There’s always been a curiosity, it seems, about how animated cartoons were made. News and magazine stories have appeared over the years outlining the process.
This syndicated piece was plucked out of the Independent of January 3, 1920. The frames of Ko Ko the clown by Max Fleischercame with the story, as did the other drawing.
BRINGING CARTOONS TO LIFE
By Jerome Lachenbruch
When the little animated cartoon figures jiggle across the motion picture screen to caricature our foibles and then suddenly fade away after ten minutes of silent, artificial hilarity, it is difficult to beleive that it has taken longer to make them than to make a five reel feature picture.
The conception to the final presentation of an animated cartoon idea on the screen covers a period of about seven weeks, whereas pictures photographed from life are often finished in five weeks. About a dozen artists assist the creative cartoon artist in the mechanical work of preparing the cartoons for the camera. Slow as the process still seems to be, an idea of the development of the process is evidenced from the fact that one of the first cartoons made by Mr J. R. Bray, the pioneer in this phase of screen humor, consisted of 16,000 individual drawing, which took ten months to draw and but ten minutes to reel off on the screen.
Boiled down to essentials, the making of an animated cartoon comprises five fundamental processes. These are, first, a series of original drawings; second, tracing of the drawings on transparent composition plates: third, the chemical process by which the cartoon figures on the plates are rendered opaque against a background; fourth, the method of photographing; and fifth, the development of the photographic negative.
Before going into the details of each process, it must be remembered that animated cartoons are a series of drawings that are photographed individually. The photographing process is an application of the kodak use of the roll film which is turned for each succeeding exposure.
The animated cartoon of 500 feet consists of from 1,200 to 1,500 original drawings. These are made by the artist who conceives the "story". The success of the picture depends more on his ability to gage the number of different drawings necessary to represent a single action that upon his draughtsmanship. He often draws detached heads and legs, which are superimposed on detached bodies to make a complete figure. For instance, if the artist wishes to show a figure turning his head and crossing his legs, he does not draw a series of pictures showing the full figure in different poses. Instead, he first draws the body, then on another sheet the head and the legs. Next he draws a bead turned toward the audience, and then makes a drawing of the legs, crossed. One drawing of the body suffices for both poses. When these reach the photographer, they are assembled according to directions and exposed in the proper order. The same body is exposed in every photograph because it does not move; and those parts which change position are superimposed and fitted to the basic drawing.
All drawings are made on transparent paper and may be photographed several times in different parts of the cartoon. Thus, drawing No. 17 may be a head which is used in connection with the headless body, figure No. 29, and also with figure No. 45, or even with a combination of two other drawings. By this method, time has been saved in drawing the individual pictures and the process of making animated cartoons placed on a practical basis.
When all the drawings have been made, a series of backgrounds, such as houses, streets, churches, etc., are drawn to aid in telling the story. After these are finished, all the drawings are then sent to the copying room, where they are traced upon a thin transparent composition plate which is made by a secret chemical process. The reason for using a transparent plate is that two or more plates must often be photographed, one placed on top of the other, to form a single picture.
The photographic process itself is carried out with the same materials used in photographing a motion picture with living characters: but, the method of using the camera for animated cartoons is quite different.
In ordinary motion picture photography a reel of negative film 400 feet long is placed in the camera, which is mounted on a tripod and can be swung in a semi-circle on a horizontal axis. As the story is acted on the studio stage the reel is turned by the camera man, who operates a crank attached to the camera. But in photographing the animated cartoon, the same camera with the same film is fastened above a table on a rigid frame, the lens facing downward. The camera man sits at the table and, according to the numbers marked on the pile of plates beside him, exposes them in successive order. Instead of turning the crank by hand, a mechanical arrangement consisting of a slender chain revolving over a sprocket and a set of gears carries the control of the camera shutter to a pedal below the table. This is operated by the camera man's foot. The contrivance is so regulated that when a plate on the table is exposed to the camera, the photographer presses the pedal, the photograph is taken and the reel of film turned about one inch, thus revolving the unexposed part of the negative into position for the next photograph. In this single pressing of the pedal the shutter is automatically closed after the photograph is taken. Furthermore, an indicator records the exact number of photographs made. In short, picturizing the animated cartoon consists of taking 1,200 to 1,500 individual still-life photographs.
After these have been made, the negative film is sent to the developing laboratory, where it is treated the same as other motion picture films. That is, the negative is reprinted on another film called a positive. The positive is not sensitive to light and will keep indefinitely. Finally the positive print is sent to the editing room, where the cartoon is clipped, and individual pictures taken out or placed in a different order, so that the story may be told more smoothly. The strips cut out are pasted into the film again with a cement that fuses with the celluloid film and does not reveal where the picture has been pieced.
During the war a new use for the processes employed in making animated cartoons was developed by Mr. J. F. Leventhal of the Bray Corporation. Mr. Leventhal applied the cartoon process to technical drawings and evolved an entire course of instruction on the construction of bombs. This was used in the West Point Military Academy and re suited in reducing a course of instruction that formerly consumed twenty-four teaching hours to fifteen minutes . By means of the animated technical drawing, the most complete mechanical apparatus can be explained graphically with a consequent reduction in the time required for its study and an immeasurable increase in interest on the part of the students.