Saturday, 9 April 2016

How to Make an MGM Cartoon

MGM operated its own cartoon studio for 20 years, winning seven Oscars, spawning Tom and Jerry and giving Tex Avery a chance to invent or refine gags and flash them on the big screen at a pace that every other studio copied.

Metro had been releasing cartoons by Ub Iwerks (1930-34) and then Hugh Harman and Rudy Ising (1934-37). When MGM decided to cut out the middle man and get into the cartoon business for itself is unclear; if the information exists, it’s buried in the studio’s correspondence archives. But the plan was announced in Boxoffice magazine on May 29, 1937. It couldn’t have been a hasty decision. MGM had to approve a capital outlay for a brand-new cartoon building on its Culver City lot. It apparently was ready on August 23rd that year. You can read more of the timeline in this post.

Tom and Jerry were a couple of years away. MGM decided what cartoon movie audiences really wanted were comic strip stars. On June 26th, Boxoffice proclaimed Metro had bought the rights to one of the versions of the Katzenjammer Kids, a couple of little jerks with extremely thick German accents (upon arrival at Metro, a dialect coach must have been at work as they sounded like Americans on screen).

MGM proudly promoted Hans und Fritz in its magazine MGM Shorts Story. An unbylined puff piece in the October 1937 edition went step-by-step through how an animated cartoon was made. Several photos of the studio staff accompanied the article. It’s a shame scanned these at such a low resolution (the magazine is from Ron Hutchinson’s collection). Nobody is identified in the captions, but the third photo with the piano and the model sheet features 27-year-old Bill Hanna standing and appearing to give instructions to Bert Lewis at the piano. Hanna was another Quimby raid from H-I; Lewis came from Disney. The fourth photo is of Jack Stevens, who was in charge of the camera department when the studio began until seconded for war duty in 1944. He had been a printer during the Depression, then found a job as a messenger. More importantly, he was Bill Hanna’s brother-in-law (Well, one of them. So was MGM animator Mike Lah). Ah, if only pristine versions of these publicity shots were readily available.

Here’s the article.

Whimsy By the Mile
After forty unbroken years of unprecedented popularity in the comic strips of five hundred American newspapers, Rudolph Dirks’ famous characters of Hans and Fritz, the Captain, Momma and Inspector, in “The Captain and the Kids,” will he made to live in motion pictures by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, by means of the ever popular animated cartoons.
One hundred artists and technical specialists will lapse into temporary scientific insanity to accomplish the purpose.
Fred C. Quimby, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s general manager of short subjects, has assembled his staff and the presentation of these new comic screen stars in the theatres of the world is scheduled to take place in December.
In selecting the Kids, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was guided by a year’s survey in Loew’s Theatres and other chains throughout the world, to determine the type of character most popular with regular patrons. Their development as motion picture stars has been no less painstaking.
The elements that go into the making of new cartoon stars are infinitely more complex than the creation of a Garbo, a Clark Gable, a Robert Taylor or a Jeanette MacDonald.
To the uninitiated observer, this animated cartoon studio is a modified mad-house. To those behind the scenes, it is probably the most scientific and meticulous organization in the big motion picture-making plant.
Those given to computing figures and laying various things end to end, would have a Roman holiday in a cartoon studio such as that just established at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Screen tests mean a million strokes from a hundred pens and more than fifteen thousand individual camera “takes” go into the making of a completed picture, as compared to mere hundreds from which a screen epic is selected.
Producing animated cartoons is a highly technical occupation. The creation of the stories, ideas, characters and action might be slightly irrational. One might perceive artists, at work, making faces at themselves in mirrors to catch certain expressions, and going through other odd antics as an aid to creation, but, behind it all, there must be precision developed to the nth degree and a fundamental knowledge that has set cartoon men apart in Hollywood.
In assembling his staff that was to create “The Captain and the Kids,” Quimby had to find men who combined knowledge of acting, animation, music, timing, tone quality, color and the actual mechanics of animated pictures.
Jack Chertok was placed in charge of production, and C. G. Maxwell, veteran animated cartoon specialist, was selected by Quimby as production supervisor and technical adviser. Harry Hershfield, creator of the comic strip favorite, Abie the Agent, was drafted as chief story man.
Others on the staff are three directors, story and gag men, a musical director, cameramen, sound technicians, cutters and an army of artists that include eight animators, eight assistant animators, thirty painters, eight “in-betweeners" and as many “opaquers.” For the purposes of chronology, explanations of the “in-betweeners” and “opaquers” will be left until later. Suffice it to say that they are a very vital part in the process of bringing Hans and Fritz to life. The motion picture birthplace chosen for these comic wonders of three generations on the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer lot, is in itself something to cause a general lifting of eye-brows. Built almost entirely of glass to provide the necessary light for artists, it is two stories high and occupies half an acre on the west end of the studio grounds. In it is a complete theatre with sound projection equipment, quarters for more than fifty artists, cutting rooms, a technical laboratory, music department with recording facilities, writers’ and directors’ rooms, and a “sweat box,” where tests are screened, studied and in seventy-five per cent of the cases, discarded.
Now, the process of making the first production of “The Captain and the Kids” begins. Under normal conditions, it will take from four to six weeks to photograph and, when completed, will be about 700 feet in length, requiring between seven and eight minutes to run on the screen.
A special artist is drafted for translation of the characters of Hans and Fritz, the Captain, Momma and the Inspector from the newspaper cartoon strip to the screen. A complete line-up of all the Dirks characters, drawn to scale, and showing comparative sizes, is delivered to every man who has a hand in the actual drawing of them for the camera.
Story material, gags and routines were written and discussed for weeks. Sketch artists had made thumbnail drawings of the sections of the story and illustrated the gags, which are reduced to uniform size and arranged in rough continuity for a careful discussion by the entire story group.
The actual “writing” of the script is the next step. It is drawn up on large music sheets, with bars and music format. This is the job of the director, who prepares the continuity from material supplied by the story and gag men. It is set down in bars or frames to correspond with each individual small photograph that goes to make up the completed picture story on the film production.
Fhe expression “every move a picture” applies to nothing so accurately as the creation of cartoon screen productions. Every move is actually a single picture. Everyone in a cartoon organization must think exclusively in individual pictures, including the musical director and dialogue men. Timing is the important thing in every phase of the work. Lines of dialogue and bars of music are reduced to the number of frames or pictures they require in the film. It is the sequence, speed and slight variation of positions of the characters in each succeeding frame as it is flashed on the screen,that makes the characters move. Co-ordination gives sense to the completed work.
Working constantly with the director is a “story layout” man. He plans the background, plots the line of action or animation and sketches the areas in which the figures move. He helps plan camera angles, the speed of moving backgrounds and the continuity. His sketches are in rough form and are traced and finished before they are passed on to the animators.
From this point on, the job is is one of the technical experts, artists and camera men.
By means of millions of strokes of pens and the assiduous application of color, Hans and Fritz are infused with the ability to move. Each animation is given a cue or exposure sheet from the director’s detailed “script.” It is the scene of the picture that he is to draw and describes what action is to take place in each frame or photograph. It also indicates what frames are to have rhythmic accent and how many frames are required for a line of dialogue.
Since the speed of projecting motion picture film in a theatre is ninety feet a minute and there are sixteen frames in each foot of film, the rapid calculators can figure that a 700-foot production will require the sketching, inking-in, coloring and photographing of 11,200 individual pictures of the Captain, et al.
But to return to the artists at work. With so many men contributing drawings to the completed picture, every stroke of fifty pens must register accurately. Therefore, every sheet of paper used — they’re known as exposure sheets — is of uniform size, 9 x 12 inches, and is punched with three holes that fit metal pegs on the drawing-boards, known as register points. Layout men, animators, tracers and cameramen must all have identical sets of these pegs to keep drawings in the right positions.
The exposure sheet is divided into columns, each to represent a different bit of action such as a dog moving, a boy jumping and snow falling. The animator makes a separate series of drawings for each action. Each drawing in a series is numbered, with the numbers corresponding in each column, to enable the cameraman to assemble them into a composite picture.
The animator goes to work, drawing progressive pencil sketches to show the action of the scenes. He works over a sheet of glass behind which is an incandescent light, so he can see through several sheets of paper at once, noting the progress of his action and keeping his characters in uniform size. He sketches the important action and turns the drawings over to an assistant animator, who continues the work and adds details. The assistant, in turn, passes the drawings over to an “in-between” man, who makes final drawings in a series and checks on every detail.
While all this is going on, there are other phases of the production taking form. The musical director is writing a musical score, working closely with the director, so that it will tally with the detail sheets for time and effect. The sound technician is recording dialogue for the characters and sound effects. He must work closely with the animators on dialogue, so that the artists will know exactly what their characters are saying and how many frames it takes to say it. Facial expressions must match that dialogue and synchronization of mouth movements and words must be perfect. Special background men are at work sketching the locales through which the action of the story passes.
When the drawings of the scene have been completed, the cameraman shoots an action test on a strip of film in the sequence prescribed by the script. If this is satisfactory for action it is turned over to the technical department for checking on sound synchronization, camera effects, uniformity of clothing and every other possible detail in drawing.
Hans and Fritz, the Captain and Momma and the Inspector by this time are not only moving personalities, but are on the verge of being made articulate. However, they must put on their Sunday clothes and that is a pretty difficult operation in any family.
The scene next goes to the tracing and opaquing department, a division of the animated cartoon process composed of trained girls who trace the drawings on thin sheets of celluloid in black ink and paint the characters with special opaque colors.
These celluloids are known as “cells” and, while they are being traced and painted, the background artists take their penciled outline drawings of backgrounds and duplicate them in gray washes or water colors on heavy paper.
Now, the cameraman is ready to shoot the final production. Armed with a stack of finished colored cells, a finished colored background, and a checked and corrected exposure sheet, he goes to work. His camera is arranged to shoot downward over a special table. It is loaded with regular motion picture film, but is geared to photograph only one frame at a time.
The background drawing is laid on the table and over that are placed several transparent cells representing the positions of the characters. A sheet of glass in a frame, operated by pneumatic force, presses them flat and one frame of the completed picture is photographed. The glass frame is lifted and another set of celluloids representing the characters in a slightly varied posture is placed over the same background and photographed. If the scene calls for the characters running, the background is moved slightly to give the illusion of covering territory. This is called a “pan” shot. The photographic operation is repeated with each drawing that is to blend into the completed scene. It must be done more than 11,000 times before the production is finished.
Still, the cartoon has no sound, but the musical director has written the score, the musical arrangements have been made and, if singing is required, he has had lyrics written and the vocalists rehearsed.
The picture is “scored” or set to music, which is recorded on a separate sound track. To insure accuracy in timing, the orchestra wears earphones through which the players hear a perfect metronomic beat.
The sound effects and dialogue, also perfectly timed, are recorded on another sound strip.
These three negatives — the action, music and dialogue with sound effects — are now combined into a finished print.
Hans and Fritz, the Captain, Momma and the Inspector are moving, talking, albeit not breathing, personalities. Their first picture is a reality. With the work of animators, assistant animators, in-betweeners, tracers, opaquers and background artists, it has taken approximately 45,000 drawings to make them come to life.
Multiply that by thirteen if you feel so inclined, because that is the number of productions that will be made in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s “Captain and the Kids” series, and you have a vague idea of the amount of art work that will be done to put over Hollywood’s latest candidates for screen stardom.
You will hear plenty about Hans and Fritz and the Captain and you probably will come to recognize their voices as you have other popular cartoon characters, but you probably will hear nothing of a complete human cast that has been placed under contract to supply those voices.
And, the next time you sit in a plush upholstered divan in your favorite million dollar theatre and, after laughing your head off for ten minutes at a cartoon picture, feel constrained to remark: “The guys who make those things must be crazy” — just reflect and think what a tough job it is for the producers to handle the maniacs in this animated madhouse.

No, anonymous fluff-piece writer, the “Captain and the Kids” didn’t make audiences laugh their heads off for ten minutes. Or any minutes. 15 cartoons were put into production before the studio decided the idea was a failure. And the studio was practically a failure, too. Jack Chertok lost interest and Quimby himself took over producing. Herschfield quit. Milt Gross took over and was fired months later. Director Friz Freleng high-tailed it back to Warner Bros. Factions developed. Harman and Ising were brought back, and Harman reportedly wouldn’t deal with any of his former artists who had quit him in 1937 to work at MGM. It was in the middle of all this politicking that demoted director Bill Hanna and story artist Joe Barbera did a sell job on Quimby (Barbera was a good story man and an even better salesman) to make their own cartoon. They came up with Tom and Jerry. The turmoil was forgotten and Quimby looked like a managerial genius.


  1. Well, they give me a chuckle, but I'm pretty sure Milt Gross's cartoons PROBABLY gave audiences a howl years before Avery came along.

    This is possibly the most detailed information on "The Captain and the Kids" cartoons on the web (If only it was easier to find out what happened during Gross's time at the studio).

  2. Chertok would find other things to do later in 1938 when MGM bought out Hal Roach's interest in the Our Gang comedies and started making them in-house (the MGM efforts in general suffer from the same trying-too-hard problems as the Captain & the Kids cartoons did). Quimby at least seemed to have a little better judgement in what to copy/borrow/hire from other studios by the end of the decade, giving Bill & Joe their own unit and pushing Harmon to do more Warneresque cartoons (instead of the Disneyesque ones he and Rudy wanted to do) before finally hiring Avery as Hugh's replacement.

  3. Jack Chertok was the head of shorts production for MGM when the cartoon unit was developed in 1937. I suspect that he was never that closely involved with the cartoons' production. Fred Quimby was a sales executive for MGM shorts, and I believe that he was moved in when the Harry Hershfield / Max Maxwell leadership team failed.

  4. Chertok later went into television, producing such shows as "Private Secretary" and "My Favorite Martian."

  5. Sounds right to me, Anon. Variety reported Feb. 9, 1938 that Quimby was producing the Captain and the Kids cartoons (on March 11th the paper says he was managing the cartoon unit).