10 Landmark Moments in Animation History

Tetiana Lazunova/istock via getty images
Tetiana Lazunova/istock via getty images

1. 1914: A Prehistoric Dinosaur Leads the Wave of the Future

In the early 20th century, theaters were already showing animated films on the big screen, but the characters were usually no more than spokesdrawings for various advertisers. That is, until Winsor McCay drew his way onto the scene in 1914. The legendary cartoonist, who'd earlier become famous with his classic comic strip, "Little Nemo," believed that animated characters could hold an audience's attention without the help of a sales pitch. With that in mind, McCay created the groundbreaking film Gertie the Dinosaur.

The most innovative part about the movie's animation was the way McCay interacted with it. Gertie actually started out as part of McCay's "chalk talk" vaudeville act, and rather than having Gertie attempt talking via speech balloons, McCay spoke for both of them. Standing on stage next to a projected image of the dinosaur and holding a whip, he would bark out commands like, "Dance, Gertie!" Then, suddenly, the image would change and she would obey. In another sequence, McCay would toss an apple behind the screen and the impish dinosaur would appear to catch it in her mouth.

Eventually, McCay was ready to let Gertie loose on the big screen by herself. Using cell animation and drawing thousands of illustrations of his beloved dinosaur, he turned Gertie into one of the first successful character-based animated cartoons. With such ingenuity and style, it's clear why McCay was often called "The Father of American Cartoons."

2. 1920s: Charles Lindbergh and the Queen Fall for the Same Cat

 Because live-action films were such a big hit with moviegoers, early cartoon characters were often modeled on popular actors of the day. One such cartoon character was Master Tom—a black feline with enormous eyes and an inviting ear-to-ear grin. His creator, legendary animator Otto Messmer, based the cat's personality on silent-film star Charlie Chaplin. Fitting because, within a year, a slightly boxier version of the cat, now named Felix, started appearing regularly in animated shorts before Chaplin's feature films.

The fact that cartoon characters were still speaking in speech balloons hardly affected Felix's popularity. By 1923, the cat's star power at the box office rivaled not only Chaplin's, but Buster Keaton's and Fatty Arbuckle's, as well. From Germany to China, people were fascinated by the technology that enabled Felix to take his tail off and turn it into a pencil or a question mark or a shovel, and they couldn't wait to see what gags Messmer would dream up next. In fact, the wily feline became such a celebrity in Great Britain that Queen Mary named her own cat after him. Back in America, Felix's popularity continued to soar, literally, as a picture of him accompanied Charles Lindbergh on his historic flight across the Atlantic. The character's adventures didn't stop there, though; Felix was also the first image ever successfully transmitted by RCA during its early TV experiments.

3. 1920s: Doing It for the Kids

 Although Walt Disney's impact on the world of animation can't be downplayed, much of the credit for the studio's trademark style belongs to animator Ub Iwerks. A boyhood pal of Walt's, Iwerks served as Disney's righthand man. And where Disney had the business sense, Iwerks had the technical know-how to create characters that moved with fresh elasticity. Mickey Mouse's predecessor, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, was Iwerks' creation. Oswald had big floppy ears that appeared almost rubbery when he walked. So while characters like Felix the Cat might have squeezed themselves through telephone lines, Disney characters had a softer profile. Ultimately, it upped the hugability factor, and that paid off with a whole new audience—children.

4. 1928: When the Mouse Speaks, People Listen

 While Disney's animation house floated by for a while, it wasn't until Walt made his first "talkie" that America truly started buzzing about him. 1928's Steamboat Willie signaled the end of the silent-film era. Disney had followed engineers' experiments with sound and film throughout the 1920s, and he was convinced talkies were the future. Even though Mortimer Mouse (who Disney's wife wisely re-christened Mickey) never actually speaks a complete sentence during Steamboat Willie, he more than makes up for it with his whistling—not to mention his energetic xylophone performance on the teeth of an open-mouthed bovine.

The combination of dazzling, synchronized music and pictures of a kid-friendly, large-eared mouse made Mickey and Walt Disney household names. In fact, the success of Steamboat Willie spawned a stream of new films, including 1929's The Opry House—the movie in which Mickey dons his trademark white gloves for the first time.

5. 1930s: Marketing Kills the Animation Star

 Although cartoons continued to be made for adults first, children second, one thing in the industry did change. From about 1930 onwards, many of Disney's merchandising efforts were geared toward kids. In addition to Mickey Mouse dolls, there were combs, watches, pencils, T-shirts, coins, and even bedsheets—all of them exported the world over. It wasn't long before Mickey became one of the most recognizable symbols of America. In 1935, The League of Nations proclaimed Mickey Mouse a "symbol of universal goodwill."

All that attention came with plenty of responsibility, though. The economic pressure of the marketing strategy forced Disney to erase Mickey's mischievous side and turn him into an all-around Mr. Nice Guy. And while the move succeeded in boosting merchandising sales, it did the opposite for Mickey's on-screen popularity. The mouse's star power was soon usurped by the naughtier, hot-tempered Donald Duck, who made it cool to be bad. Disney attempted a comeback for the mouse by giving Mickey a more bad-boy role in 1940's Fantasia, but the film was a box office flop. It wasn't until The Mickey Mouse Club premiered in 1955 that Mickey began to regain his star status.

6. 1930: Betty Boop Gets Sexed Up (and Shot Down)

 During the early days of animation, Disney's studio wasn't the only one having trouble defining its characters' personalities. Max Fleischer (creator of Popeye) also had a giant hit on his hands with the seductive, garter-wearing flapper Betty Boop. However, some theater managers began reporting that their conservative audiences found the pint-size coquette too risqué, and in 1935, Betty became the first cartoon character to be censored by the Hays Office. Forced to make a change, Fleischer responded by transforming her into a more wholesome and domesticated lady. Sadly, the makeover proved fatal. By the end of the decade, Betty had fallen into her own Great Depression, never to be heard boop-boopy-dooping again.

7. 1933: Toons Get Looney

 Four of the most original and creative artists ever to come along—Tex Avery, Chuck Jones, Friz Freling, and Robert McKimson—had a different philosophy when it came to their animated creations: the zanier, the better. As the minds behind such classic characters as Daffy Duck, the Tasmanian Devil, Elmer Fudd, and Bugs Bunny, the animators made sure their stars ran wild, shouted at the top of their lungs, and killed, maimed, blew up, slugged, shot, and destroyed their foes. They even dressed 'em up in drag when the occasion called for it. As the Warner Brothers slogan promised at the beginning of each film, these were, indeed, Looney Tunes.

But it wasn't just their wackiness that made the Looney Tunes the largest collection of animated stars any studio had ever created. It was their animators' inventiveness. Bugs and Daffy were two of the first characters aware of their own cartoon-ness, which meant they were not only characters, but actors, as well. And while Felix the Cat may have been able to turn his tail into a baseball bat, Bugs Bunny could play pitcher, catcher, umpire, and himself all at the same time.

8. 1941: Animators Strike Back

 Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs might have had a happy ending, but for the animators working behind the scenes, things were less than fairytale. Cramming to meet the film's deadline, many artists worked well into the night with the understanding that they'd get bonuses once the film earned back its money. The film grossed oodles, but instead of doling out bonuses, Disney earmarked his handsome profits for a new studio he wanted built in Burbank. Fighting back, the Screen Cartoonists Guild went up against the Disney powerhouse in 1941. The ensuing strike lasted more than two months, and it took a White House intervention to halt it. The dispute was only settled when F.D.R. sent in mediators and forced Walt to cave.

Although the strike served as a disappointing reality check in the animation world, it ultimately sparked a series of positive changes in the industry. Artists were finally given on-screen credit for their work, and wages for 40-hour weeks doubled.

9. 1942: X Marks the Rating

 At times, the Warner Brothers' lunacy knew no bounds. During World War II, they created racy cartoons solely for American soldiers stationed in Europe. Full of expletives, X-rated images, and the occasional scatological humor, these animated shorts featured an inept trainee named Private Snafu. Amazingly, one of Snafu's writers was Ted Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss.

Other wartime WB cartoons created for regular civilian consumption featured edgy characterizations of Hitler and Mussolini that would never pass military muster today. For instance, in "Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips," Bugs sells ice cream bars stuffed with hand grenades to Japanese soldiers he affectionately calls "Slant Eyes." Not exactly politically correct by modern standards.

10. 1956: Cartoons Go Prime Time

 Following the disillusionment of the Disney strike in 1941, hundreds of animators were motivated to set out on their own. Zachary Schwartz, David Hilberman, and Stephen Bosustow were three of the most notable Disney artists to take the opportunity to head in a new direction. The result was United Productions of America, better known as UPA.

Whereas every year Disney pushed its cartooning style further toward realism and literalism, UPA pushed its style toward contemporary art. Disney's characters were soft and cuddly, while UPA's were angular and almost cold. And while Disney was mainly interested in animating animals, UPA made humans the stars of its films—and it paid off.

One of its first big hits was Gerald McBoing-Boing (the brainchild of Dr. Seuss, who collaborated with UPA on the series), which beat out both Tom & Jerry and Mr. Magoo for the 1951 Oscar. In 1956, CBS turned the film short into a Sunday afternoon TV series. And although the show didn't last nearly as long as later animated series such as The Flintstones, McBoing-Boing—and the UPA animators—have had a huge impact on the world of animation. From the minimalist backgrounds of Spongebob Squarepants to the flat, cutout look of South Park, the studio has influenced more than a half-century of cartoons by showing animators that it's OK to avoid realism altogether.

Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

Five rooms of one's own.
Five rooms of one's own.
Allwood/Amazon

If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

Intrigued? Find out more here.

[h/t Simplemost]

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

10 Facts About the White Night Riots

The Elephant Walk, one of Harvey Milk's favorite bars in San Francisco's Castro District, was one of the many landmarks damaged during the White Night Riots. In 1995, it was fittingly renamed Harvey's in Milk's honor.
The Elephant Walk, one of Harvey Milk's favorite bars in San Francisco's Castro District, was one of the many landmarks damaged during the White Night Riots. In 1995, it was fittingly renamed Harvey's in Milk's honor.
jondoeforty1, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

On November 27, 1978, Dan White, a former police officer and city supervisor, broke into San Francisco City Hall with a loaded revolver. Evading metal detectors, he snuck through a basement window and shot and killed both Mayor George Moscone and Harvey Milk, San Francisco's first openly gay elected official, in their offices. Weeks earlier, the mayor had refused to reinstate White as city supervisor after he previously resigned from the position; Milk was among those who backed the mayor's choice. Hours after the shootings, White turned himself in to the police and confessed to his crimes. What seemed like an open-and-shut murder case, however, turned out to be anything but.

The city's gay and lesbian population stood aghast on May 21, 1979, as White was convicted of the lesser crime of voluntary manslaughter, which only carried with it a maximum prison sentence of seven years and eight months (White would only serve five years). That night, thousands of enraged protestors showed up at City Hall and engaged in violent clashes with the police over the outcome of the trial. What would later become known as the White Night Riots redefined the relationship San Francisco's gay and lesbian community had with the political structure and law enforcement in the city at the time. Here are some facts that you should know about the White Night Riots, one of the most violent protests in San Francisco history.

1. Dan White's trial will forever be known for the "Twinkie Defense."

During Dan White's trial, his legal team had to convince the jury that their client wasn't a cold-blooded killer but was instead a man suffering from diminished capacity due to ongoing bouts of depression. Among the evidence they used to illustrate that White wasn't in his right mind during the killings was the fact that he had recently given up his normally healthy lifestyle in favor of sugary junk food and soda. To give these claims credibility, the defense even called Dr. Martin Blinder, a psychiatrist, to the stand to talk about how, among other things, White's sudden intake of sweets was clearly a sign of a man depressed. (He also brought up White's strained marriage and unkempt beard.)

Reporters covering the trial would coin the term Twinkie defense to describe the unique strategy, but despite its outlandish nickname, it was enough to sway the jury after six days of deliberation. Today, "Twinkie defense" has been inscribed into law dictionary history as a derogatory label for an improbable legal defense. (Though, in reality, Twinkies weren't even brought up during the trial, and the killings were never blamed directly on junk food itself.)

2. The police openly supported Dan White's cause.

Dan White, the former police officer, turned himself in to an old friend down at the department just a couple of hours after the killings. Soon, members of the city's police and fire departments had helped raise over $100,000 for White's defense and many officers were seen openly wearing “Free Dan White” T-shirts in the weeks and months before the trial.

3. The White Night Riots started off as a peaceful march on Castro Street.

Many within the city's gay community were furious when the verdict was announced, and that night, a crowd of people spontaneously gathered in San Francisco’s Castro District to begin a nonviolent protest march. Gay and lesbian activists raised their fists and led the way, chanting “No justice, no peace!” throughout the district. Originally, 500 people began the march, but that number would soon balloon to 1500 as the crowd moved through the city.

4. Famous activists spoke at the protest, including Cleve Jones and feminist Amber Hollibaugh.

Harvey Milk’s friend, Cleve Jones, spoke to a crowd on Castro Street through Milk's own bullhorn. He angrily denounced White's conviction, saying, “I saw what those bullets did. It was not manslaughter, it was murder.”

When the marchers reached City Hall, feminist and lesbian activist Amber Hollibaugh climbed onto the railing and gave a speech in front of the ever-growing crowd. She yelled, “It’s time we stood up for each other. That’s what Harvey meant to us. He wasn’t some big leader. He was one of us. I don’t think it’s wrong for us to feel like we do. I think we should feel like it more often!”

In the years after the protests, Jones and Hollibaugh would continue to be vocal activists in the LGBTQ community. In 1987, Jones became one of the creators of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, a handmade quilt made up of more than 50,000 panels that commemorate the lives of over 105,000 people who have died of AIDS-related illnesses. It remains the world’s largest community folk art project. And Hollibaugh went on to establish Queer Suvival Economics (QSE) in 2014, a project that addresses the intersection of sexuality, poverty, homelessness, labor, and the criminalization of survival.

5. Chaos broke out once the crowd reached City Hall.

By the time the demonstrators had reached City Hall, they had attracted a crowd of 5000, and the peaceful march soon evolved into a full-fledged riot. Grieving and angry protesters broke the windows and bars of City Hall, set police cars on fire, pelted the cops with rocks, and ripped parking meters off the sidewalks, leaving 59 officers and 124 protestors injured in three hours. The White Night Riots remains one of San Francisco’s most violent protests, and one estimate put the cost of the damage at $1 million.

6. Some police officers covered their badges with black tape during the riots.

When police arrived on the scene, they were ordered to hold the crowd back. However, many officers began assaulting the demonstrators with night sticks, with some even covering their badges with black tape during the chaos. Protesters tore off tree branches to use them as protection against the police who were armed with clubs and riot shields. After three violent hours, the police used tear gas to stop the protestors. Later, the FBI investigated the police’s use of force but no officers were ever reprimanded.

7. Rogue police officers retaliated by raiding The Castro District, San Francisco’s “Gay Mecca.”

After the destruction at City Hall, some rogue police officers headed to The Castro District, an area known for its large gay community. Harvey Milk was an admired public figure throughout the district and was even nicknamed “the Mayor of Castro Street.” One of his favorite haunts was the Elephant Walk bar, a safe space for people otherwise unwelcome in straight bars.

During the White Night Riots, a crowd of people dashed into the bar for shelter, but the police stormed in and demolished the property. Officers clubbed and injured the people inside, crashed bar stools, and broke windows while shouting anti-gay slurs. When former police inspector Jack Webb questioned why officers were pouring into the Castro when it had been quiet and nonviolent, the police captain allegedly responded, “We lost the battle at City Hall. We aren’t going to lose this one.”

In 1995, 16 years after the riots, and after surviving a fire that almost destroyed the entire building in 1988, the Elephant Walk bar reopened under a new name: Harvey’s. You can still find it at 500 Castro Street.

8. Flyers were plastered all over Castro Street warning protestors from speaking out.

Days after the riots, flyers appeared around the Castro, warning neighbors to keep quiet in fear of persecution by the law. The flyers read, “Our defense against the police is each other, our strength is our silence.” The ongoing distrust in the gay community ran so deep that the flyers even discouraged people from cooperating with law enforcement looking for information about the Elephant Walk attack.

9. The day after the White Night Riots would have been Harvey Milk's 49th birthday.

The day after the riots, May 22, would have been Harvey Milk’s birthday, and an estimated 20,000 San Franciscans peacefully gathered to celebrate and honor his legacy. This event had been organized months prior to the riots, but in light of the protests, the organizers came prepared with community “gay monitors” who wore shirts with “PLEASE! No violence” printed on them. The community policed themselves as Mayor Dianne Feinstein ordered police not to enter the immediate area. The “noisy and sometimes drunken” celebration of Milk's life was a complete turnaround from the night before. “Last night, gay men and lesbian women showed the world we’re angry and on the move,” Cleve Jones said at the gathering. "Tonight, we are going to show them that we are building a strong community.”

10. The 2008 movie based on Harvey Milk's life and assassination omitted all mention of the White Night Riots.

Directed by Gus Van Sant, the biographical film Milk details the life of Harvey Milk, focusing on his rising political career as a gay rights trailblazer. But the film comes to an abrupt end when Dan White shoots Milk and Mayor Moscone, with a closing shot of a candlelight vigil across San Francisco. The film’s omission of the violence that wracked the city on May 21 also omits Harvey Milk’s legacy that sparked an aggressive fight for gay rights on the West Coast. In 2017, however, Van Sant did wind up recreating the riots as a producer on the miniseries When We Rise, which chronicles the major events in recent LGBT history.