced from has not undergone any restoration at all.

The pan across the Museum of Natural History is what's called an "establishing shot". It's a common device to tell the viewer where the action is about to happen, and is especially handy if the action is set somewhere that demands huge filming fees, and is therefore physically shot in a soundstage. Judging from modern photos, the Museum façade is exactly the same today. From what I know of New York City, it probably has exactly as many convenient parking spaces at it did in 1914, too.

1:00 Out for a "joy ride" indeed. Automobiles were still novelties in 1914. Most people would have walked or taken trolleys.

1:10-1:11 The car exits the frame going left and enters the next shot after the cut, also going left. It's a principle of cinematography called "conservation of motion": Camera viewpoints should be fixed such that a moving object always moves the same direction in consecutive shots. Otherwise viewers get confused. It's one of those movie conventions that's so taken for granted that it can be used to hide things in the meta-narrative, either as a surprise or as a punchline. If you film two guys walking, one while facing left, the other while facing right, it'll be startling when you reveal in a long shot that they're actually walking right next to each other -- the law of conservation of motion would normally dictate that the camera position cannot be set between them.

2:25 Note the spelling "Dinosaurus" on the intertitle. Although the word 'dinosaur' had been in the lay vocabulary since the 1840s, the majuscule plus the Latin singular ending indicate that McCay is using the word to refer to a single member of the clade Dinosauria, further taxonomy unspecified. I don't know if this is how the average dino-buff would have referred to one of the things in conversation back then, but the fact that they got the proper scientific capital letter on the front suggests they asked an actual dino guy about it at some point.

On the same intertitle, it refers to "hand-drawn cartoons". The word 'cartoon' did not yet refer to the end result of the process of animation, but to a class of simple ink drawings, often humorous or satirical. The meaning survives in modern English mainly in the phrase 'political cartoons'; sequenced storytelling doodles whose progression is across space rather than across time are usually called 'comics' or '(comic) strips' now. The phrase 'animated cartoons' sounds redundant to the modern ear, but at one point there really was a need to specify.

3:11 McCay is seated at the desk with piles of papers around him. Hand-drawn animation is traditionally done on "cels", short for "celluloid", the same stuff they used to make movie film out of until they discovered it was just a weensy bit too flammable for comfort. (Nitrocellulose film was discontinued in the 1950s, replaced by cellulose acetate. It had the advantage of not kerplodng into fireballs the second it sensed someone might be thinking about an open flame, but the downside is that cellulose acetate films have a tendency to digest themselves into vinegar and plastic chips. Whoops.) The customary practice nowadays is to draw the moving bits on cels and photograph them while they're laid atop a static background, which can be seen through the unpainted areas of the sheet. Neither of these brainwaves had occurred to anyone before WWI, so McCay (well, McCay's staff of art student interns) is laboriously transferring both the animated Gertie and the background pieces from sheet to sheet on translucent rice paper, i.e., tracing paper.

3:12 It's a bit mangled by the YouTube compression, but you can see that McCay has put registration marks on the corners of the pages. A registration mark is a simple geometric figure, usually a cross or a dot, that's used as a reference to line up your tracing paper exactly with the drawing beneath. In animation, it's also used to line the individual frames up, to minimize jitter in the final product. Later animators used registration pegs, which are exactly what it says on the tin: Holes were punched in the tops of the cels so they could be dropped over the tops of pins hammered into the work surface.

You can also see him writing something on the bottom margin of one of the drawings. He's numbering them. When you have thousands of sheets of tracing paper lying around in piles, you do not want to have to reorder those fuckers by eyeball if you drop a stack, as the assistant does at 4:33.

5:47 Most modern people would assume McCay was using a black marker to outline his dinosaur. Felt-tip pens were first patented in 1910, a thing we'd recognize as a proper marker was patented in 1926, and none of the above were widely available until the 1950s. If he held a brush like that, ink would be dripping all over the place, so he must be drawing in charcoal with a holder.

6:59 Commas and em dashes! Or paired hyphens in lieu of em dashes! The orthography on some of these intertitles is bizarrely fascinating.

7:13 When the reel switches to the Gertie animation, you can see the background 'crackle' or 'twinkle'. This is only partially intentional. In some cases it looks as though McCay has purposely drawn two slightly different background frames, which alternate, giving the illusion of movement, but for the most part the effect is due to two things: One, which is original to the film, is that registration marks are not as accurate as registration pegs, and it wasn't possible to get any two consecutive frames precisely aligned as they photographed the drawings. Hence, any element that shifts slightly between frames appears to move.

And two, you can see from the stair-step effects on the rocks in the background that this film has been transferred to some sort of format that works in increments of horizontal lines. This is exactly how a television picture is built, and the jaggies come from the fact that the lines on a CRT physically have slight gaps in between them, preventing the television from reproducing a perfectly smooth slope.

7:14 The tree on the left has an obvious break line, where it will snap when Gertie munches on it in a minute, which is accidentally omitted from at least one frame. The sequence when Gertie is ducking her head in and out of her cave is a series of frames that's run forward and backward a few times, called an 'animation loop'. So far as I know, McCay was the first person to think about reusing frames like this.

7:30 The rock in the right foreground also blinks on and off a time or two, meaning it was omitted from one or more frames in the sequence where Gertie snacks on the tree.

Note that the tree does not jump quite regularly into Gertie's mouth. Gertie was animated using a technique called 'keyframe animation', where the major/important points of each movement are drawn first, and the intermediate frames filled in afterwards. It's common today -- MPEG compression, in fact, is based on this idea, with very few full frames stored in the video stream, and most of the intermediate frames reconstructed from a list of differences when the file is played back -- but McCay was the first to use it when animating cartoons.

7:43 Another animation loop, of Gertie dancing from foot to foot while swaying her head.

8:07 The brief flash in the animation suggests that a frame is missing, or that the film this copy was taken from broke at some point and was spliced back together.

8:40 The thin lines in the background seem to flicker in and out. They're present on the original animation and would have been visible in the original projection. They vanish in this upload because of a combination of 'venetian blinding' and the lossy encoding scheme used by Flash video dropping fine picture detail at high compression rates.

9:18 "Here, catch this pumpkin." At this point in the original presentation, McCay would pretend to toss a cardboard fruit at Gertie, palming it when his back was to the audience. Appearing to have an object fly into the screen was mind-blowing in 1914. The audience loved it.

9:38 The way the roots of the trees snap out to full expansion when Gertie tugs the stump from the ground, as well as the way her earlier tears splashed widely across her toes, is a demonstration of 'compress and expand', a principle of animation that states whenever an object moves or is moved, its shape should be altered slightly in accordance with its velocity. The expansion of the tears emphasizes that they hit the ground with an impact, and the sudden outward spring of the tree roots emphasizes that it took quite a bit of force to free from a compressed configuration in the ground. There are a few frames over the course of the animation where even the ground can be seen to bow under the enormous weight of a full-grown dinosaur.

9:45 The crease line on Gertie's right front foot is misplaced for a frame of the chewing animation loop. Later pieces in a style called 'limited animation' would only change the part of the frame that was actually moving, and were not subject to this problem, but McCay was animating the entire frame, every frame, so mistakes like this are easy to spot in the loops.

10:03 "Jumbo" was not, at the time, a general adjective. It was the name of an actual elephant, owned by Barnum & Bailey Circus in the 1850s, and currently used as the mascot of Tufts University. The animation of the wooly mammoth was plainly done by referring to actual elephants, who do swish their tails around like that to swat flies.

10:30 Gertie's method of rearing up her her hind legs is taken from any one of a number of rear-heavy tail-balanced animals. My rats do the same thing. It's the principle of 'stretch and compress' plus foreshortening, as Gertie sits back on her squashy haunches and leans her shoulders back for balance, tipping her head forward to look at the viewer. The dancing is another animation loop, during which some aberrations can be noted in the crease marks of her belly as she changes direction.

11:07 Elephants do that to each other. It's hilarious. The water spray is an early example of using motion lines to indicate particulates or droplets moving at speed. Note that the background disappears entirely -- it's drawn instead of the background, rather than over it, as cel animation would do.

11:15 McCay reportedly had some trouble getting paleontologists to tell him how a dinosaur would lie down (the answer was evidently a resouding "iunno" when he asked). Gertie's feet don't bend like a horse's legs, so it looks as if he's taken the lying out motion from a particularly barrel-chested breed of dog, perhaps a mastiff or a Newfoundland.

11:43 He had even more trouble getting an answer about how a dinosaur would get to its feet again, so he opted to distract the audience with a dust cloud and a four-winged lizard in the background while Gertie brought herself upright again.

12:40 While Gertie's drinking, there's a small patch of finely-hatched shadow beneath her left hind leg. Through the entire sequence, this flickers with faint, random colors. This kind of spurious color happens in television signals that involve very fine not-quite-horizontal details. For a load of historical and technical reasons, color is encoded as a dot pattern superimposed on the raw monochrome image picked up by a television camera. When you accidentally get lines at just the right angle, at just the right distance apart, moving in just the right way, a color television receiver will interpret the pattern as color information rather than very closely-spaced changes in luminance. The specific copy that this YouTube video was sourced from was a master intended for consumer television viewing. PAL and SECAM pictures invert the phase of the color signal on every other line to self-correct for color error, but it also incidentally prevents this from happening; the master was therefore for an NTSC television market. The only two regions still using NTSC are North America and Japan; since the intertitles are left in English and unsubbed, it must be a US/Canadian release.

13:02 At this point in the vaudeville presentation, McCay ducked behind a curtain, so he could 'reappear' within the animation. Another mind-blowing trick for audiences at the time.

13:29 The blotchy flickering on the wooden paneling at the top right of frame -- and indeed in almost all of the interior shots -- is an artifact of MPEG encoding. Rather than working in lines or individual pixels, MPEG compression works in 'motion blocks', square or rectangular sections of the picture within which it calculates the likely motion of pixels between keyframes. High levels of compression give so little information within each block that they tend to smear everything within that block into a sort of a rough average, affecting not just motion, but also fine picture details, particularly in video that has a heavy jitter problem, as this unrestored footage does. Whoever did the original kinescopy was not using a contact method, didn't clean the film first, and overall did the kind of crappy half-assed job you see with a lot of public domain transfers.

The MPEG artifacts could be from a previous transfer onto a DVD master, from ripping a DVD to MPEG-4/DivX video, or from the re-encoding that takes place when you upload a video onto YouTube. The YouTube clip is available in resolutions up to 480p, which is a common one for DVD rips. (480p = 480 horizontal lines per picture, all of them redrawn on each frame. It's not a match to either NTSC or PAL/SECAM picture resolutions, and is popular mainly for historical reasons -- 640 x 480 was the raster size for the original VGA monitor resolution, oh about twenty, twenty-five years ago.) It's more likely to be from a DVD than from a VHS tape; VHS provides ~240 lines of picture, which is a resolution that YouTube allows for, and there's really no practical advantage in capturing a low-res signal in a much higher resolution for upload to a streaming video site that's going to mangle all your fine detail anyway.

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