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Old 04-16-2017, 01:58 AM   #51 (permalink)
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Old 11-30-2019, 10:51 AM   #52 (permalink)
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Picking this back up again two years later, what better way to continue than to go, um, backwards? See, it seems to me that I got a little caught up in what we’ll call the start of the Disney era, and thereafter based all my research on animation outside of the USA on that period. But hell, you can go a long way back outside the borders of the United States to find people in Europe who were working on animation - at least, of a kind; crude, obviously, but still important - and who really should be looked into.

So I want to continue the “UnAmerican Animation” feature but take a look back to before the 1930s. Well before, in fact, and run through what countries in the UK and Europe (and even, I see, Ireland!) were doing in the opening decades of the twentieth century. Nothing groundbreaking, I guess, but it seems there was a fair deal of animation development and experimentation going on even then.

UnAmerican Animation: Rockin' Outside the USA (Part III)
Well, obviously you’re going to get a few people claiming to be the father of animation, including Uncle Walt and his rival Max Fleishcher, though in reality people like Paul Grimault and Lotte Reinenger are probably better candidates. Seems you can even go all the way back to the ancients, who painted “moving scenes” on jars and things, that are accepted as being animation in their own right. But I’m not concerned with such prehistoric examples, and in the course of my research since leaving this on hiatus in 2017 I've found it hard to come up with a definitive answer as to who is responsible for the birth of animation. Therefore I present these examples of men who can possibly be called

The Godfathers of Animation

Charles-Émile Reynaud (1844-1918)

With an engineer for a father and an artist for a mother, Reynaud was perfectly placed to become one of the first animators, improving upon the zoetrope, a device that spun and showed painted figures which appeared to move as the watcher viewed them through slits cut in the cylinder, with his praxinoscope, which improved the design by replacing the simple slits with mirrors, making the images as they passed by more fluid and less distorted that those seen through the zoetrope. Originally sold as a very successful toy, Reynaud began to think about using it as a projector, by having a large screen in front of the praxinoscope, onto which he could project his “moving” figures. In essence, it seems this was the first example, almost, of a movie projector. However Reynaud failed to patent it and a few short years later the Lumière brothers created and patented the first real movie camera, the cinematograph, and that was the end of his invention.

The théâtre optique

Literally, the optical theatre, this was the improved version of Reynaud’s praxinoscope, the one with the ability to project the figures onto a screen. Reynaud’s first performance was for some select friends, and was called “Un Bon Bock” (a good beer) and they were so impressed by it that he then set up the théâtre optique. However the popularity of his machine turned out to be something of a two-edged sword. Two of its main drawbacks were that it was very fragile, and could easily break if not handled and treated properly, and in addition the only way to operate it was by hand, which meant that when Reynaud secured a contract with the Grévin Museum in 1892 for daily performances of the machine, he had to be there personally to turn the thing. Not quite sure why he couldn’t have paid someone else to do it, but that’s what it says. Maybe the museum wanted him to be there personally in case anyone had any questions, or maybe they didn’t (or he didn’t) trust anyone else to work the apparatus. Maybe it was just in the contract that it had to be him.

Whatever the reason, the Grévin also demanded new films every year, while a clause in the contract (did he not read it before signing such a draconian document?) prevented him from selling any of his films outside of France. The grind of being tied into this contract, all his time taken up literally turning the handle of the praxinoscope and coming up with new material for it, allied to the as already alluded to invention of the cinematograph, which was to make his machine obsolete only a few years later, all led to Reynaud testily dumping his films into the Seine, where they were destroyed. Sadly, nothing exists today except this one clip I was able to track down. It does, however, make the jaw drop when you see the techniques used and remember this was at the tail-end of the nineteenth century!

Sure. you can see through the figure and it’s obvious he’s made of paper, but look how he moves! Or seems to, I should say. Look how the brightly-painted figure of the woman appears to emerge from a door to the right and walk onto the “stage”. When Pierrot enters, he comes through a door that just appears in the wall, but it’s believable as an entrance. And the figures genuinely seem to interact with each other. Remember, these are just static drawings being projected on a screen. When the door opens there’s a square of light on the floor too, as if a real door had opened, and when the first figure we saw goes behind a pillar, he disappears completely, in that sort of animation-doesn’t-obey-the-laws-of-physics thing I talked about in the section on "Plane Crazy" and also on Felix, both of whom were almost thirty-five years later. Now the reconstruction shown in the video was admittedly a hundred years later, but you have to assume that all they did was restored it, not upgraded or updated it in any way, in which case it’s a stunning achievement for the time.

I think Reynaud has a good claim to being named the actual father of animation, though history precludes him from this as he was not ultimately successful, and was largely forgotten as the cinematograph took over and the Lumière brothers passed instead into the history books. At the heart of the unhappy inventor’s failure was the reliance on temperamental machinery that was very delicate, but more, the one-man-band idea, the artisan who worked alone. While the Lumières made a business out of their new machine, had it easily mass-produced and were able to show people how to use it, Reynaud, a true remnant of the nineteenth century compared to the forward-looking, almost futurist Lumières, laboured on alone and refused to involve big business or investors, and like all the “little guys” in every developing industry, he was crushed by the wheels of advancing technology. He died after a short spell in a hospice in 1917.

Remarkably, and perhaps giving Reynauld the last word from beyond the grave, the Lumière brothers declared “the cinema is an invention without any future”, which probably ranks right up there alongside “Can’t act, can’t sing. Can dance a little” (Sinatra) and “too ugly to become famous” (The Rolling Stones) with the most ill-advised reverse predictions ever made. The Lumières instead marketed their invention as a tool for photography, not film, and so are not considered, despite making the first real strides in the field of animation, to be its forebears, despite being credited with having invented the technology.



Arthur Melbourne-Cooper (1874-1961)

From what I can make out, the next milestone on the road to animation comes from the UK, from a guy called Arthur Melbourne-Cooper, the son of a photographer who created what is generally accepted as “the world’s first stop-motion film”. It was commissioned by Bryant and May, one of the biggest manufacturers of matches at the time, in response to an appeal to help the soldiers in the Boer War, who were struggling from a shortage of matches. You might imagine, far from home and fighting surely disease and heatstroke as well as an implacable enemy that the last thing on the minds of the soldiers was smoking, but when has that ever stopped a company getting what it wanted?

Using what would become a well-used method of filming one frame, moving the model slightly, filming again, moving it again etc, Melbourne-Cooper was able to make it seem as if the matches were animated, as two sticks figure made of them spelled out the appeal on a black wall. This all took place in 1899.

Now, let’s be clear and honest here. The voiceover on this video proudly claims “The oldest existing animated film in the world is British.” But no, it isn’t. Because as we’ve seen from our piece on our friend Charles-Emile Reynaud, a version of his Pauvre Pierrot is still around, albeit in a restored form, and that predates “Matches Appeal” by a good seven years. But I suppose if Melbourne-Cooper’s one, being shot, obviously, in black and white, has survived without being restored or altered for over a hundred years, then maybe she has a point. Whatever the case, it’s an impressive little bit, both of animation and of advertising, pulling at the heart (and purse) strings of the viewer, both by dint of their patriotic fervour for “the boys abroad” and by the cuteness of the little stick figures. Well, I don’t think they’re cute but I bet many who watched that film did, and donated their guinea accordingly.

By 1908 Melbourne-Cooper had progressed in leaps and bounds (for the time) and had moved on to be able to shoot a live-action movie with stop-motion (or, as it was called at the time, frame-by-frame) animation in the fantasy short film “Dreams of Toyland”. In the movie, a woman takes her son to a toyshop, where a distinctly sinister-looking shopkeeper sells her some toys. In quite a clever move, one of the toys she buys, a large omnibus, has an advertisement on it proclaiming the title of the film. That’s all very well and good as far as it goes, but nothing terribly innovative. Yet.

It’s when the child goes to bed that things start to get interesting. Suddenly the scene zooms in, and we see the toys all arranged as if they’re in their own little city. People cross roads while horses and carts move along them and that big omnibus makes its slow way down the thoroughfare. One of the soft toys (think it might be a golliwog - wouldn’t be allowed these days!) - even drives the omnibus while other toys, including a white teddy bear, climb on board. However in helping I think a monkey on to the bus the bear overbalances and falls off the bus. Oh dear! But he’s not hurt (when ever is anyone in cartoons or animation, or when does it ever matter?) in fact he starts fighting with.. yes I’m sure that’s a golliwog. So you have a white bear fighting a toy notoriously recognised as a black person. Whether innocently or no, whether making a political/racial statement or just completely coincidentally, you have perhaps the first filmed occurrence of a race fight on screen!

Now it looks like the golliwog is stealing some drunk’s bag and running off, and then being tackled by a monkey. Are they fighting or dancing? If the former, there’s a very violent subtext to this film! Now a guy on stilts is joining in and - no, they’re all dancing now. Definitely dancing. And now they’ve been run over by the omnibus! Oh look! Here’s that troublesome white bear back, and he’s riding a train. And he’s, um, ramming a monkey in the arse with it. Now the monkey is on a horse chasing the bear and here comes the omnibus again and - it’s crashed into the bear, running him over and blowing up. Man, such violence and such a dark ending!

Amazing stuff, and if you’re totally into looking for subtexts like me, there’s racial violence, latent homosexual activity, just normal violence and road rage! Crazy. And all before World War I. Arthur Cooper-Melbourne was not just an animator, but made plenty of live-action films (as this one shows) and in fact opened two studios, one of which burned down, but that pesky war interrupted his schedule and though he made some animated advertisments for cinemas after the war, opening an ad agency, he retired in 1940 and died in 1961.


Walter Robert Booth (1869-1938) and Robert William Paul (1869-1943)

Interesting point above: these two men appear to have been born in the same year and died a mere five years apart, Paul slightly outlasting Booth. A cartoonist and conjurer, Booth teamed up with Paul, an inventor and showman, and together they produced a number of animated films, beginning with “Upside Down, or The Human Flies” in which Booth simply turned the camera upside-down to make it appear as if his subjects were on the ceiling. A simple trick, but back then it probably stumped audiences, and being a magician at heart, he probably played up to the idea that this was a form of magic.

It’s cleverly done, and let’s be honest: it’s actually more realistic and believable than Batman and Robin, some sixty years later, apparently walking up a wall! You know how this trick is done, yet in some ways you kind of forget that, and it looks very impressive. I’m not looking through the whole thing - it runs for over twelve minutes, and I’ve work to do - but I do see about halfway through a magician puts a woman in a sort of wardrobe and when he opens the door, first she’s gone, then she’s in a sort of Iron maiden thing, then she’s a skeleton, then she’s a man - very clever indeed. Ah, I see. Looking further I see whoever created this video has in fact joined that film and another called “The Haunted Curiosity Shop”, so that explains why it’s so long and why there was no mention of this cabinet trick in the piece about “The Human Flies”. Worth watching for both.

“Marley’s Ghost”, shown above, from 1901, was a Paul product, and though it’s essentially a movie, it does use clever early animation techniques, such as superimposing Marley’s ghostly face on Scrooge’s door, and also scenes from the miser’s childhood on a black curtain over his bed. Another of his, this time from five years later, shows a car driving up the wall of a building to escape a pursuing policeman, then fly across the sky, up into the clouds (along which it drives as if they were hills) and onto the moon (face and all) then on to Saturn, where it literally drives around the gas giant’s rings, falling off and plunging back to earth, where it smashes through the roof of the courthouse, from which it is pursued by the law until, caught, the driver has the car turn into a horse and cart, and the cops let it go. Whereupon, as it drives away, it turns back into a car.

Booth is probably best known, if at all, for his “scaremongering” animation trilogy, “The Airship Destroyer” (1909), “The Aerial Submarine” (1910) and “The Aerial Anarchists” (1911), the last of which predicted what might happen should terrorists gain control of aircraft, perhaps both a prophecy about the coming war and also a look almost a century into the future where the numbers 911 would take on a whole different, horrible and long-lasting meaning, and would in fact prove his “theory”.

The middle one is the only one I could track down, and again it’s more a film than a proper animation, but it does use clever techniques that would be used again and again in cartoons, such as the fake ocean seen through the portholes of the submarine by the captives as they travel beneath the water, complete with animated fish, the animation of a torpedo and an explosion as the sub torpedoes an ocean liner and a rather clever if crude flight as the sub leaves the sea and flies into the air. Interestingly too, it shows the development of photographic plates in the film, possibly (though I can’t confirm) the first time this process was captured on film.

I also remark on the fact here that the leader of the pirates, from what I can see, appears to be a woman. Considering this was 1910 and women’s suffrage was still a decade away, this is either a very bold move on Booth’s part, making a telling statement, or I guess could also be viewed as the belief that women on board ship are always bad luck. She must be the captain though, because as everyone else, including the hostages, scramble clear and run when the submarine crashes to earth, she folds her arms, remains in the hatchway and waits till the thing explodes, literally going down with her vessel.

Like many early animators and film-makers, Booth gave it all up in 1915 and got into the advertising business, where he invented a method called “Flashing Film Ads: unique colour effects in light and movement.” Paul had already moved on to other things by 1910, five years previous, but is remembered fondly by animators, and when you look at the work he put out that’s not at all surprising. But he had many irons in the fire, and neither cinematography nor animation were the ones he wanted to handle.
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Old 11-27-2020, 04:15 AM   #53 (permalink)
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James Stuart Blackton (1875-1941)

Another Englishman who can be truly said to be one of the godfathers of animation, Blackton produced most of his work in the USA, so may erroneously sometimes be considered an American animator, but he was born in Sheffield in England. He worked with Thomas Edison and set up the American Vitagraph Company, one of the first motion picture companies in America. Eventually the company was bought out by Warner Bros. Blackton produced some animated films that are recognised today as the finest examples of clever stop-motion film, including “The Enchanted Drawing” (1900) in which Blackton draws a picture of a fat man and then beside him a bottle and a glass. He then takes the glass and bottle from the canvas and drinks the beer, later also drawing a top hat on the man which he takes and wears. The expression of the drawing changes too. It’s really quite remarkable for the time.

His other major stop-motion films (not strictly animation but using it in some scenes) are “Humorous Phases of Funny Faces” (1906) and “The Haunted Hotel” (1907), both of which illustrate the technique well, especially the latter, which allows the creation of ghosts on the screen. “Humorous Phases” shows two faces, one man one woman, reacting to each other, They smile, wink, and when the man blows cigar smoke at the woman and obscures her completely (just before she makes a disapproving frown) Blackton erases them both and creates a new, full-figure sketch of man who bears more than a passing resemblance to a certain rotund director of suspense films! Good evening…

“Haunted Hotel” seems to show ghosts writhing in the smoke from the chimney as the short opens, then the house and a tree outside it both animate, the windows and doors of the former becoming a face. Inside the hotel, objects move, confusing and annoying the weary traveller, and then in an action which surely Disney must have robbed for Fantasia twenty years later, bread cuts itself and coffee pours itself out and then a sheet runs comes out of the milk jug and dances around. The animation is exceptionally smooth and seamless for the era we’re talking about here, and it’s no wonder all of these early films are now in the Library of Congress, preserved for future generations.



So, far from Uncle Walt or even already-discussed and rightly celebrated Winsor McCay being the father of animation, it seems the only ones to come close to deserving that title were in fact English. Still, everything the abovementioned created was either what were known as “lightning sketches” (where the hand of the artist is shown sketching out a figure which is then animated by various cinematographic effects) or stop-motion films, both of which can certainly be regarded as forms of animation, but don’t really tie in with what cartoons and animated films would eventually turn out to be, ie manipulation of frames of drawn characters.

Over the English Channel, the film craze had already been underway of course, with Reynauld and the Lumiere brothers, but nobody had really made the leap into true animation. It was in fact another Frenchman, decoding the ideas and methods of an Englishman, who would perhaps unlock the door that led to one of the world’s first true animated films.

Émile Cohl (1857-1938)
Cohl was intrigued by the process used to animate the dinner things in James Blackton’s “The Haunted Hotel”, and set about working it out for himself. Once he had, he used that process to produce his own animated feature, which debuted in 1909. “Fantasmagorie” featured a clown who interacts with various other people and objects. The motion is fluid, and when a woman sits in front of him with a large hat with many feathers, blocking his view, he delights in taking the feathers from her hat one by one and disposing of them. But the film is very stream-of-consciousness, as figures become other figures, objects metamorphose and really there’s no real sense or logic to the thing, unlike just about every other animated feature prior to its creation. At one point, the animator (Cohl) seems to actually reach into the drawing and pick up the character.

This was totally different to anything that had gone before. Up to now, any animated feature, no matter how weird, had a strange sense of logic running through it. Paul’s car flew in “The ? Motorist”, yes, but it still followed some basic rules of logic, driving around the rings of Saturn, using the clouds as if they were hills. Despite the need to suspend disbelief, this and other animations still kept their feet, metaphorically speaking, rooted on the ground. Weird and unexpected things happened, yes, but you understand what was going on. In “Fantasmagorie”, as the title implies, everything is a fantasy and nothing is, or needs to be, explained.

This is perhaps the first template for the true cartoon, where things just happened, and no laws of physics applied. A wall could fall on a character, squashing him flat, but he would be up and running about in the next scene. People could fall from heights and leave with nothing more than perhaps concertinaed up legs (which would be staightened out next time) and characters could be shown dying, but still remain alive. In cartoons, everything would go, nothing would be too nonsensical or fantastic or unbelievable. Everything was possible, everything was doable, and there was no such word as can’t.

Three years later, Cohl animated “The Newlyweds”, a comic strip that had appeared in “New York World” , which I believe makes him the first to bring characters who had appeared in a newspaper strip to life, as it were, through the medium of animation. Only one example of this long-running series has survived time’s passage. You can see it below, but be warned: even restored, it’s still pretty poor quality.

It’s believed that later animator Winsor McCay took some influences and perhaps even paid homage to Cohl in his films, particularly “Little Nemo”, created a year later in 1910. Another ground-breaking film by Cohl introduced colour (I can’t confirm if this was the first time or not that colour was used in an animated film - other than coloured paper, which was of course in use long before this - but I haven’t read of any other instances of it) to allow him to animate coloured blank canvasses in the four-minute live-action film “The Neo-Impressionistic Painter”, where a prospective client is duped into thinking that blank slates are works of art, his imagination filling in the details which Cohl draws and animates.


George Méliès (1861-1938)

Yes, I know what you’re thinking. You are thinking it, aren’t you? You’re right: he died the very same year as Emile Cohl, mere hours later in fact. Seems the history of animation is full of such crazy little coincidences. But who does not know this name? If you don’t actually know his name, you definitely know, or have seen clips of, what was believed to be the world’s first ever science-fiction film, “A Trip to the Moon”, based on fellow Frenchman’s classic novels “From the Earth to the Moon” and “Around the Moon”. Having had his interest in cinema fired by witnessing the demonstration of the Lumière brothers’ new invention in 1895, he to buy one but was turned down. However two years later their camera and others were readily on sale and he was able to buy one that suited his needs.

One of his earliest films used the effect of multiple exposure to allow him play seven characters at once in the 1900 short, “One Man Band”, while “The Vanishing Lady”, even earlier (1896) shows him making a woman disappear, come back as a skeleton and finally as herself. All of these effects of course are more trick film techniques, and perhaps are not, or should not, be considered true animation, but it’s hard to discover where the line between effects and animations lies, and so I’ve made a sort of arbitrary decision to include examples of anyone who used any sort of effect in their work that either made the film more than it could be with normal camera work, or that mimicked or perhaps even later inspired animation techniques, such as Cohl’s “The Haunted Hotel”.

Méliès also seems to be the first (probably not the only but certainly the first) film maker I can see who made a satirical religious film, in his “The Temptation of Saint Anthony” (1898) in which a monk worshipping at the foot of the cross is plagued by women who appear out of nowhere and attempt to seduce him, one actually taking the place of Christ on the cross. Surely controversial for the time, and in Catholic France, surely very courageous.

Without question though, his most famous and enduring film is the aforementioned “A Trip to the Moon” (1902) which has been generally accepted as the world’s first science-fiction film. I think everyone recognises the famous shot of the moon, a face looking none too pleased as the rocket carrying the space pioneers lands in its eye.
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Old 11-30-2020, 08:03 PM   #54 (permalink)
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Stars and Strips Forever: Early American Animation

We’ve already noted, as most people know anyway, that many of the characters we have come to know and love began their lives in newspaper cartoon strips - Popeye, Berry Boop, Felix etc. Not all of course but some, and many of the men who would go on to become the biggest names in film animation began their careers working for newspapers as cartoonists. Here I want to look at some of the early pioneers of the art working in America at the time.

Raoul Barré (1874-1932)

A French Canadian who moved to New York in 1902 and worked with the great Thomas Edison, Barré was the one who figured out the problem that had been bedevilling animation artists for some time: how to create frames of animation without having to draw the character and the background every frame. He came up with a method called the slash system, which involved drawing the background only once and leaving a blank space for the character in each. The figure would then be drawn in different poses to suggest movement (foot raised, foot comes down, foot raised again etc) on separate pieces of paper which would then be inserted into the background, and with the standardisation of perforations in the drawing paper, also a process refined by Barré, the previously jerky movements of the cartoons would be a thing of the past.

One of his first animations was The Animated Grouch Chasers (1915) which mixes live action with cartoons as a woman reads a book (the aforementioned Grouch Chasers) and the characters comes to life as she reads. You can see from this the first tropes of animation being laid down, even long before Disney. Speech balloons are used - in conjunction with the display cards utilised by silent movies - and when the sailor sneezes, dotted lines indicate the action, then when the elephant (bearing more than a passing resemblance to Winsor McCay’s Gertie the Dinosaur!) cries, the stylised tears drop from its eyes.

In the second cartoon, the illusion of flight is handled pretty well when the small child goes up with the kite (note a very distressingly monkeylike black kid on the ground - well, this was 1915 I guess!) and when a crow annoys him, the motion of its wings is impressive, as is the shower of feathers when the kid kicks out at the bird. Again very racist when the black kid watches the crow falling, licks his lips and says “Here comes ma dinner!” Jim Crow, huh?

In 1916, Barré, with his partner Charles Bowers, successfully animated the comic strip Mutt and Jeff and went on to licence the series, producing over 300 episodes. The animation in this is far superior, only a year on. It’s quite remarkable. Whether Barré had only perfected his system after 1915 or not I don’t know, but the difference is amazing. Again, before Disney, cartoons are using those alliterative titles, the video shown below called Domestic Difficulties. Mutt’s progress down the drainpipe as he escapes from the house - though clearly the same scene drawn several times, as he’s on the fourth floor - is fluid and graceful, without a jerk or a blip to be seen. The motion too of the entire scene, which spins when they’re drunk, is effective. More effects, presumably taken from the cartoon strip, where musical notes coming out of their mouths indicate singing, and when Mutt falls down stars jump out from his backside to show the impact. Then there’s a bump that rises on Jeff’s head when Mutt’s wife hits him with the rolling pin.

However when Bowers unexpectedly quit Barré, always a sensitive artist, and feeling let down and betrayed, had a nervous breakdown and left the business. His only further contribution was to animate Felix the Cat in 1929. He died three years later.


John Randolph Bray (1878-1978)

It wouldn’t be fair or accurate to say Bray turned animation into a profit-making business, but he certainly was one of the first who, having set up his own studio, retired from the actual process of animation and took on cartoonists to do the job for him. Focused heavily on making money and making the studio pay for itself, he hooked up with Charles Pathe (who would soon come to be a household name as Pathe News reported all the latest from the front during the wars) to create advertising and later promotional films for World War I. His first animation, 1917’s The Artist’s Dream, echoes that of other animators in America and elsewhere, such as Roy Fleischer’s Out of the Inkwell series and Disney’s later Alice adventures, where a drawing on a board takes on a life of its own and causes havoc.

This time it’s a dog (a dachshund) which hears the derogatory remarks of an editor to his artist and determines to prove him wrong. The dog spies sausages atop a cupboard (using, again, the dotted lines to indicate sight and indeed drops from the mouth to represent salivating) and opening the drawers of the cupboard it uses them as steps to reach the sausages. When the artist comes back the dog quickly jumps into a corner, lying down and pretending to sleep. Bray sees the empty sausage dish, can’t understand it, probably concludes he forgot to draw them and does so again, after his departure the dog robs them again. Eventually he bursts, and the whole thing is shown to be a dream the artist was having.

The interesting thing about this cartoon is that Bray experimented with printing the background scenes instead of hand-drawing them each time, which obviously cut the time needed to create the cartoon and led to greater efficiency in the industry and thus made it more cost-effective. His studios operated on the basis of competition, commission and the need for constant production, keeping them at the forefront of the industry. He registered three important patents: the printing of background scenes, the usage of grey shading in drawings and the use of scenery printed on transparent celluloid to be applied over the drawings to be animated. These patents allowed him to establish a monopoly over other companies, and when Earl Hurd filed for a similar, but better, patent for what became known as cel - a process whereby the actual characters were drawn directly onto transparent celluloid and then applied over painted background scenes - he partnered up with him in the Bray-Hurd Patent Co.

Bray’s two main characters were the jingoistic Colonel Heeza Liar (something of a play on the rather exaggerated claims of Baron Munchausen) who sometimes lampooned President Theodore Roosevelt, and Bobby Bumps, one of the first characters in American animation to have a sidekick, a dog, something many other animators would copy, like Grimault in Les Passengers de la Grand L’Ourse.

The Colonel would get into many scrapes, and in the 1915 version above, Colonel Heeza Liar at the Bat, you can see maybe not the first, but the first instance I’ve seen of the usage of a question mark above the head to indicate puzzlement or an inquiry. A side-note of interest: using those cards again, this is the first time I’ve seen the words rhyme, like a little poem, to add perhaps a sense of fun to the cartoon. Again, in the typical trend of ignoring the laws of physics cartoons would embrace, the Colonel jumps over a wall at least three times his height with no visible assistance whatever, simply more or less runs up and over it. It’s also the first time, I think, I’ve seen a cartoon character break the fourth wall, as the Colonel turns and laughs and winks at the camera, as it were, so that he’s sharing the joke with us.

I must say, the Colonel bears more than a passing resemblance to later Mr. Magoo. Here, too, the beginnings of those “fight-clouds”, where arms and legs and various body parts whirl around while puffs of smoke and stars etc fly out of the middle. In contrast to the Colonel Heeza Liar cartoons, Hurd’s Bobby Bumps starts out being drawn by the animator’s hand, the artist giving instructions to the boy, such as “hat off” so he can colour in his hair, and the boy talking back to the animator, reminding him that he has forgotten to draw the dog’s tail. He’s a sort of a Billy Bunter figure, rotund and cheery, with a strangely Asian looking face. Hmm. This could very well be the first usage of this (and I have to keep qualifying these guesses, as I’m not exactly looking through every animation of the period to see if I’m right, but in terms of what I’ve seen so far I appear to be correct) but I see the thought balloon appear above Bobby’s head and in it a winged bag of money takes flight. This would be used more and more, not only in thought bubbles but in reality, to signify the loss of something as cartoons progressed.

The action of the chef is quite impressive, as he tosses eggs up, around, down his back, along his arms. Chef looks a bit devilish though if you ask me. Good humour in the cartoon too, as a customer asks for a piece of raisin pie, pointing, and the server grins that ain’t raisin, it’s custard, hits the pie and all the flies spiral up into the air from where they were resting on it. The customer appropriately falls over in horror. Hurd, it seems, either learned from Bray or just did the same thing, but the dog here winks at the camera too, letting us in on the joke as he eats the eggs Bobby has been cooking. Clever, too, when the dog meets a cat who calls him a cur, and he says “I’m gonna make her eat those words,” and promptly takes the speech balloon, folds it up and forces it down the cat’s throat! The artist, though, has had enough and pulls the dog away, another form of fourth wall destruction.

The plates, as Bobby staggers around with a tall stack of them, wobble and weave and wave as he walks, and when he’s trying to escape from the vengeful chef after breaking the plates, Bobby is helped by the artist, who draws a ladder he can run up, and then rubs out the bottom half so that the chef can’t also use it. He then hands Bobby a bottle of ink which he pours over the chef, blotting him out completely.

Henry “Hy” Mayer (1868-1953)

A German who came to the US and took up animation around 1913. He specialised in “lightning sketches”, of which I can find no examples so can only assume they concerned cartoons where the artist quickly drew the subject live, as it were. He also created the series Such is Life, released between 1920 and 1926, a series which mixed live action in exotic locations with animation - there was Such is Life in Italy, Such is Life at the Zoo etc, but again, no examples available. Ah well, I have to say it, don’t I? Such is life! Mayer also found fame in being the man to discover Otto Messner, who would, as we will see shortly, go on to claim to be the creator of a certain somewhat popular black-and-white cartoon cat.

This is the only video I could find of his work, and shows not only what a great and talented artist he was, but how he could make a simple thing like a triangle into so many different objects and people. Stunning.


Willis O’Brien (1886-1962)

A world innovator and inventor in the field of what would become known as claymation, O’Brien discovered how to manipulate clay figures and later used India rubber, which allowed him to insert a metal skeleton for his figures, making them more flexible and posable. His first feature was The Dinosaur and the Missing Link: A Prehistoric Tragedy released in 1916. The movie so impressed Edison that he invited O’Brien to come to New York to work for him. It’s not at all surprising that he was blown away. When you look at the movie, for a moment it seems like these are real people they’re so lifelike. No Morphs here! The humour in the piece is engaging: “Won’t you come into the dining room? I should offer you tea, but tea has not yet been discovered.” Nice.

There’s quite a matriarchal feel to the story too: the girl tells the Duke and his friends if they want to eat they’ll have to go out and hunt. I like the idea of the juxtaposition of a class system that has no place in the Stone Age at all - the Duke, his lady, and the manners of an eighteenth century noble family all contrasts wonderfully with the bleak, sparse setting and the rudimentary clothing. I don’t know how long it took to animate this, but it’s pretty flawless in terms of movement. There’s no jerking, no sudden cuts, everything runs smoothly and it’s almost a prehistoric Ray Harryhausen kind of thing. Well, okay: there are a few jumps, like when Wild Willie - the “Missing Link” in the title - attacks and tries to bronco-ride a dinosaur, but they’re few and far between.

After 1917, as Edison’s financial troubles continued to mount, O’Brien left him to work for a New Jersey sculptor called Herbert Dawley, and together they worked on The Ghost of Slumber Mountain, which saw release in 1919. Unfortunately, O’Brien’s name was removed from the credits so Dawley took all the plaudits. In essence, it’s a live-action movie with some claymation dinosaurs in it. O’Brien really seems to have had a thing about the dinos: his other works included R.E.D. 10,000 BC, Prehistoric Poultry and The Dinornis. His ability to animate animals though would ensure his fame when he worked on such blockbusters as The Lost World, King Kong and Son of Kong.

Back to the Max (Flesicher, that is)

I know we dealt with Fleischer in two other entries, most notably the creation or at least adaptation for the screen of Betty Boop and Popeye, but it seems there's more to the guy (and his brother) than I went into originally, so perhaps a deeper look is required. Yes. Yes it is. And here it is.

Now, I’m not saying this was at all the reason for their famous rivalry, but Max and his brother were Jews and Walt was, well, not. Could be food for thought. Or not. At any rate, Max invented the rotoscope in 1915, a device which allowed a live-action sequence to be transmitted to drawings frame by frame, and so impressed John Randolph Bray that he took he and his brother Dave on in 1917. That same year Max invented the series Out of the Inkwell, which would feature Koko the clown emerging from an inkwell at the start of every episode, and playing tricks on him. This followed the basic standard of the time: cartoons were either initiated by someone reading a story and the characters coming alive, or by someone drawing them and they achieving their own life. We’ve seen this with Bray himself, and with Earl Hurd. Disney would later do the same, as would other animators. It would be some time before there would cease to be a need, or excuse, or reason for the cartoon character to be there, when, to paraphrase the band Anathema, they would just be there because they were there.

In 1921 the two Fleischers left Bray and established their own studio, which would rival Disney’s and be the second greatest in the world until close to the end of the Second World War, breeding, as we have already seen, such timeless favourites as Popeye, Betty Boop and Superman. Eventually Max was bought out by Paramount, and while obviously there had been friction between the brothers and the megacorporation, it seems a little unfair that the eventual reason Paramount gave for demanding Max’s resignation was the failure of his last movie, Mr. Bug Goes To Town, which only had to be pulled due to the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, two days after the film had been previewed. Max worked for other animators but spent much of his latter years, in poor health, battling to regain copyright of his work. He died at age 89 on September 25 1972, recognised posthumously as “the dean of animated cartoons”.
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Old 02-01-2021, 10:26 AM   #55 (permalink)
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Cat Burglar?

Before we move in, it's time for me to redress the error I made in the article on Felix the Cat a few pages back. I should have read more, but there you go. I noted in that entry that it’s generally accepted that Pat Sullivan was the creator of the feisty feline, but that’s only partway true. Up until the 1960s it was accepted, but after Sullivan’s death in 1933 when his estate took the copyright which Sullivan, as head of the studio had claimed, questions began to emerge as it was an animator called Otto Messmer who had originally drawn Felix, though whether he created the character or not, well the jury is still out on that. Messmer was a very quiet and unassuming man, a total contrast to Sullivan’s brash, bullying entrepreneurial spirit, not a man to cross. So at least while his boss was alive Messmer made nothing of the fact that “his” creation bore Sullivan’s name as a credit, and indeed Sullivan told many, sometimes conflicting, stories of the inspiration for the cat. Messmer, on the other hand, seems to have the weight of opinion on his side, at least in terms of fellow animators.

For Sullivan, the Case for the Defence:

Exhibit A: In the first ever Felix cartoon, Feline Follies, where Felix is called Master Tom, there is a point in the video (04:00, just at the end) when one of the kittens has a speech bubble which says “Lo Mum”. It has been postulated that Messmer, an American, would not have used that word, but would have said “mom”, while Sullivan, being Australian, could. Also, another kitten says “Lo Ma” which is very Irish/Australian - I doubt any American would say that. Not that it constitutes proof of any sort of course; Sullivan could have told Messmer to put the words in, or even added them himself later. However, it must be pointed out that Messmer claimed to have drawn the cartoon himself, single-handed, at home, so it seems unlikely Sullivan would have had any input. Not impossible, but improbable. I think this exhibit strengthens Sullivan’s case. What else is there?

Exhibit B: On March 18 1917 Sullivan drew a cartoon called The Tail of Thomas Kat. This is believed to have been a precursor to Felix, which would predate Messner’s film by two full years. However this film has not survived, though it is believed that the cat in question was a simple house cat who walked on all fours (as Master Tom did initially, to be fair) and had no “magic bag of tricks” which assisted Felix in his adventures, his tail turning into all sorts of useful tools and so on.

Exhibit C: Writing on the drawings of Feline Follies has been positively identified as that of Sullivan, though admittedly by the Australian Cartoonists Association, which you might be justified in thinking would be more anxious to prove their countryman the proper and rightful creator.

Exhibit D: Messner did not claim ownership of Felix till after Sullivan was dead, making any argument null and void. Dead men don’t claim copyright. Well, they do, but they can’t prove it.

For Messner, the Case for the Prosecution:

Exhibit A: Messner claims he created Felix at home, solo, and so Sullivan could have had no hand in the process. Of course, there’s no way to check this and we only have his word for it.

Exhibit B: Sullivan is cited giving several different answers at different times to the inspiration behind Felix. Ask Disney the same, or Fleischer, and they’d know exactly what drove them to create the character, and this answer would not change. Why then did Sullivan have so many stories about where the idea came from?

Exhibit C: Using Thomas the Cat from The Tail of Thomas the Kat as a prototype for Felix is dubious at best. There are, as mentioned in the case for the defence, many differences between the two, and besides, the film has not survived. Also, if he was going to call his original Thomas the Kat, and the cat in Feline Follies Master Tom, why not call Felix Tom? Or at least spell cat with a “k”? That would fit in with the zany, quirky nature of Felix. But if Messner created him, he would have had no interest in cat with a “k”.

Exhibit D: Sullivan was the boss, and could claim copyright over any of the creations of his artists, who often did not even get credited - in general, not just at his studios. So he would have been very capable of “stealing” the copyright as his, even if he had not created Felix. Note: this is not at all uncommon. Writers and artists for 2000 AD complained that they could only get their paycheque if they signed away their copyright on the back, and both (for instance) John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra were denied any sort of claim on their most famous creation, Judge Dredd, all copyright resting with the magazine's publishers.

Exhibit E: A group of cartoonists working in Sullivan’s studios backed up Messner’s claim, saying Felix had been based on cartoons Messner had made of Charlie Chaplin, and pointing out the similarity in movements.

Exhibit F: Animation historians, too, seem to come down on the side of Messner, with not one of them supporting Sullivan’s claim.

One final point, not an exhibit, as it’s just my thought. I would be interested to know when Sullivan’s mother died. If she was alive in 1919, fine. If not though, why would he put a message to her in the cartoon? I’m not sure if anyone has ever checked this out but it might be worth looking into.

In the end, who wins? Well, both animators have passed away now, so in that sense nobody wins. Who is remembered for creating Felix? The controversy rages on, but so far as I know Sullivan’s name is still on the cartoons so I guess he’s either protecting or fraudulently proclaiming his creation from beyond the grave. The consensus though seems to be, if you’re an Australian, Sullivan created Felix. If you’re from anywhere else, especially the USA, credit goes to Messner.

I doubt the crazy little black-and-white cat would care who created him, and he's outlived both of them.
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Old 04-04-2021, 10:38 AM   #56 (permalink)
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Puppet Masters

As one of the most primitive, and yet enduring forms of animation, still in vogue today, it would seem churlish to present any discussion on film animation without looking at the people whose first - and often last - love was for marionettes dancing around on strings. Puppetry, of course, goes all the way back to the Greeks, who actually coined the term, which means to draw by means of strings. Puppets would be used to act out plays, or parts in plays where either using human actors was problematic, or to add a sense of surrealism to a scene or even play. There are of course many types of puppets, and while I don’t intend to go into all of them, here are a few of the more popular and, for the purposes of animation, relevant.

Glove puppets

Everyone has seen these, and many of us had them as children. A simple half shape of a person or creature, the base completely open like a pillowcase, into which the hand is inserted and used to operate the puppet, its arms, paws or other appendages usually being moved by the thumb and forefinger. Mostly quite limited, though there have been famously successful examples such as Sooty and Sweep, Basil Brush and of course Punch and Judy.

Carnival or Body puppet

A huge, usually much larger-than-life puppet which is operated by several people, and most often employed in the likes of carnivals, parades or exhibitions.

Human-arm puppet

Operated by two people, one of whom is concerned with the head movements and one arm, the other takes care of the other arm. The most famous of these would of course be the Muppets.

Marionette, or String puppet

The most common form, and the one most of us will be familiar with as actual puppets. As the name suggests, they are simply operated, by one person pulling and manipulating the strings attached to their limbs, usually from above. These makes for jerky, non-realistic motions, which is part of the charm and attraction of marionettes. They’re not meant to look or act like people; they are quite clearly puppet representations. There is generally a painted face, no movement whatever of the features, the action centring usually on dancing, walking and other movements involving the arms and legs, and occasionally the turning of a head, though not much more.

Rod puppet

A rod puppet is a puppet constructed around a central rod secured to the head. A large glove covers the rod and is attached to the neck of the puppet. A rod puppet is controlled by the puppeteer moving the metal rods attached to the hands of the puppet (or any other limbs) and by turning the central rod secured to the head. Some of the Muppets, including Kermit and Miss Piggy, are rod puppets.

Shadow puppet

A cut-out figure which is held between a source of light and a translucent screen. Shadow puppets tend to be one-dimensional, flat creations. The practice is very popular in Japan and other Asian countries, usually accompanied by music and narration.

Supermarionation

Pioneered by Gerry Anderson (and possibly used solely by him) in shows such as Thunderbirds and Fireball XL5, this process involves marionettes which have electronically controlled heads to allow for realistic speech and movement of mouth and eyes. The heads on these puppets tend to be rather disproportionate to their bodies.

Ventriloquist’s Dummy

A puppet operated by hand and on which the movement of the mouth, sometimes eyes, is exaggerated as the idea is to give the illusion that the puppet is speaking, while the ventriloquist’s mouth (if he or she is any good) remains still.

In medieval times, and further back, puppets would perform upon a stage, often a mobile one which could “tour” villages, and act out historical, comic or tragic plays, singing, dancing and perhaps fighting among themselves. The best known example of the last is Punch and Judy, where children would delight to the antics of Mr. Punch as he knocked seven bells out of his wife Judy. Very appropriate for kids indeed. Puppets allowed performers to display the more fantastical elements of drama, bringing strange or mythological creatures onstage, or allowing, for instance, a character to have two heads or a face on both front and back. These sort of things heightened the fantasy and enjoyment of the play.

“Puppetry is not animation” - Tess Martin, Animationworld, 17 August 2015.

I disagree with the above statement. Of course, Ms. Martin is an animator and I am not, so her opinion would be expected to carry more weight than mine, someone who finds it hard to animate himself enough to get out of bed most mornings. Nevertheless, and not to do Ms. Martin any injustice, let’s look at her argument, or rather, that of the creator of the film which engendered the above quote, and her response. An email from the director stated that “I think puppet films fall between the cracks of what is strictly defined as an 'animated film.’ The characters are being ‘animated’ in realtime by the hand of a human performer, and for this reason, I consider it to be animation.”

Ms. Martin replied that "While I respect this attitude and am grateful to Mr. McTurk for being game for this discussion, I consider this definition of 'animation' to be too broad. Just because something is 'brought to life' does not automatically make it animation. If that were the case one could say that an actor bringing his character to life is also animation. Anything that is not documentary could be called animation."

Here is where I have a problem with that, in her own words, too broad definition. When she talks about actors bringing their characters to life being animation, I think that is the very point she’s missing. Actors, or actresses, bring THEIR character to life, not someone else’s. They’re playing a part, yes, a part written (almost always) by someone else, but it’s them that is bringing that character to life. We identify “Dirty” Harry Callahan with only one person, Harrison Ford IS Han Solo and so on. This, to me, is not the same as puppetry, because puppets are, well, not alive.

That might seem a very obvious thing to say, but I think it’s important. An actor or actress is alive (though some you would wonder - shut up) and so has the power to “animate”, if you insist, their character, but they don’t do this by pulling strings or manipulating images. They do it through their own actions, their facial expressions, their words, their looks, their emotions. In short, they use the medium of their own bodies to do this. They bring the character they play to life. Puppeteers, on the other hand, use a non-living creation to give a character that they have written life, of a sort. The puppet has no input into how or why or when it is used; it is merely a tool, is not alive, has no opinion or view on how it “acts”. This all has to be conveyed by the puppeteer, and to some extent the writer, if both are not the same.

Bringing a character to life via the motions of a puppet is, to me, far, far different from bringing it to life by how you speak or move or walk or emote with your own body. The puppet is essentially anonymous: though created likely for one role, it could theoretically fulfill many, if dressed differently or painted differently or changed in subtle ways. An actor can do that too of course, but only with their own input. Nobody took John Wayne and said “no he’s not working as a cowboy, let’s make him an Indian instead” or whatever. You get the picture.

So personally I have to say I would definitely consider puppetry to be animation. Different to drawing or films of course, but still a form of animation. If you needed further proof of its validity as animation, you only have to look at the scores of animators across the world who started off by manipulating simple, or complex, puppets before moving on to what we (and Ms. Martin surely) would call “proper” animation.

So let’s do that now.

Arthur Melbourne-Cooper: lauded as one of the godfathers of animation, we’ve seen his superb Dreams of Toyland, made in 1908, where the toys in a child’s bedroom come to life and have a grand old time. Tell me that’s not animation!

Edwin Stanton-Porter: We haven’t covered him, as he doesn’t seem to have made, again what we will allow as “real” animation, but he directed a puppet animation (the word is used in Badazzi’s book, which possibly proves or maybe slightly dilutes my point) called The “Teddy” Bears, which was well received, in 1907.

Emile Cohl: We did cover him, and extensively. He also worked with puppets before graduating to drawn animation, and indeed his last film was Fantoche cherche un logement (The Puppet Looks for Lodging, 1921.

Howard S. Moss, working in Chicago, was a specialist in puppet animation (again the words are used concurrently).

Willis O’Brien, one of the first innovators of what would become claymation, worked extensively with puppets.

Charles Bowers, the one who seemingly cheated Raoul Barre, also worked a lot with puppets.

Earl Hurd, who created Bobby Bump, created the Pen and Ink Vaudeville Sketches, an entire puppet theatre production.

Bob Clampett, who helped make Looney Tunes such a success, was a keen puppeteer.

Len Lye made a puppet film, Birth of a Robot.

Bogdan Zoubowitch, a Russian ex-pat, created his Histoire Sans Paroles as a puppet animation.

I could go on, but it would probably just get boring. What do you mean, you’re already bored? Well don’t worry; we’re leaving it at that. The point is that I believe, with all due respect to Tess Martin and her opinion of them, that puppets very definitely can be accepted as a form of animation, in some ways the oldest and truest form of the art. Too many animators have worked with them either before, during or after their animation career (by which I mean, of course, their cartoon career - drawing, filming etc) for them to be pushed to the side and regarded as second-class. I realise this is not what Ms. Martin is doing, and she says she has great admiration for puppeteers, as should anyone: it can’t be easy to do that and do it well. But though she denies it, I can’t help wondering at the fact that her own film was beaten by the puppet one for an award, and asking if her beef is truly rooted in selfless discourse?

Or is she just someone’s puppet? Sorry.
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