Saturday, 5 October 2013

How to Act With Dinky Doodle

Combination animation/live action cartoons became a rarity after the introduction of sound in the late 1920s, but they were fairly common not too many years earlier. Walt Disney had his Alice Comedies, Max Fleischer’s masterful Out of the Inkwell series brought the world Ko Ko the Clown and Walter Lantz interacted with a boy named Dinky Doodle and a dog named Weakheart for J.R. Bray.

Lantz was born in 1899 and had a remarkable career in animation. He started at the age of 16 in New York and eventually moved west, took over cartoon operations for Universal at the dawn of sound, and carried on until 1972 when he closed his studio. Lantz acted as a kindly (though a little stiff) host of The Woody Woodpecker Show when it debuted on television in 1957. He interacted with Woody but in a far less elaborate way than he did with Dinky 35 years earlier. Lantz and his A-list star were never in the same shot that I recall; the scene would cut from Lantz solo to Woody solo over a photographed background. Lantz was actually far funnier as a silent film actor.

The New York Evening Post revealed how Lantz did it in the silent cartoon era. This unbylined article (with part of the last sentence missing) was published October 18, 1924.

Animated Cartoons May Seem Easy to Make, but It’s Different Behind Scenes
Walter Lantz, Young Old-Timer in Game, Shows Your Correspondent How Life Is Put Into Comedy Characters

DID YOU EVER WONDER how they make these animated cartoons that you see in comedies on the screen? Oh, sure, you say—they make a big bunch of drawings and photograph em one at a time. Tedious Job, to be sure, but nothing very complicated about it.
Uh-huh, that's right as far as it goes: but there's a lot more to it than appears on the screen. We've been watching these animated cartoons for years as they've flickered across the silver sheet, and one day this week the brilliant and highly original thought came to us: why not find out how they're made?
So we trekked uptown to West Forty-sixth street and went into conference with a clever young man at the Bray studios. His name is Walter Lantz, and he's been making these comedies ever since Bray started them lo! these many years ago. He is now working on a new series of cartoons built around a character called "Dinky Doodle" which he has originated.
To start with, Walter makes up a "scenario," which is a bunch of small pencil drawings giving the main idea of the action. These are then turned over to the assistant artists who make india ink drawings of them. BUT—and there's where they short-out—if, for instance, the characters body is in the same position during several feet of film, and only the head moves, then the drawings are made of the head alone in the various positions.
The drawings are then placed over a glass under which is a bright light. On top of the drawing is placed a thin sheet of celluloid. The body of the character is traced on the first sheet, then the head in its different positions is traced on other celluloids. If other characters appear in the same scene, they are also traced on other sheets.
Now we go to the photographing room. The camera is suspended about three feet above a table on which a bright light shines. The celluloids are placed in position, one over the other to the depth of three, the photographer presses a foot pedal, and the camera clicks once—one "frame," or small square of film, is thus exposed. The celluloids are then changed to the next position and the process repeated.
Sometimes as many as 4000 drawings are made for a film of about 900 feet length, and often three different sets of celluloids are used, one atop the other, so you can figure what a job it is to keep changing them, and what care must be used to keep them in proper rotation. But that, you say. is pretty nearly the way you imagined it. Aha! but wait! How about the new wrinkle you've seen, of having the cartoon characters in the same film with a real man? Walter Lantz gets effects from this method which are so real that they'll amaze you when you see them. In one scene, for instance, he walks across the room with Dinky Doodle and his dog, Weakheart, perched on his upraised arm. First, he has a regular movie made of himself walking across the room with his arm in the proper position. Then he draws the character, puts them on the celluloids, and combines them with the movie of himself.
Walter himself is a likable lad whose eyes have little humor-wrinkles in the corners. Although an oldster in the game, he is of, as they say, more or less tender years. He has a straightforward way of talking to you, and he speaks of his work with the sureness of knowledge. Animated cartoon making is the simplest thing in the world to him, and indeed it looks not very complicated when you see it from a theatre chair, but when you get behind the scenes [it is a different thing] again.

My thanks to Tom Stathes for the frames you see in this post. Tom loves and collects silent cartoons and people like him are needed to ensure those old shorts are catalogued, preserved and, best of all, screened. Please visit Tom’s site HERE. I was going to come up with a bad pun based on the name “Weakheart” and the term “faint of heart” but, as Tom might suggest, sometimes it’s best to remain silent.

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