Friday, October 20, 2017

The Fabulous Émile Cohl

While writing earlier this month about "pixillated" animation involving found objects, cut-outs, etc. from such imaginative indie filmmakers as Frank & Caroline Mouris (both separately and together), Mike "The Wizard Of Speed And Time" Jittlov and especially the National Film Board of Canada's intrepid Norman McLaren, made passing mention of the innovator who developed this technique in the first place: Émile Cohl (1857-1938).

Much as Alice Guy Blache did, Émile Cohl, an illustrator-caricaturist-animator-filmmaker-special effects designer, got there first with all kinds of cinematic innovations.

Fittingly in the freewheeling spirit of early cinema, Émile appeared to be making these innovations up as we went along, as entomologist-turned-filmmaker Ladislaw Starewicz did in the field of stop-motion animation and Max Linder did in his many comedy short subjects.

It's a darn shame Émile Cohl didn't live long enough to be lionized, lauded and interviewed by film historians around the world. Cohl's still stunning film Fantasmagorie blazes cinematic trails with flair, panache and creative invention to spare. No doubt Winsor McCay saw Fantasmagorie and perceived that Émile threw down the artistic gauntlet!

Émile Cohl appears to have responded to the films of Georges Méliès and Ferdinand Zecca as if they had thrown down the gauntlet. Cohl's Magic Hoop, produced in 1908, adds a cartoony component to the illusionist "trickfilm" universe of Georges Méliès.

In such films as Clair De Lune, the cartoon figures interact with the live-action characters in a Méliès style presentation. Ladislaw Starewicz must have seen these films and taken notes!

The numerous short films - over 250 produced between 1908 and 1923 - by Émile Cohl for Pathé Freres and Gaumont demonstrate a seemingly inexhaustible imagination.

Rather amazingly, fragments of the long-lost American films Cohl created for the Éclair Company in New Jersey are starting to turn up, over 100 years after their theatrical release. Here is a clip from He Poses For His Portrait, one of the Newlyweds series in which Cohl collaborated with comic strip artist George "Bringing Up Father" McManus.

For more info, check out the excellent overview of Émile Cohl's career posted on The Bioscope, as well as the superlative biography and portrait of life in late 19th century/early 20th century Paris, Émile Cohl, Caricature, and Film, penned by silent film and animation historian Donald Crafton in 1990.

The hardcover edition of Prof. Crafton's book is out of print and, thus, not cheap, but one can order the paperback edition via Amazon. University libraries, especially for colleges that offer film and animation study curriculums, may have copies of Émile Cohl, Caricature, and Film for checkout as well.

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