Blackton was born in Sheffield, Yorkshire, England, in 1875. At the age of ten, he and his family immigrated to New York City. In 1894, Blackton and two fellow English émigrés, Albert E. Smith and Ronald A. Reader, formed a partnership to break into vaudeville. Smith called himself the "Komikal Konjurer", Blackton was the "Komikal Kartoonist", and Reader operated an early version of the slide projector called a "magic lantern". Blackton's act consisted of "lightning sketches", where Blackton drew and rapidly modified drawings on an easel pad before the audience's eyes, accompanying this with a stream of talk nearly as rapid. The act failed to make enough money and the trio broke up to get regular jobs.
Blackton ended up as a reporter/artist for the New York Evening World newspaper. In 1896, Thomas Edison publicly demonstrated the Vitascope, one of the first film projectors, and Blackton was sent to interview Edison and provide drawings of how his films were made. Eager for good publicity, Edison took Blackton out to his "Black Maria", the special cabin he used to do his filming, and created a film on the spot of Blackton doing a lightning portrait of Edison. The inventor did such a good job selling the art of movie-making that he talked Blackton and partner Smith into buying a print of the new film as well as nine other films, plus a Vitascope to show them to paying audiences (Reader was brought back in to run the projector).
The new act was a great success, largely despite the various things Blackton and Smith were doing between the Edison films. The next step was to start making films of their own. In this way the American Vitagraph Company was born.
During this period J. Stuart Blackton was not only running the Vitagraph studio, but also producing, directing, writing, and even starring in his films (he played the comic strip character "Happy Hooligan" in a series of shorts). Since profits were constantly increasing, Blackton felt that he could try any idea that sprang to his head. In a series of films, Blackton developed the concepts of animation.
The first of these films is The Enchanted Drawing, with a copyright date of 1900 but probably made at least a year earlier. In this film, Blackton the lightning artist sketches a face, cigars, and a bottle of wine. He appears to remove the last drawings as real objects, and the face appears to react. The "animation" here is of the stop-action variety (the camera is stopped, a single change is made, and the camera is then started again) first used by Méliès and others.
The transition to stop-motion was apparently accidental and occurred around 1905. According to Albert Smith, one day the crew was filming a complex series of stop-action effects on the roof while steam from the building's generator was billowing in the background. On playing the film back, Smith noticed the odd effect created by the steam puffs scooting across the screen and decided to reproduce it deliberately. A few films, some lost, use this effect to represent invisible ghosts or to have toys come to life. In 1906, Blackton directed Humorous Phases of Funny Faces, which uses stop-motion as well as stick puppetry to produce a series of effects. After Blackton's hand draws two faces on a chalkboard, they appear to come to life and engage in antics. Most of the film uses life action effects instead of animation, but nevertheless this film had a huge effect in stimulating the creation of animated films in America. In Europe, the same effect was had from "The Haunted Hotel" (1907), another Vitagraph short directed by Blackton. The "Haunted Hotel" was mostly live-action, about a tourist spending the night in an inn run by invisible spirits. Most of the effects are also live-action (wires and such), but one scene of a dinner making itself was done using stop-motion, and was presented in a tight close-up that allowed budding animators to study it for technique.
Blackton made another animated film that has survived, 1907's "Lightning Sketches", but it has nothing to add to the art of animation. In 1908 he made the first American film version of Romeo and Juliet, filmed in New York City's Central Park. By 1909, Blackton was too absorbed in the business of running Vitagraph to have time for filmmaking. He came to regard his animation experiments in particular as being rather juvenile (they receive no mention in his unpublished autobiography).
Blackton left Vitagraph to go independent in 1917, but returned in 1923 as junior partner to Alfred Smith. In 1925, Smith sold the company to Warner Brothers for a comfortable profit.
Blackton did quite well with his share until the Stock Market Crash of 1929, which destroyed his savings. He spent his last years on the road, showing his old films and lecturing about the days of silent movies. His daughter Violet Virginia Blackton (1910-1965) married writer Cornell Woolrich in 1930 but their marriage was annulled in 1933.
Blackton was married to actress Evangeline Wood when he was killed in a road accident in 1941. Cremated, his ashes were placed in the columbarium at Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California.
"Before Walt" DVD, 2006, Inkwell Images, Inc.