British-American artist J. Stuart Blackton is someone who people call the father of animation, but an artist from France named Émile Cohl has also been called the father of animation. If you ask me, Cohl outshines Blackton with his full and fluid way of creating action on screen with his drawings and this might be the reason why they both get credit for inventing the medium. Blackton laid the foundation and Cohl helped it evolve.
Born in Paris, France in 1857 as Émile Courtet, the caricaturist and highly influential animator of the silent era first discovered his drawing talent while attending boarding school, and as a teenager wandering the streets of Paris he discovered puppet theatre and political caricature. Two artistic expressions that inspired Cohl to pursue a Bohemian lifestyle as an artist in the 1870s.
That decade he began assisting André Gill, France’s best-known caricaturist at the time, completing backgrounds and officially adopting the last name Cohl for the first time. Gill inspired Cohl’s own caricatures, and in those days caricatures and political satire could get you thrown in jail, which is exactly what happened to Cohl in 1879, earning him instant fame. Of course the French government became a lot more liberal after the end of Napoleon’s reign, so artists like Cohl and Gill would eventually be safe to express themselves through their art.
Cohl later found his place in the Incoherents, an artistic French movement specializing in nightmarish absurdism and a sort of anti-art art style that defied realism. The movement was short-lived in France but it foresaw the popularity of avant-garde abstraction in the 20th century and Cohl had a true understanding and sense of belonging in this world.
Cohl would go on to contribute drawings and articles and later comic strips to publications like the L’illustré National, and in 1907, just like everyone else in France, he became enamored with motion pictures. That was the year J. Stuart Blackton’s live-action/animated hybrid film The Haunted Hotel came out and became a sensation, which led to the French film studio Gaumont hiring Cohl to figure out how Blackton made the film and make animation for them so they could capitalize on the national frenzy.
The next year after watching J. Stuart Blackton’s films, including Humorous Phases of Funny Faces (1906), Cohl made his own fully animated film called Fantasmagorie, which like Humorous Phases was filmed on negative film to give the drawings a chalkboard-like appearance. The film was only a minute and 45 seconds long but its stick figure characters and surreal animation left a huge impression on audiences and made Cohl the most famous animator in the world.
Fantasmagorie was followed by two more animated films released by Gaumont in 1908, The Puppet’s Nightmare and A Puppet Drama. Just like Fantasmagorie, it featured surreal animation, a loose narrative structure and stick-figure characters.
Cohl was one of the first animators to help normalize several techniques, including the laborious photo-by-photo process of stop motion and the process of tracing over and photographing your drawings without a jittery effect (through use of a light box), but as an employee of Gaumont, Cohl was also one of the first animators to work under the pressure of a production schedule. In fact the demands of hand-drawn animation caused Cohl to venture away from the technique and more towards live action and puppet animation for his next few Gaumont films. These short films include Les Joyeux Microbes (The Joyous Microbes) and Clare de lune espagnol (Spanish Moonlight) in 1909 and Le Tout Petit Faust (The Little Faust) and Le Peintre néo-impressionniste (The Neo-Impressionistic Painter) in 1910.
Cohl left Gaumont in 1910 and joined Pathé to make two animated films, the first one being Le Ratapeur de cerveilles (Brains Repaired) and La Revanche des spirits (The Spirit’s Revenge). These films are lost now but they may have been the first films to combine live action and animation that was drawn directly on live-action film.
Cohl was dissatisfied at Pathé so in 1911 he began working for Eclipse to produce films (which are all lost) for other studios, including Éclair, a French studio which had a United States division in New Jersey. Cohl moved to New Jersey to join this division in 1912 to make his first animated cartoon series The Newlyweds, which was based on the comic strip by George McManus and was also the first animated cartoon series to feature a recurring set of characters, predating Felix the Cat, Koko the Clown and even Farmer Al Falfa.
Most of Cohl’s American films were destroyed in a fire in 1914 while he was visiting Paris, so he decided to stay in Paris and make films there instead, surviving mainly by animating inserts for Gaumont’s newsreels as well as the Les Adventures Des Pieds Nickeles (Adventures of the Leadfoot Gang) series based on the comic strip by Louis Forton about a gang of troublemaking kids.
Cohl had less success in the 1920s when he left Éclair but was unable to justify the high production costs of his work when films like Puppet’s Mansion (1921) received little attention. His career was marred by illness and financial problems until he died in 1938. But his early animated films were popular around the world and received acclaim in America, which inspired Winsor McCay to eventually enter the world of animation where he made a splash with Gertie the Dinosaur and inspired generations of animators by taking what people like Émile Cohl accomplished and perfecting it. Cohl’s influence on the animation medium and film in general cannot be overstated.