Walt Disney wanted cartoons to evolve where they would caricature human action. “The illusion of life,” as it was called in Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas’ book on Disney animation. Disney wasn’t the first studio with that goal in mind. Max Fleischer wanted to accomplish it, too, and felt he could do it by inventing the rotoscope.
It worked. But the rotoscope was only one of Fleischer’s tools. What made the Fleischer cartoons of the 1920s entertaining is their stories and clever gags. As the ‘30s wore on, the public wanted what Disney was putting on the screen, and that’s the direction the Fleischer studio went.
The public has always seemed to be interested in how animated cartoons are made. Here’s a story from the Syracuse Herald (and appeared in other papers) of February 12, 1918 on how the rotoscope works. The drawings accompanying the story are close but not identical to the ones Max Fleischer filed when applying for a patent.
How ANIMATED DRAWINGS Are NOW MADE to ACT Perfectly LIFELIKE
ANIMATED hand-executed pictures, or, as they are termed, moving picture cartoons, as now produced by the usual methods, while recognized as having their distinctive advantages and desirable features, usually are not lifelike. To overcome this fault, Max Fleischer of New York city has invented a device by which improved cartoon films may be produced, depicting the figures or other objects in a lifelike manner, characteristic of the regular animated photo pictures.
Mr. Fleischer describes his invention as follows:
"In producing cartoon films by my improved method, scenes are enacted by the aid of living actors depicting the subjects to be displayed by the cartoons, and, through the instrumentality of a moving picture camera, pictures of the enacted scenes are taken, and from these pictures, line pictures or cartoons of the characters or objects to be portrayed are made. The series of cartoons are then photographically reproduced on a film or equivalent medium, and the photographs of the cartoons thus obtained are projected on a screen and displayed in the usual manner by any approved moving picture machine.
"The invention will be particularly explained, in the specific description following.
"Reference is to be had to the accompanying drawings forming a part of this specification in which similar reference characters indicate corresponding parts in all the views.
"In the center illustration is shown a perspective view representing conventionally the taking of moving pictures of actual scenes by the aid of an actor or actors, depleting the characters to be presented by the cartoon moving pictures.
"A face view of a photographic film portraying the scenes thus actually produced is shown in the drawing at the right.
"The drawing at the left shows a perspective view of the apparatus for projecting the photographic pictures thus produced and permitting the tracing of the characters thereof.
"In carrying out my invention, having decided upon the subjects of the cartoons to be projected by a moving picture machine, I cause a scene to be enacted presenting the characters to be portrayed. In Fig. 1, the numeral 10 indicates an actor in a life scene going through the performance of wigwag signalling. During the performance a moving picture camera 11 produces a series of pictures of the scene. Several pictures thus taken are produced on a film 12 (Fig. 2), as indicated at 13. The film will thus give a true portrayal of the characters to be presented by the cartoons.
"The pictures on the film 12 are now projected in single succession by a suitable apparatus, preferably arranged as in Fig. 3, which an inclined platform 14 is provided and supported by suitable legs 15. A frame 16 at the upper end of the platform 14 carries a screen 17 at the back, of which is placed suitable tracing paper 18, on which the artist traces the lines of each picture 13 or such elements thereof as is necessary for the cartoon. A projecting apparatus and appurtenances, designated generally by the numeral 20 and is the main of known form, is employed, including a suitable projecting apparatus 21 which is placed on the platform 14. The numerals 22 indicate the reel boxes while 23 indicates a known form of lamp house.
"It may be desirable to provide means whereby the artist may manually control the projecting machine tram his position at the back of the screen, and for that purpose I may employ suitable means, there being shown a pull-cord 24 having a handle 25 and passing over suitable guides 26, through the platform 14 to a connection with a spring-acted lever 27, carrying a pawl 25, engaging a ratchet wheel 29, controlling the mechanism of the machine 21."
The projected photographically produced series of pictures of the actual performance lead realism manually to produce cartoons having radically new characteristics, due, first, to the absolutely accurate relative positions of the moving object in the successive cartoons and relatively to the fixed photographed background, and, second, the method leads to the manually produced cartoons the realistic effects of the photograph by the artist arbitrarily selecting and tracing lines and features represented by the projected photographs.
"In the present methods of producing moving picture cartoons, the greatest skill of the artist is required to obtain an approach to accuracy realism in the relative positioning of the moving object in successive cartoons and in giving lifelike poses thereto.
"In tracing the cartoon the skilful artist, instead of following accurately the lines of the photograph, can exaggerate or modify particular elements or features of a grotesque character for instance, while preserving the truthfulness of the photographic portrayal in its essentials or dominating lines. In photographing black-face characters, for example, the actor is made up with special reference to facilitating the subsequent making of the line cartoons, a part of the makeup being, for example, distinct and prominent white rings about the eyes to bring out prominently in the photographs the lines to be traced. The method possesses advantages in depicting a wide range of grotesque characters or objects. Thus, for example, a dog, masked by the representation of a horse’s head, may be photographed in action, the final result being motion pen drawings of what appears to be a miniature horse going through a performance."