First animated map ever? La première carte animée ?

Screen capture of what may very well be the earliest animated map ever from the movie Among the Cannibal Isles of the South Pacific (Martin E. Johnson, 1918) (can 236H – Courtesy The Library of Congress NAVCC).

Is this the first animated map ever? At least it is one of the first ones. It was created for a 1918 docudrama entitled Among the Cannibal Isles of the South Pacific (Martin E. Johnson, 1918). An animated black line traces the journey of director Martin Johnson and his wife Osa from the New Hebrides Islands to the Solomon Islands in the South pacific.

Est-ce la première carte animée  ? Vraisemblablement une des toutes premières. Elle a été créée pour un « docudrama » de 1918 intitulé Among the Cannibal Isles of the South Pacific (Martin E. Johnson, 1918). Une ligne noire animée représente le voyage du réalisateur Martin Johnson et de sa femme Osa depuis les Nouvelles Hébrides jusqu’aux îles Salomon dans le Pacifique Sud.

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Indeed animated maps appeared in motion pictures long before they emerged from cartographers’ laboratories. While the interest in using film in cartography is rooted in the propaganda of WWII, it is in the 1950s, with the work of pioneers such as Norman Thrower in the late 1950s and 1960s, that professional cartographers began developing animated maps. At that time, cinematic maps were already common in feature films.

While Among the Cannibal Isles of the South Pacific purports to offer the first footage of these exotic communities, it contributes to the construction of geospatial archives of the time, which was one of the goals of early cinema. The Johnsons develop the narrative through the increasing danger they face by traveling through these unexplored communities. As a result, the danger increases as they travel to more and more remote locations. Footage of the Johnsons dancing at the beginning of the movie is juxtaposed with a dramatic escape from cannibals at the end. In this sense, the audience is never conscious of where reality ends and where fiction begins.

The unfolding map that shows the trip from the New Hebrides to the Solomon Islands plays on this duality. On the one hand it reinforces the veracity of documentary discourse by grounding it in existing places. On the other hand, the animated map also contributes to the narration as it increases the dramatic tension of the film. Indeed, the tension rises as both characters travel between the welcoming communities of the New Hebrides to the dangerous and savage communities of the Solomon Islands. The duality of the map as an historical record and narrative device characterizes the ambivalence of this docudrama. The map also plays a structural role as it appears at the turning point of the film; it links the first part of the film describing the “good” savages of the New Hebrides to the second part of the film depicting the “barbaric cannibals” from the Solomon Islands. This cinemap serves as a transition – a cartographic intertitle – between the close and the remote islands, the “good” and the “bad” savages.

As illustrated by this example, early cinemaps reveal different functions in docudramas. They support the documentary claim of the films by linking them to real places; they reinforce the dramatic tension of the narration; and they contribute to the dissemination of a political discourse. Of special interest to cartography is the use of animation and animated symbols in maps. This example characterizes the techniques used in early cinema in which the camera is immobile and the movement is added to films. In these early cinemaps, the camera is immobile and elements are animated, a functional technique of digital cartography, which was not developed by professional cartographers until several decades later.

Note: These paragraphs have been extracted from the following paper: Caquard S. 2009. « Foreshadowing Contemporary Digital Cartography: A Historical Review of Cinematic Maps in Films », The Cartographic Journal 46 (1): 46-55.


Traduction à venir


  • Work Title/Titre de l’œuvre : Among the Cannibal Isles of the South Pacific
  • Author/Auteur : Martin E. Johnson
  • Year/Année : 1918
  • Field/Domaine : Cinema/Cinéma
  • Type : Docudrama
  • Edition :
  • Language/Langue : en (intertiles/intertitres)
    • Machinery/Dispositif : Map/Carte
    • Location in work/localisation dans l’œuvre : Central (turning point of the story) / Point charnière de l’histoire
    • Geographical location/localisation géographique : South Pacific Ocean

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