No one really thinks of Paul Terry being at the cutting edge of animation. By 1950, his cartoons looked positively old-fashioned at times next to, well, everyone else’s. But in the silent days, it was a different story. Terry’s cartoons were universally praised in newspaper write-ups in 1924, and one syndicated columnist decided to do a feature piece on what he found ground-breaking in the Terry shorts.
Much of what you’ll read is probably pretty familiar if you’re into animation, but it would have been unknown to the average person in 1924. The drawing you see above accompanied the column, which appeared in different papers on different dates (undated feature pieces like this being banked for whenever something was needed).
Background To Photoplays Prove To Be All Important
By RUTGERS NEILSEN
Even life itself is played against backgrounds. Events take place in varied settings—ou the land, on the sea, in the air, and beneath the earth’s surface. Backgrounds are to cartoon movies what the platinum setting is to the diamond in the ring, or the frame is to a good painting. They literally back up the subject in more ways than one. Atmosphere, that quality which tends so much to give reality to a drawing, play, or whatnot, is injected by well developed backgrounds.
Yet, despite the rapid advancement in motion picture art, backgrounds in their present high state of development, are a comparatively recent feature of pen drawn movies. Therefore, our title—“Backgrounds To The Forefront"—is not as paradoxical as it sounds because settings have not heretofore kept pace with animation.
Paul Terry illustrates some of the best examples of the latest, up-to-the-minute development of drawn backgrounds in his “Aesop’s Film Fables” distributed by Pathe Exchange, Inc. These modernized versions of the ancient fabulist’s brain-throbs are so well staged that when one is seen on the screen, you forget that the movie is a series of animated drawings instead of portrayals by human actors and trained animals.
For years, a few roughly sketched lines to give depth—as you see in newspaper comic strips—sufficed for the backgrounds in movie cartoons.
Under the direction of Paul Terry, the artists at the studios of Fables Pictures, Inc., pay strict attention to appropriate atmospheric backgrounds, highly developed.
Since we are laying stress on backgrounds, we want to correct any impression that may creep into your mind that this feature of the cartoons is given the most attention. Such is not the case, for animation comes first. But the better the backgrounds are the better they display the action of the characters and heighten the reality of the scenes.
Fully detailed backgrounds have been made practicable by the use of celluloid sheets for the series of final drawings that give the animation to the characters. Heretofore when a complete character together with the background had to be executed upon drawing paper for every exposure—and there are 16 to a foot—it was not feasible to draw any more setting detail than was absolutely necessary. However, with the system developed by Paul Terry, only the actual members of the characters’ bodies needed in action need be drawn to give the effect of life-like motion. So, now, the background has to be drawn but once and may be given more attention.
Under the modern Paul Terry system, the sketches that animate the characters are super-imposed upon the backgrounds and photographed. Through the transparence of the celluloid, the background is registered with all its detail. That part of the background which is not wanted in the particular scene is blocked out by painting over the character on the under surface of the sheet. This is necessary, for instance, where Farmer Al Falfa is supposed to walk past a building. If Farmer Al were drawn merely in outline upon the celluloid sheets, the drawing of the building in the background sketch would show through the transparency. So, in each sketch the character’s body and limbs are “filled in” with paint.
To show Henry Cat fishing, the following procedure is carried out by Terry and his artists. The spring board upon which Henry is to be seated, with its landscape surroundings, is drawn upon the background sheet of paper. On celluloid sheet the cat’s body is drawn in a sitting position, so that superimposing it over the background shows him in a natural position for one fishing, except that his arms, rod and line are missing. These are drawn on a second celluloid sheet, which, when super-imposed over the first sheet, complete Henry Cat. Then, the two sheets are super-imposed upon the background and photographed. To show Henry getting a “bite” his arm is made to raise the rod by drawing the “arm”, rod, etc., in successive positions on several sheets of celluloid. The photographing of various combinations of drawings animate the Cat. This procedure eliminates the necessity of drawing the entire body over and over to register the fishing movements.
Having explained how it is now possible to use detailed backgrounds, we shall discuss briefly the backgrounds themselves. These important features of Paul Terry’s animated drawings composing the “Aesop’s Film Fables” are painted in “wash” upon heavy drawing paper. Black and white paints are used in executing these shallow settings. By varying the mixtures of these “colors” all necessary tones and definition are secured.
The older type of background has mere lines which only suggest atmosphere. It is not so far removed from the system in the time of Shakespeare when the sign “Forest” or “The castle” was used upon a bare stage in lieu of better setting. But, as modern stagecraft has advanced, so has the staging of the animated cartoon movie.
It is surprising how much better a background looks upon the screen than when viewed as a “still” drawing upon paper. The screening, of course, shows the characters in action “before” the settings, thus intensifying the depth. Probably other features help to heighten the illusion of the mere “wash” drawings in the background and make them realistic. After you view some of the latest Paul Terry creations in the “Aesop’s Film Fables” series, you can draw your own conclusions as to just what feature you think heightens the realism. We feel sure that you will agree with us that now backgrounds are to the forefront.
Considering how few newspaper features were written about animation, it’s significant that Terry was the subject of one of them. Yet, even then, his studio was being eclipsed by the far more amusing adventures of Felix the Cat. And within a few years, sound, a mouse and a chap named Disney would overtake them all.