I had to spend some time explaining cartoon context this week. Being a huge animation geek is one of my favorite things to do, so I thought I’d add some of that here on the blog.
Our animation viewing this far has been mostly the work of Windsor McKay, a newspaper cartoonist. McKay did his animation as a side project, and achieved a high level of artistry… but most of the animation of the silent era was cranked out by newspaper syndicates to cash in on their popular comic strips. This was a golden era of comic strips, after all – they were, like film, a new medium just learning to find its voice.
We’re passing over most of this weak animation, but amid its flow, there were a few notable exceptions – animation studios that created good work during the silent era, and often went on to better things afterwards.
The Fleischer Brothers
Early animation pioneers spent a lot of time working on the method of animation. In much of McKay’s work, he simply drew one drawing after another; other animators invented systems for cutting off portions of an animated drawing so that a stationary background could show through. Various cameras and animation desks were developed to hold the drawings in their proper place, as the animation industry inched closer to the current practice of cell-and-background.
Max Fleischer was a brilliant gear-head with experience in animation, so this was the perfect time for to be alive. Throughout his career he developed many practical solutions and devices, but his first big breakthrough was a process called rotoscoping. He put his brother Dave in a clown suit (because the outlines were so clear that they were easy to trace) and filmed him acting out a scene; then, using his rotoscope device, he was able to project those live-action frames onto a surface where he could trace the clown in simple pen and ink. This created a life-like sense of motion that stood out from the simplistic gesticulating found in most cartoons of the day.
The clown was named Koko and he became a hit. I’ll be blogging more about the Fleischers and their creations in the 1930s, but through most of the 1920s, Koko was the lifeblood of Fleischer Studios.
Felix the Cat
The story behind Felix the cat is an unpleasant one – Otto Messmer did most of the animation while Pat Sullivan produced, and practically all accounts of the two men paint Messmer as the gentle, brilliant artist and Sullivan as the alcoholic, narcissistic producer.
But the cartoons themselves? They are brilliant little gems of silent animation. Of all the cartoons we’ll be watching in the SVU, these come closest to the status quo in terms of style: simple black outlines, simple gestures… but what Messmer projected into his film was two things that many other silent cartoons lacked: imagination and personality.
Most silent cartoons dealt with wild gags, visual metaphor, and stream-of-consciousness transformation. But Felix took these strengths to new levels. The wild playfulness with which Messmer approached the cartoon medium set the movement, progression and overall visual impact of each Felix cartoon. Even more important, Felix had a real personality – unlike the cookie-cutter characters that arbitrarily acted their way through a thousand other silent cartoons, Felix had hopes and goals, weaknesses and idiosyncrasies, and many of them stayed consistent cartoon after cartoon. Felix was a true character.
Walt Disney’s early career is really a four part affair:
PART ONE: Disney got a job in Kansas City doing short animation pieces for a local newsreel; while there, he experimented with animation storytelling by setting his animation team on several loose adaptations of classic fairy tales. Loaded with debt, he laid off the animation team, headed to Hollywood, and looked for a distributor for a cartoon series.
PART TWO: The cartoon series was about a live-action little girl names Alice who enters a cartoon world – kind of a reversal of the popular device of having cartoon characters in live-action settings. Disney’s team had created a pilot film in Kansas City, and he was eventually able to find a distributor for the series in Hollywood. He called his animation team to join him on the coast, and for the next few years, they created over fifty Alice comedies.
PART THREE: After the Alice comedies had run their course, Disney created Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Oswald showed promise, but Disney wanted to make his cartoons better and more elaborate, and asked his distributor for more money. The distributor, Charles Mintz, replied that Disney would actually be working for less money; it turned out Mintz owned the character and had gone behind Disney’s back to hire his animation staff, so when Disney refused the pay cut, Mintz fired Disney, and Walt was left with no Oswald, and no animation team.
PART FOUR: The one animator who had not signed with Mintz was Ub Iwerks. Without Oswald, Disney quickly created a new character, Mickey Mouse – Mickey was basically Oswald with round ears, instead of long rabbit ears…
…but that’s a story for 1927.