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The Oldest Surviving Animated Films Part I (1892–1909)

I enjoy educating others about film history and the early years of cinema.


1. Pauvre Pierrot (1892)

Charles-Émile Reynaud was the inventor of optical theatre, an animated moving-picture system that he patented in 1888. In October 1892, he screened three of his own animated films in a demonstration at the Musée Grévin, a museum in Paris.

The first film was Pauvre Pierrot (1892), also known as Poor Pete, which consisted of 500 individually-painted images, all hand-drawn on sheets of glass. Each frame was inlaid with leather strips, through which a light was shone to project the images on a backdrop.

Reynaud’s other two films were A Good Beer (1892) and The Clown and His Dogs (1892), both of which are currently lost. The combined performance of all three films came to be known as Pantomimes Lumineuses, and drew in over 500,000 viewers in its eight-year run.

In addition to being the oldest surviving animated film, Pauvre Pierrot is also the first known usage of film perforations, the holes placed in film stock for steadying the images and for standard measurements.

2. Around a Cabin (1894)

Around a Cabin (1894), another film directed by Reynaud, was screened at the Musée Grévin from December 1894 to March 1900. It was made of 636 hand-painted images and portrayed two beach-goers, a small dog, seagulls, and a boatman.

In 1948, 30 years after Reynaud’s death, his family sold the original copy of Around a Cabin to the Cinémathèque Française, one of the largest film archives in the world.

In 1955, the film was featured on an episode of Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color (1954–1991), entitled “The Story of the Animated Drawing.”

3. The Enchanted Drawing (1900)

The first known usage of stop-motion animation, The Enchanted Drawing (1900) was both directed by and starred J. Stuart Blackton, the Father of American Animation.

In the film, Blackton stands in front of an easel and draws a cartoon of a man’s face. Next, he draws a wine bottle and a glass, then removes them from the easel and drinks the wine. Meanwhile, the man’s face shows different reactions, smiling when Blackton shares the wine and scowling when he draws a hat on his head, only to steal it.

In addition to animation and directing, Blackton was one of the founders of Vitagraph Studios (1897–1925), one of the most prolific film production companies of its time. He produced both animated and silent films, including some of the first book-to-film adaptations in history.

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4. Humorous Phases of Funny Faces (1906)

Humorous Phases of Funny Faces (1906) was another groundbreaking work by J. Stuart Blackton, as it’s believed to be the first animated film recorded on standard-picture film.

Using both stop-motion and cutout animation, this film showed Blackton’s hand drawing two cartoon faces on a blackboard, which change expressions in comedic ways. Then the blackboard is erased and a man holding an umbrella appears, followed by a dancing clown and a small dog jumping through a hoop.

5. Katsudo Shashin (1907)

This three-second cartoon, discovered in Kyoto in 2005, is considered the oldest work of Japanese animation. The creator is unknown, as is the exact production year. Historians estimate it was made between 1907 and 1911, and that it was mass-produced by a small film company to be sold to the few wealthy people who owned home projectors at the time.

In the film, a little boy in a sailor suit draws the words katsudō shashin, or “moving picture,” on a wall, then turns toward the viewer, takes off his hat, and bows. The images move at 16 frames per second, which adds up to 50 frames, all of which were stenciled on a celluloid strip.

6. Fantasmagorie (1908)

The title of Fantasmagorie (1908), which translates to A Fantasy, comes from the fantasmograph, a type of image projector that was used by magicians to project images of ghosts. This film was directed by French caricaturist Émile Cohl and is one of the earliest examples of hand-drawn animation, with 700 drawings shot on negative film to make the background look like a chalkboard.

Fantasmagorie begins with a stick figure attending a play and encountering a woman with a feathery hat, then shifts to a clown playing pranks and getting hit by the cork of a wine bottle, which morphs into a flower. These surreal images and stream-of-consciousness narrative structure are believed to have been inspired by les arts incohérents, a French art movement that lasted from the late 1880s to the mid-1890s.

Cohl originally joined the film company Gaumont as a writer, and directed comedy and fantasy films before moving on to animation. He went on to work for the company Éclair, and directed over 250 films between 1908 and 1923.

7. The Puppet's Nightmare (1908)

In a manner befitting a dream, Émile Cohl’s The Puppet’s Nightmare (1908) is a series of shapeshifting chalkboard images with no rhyme or reason to them. It begins with the protagonist character lying in bed, being woken up by a clock on the wall morphing into a large man with a hat. The bed then flips itself out the window, and lands on a tower that morphs into a giant teapot.

As the film goes on, the protagonist witnesses an elongating hat, a pumpkin turning into an umbrella, ladders unraveling like coils, and other psychedelic happenings that bewilder him. In the end, he’s attacked by a lobster, who morphs into a man, and the film abruptly ends.

8. A Love Affair in Toyland (1908)

Unlike most of Cohl’s films, A Love Affair in Toyland (1908) has a cohesive storyline, no fantasy sequences, and a limited amount of morphing images. This series of slapstick-comedy vignettes involves a love triangle.

A woman has two men competing for her attention. The first man knocks on her door, and she responds by pouring water on him from an upper-story window. He retaliates by tearing off her skirt, and a kind policeman lends her his coat to drape around her waist. The second man meets the woman near a pillar with a potted plant on top. A snake emerges from the plant, causing the woman to pass out. The policeman arrests the man on suspicion of harming her.

Ultimately the woman chooses the policeman. In the end, the four characters assemble on screen, join hands, and take a bow, like the final curtain call of a play.

9. The Magic Hoop (1908)

For The Magic Hoop (1908), Cohl combined live-action footage with hand-drawn and stop-motion animation to tell the story of a little girl and a magician she meets in a park.

The magician shapes his cane into a hoop, then demonstrates its magical properties by placing it over his head. His clothes instantly change. The girl puts it over her head and magically changes into a new dress.

The girl plays with the hoop and hangs it up on a wall. Animated sequences then play within the hoop, involving origami, a tightrope walker, a painting of a puppet, and a drawing of a flower. Unfortunately, due to deterioration of the film, some of the images are hard to make out.

10. Transfigurations (1909)

In Transfigurations (1909), a showman invites the general public to view morphing images—drawn by Cohl—through his magic box. A group of men gathered at the box ask questions about their lives, then look through the peephole to get their answers.

Customers watch a woman’s face transform into a bird, then a weathervane, then a girl wearing an enormous hat. A boy turns into an elderly man and a pitcher turns into a horseshoe. There are also three-dimensional images, such as a dancing doll, a butterfly, and an alligator.

The showman is amused by these images, but most of the viewers are offended. It’s not until the end that a satisfied customer laughs along with the showman, then links arms with him as they happily walk off-screen.

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