How a Mosquito Operates

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How a Mosquito Operates
A black-and-white film still.  A giant mosquito plunges its proboscis into the side of a man's head.  The man is lying down in bed, and has a horrified look in his open eye.
Directed by Winsor McCay
Distributed by Vitagraph Studios
Release date(s)
  • January 1912 (1912-01)
Running time 6 minutes
Country United States
Language Silent

How a Mosquito Operates (1912), also known as The Story of a Mosquito, is a silent animated film by American cartoonist and animator Winsor McCay. The six-minute short, about a giant mosquito who torments a sleeping man, is one of the earliest animated films and is noted for the high technical quality of its naturalistic animation, considered far ahead of its contemporaries.

McCay had a reputation for the technical dexterity of his cartooning, displayed most famously in the children's comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland (1905–1911). He delved into the infant art of film animation in 1911 with Little Nemo, and followed that film's success with How a Mosquito Operates. McCay gives the animation naturalistic timing, motion, and weight, and displays a more coherent story and developed character than in Nemo.

How a Mosquito Operates was enthusiastically received when McCay first unveiled it as part of his "chalk talk" vaudeville act, and in a theatrical release that soon followed. In 1914 McCay further developed the character animation he introduced in Mosquito with his best-known animated work, Gertie the Dinosaur.


How a Mosquito Operates (1912)

A man looks around apprehensively before entering his room to go to sleep.[1] A giant mosquito (with top hat and briefcase) flies in through a transom after it finds itself too large to squeeze in through a keyhole. It repeatedly feeds on the sleeping man, who tries in vain to shoo away his assailant. Eventually, the mosquito drinks itself so full that it explodes.[2]


How a Mosquito Operates, or The Story of a Mosquito,[3] is one of the earliest examples of line-drawn animation.[4] The film capitalizes on strengths of the film medium, then in its infancy, by making use of physical, visual action.[5]

Rather than merely expanding like a balloon, as the mosquito drinks its abdomen fills consistent with its bodily structure in a naturalistic way.[6] The heavier it becomes, the more difficulty it has keeping its balance.[7] The mosquito has a personality: egotistical, persistent, and calculating (as when it whets its beak on a stone wheel). Although horrifying to watch, its actions are balanced with humor, as when it finds itself so engorged with blood that it must lie down.[7]


A black-and-white photograph of a seated middle-aged, balding man in a suit and tie, head leaning lightly on his right hand
Winsor McCay had built a reputation for his drawing skills in his newspaper comic strips before pioneering in animation.

Winsor McCay (c. 1869–1934)[a] developed prodigiously detailed and accurate drawing skills early in life.[9] As a young man, he earned a living drawing portraits and posters in dime museums, and attracted large crowds with his ability to draw quickly in public.[10] McCay began working as a full-time newspaper illustrator in 1898,[11] and began drawing comic strips in 1903.[12] His greatest comic-strip success was the children's fantasy Little Nemo in Slumberland,[13] which he launched in 1905.[14] McCay began performing on the vaudeville circuit the following year, doing chalk talks—performances in which he drew in front of a live audience.[15]

Inspired by flip books his son Robert brought home,[16] McCay "came to see the possibility of making moving pictures"[17] of his cartoons. He claimed that he "was the first man in the world to make animated cartoons",[17] although he had been preceded by animators such as James Stuart Blackton and Émile Cohl.[17] McCay made four thousand drawings on rice paper for his first animated short, which starred his Little Nemo characters.[18] The Little Nemo film debuted in movie theatres in 1911, and McCay soon incorporated it into his vaudeville act.[18] The animated sequences in Little Nemo had no plot:[19] much like the early experiments by the French animator Émile Cohl, McCay had used his first film to demonstrate the medium's capabilities—with fanciful sequences demonstrating motion for its own sake. In Mosquito he wanted greater believability, and balanced outlandish action with naturalistic timing, motion, and weight.[1] As he had already demonstrated in his first film that pictures could be made to move, in the second he focused on a simple story.[19]

Vaudeville acts and humor magazines commonly joked about large New Jersey mosquitoes (known as "Jersey Skeeters"), and McCay had frequently used mosquitoes in his comic strip—including an October 23, 1910, Little Nemo episode where Nemo is attacked by a swarm of mosquitoes after returning from a trip to Mars.[b][20] McCay took the idea for the film from a June 5, 1909, episode of his comic strip Dream of the Rarebit Fiend.[21] In the original, the mosquito (without top hat or briefcase) gorges itself on an alcoholic, becoming so drunk in the end that it cannot fly away.[7]

Twenty-panel "Dream of the Rarebit Fiend" comic strip
The June 5, 1909, Dream of the Rarebit Fiend comic strip upon which the film was based

Production and release[edit]

McCay began working on the film in May 1911.[20] Shortly after, he left the employ of the New York Herald for the newspapers of William Randolph Hearst—a sign of his rising stardom. A magazine advertisement that July announced, "moving picture, containing six thousand sketches ... [that] will be a 'release' for vaudeville next season by Mr. McCay. The film will be named How a Mosquito Operates."[20]

The drawing for Mosquito was finished in December 1911,[22] but when McCay sent the frames to Vitagraph Studios for photographing, they disappeared with the driver of the horse-drawn taxi, only to be discovered unharmed a few days later by police. The film had to be shot twice due to lighting issues at the studio.[20] How a Mosquito Operates debuted in January 1912[23]—first as part of McCay's vaudeville act, which he toured through spring and summer, and later in movie theaters.[24] It was distributed abroad by Vitagraph Studios.[7]

In a live-action prologue that has been lost, McCay and his daughter, "pestered to death by mosquitoes" at their summer home in New Jersey, find a professor who speaks the insects' language. The professor tells McCay to "make a series of drawings to illustrate just how the insect does its deadly work", and after months of work McCay invites the professor to watch the film.[25]

Reception and legacy[edit]

John Randolph Bray's The Artist's Dream (1913) bore thematic resemblance to McCay's first two films, but Bray denied McCay's influence.

According to animator Chris Webster, How a Mosquito Operates was released at a time when audience demand for animation outstripped the studios' ability to supply it. When most studios were struggling merely to make animation work, McCay showed a mastery of the medium and a sense of how to create believable motion.[26]

The film opened to large audiences, and was well received. The Detroit Times described audiences laughing until they cried, and "[going] home feeling that [they] had seen one of the best programs" in the theater's history.[27] The paper called the film "a marvelous arrangement of colored drawings", referring to the final explosive sequence, which McCay had hand-painted red.[27] The New York Morning Telegraph remarked, "[McCay's] moving pictures of his drawings have caused even film magnates to marvel at their cleverness and humor".[27] McCay spoke in interviews of the new animated film medium's potential for "serious and educational work", hinting at the subject of his next film, 1914's Gertie the Dinosaur.[27]

Animator John Randolph Bray's first film, The Artist's Dream, appeared in 1913; it alternates live-action and animated sequences, and features a dog who explodes after eating too many sausages. Although these aspects are reminiscent of McCay's first two films, Bray said that he was unaware of McCay's efforts while working on The Artist's Dream.[28]

Following Mosquito, animation tended to be story-based; for decades attention was rarely drawn to the technology underlying it, and live-action sequences became infrequent.[29] Animator John Canemaker commended McCay for his ability to imbue a mosquito with character and personality,[3] and stated the technical quality of McCay's animation was far ahead of its time, unmatched until Disney studios gained prominence in the 1930s with films such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937).[30]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Different accounts have given McCay's birth year as 1867, 1869, and 1871. His birth records are not extant.[8]
  2. ^ Commons-logo.svg Wikimedia Commons has a file available for this comic strip.


  1. ^ a b Canemaker 2005, p. 165.
  2. ^ Canemaker 2005, p. 165; Berenbaum 2009, p. 138; Telotte 2010, p. 54; Dowd & Hignite 2006, pp. 13–14.
  3. ^ a b Eagan 2010, p. 33.
  4. ^ Berenbaum 2009, p. 138.
  5. ^ Petersen 2010, p. 111.
  6. ^ Barrier 2003, p. 17; Dowd & Hignite 2006, p. 13.
  7. ^ a b c d Canemaker 2005, p. 167.
  8. ^ Canemaker 2005, p. 22.
  9. ^ Canemaker 2005, pp. 23–24.
  10. ^ Canemaker 2005, pp. 38, 40, 43–44.
  11. ^ Canemaker 2005, p. 47.
  12. ^ Canemaker 2005, p. 60.
  13. ^ Harvey 1994, p. 21; Hubbard 2012; Sabin 1993, p. 134; Dover editors 1973, p. vii; Canwell 2009, p. 19.
  14. ^ Canemaker 2005, p. 97.
  15. ^ Canemaker 2005, pp. 131–132.
  16. ^ Beckerman 2003; Canemaker 2005, p. 157.
  17. ^ a b c Canemaker 2005, p. 157.
  18. ^ a b Canemaker 2005, p. 160.
  19. ^ a b Wood 2012, pp. 23–24.
  20. ^ a b c d Canemaker 2005, p. 164.
  21. ^ Eagan 2010, p. 33; Canemaker 2005, p. 167.
  22. ^ Theisen 1933, p. 84; Canemaker 2005, p. 164.
  23. ^ Bendazzi 1994, p. 16.
  24. ^ Barrier 2003, p. 10.
  25. ^ Canemaker 2005, pp. 164–165.
  26. ^ Webster 2012, p. 11.
  27. ^ a b c d Canemaker 2005, pp. 167–168.
  28. ^ Barrier 2003, p. 12.
  29. ^ Wood 2012, p. 24.
  30. ^ Webster 2012, p. 11; Canemaker 2005, p. 167.

Works cited[edit]

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