Sometime in 1911 or 1912, Winsor McCay, the cartoonist famous for Rarebit Fiends and Little Nemo in Slumberland, George McManus, creator of Let George do it, and several of their cartoonist friends took a automobile trip around New York. On event of flat tire, the group ventured into the American Museum of Natural History and pondered the life and habits of the dinosaurian beasts whose skeletons the museum housed. It was at this point that McCay bet McManus that he could restore the "Dinosaurus" to life... A bet McManus took up, sure that McCay was full of nonsense. Whether or not these events actually happened, the product of McCay's imagination was the first lady of dinosaur cinema, Gertie the Dinosaur.
Like cinema itself two-dimensional animation was in its infancy, and McCay became one of its pioneers. Though often cited as the first ever animated cartoon, Gertie the Dinosaur actually falls a little short. The first was most likely Humorous Phases of Funny Faces in 1906. Winsor McCay himself created two previous animations in 1911's Little Nemo and 1912's How a Mosquito Operates. But Gertie does go down in history as the first animated character, preceeding the illustrious likes of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, Mickey Mouse, Felix the Cat, Betty Boop and Bugs Bunny.
To bring their charming creation to life, McCay and his assistant John A. Fitzsimmons drew over 10,000 individual illustrations... completely redrawing each picture for each new frame, including the static backgrounds. It wasn't long before animation hit upon the technique of painting a single background for a scene and then illustrating the characters on clear celluloid. Not so in 1912. McCay and Fitzsimmons used rice paper to trace the background for each individual drawing, and then mounted that rice paper on sheets of carboard for filming.
The finished Gertie was originally part of a Vaudville stage show in which McCay directed his dinosaur from stage right. In the 1912 Vaudville circuit of New York City, there would be regular programmes called "chalk talks" in which cartoonists would draw on stage from the suggestions of the audience. Deciding to up the proverbial ante on his peers, McCay introduced an illustration which could not only move and dance, but which would obey (or comically disobey) her artist. Not only could he command Gertie to hop from one foot to the other, or watch helplessly as she toyed with the small mammoth Jumbo, but he even did the amazing by throwing her food and then entering the picture himself! Of course, this was accomplished through careful timing, wherin McCay would throw a pumpkin behind the screen and as he did so, its animated counterpart would appear onscreen. The same applied for himself.
The film promoted itself as the "Greatest Animal Act in the World", and included tag-lines like "Gertie: she's a scream. She eats, drinks and breathes! She laughs and cries. Dances the tango, answers questions and obeys every command! Yet, she lived millions of years before man inhabited this earth and has never been seen since!!" By 1914, the demand to see this novel film increased to the point where McCay created a version that included a live action segment that book-ended the cartoon. It was this segment that told the story of the bet and McCay's triumph over McManus. It also featured McCay's original Vaudville instructions to Gertie as intertitle cards.
Gertie returned to the silver screen in 1921's Gertie on Tour, where she ran amok in the modern world. Travelling around the world, she had run-ins with various contraptions like trains and creatures like the modern small toad (you see, in her day, toads were huge, so the small ones frighten her). It ends with Gertie falling asleep and dreaming of the day when she was the life of the party, dancing amongst a group of brontosaurs. Unfortunately, this film is only known in fragments today, a good portion having been lost.