Not the first animation ever, not exactly the first on film (Pauvre Pierrot holds this record, though it was figures projected on painted backgrounds), “Humorous Phases of Funny Faces” is nevertheless the inception of the animated short.
With a framing device of the artist drawing on a blackboard, it prefigures artistic animation rather than the commercial sort due to take off a couple of decades later. Still, it was fun enough to keep both me and my 3-year-old son entertained for four minutes, and 112 years later I’d consider that to be a mark of quality.
Cinema was even more a sideshow attraction than recorded sound in 1892. In pre-Lumiere France, cinematic pioneer Émile Reynaud was projecting slides with moving images in front of painted backgrounds at his Théâtre Optique in Paris. In a sense this had been done for hundreds of years with magic lantern shows, but Reynaud’s innovation was that foreground figures could be pre-painted frame by frame and set on film in order to produce the illusion of movement; in magic lantern shows figures would have hand-operated puppet-like fixed movements.
Reynaud’s figures are full of life and character, and while ‘lifelike’ might be a bit of a stretch, it’s a bold leap forward, and it’s a shame that it doesn’t get more recognition.