Cohl's 'Fantasmagorie' celebrates 100th birthday

Debate flares whenever someone tries to identify the world’s first animated film, which means some will surely take exception as the Annecy fest gives the honor to Frenchman Emile Cohl this time, celebrating 100 years since the debut of the artist’s landmark toon “Fantasmagorie.”

It was on Aug. 17, 1908, that Gaumont released Cohl’s two-minute animated short. Though physical objects (J. Stuart Blackton’s “The Haunted Hotel,” 1907), chalk drawings (Blackton’s “Humorous Phases of Funny Faces,” 1906) and various “trickfilms” using animation for special effects predate Cohl’s film, “Fantasmagorie” was the first to feature drawn cartoons on paper shot sequentially frame by frame on a makeshift animation camera stand. Cohl also had to invent a lightbox in order to sketch and register the drawings.

Annecy artistic director Serge Bromberg scoured the world to find the best print to show at this year’s fest, where the short will screen as part of a retrospective on early animation. To his surprise, he found a vintage 16mm print, thought to be the only surviving full-frame original copy, at the Academy Film Archive in Los Angeles.

Years earlier, film preservationist David Shepard had obtained the footage through a high school classmate, himself the grandson of one of the original Lumiere Cinematographe operators sent to the U.S.

It is this 16mm print, which Gaumont recently scanned in 2K, digitally cleaned and recorded back to 35mm, that will screen at Annecy. (A digital copy from the same source also appears on the DVD set “Saved From the Flames” from Flicker Alley.)

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