Saturday, 12 September 2015
The Past, Present and Future of Animation, 1936
Screen and Radio Weekly was among the many supplements which graced weekend newspapers years ago. A good one, too. In the edition of August 23, 1936, it gave a two-broadsheet-page history of the animation industry. The author had some assistance from Walter Lantz who, as you likely know, ran his own studio for years and started in animation in the 1910s.
A number of photos and artwork accompanied the original story. Unfortunately, the copies I have are poor photocopies of scanned microfilm. So the pictures you see here are from various editions of Universal Weekly from 1936. The publication did its part to push the Lantz cartoons that Universal released.
Out of the Inkwell
By CHARLES WALES
THIS is the story of three little pigs, of Oswald the rabbit and Mickey the mouse, of Elmer the elephant, of Bosco and Minnie, of Scrappy and Donald and a Kat that is Knuts.
It is the story of the most popular characters on the screen—and probably the most human.
They have survived time, tide and double bills. They have even survived censorship in Fascist Italy arid Communist Russia. And after each joust with fickle public fancy they have gone on to better things, on toward what a small group of earnest artists believes is the greatest future development of motion pictures.
Walt Disney, the supreme opportunist of the animated cartoon trade, is already reaching into the future.
AS to the cartoon's past, efforts to animate drawings go back far beyond the first motion picture camera.
One hundred and ten years ago a French scientist named Peter Mark Roget discovered persistence of vision—the fact that images remain momentarily On the retina of the eye after the tangible object has been removed. Five years later another Frenchnian, Joseph Antoine Plateau, put motion into pictures, arranging 14 drawings in sequence to produce the illusion of one picture of an object in motion.
In 1834 one William George Horner, in England, invented the Daedaleum, “Wheel of the Devil,” so named because its first "movies" were of the devil waving his trident. A variation of this appeared in the United States in 1867.
These first devices were no more than toys, or apparatus for laboratory experiments. But in 1877 a Frenchman, Emile Reynaud, projected little plays on a screen in his Optical Theater. Audiences paid to watch the great-grandfather of Mickey Mouse, Pauve Pierrot. Here was the start of an industry.
Pierrot was a primitive progenitor, but he was significant. He moved on a screen, so that more than one person could see him at a time. And he was drawn on a transparent substance—Reynaud called it crystaloid—which presaged the modern motion picture film. A strip of it 30 feet long was used for the picture. Then came the invention of the motion picture and, in the tremendous enthusiasm over the fact that human beings could be photographed in motion, animated cartoons were forgotten.
IT WAS 1906 when the first cartoon was made in anything like the modern method, with film and camera. J. Stuart Blackton, a cartoonist, created his “Humorous Phases of Funny Faces.”
Winsor McCay, a well known editorial cartoonist of his time, next appeared on the cartoon scene. Working alone in his studio in Flushing, he spent a large part of the year 1910 turning out more than 4,000 drawings which eventually were photographed and released by Vitagraph under the title, “Winsor McCay Makes His Cartoons Move.”
In 1911 McCay made a second picture, “How a Mosquito Operates.” He sold this to Carl Laemmle. William Fox bought the third, “Gertie the Dinosaur.”
The picture which first gave cartoons their place in the sun was “The Artist's Dream,” drawn by John R. Bray. It started as a regular motion picture showing an artist at his drawing board. Then, when the artist had fallen asleep, his drawings came to life and there was an animated cartoon.
Bray created the first great cartoon character and the first extended cartoon series. The character, Colonel Heeza Liar, started in Africa in the first of the series — December, 1913 —, and for five years rambled all over the world and through all manner of titillating circumstances. He disappeared during the World War, but was revived in 1922. No cartoon character had such popularity as the Colonel's until Mickey Mouse appeared in 1928.
But there were many other characters which were successful in this period. Earl Hurd, who perfected the modern technique of making animated cartoons, came out with the Bobby Bump series. Sidney Smith (of the Gumps) did Old Doc Yak for the Selig Polyscope company in Chicago. Paul Terry created Farmer Al Falfa and Leslie Fenton (now an actor and husband of Ann Dvorak) made the Hodge Podge series.
MAX FLEISCHER began his “Out of the Inkwell” cartoons, in which a cartoon character is added to a regular motion picture. Gregory La Cava, now one of Hollywood's leading directors, and Walter Lantz, who now produces Oswald the Rabbit for Universal, turned out one series after another for Cosmopolitan.
Technique was gradually perfected, until Earl Hurd's invention of the system in use today. Hurd made his background drawings on opaque paper and put his characters on celluloid with ink and opaque paint. In photographing, the celluloids were placed on top of the backgrounds. In 20 years this method has been refined, but there have been no important changes. Walt Disney holds many later patents, but they apply mostly to the use of sound with cartoons.
“When we started,” he said, “we had a makeshift studio on the top floor of a loft building in Fordham, N. Y. There weren't enough people in the organization to make the story department of a cartoon studio today. But we didn't bother with stories. Our only object was to turn out five or six hundred feet of film. “This was true for years. Even after Oswald was started (1927) there was no connection between scenes. It was a case of every man for himself. We were learning how to animate characters. If one artist figured out how to make a character jump, he'd do a jumping sequence.
“When we were all through, we'd get together and see how much we needed to finish the picture. Then we'd toss up to see who would do the last scene. We might start with the idea of having to go to the North Pole, but that was as far as we would go in working out the story.”
COMPARE this with the modern method — with stories carefully worked out by well paid writers and gag men; scores of artists; weeks or even months of production. The most common audience reaction to an animated cartoon is; “How does anybody think of all those things?” You'll hear it every time a cartoon is on the bill. The answer is: Anybody can't think of all those things.
Walt Disney, as an individual, does not create a Mickey Mouse comedy or a Silly Symphony. Walt Disney is an organization of more than 400 workers. Disney would have difficulty in drawing Mickey Mouse.
Hugh Harman of Harman-Ising, second to Disney in the cartoon industry, said: “I probably couldn't draw Bosko. But I have plenty of good artists who can.”
Here, specifically, is how an animated cartoon is created.
Oswald appears with his assistant, Elmer the dog. They are armed with numerous contraptions for the extermination of gophers. One by one the contraptions are tried, but in each case the gopher outwits his pursuers. And with each effort to capture the gopher, more of the garden is destroyed until it looks like the Argonne sector at the end of the war.
Finally the old hen gives up hope. She plants dynamite in a last attempt to kill the gopher. But the dynamite wrecks her home and the picture ends with the gopher unharmed and unregenerate. It takes five people to produce this synopsis. Then a copy is given to every person connected with the production of an Oswald the Rabbit cartoon—about 60. On the synopsis are indicated spots in which gags seem called for.
When gags have been collected and selected (in most studios a bonus is paid for turning in a gag which is used), an artist and layout man prepare sketches of the gags, characters and situations. These sketches are arrayed on a wall and there is another conference. Here the final continuity is worked out.
THEN a director, in this case Lantz, prepares a scenario. The scenario includes sketches which give a key to each scene. It includes a complete description of all action. It tells how many frames of film can be used for each scene. It tells where there shall be music, and sets the tempo of the music. Sound effects are indicated and dialog is given.
There is no allowance for error. The scenarist works with a metronome and stopwatch, and he goes through much of the action to be sure that he is right. If a character is going to lie down on the floor, the scenarist starts his stopwatch and lies down. He then knows how many seconds the action takes.
He knows that film goes through the projector at the rate of 90 feet a minute, and that there are 16 frames to a foot. He knows how many beats a minute the musical score will have. From this he figures out how many frames of film and how many bars of music each action will cover.
When the scenario is finished, dialog is recorded. This is necessary so that artists can synchronize facial expressions with words. And then the music is written—exactly the number of bars indicated on the scenario.
Then the scenario goes to the animators. They, with their assistants, make the drawings, 12,000 or 15,000 of them. A good animator may make 50 drawings a day and as much as $250 a week. If he is also a good gag man, he may add to his income with bonuses for helping to create pictures. Some of Disney's animators go as high as $15,000 or more a year.
The drawings, with the exception of backgrounds, are traced in ink on celluloids, and filled in with opaque paint. Then the celluloids are photographed, over the backgrounds, with an ordinary motion picture camera suspended over a table. It takes 60 workers three weeks of production time and costs $12,000 to $15,000 to produce the film.
A one-reel cartoon can cost as much as $65,000. “Three Little Wolves” ran this high. The average for a cartoon in color is about $30,000, or maybe $25,000; exact figures are elusive in Hollywood.
“Three Little Wolves” and other Disney cartoons cost more largely because Disney will not O. K. a scene until he is satisfied that it cannot be improved. Obviously, it costs more to do a job two or three times than to do it once.
Disney became an important factor in motion pictures on Sept. 19, 1928, when “Steamboat Willie” was presented at the Colony Theater in New York. This was the beginning of Mickey Mouse and the beginning of sound in animated cartoons.
Disney had been struggling for several years and had created two cartoon series—the Alice cartoons in 1923 and Oswald the Rabbit in 1927 for Charles Mintz—but he had been just one of a number of young men who were trying to keep life in a dying industry.
The combination of Mickey Mouse and sound revived a flagging public fancy. The Silly Symphonies helped, when the first of them, “The Skeleton Dance,” was released late in 1929. The national psychology following the black days of October, 1929, put people in a very receptive mood for the fantasy and comedy of Disney's new characters.
BUT Disney is more than an opportunist. He not only made the first sound cartoons (and later the first in color). He reformed the industry. The cartoon of today, artistically beautiful, bears little relation to the crude concoctions of gags of earlier days. Characters have been given personality. They express emotions. They are human and lovable.
For this change Disney is apparently responsible.
It was his effort to improve cartoon technique which produced the first Silly Symphony in color, “Flowers and Trees.” Here was a complete departure from precedent. Instead of gags there were beauty and fantasy, elements which Hugh Harman says will produce the ultimate in cartoons and bring the greatest development we can look for on the screen. (Harman and Ising have been close to Disney in the recent great advance in cartoons; they gave cartoons music. They were, incidentally, associated with Disney in his first cartoon ventures in Kansas City.)
How great this development will be cannot be predicted. But Disney is staking a lot on its success. When “Snow White,” his eight-reel cartoon on the famous fantasy, is completed a year or so hence, he will have three quarters of a million dollars and three years' work invested in it. It should be beautiful; if it is also entertaining, the future of feature-length animated cartoons can be limitless.
If “Snow White” is not successful, the future will be merely uncertain. There are about a dozen cartoons being made now and they cost as much as the traffic will bear, as result of improvements. The income of a one-reel cartoon is pretty definitely limited; the income of a feature can be almost anything.
So, if “Snow White” succeeds, we can look for a new era-of entertainment and new development of the medium. If not, or unless some other solution is found, cartoons are likely to continue pretty much as they are as long as human ingenuity can give them new quirks and as long as audiences will hire them.