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In 1913, One Gluttonous Pupper Changed the Course of Animation History

Years before “Steamboat Willie,” this animated dog hammed it up onscreen

The dachshund leaps down with his prize. (cartoonsonfilm/Youtube)
smithsonian.com

People love pet videos—and that’s nothing new.

The story of The Artist’s Dream, subtitled “The Dachshund and the Sausage” and released on this day in 1913, is simple: an artist asks someone (presumably his boss) what he thinks of a cartoon he’s just drawn. “No action in the dog—too stiff—awful!” proclaims the critic before storming off.

“Say, Did you hear what that fellow said about me? No action hey? Just wait!” responds the cartoon doggo, before sneaking a sausage out of a kitchen drawer. When the artist returns, he’s baffled that his drawing seems to have moved on its own. He goes away, and the saga continues. But sadly, the gluttonous weiner dog is so fond of sausages that he literally eats until he explodes.

The ending followed a pattern that had already been established in film, by Thomas Edison no less: the artist was dreaming the sequence. Like many early animations, it focused on the interplay between the artist’s world and the cartoon’s.

The cartoon is an adorable vintage tale, but it also represented a new moment in animation. Prior to this movie, “the necessity of completely redrawing sixteen frames for every second of action, and the problem of precisely registering these images, made the labor requirements of cartoon production so great that the form remained an oddity,” writes animation historian Mark Langer.

Bray resolved some of these issues in his 1913 cartoon. "For one thing, he interspersed cartoon sequences with frames of live action featuring himself and his wife, Margaret Till, as the actors, which minimized the amount of animation that needed to be done. But his more important change, writes Langer, was to print the backgrounds of the cartoon rather than redrawing or tracing them by hand in each frame. That meant the only parts that had to be redrawn were those that moved.

“These innovations substantially lessened the amount of labor required to make a motion picture cartoon,” Langer writes. “Moreover, by printing the background elements, rather than laboriously recopying them by hand, Bray eliminated the vibrating ‘squirm’ effect caused by microscopic differences in backgrounds retraced for each frame of the animation.”

On the strength of this film, Bray was hired by newsreel company Pathé to create one animation a month, and over time hired other animators to work for him. Till was part of the studio management team. In 1914, he patented his innovative method, writing that it allowed him to produce animations “on a commercially practical scale.” Bray’s studio was later home to the animator who built on Bray’s invention and started using clear celluloid sheets for the foreground images of animation—cel animation. That made animated films—and many more cartoon dogs—possible.

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