Animation has always had to fight hard for its share of critical attention. So often damned as the second cousin of mainstream live action cinema, or merely relegated to the margins as children’s entertainment, it has struggled to shake off the long held stigma that undermines its proper place in film history, and indeed, Film Studies. Even in our more enlightened digital era, when animation now seems central to the whole endeavour of film practice, Sight & Sound could recently still dismiss the extraordinary 2D drawn animation and 3D puppet animation of classical Russian folk dances by Alexander Shiryaev made in the early 1900s as a negligible footnote.
With the thorough and persuasive work of Tjitte de Vries & Ati Mul in championing the achievements of British stop motion animation pioneer, Arthur Melbourne Cooper, however, this may prove harder to do. They Thought it was a Marvel – a title drawn from Cooper’s recollection of the audience’s response to his first trick film – is a genuine contribution to the canon of film history texts.
De Vries & Mul’s study is a labour of love, and a lifetime’s work, and though not without flaw, makes a convincing case for Cooper’s place as the creator of the first extant stop motion animation films made in 1899. Further, they convincingly view Cooper as a comparable figure to J. Stuart Blackton in the United States, and Emile Cohl in France, in creating the first bonafide animated films per se, and certainly, as the founder of puppet animation.
It is rare to see a book which so readily and exhaustively foregrounds its evidence in seeking to prove its point, and it is a testament to the value of working with complex primary sources, and the profound importance of archives in a seemingly increasingly ‘de-historicised’ contemporary era. Consequently, there is some repetition, and a sense of over-statement in places, but a ready corrective for this is in an authoritative preface by leading animation historian, Donald Crafton, who raises important points about the validity of the book’s claims without undermining its major achievement.
The book is in two parts. The first is essentially an extended essay looking at Cooper’s career, tracing his work for Birt Acres in 1892, his development as a freelance cameraman from 1895, his investment in stop motion animation at his own Alpha Studios in St Albans from 1901-1911, and his post First World War career in Blackpool. The most compelling aspect remains de Vries and Mul’s assertion that MATCHES APPEAL, Cooper’s ‘industrial’ for Bryant & May in the service of raising funds for the Boer War effort, previously dated as being made in 1906 or 1907, or even as late as the First World War, was in fact made in 1899. This is a crucial and important intervention in the history of animation, and will, no doubt, provoke significant response. Less contentious in this section is the case made for a dream of toyland, made in 1907, as an early animation masterpiece. Combining the efforts of at least eight amateur animators under Cooper’s direction, the film is populated by some forty toy characters, including a polar bear, a golly and two Dutch dolls, all made at Hamleys, each playing out comic vignettes and micro-storylines. The film is unquestionably an overlooked and significant milestone in both film and animation history.
The second part is a comprehensive filmography, each entry featuring the customary credits and synopsis, but embellished with details of the primary, contemporary and complementary sources from which De Vries and Mul found their information about the films, and the publications, correspondence, recorded interviews and unpublished manuscripts which have informed their research. Chief among these is the material provided by Cooper’s daughter, Audrey Wadowska, who like a number of ‘animation daughters and granddaughters’ – Madeleine Malthête-Méliès, Marian Blackton Trimble, Ludmila and Linda Zeman, and Vivien Halas to name but a few – have been left to champion the neglected legacies of their pioneering forbears. While De Vries and Mul wrestle with the problems of using such an invested source, their work is a skilful exemplar of corroborated evidence and suggestive interpretation, and in this alone the book provides a high quality approach to research valuable for all nascent film scholars.
But what of the man at the heart of the book ? It is clear that Arthur Melbourne Cooper was a prolific film-maker, working on some three hundred films, including 36 that were animated, and of which only six are known to have survived, and are included on a dvd here. It is in watching the films themselves that Cooper’s place as a major figure in early cinema is surely evidenced. Dancing matchstick sportsmen, monkeys on toy horses chasing bears, Noah throwing away an unnecessary signpost as he closes a crowded ark, and crashing mechanical racing cars in a rural idyll – all images of a craftsman, a dreamer and an innovator. Cooper was a significant film-maker still experimenting with a new medium, responding to the changing modern world around him, and daring to create marvels. As De Vries and Mul prove, Cooper is the true father of British animation, and a major and unsung contributor to the history of animation itself.