VICTOR BERGDAHL WAS A SAILOR, a painter, a cartoonist, a reporter and also an author. But above all he deserves his place in history as an animator. And not just any place – his rank in the history of animation should be the same as that of another Victor in the history of film: Sjöström.
Two incidents from Bergdahl’s youth were important in forming his artistic career. The first was when he at the age of twenty, in Norway in 1899, signed on the Aberystwyth Castle as an ordinary seaman and sailed to Australia with a cargo of timber. His experiences from the long voyage were told in his autobiography To the Antipodes as Jack Tar, published in three editions.
The second incident is his 40 feet fall from the mainsail. It ended his career as a sailor. His spine and his right hand were injured so severely that he was confined to his bed for a year. After the convalescence he had but one choice: to become an established artist, and so he started a fairly successful career as a cartoonist.
His first encounter with animation was in 1912 when he, by coincidence, had seen Slumberland, an early animated film from 1911 by the American genius Winsor McCay. The film, in fact a staging of McCay’s cartoon drawings from the strip Little Nemo in Slumberland, gave Bergdahl the impulse to try animation himself. Of course he had no technical knowledge, but the cinema owner “explained” the secret of animation in the following words:
“The magic is brought about by letting the pictures joined together in the shape of a book dash past with the help of one’s thumbs in front of the camera, to enable the optical illusion of motional pictures to be caught on the celluloid film.” After that explanation Bergdahl chose to develop a technique of his own.
And that is exactly what he did.
THE SAME YEAR HE FINISHED DRAWING his first movie, but it wasn’t filmed until 1915 when the famous manager of Svenska Bio, Charles Magnusson, realized the potential of animated films. The film is The Magic Potion (Trolldrycken). The bizarre contents and abstract graphic elements places it at least fifty years ahead of its contemporary animations.
The “leading character” of the film is alcohol, which continued to play an important role in the films of Bergdahl and probably in his life, too. Bergdahl was soon to create “the drawn pictorial joke” about his alter ego Captain Grogg, a discarded sailor with a pugnose, permanently armed with a pocket flask that often helps him out from difficult situations and dire straits. Probably the teetotallers and those advocating temperance were not amused. by Bergdahl’s production.
Captain Grogg was in fact the first true animation of the European continent with a recurring character. In all there were thirteen episodes with the liquor-loving Grogg. Rather frank erotic passages, jokes and innovative animation made Bergdahl famous even abroad, especially in Germany and Russia. The masterpiece above all among his pictures is Captain Grogg had his portrait done (Kapten Grogg skulle porträtteras) from 1917. Here Bergdahl used both live and drawn pictures in an utterly complicated method of double exposure, a technique developed in the studio of Julius Pinschewer around 1910.
Bergdahl also succeeded in filming himself and his drawn character in an active and mutual relationship without knowing anything at all about the rotoscope, a technical device that helped the Fleischer brothers do the same thing two years after Bergdahl, but “for the first time” according to many film history works. In the same movie Bergdahl used pixilization, where live persons are animated, a method that later would make Hans Richter and Norman McLaren famous. Bergdahl didn’t know of the transparent celluloids on which you draw animated characters, so he had to invent another method.
To escape the need of drawing the same backdrop over and over again, he had the backdrops printed in hundreds and then drew the characters on the printed papers. He constructed his own version of an animation table with light from underneath, and in the latter days of his career he also created his innovative cut-out method, with paper dolls and a movable scene from cut-out parts. With this method he could produce his commercial and educational films much faster, yet another area of filmmaking where Bergdahl was a pioneer. In fact, his last animation was a gynaecology education film, about the female sexual organs and foetus development.
THE GREATNESS OF BERGDAHL IS OBVIOUS also from other aspects than the technical ones. The sensitivity he used in representing the movements of waves was a hallmark for his animation skills. There are but a few animators who reach his level when it comes to animating water (among those are Milt Kahl [Disney], the Russian Vano Ivanov, some Japanese anime-artists…), but they all came several years after Bergdahl.
Just like Emile Cohl, Bergdahl addressed an adult audience. And like his great French forerunners, Bergdahl also understood the inner spirit of animation. It is a medium characterized by its ability to go beyond physical limits. According to that opinion he created films that belong to the most important works in early European animation. With him, Swedish animation got to a striking start.