Albert E. Smith & J. Stuart Blackton, “The Humpty Dumpty Circus” (1898)

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J. Stuart Blackton (1875- 1941) was an Anglo-American film producer of the Silent Era, the founder of Vitagraph Studios and among the first filmmakers to use the techniques of stop-motion and drawn animation. He is considered the father of American animation.

Albert E. Smith (1875-1958) was a motion picture pioneer and Co-founder of the American Vitagraph Company, an early pioneer film production firm which was later obtained by Warner Bros. Pictures. He also worked as a writer, cinematographer, and an actor on many very early films. He was married to silent-screen actress Lucille Smith.

The stop motion technique was first used by Albert E. Smith and J. Stuart Blackton for “The Humpty Dumpty Circus” in 1898, in which a toy circus of acrobats and animals that comes to life.

After meeting and interviewing Thomas Edison in 1896, Blackton purchased a Vitascope and began to show Edison-produced films. In 1897, Blackton and Albert Smith founded the American Vitagraph Company – it was the most prolific American film production company, producing many famous silent films.

To stray away from the live-action filmed shorts, the duo soon started exploring different mediums in which to create films. They started exploring ‘stop-motion animation’ (a method pioneered by the influential French filmmaker Georges Méliès).

A year later, in 1898, “The Humpty Dumpty Circus” was made. A theatrical cartoon in which a toy carnival was brought to life. It is now widely recognized as the first stop-motion animation ever made. It was directed by Smith and animated by both Smith and Blackton. It was a black and white film and released theatrically in the USA. It was said that Albert E. Smith borrowed his young daughters toy circus and used the characters in his animation by shooting them in different positions one frame at a time.

Sadly, Circus has since been lost, but thankfully, other early Blackton and Smith collaborations remain.

 

(Here’s a surviving example of their early experimentation with stop-motion; “The Enchanted Drawing”. Blackton is seen in front of a large easel, sketching a man’s face. He then draws a bottle of wine and a glass, “magically” plucks them from the paper, and pours himself a drink. The drawn face morphs into an expression of surprise, then pleasure as Blackton “feeds” the sketched man from the bottle. Blackton adds a hat to the man’s head, then plucks it from the paper, and does the same to the man’s cigar (much to the sketch’s discontent). The short skit ends with Blackton returning all of the removed objects to the paper. Though the film is dated from 1900, the Library of Congress indicates that Drawing was likely three or four years old by the time it was finally released, which means that, in actuality, this short may predate The Humpty Dumpty Circus. – extract from ‘Pioneers of Animation‘)

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