Saturday, 10 March 2018

How Van Beuren Did It

In 1931, the Van Beuren cartoon studio released Making ‘Em Move, a gagged-up short about how cartoons were made. That same year, the Baltimore Sun published a feature story on how Van Beuren cartoons were actually made.

The West Coast studios worked a little differently. Because many shorts were based around singing and dialogue, the voices were recorded first and the animators matched the characters’ mouth movements to the soundtrack. On the East Coast, the voices were the last thing recorded. That’s why Popeye and other Fleischer characters talked without moving their mouths (mumbling their words so it didn’t look so obvious). Van Beuren worked the same way.

The studio soon hired Margie Hines to voice female characters. But as you can read in the article, men who worked at Van Beuren doubled as voice artists when the need arose in the early years of sound. I’ve always wondered if Gene Rodemich did some of the voices, especially a raspy voiced guy who surfaces in Tom and Jerry and Cubby Bear cartoons.

There are a couple of lines on the Rufle Baton invented by Van Beuren animator George Rufle. The article also touches on colour. Van Beuren didn’t bother with it until after Burt Gillett arrived from Disney and replaced Rodemich in 1934; Uncle Walt’s use of Technicolor in the hugely successful Flowers and Trees in 1932 induced other studios to follow along.

The drawing above accompanied the article; the other frame grabs are for decoration.

The Noah’s Ark that Movies Built

OF all the make-believe worlds created by the imagination of man there are fewer stranger and more fascinating than that in which are found the creatures of the new Noah’s Ark. In practical language this world is found in what is called the animated cartoon. Specimens of the elastic fauna and collapsible flora which abound in this realm are found in every part of the earth, the only condition necessary for their appearance being the conjunction of a motion picture projector, a strip of film and a screen.
Intelligible alike to the Arab who visits the portable cinema camped overnight near his village, to the Chinese who jams himself into the ride neighborhood nickelodeon in Shanghai, and to the American schoolboy who welcomes the appearance of the funny animals with unfailing eagerness, the animated cartoons is one of the most universal forms of art. It is a secondary art, of course, one which exists solely for the amusement of crowds casually gathered together in theaters everywhere. It has nothing to teach and is never, never serious. But perhaps for the very reason that this art is detached and self-sufficient, the best examples of it may have a surprisingly long life. The new Noah’s Ark is a timeless vessel, and it reflects very little of contemporary fashions of any sort. It may be, therefore that inquisitive connoisseurs a century hence may find these quaint creatures even more interesting than do we, to whom they are a routine part of film entertainment.
WHERE THEY LIVE there is no vexing law of gravitation, no pain, no apparent limit to the things anybody wants to do. It is nothing for a horse to turn itself into a steam shovel, or for a dinosaur to make of its neck an escalator. Since the coming of the sound films all the cartoon creatures have become musical. Nowhere is to be found such widespread and amazing talent. A pig thinks nothing of using its own skeleton for a xylophone, and the cat’s whiskers, stretched out and plucked by a jazz-mad mule, give forth the twang of a harp.
They are great dancers, too, being skilled in all known forms of that art. Often the piano will take to dancing, not to mention the trees, the mountains and the houses. The musical libraries of the world, classic and popular, are at the hoof-tips, claw-tips and paw-tips of these fantastic animals.
ALMOST AS INTERESTING as the magic menagerie itself are the artists who have created this make-believe world and its inhabitants. The Noah’s architects are not well known to the public, and even their methods remain much of a mystery to moviegoers. The making of a screen cartoon, of course, is far from a one-man job. Conceivably, one artist might draw a complete cartoon, but it would take him perhaps six months of grinding labor, and the second would probably break him down altogether.
Groups of men in shirt sleeves, most of them accepting their work as a matter of course, collaborate upon the drawing, and must work in close cooperation with the musicians who supply the sound track. Most of the process now has got down to a fixed routine, and there is a strong contrast between the apparent spontaneity and freedom of movement of the screen creatures and the slow, tedious manner in which they are made.
THE METHOD employed by Æsop’s Sound Fables, one of the oldest of the existing cartoons, is typical of that employed in most of the animated cartoon laboratories. Entering the main office, in the middle of the morning, say, one finds it not at all imposing or romantic. Perhaps a dozen men in various stages of comfortable shirt-sleevage may be observed seated before drawing boards, intently at work. One or two filing cabinets and a number of black, circular, table-like drying racks complete the furniture of the room.
Each drawing board has two pegs near the top, on which sheets of ordinary thing paper are fitted by means of perforations. The board is so arranged that a light shines through the section over which the paper is placed. The animator makes his first sketch, then places a second blank sheet over it. The first drawing thus shines through, enabling the animator to make his progressive drawings with accuracy.
But much has been done before the cartoon reaches this stage. The first thing the visitor is apt to notice is that each artist is drawing from music. Each one has a strip of manuscript to printed music propped up in front of him to serve as a guide in his work.
TO EXPLAIN THIS it is necessary to start at the beginning. The first step in the making of a cartoon is the conceiving of the general idea and the working out of the details. This is done in the case of Æsop’s Fables at a roundtable conference, held in a smaller office room. Here John Foster, head animator, with Gene Rodemich looking after the musical interests of the animals. In this conference each artist may set forth his ideas and views. Models for proposed characters are drawn and decided upon.
All suggestions are put into type by a stenographer, and the head of the animating department, possibly with the assistance of two or more aides, shapes the notes into a detailed scenario including story, musical themes and gags. The completed scenario is a meticulous document, with carefully worked out scenes and subtitles.
Meanwhile Musical Director Rodemich has been busy completing the score. The tunes, of course, are very simple. Whenever possible, Mr. Rodemich and his assistants compose their own score. Familiar songs are introduced only when there is some definite purpose to be served in the telling of the story. One of the staff knows something about dancing. Often he illustrated the steps to be used in the film for the guidance of the animators who will draw the scenes. With the completed scenario in hand, Mr. Rodemich lays out the entire score on paper. This is a mathematical process, tedious but simple. There are forty-eight frames or pictures to each bar of music, and each note must be held for a certain number of frames. The object is, of course, to let each animator know how long to let Henry Cat keep his mouth open while singing high C.
The various scenes are now parceled out among the various animators. With the bit of music before him, the artist now may bring the cat’s foot down on the beat of a march tune, and having him burst into song at just the right moment.
WE NOW RETURN to the artist at his drawing board. He and his fourteen coworkers will make from 6,000 to 10,000 drawings for a single cartoon to be run off upon the screen in a few minutes. It takes long practice and a special talent to be able to make these simple drawings well. The trick is to know just how far to advance the foot in the case of walking, running and other exercises. The various stages of any operation shown on the screen must be timed right if there is to be a smooth animation.
Some of the artists have been detailed to supply the backgrounds. These are sometimes exterior scenes and sometimes interiors. They may be as varied, indeed, as the backgrounds used in motion pictures. Some of the sets are the same size as the individual sheets. Others are panoramas, several feet long, to be used in creating an illusion of motion. On the screen it seems as if Henry Cat is walking along a country road. In reality the strip of scenery is moved one-eighth of an inch every time the animal is photographed.
The individual tissue sheets, filled with drawings, ranging from groups of figures to a single foot or hand, are given to the tracers, twenty-five of whom are employed in this particular studio. These men trace the drawings onto celluloid sheets. The tracers then fill in the bodies with black or white, after which the sheets are ready for the camera.
The cameraman has a little room all to himself. Each drawing comes to him numbered and he works from a chart which tells him the sequence. On a flat table before him is the frame which holds the drawing to be photographed. On the bottom of the frame the cameraman places the celluloid sheet containing the drawing of the background, whatever it may be. On top of this he places a second celluloid sheet containing the characters in a particular scene. Those parts which are to be moved in the following pictures—perhaps an arm or a leg—are missing from the second sheet. They are contained on a third celluloid rectangle which completes the picture to be photographed. Three “cells” are always used, whether needed or not.
THE CELLULOID being transparent, the entire picture presents itself to the eye of the camera, which is contained on a support above the cameraman’s head. When the picture is complete the operator presses a pedal with his foot and the picture is taken. He replaces the third layer of celluloid with a drawing showing the leg or arm moved a fraction of an inch, then makes another photograph. Sometimes he changes the second and third sheets, sometimes all three, according to the directions on his chart. Sixteen of these photographs make a foot of film and they are unrolled on the screen at the rate of 1,440 a minute.
The cameraman also makes what is called the baton by moving a white spot up and down along a narrow groove at left of the photograph. He varies the rate of movement in accordance with the chart which accompanies each film sequence. This chart has been marked by Mr. Rodemich. The result, when thrown on the screen, shows the white dot bouncing up and down in the time in which the music is to be played. After the bouncing dot has served its purpose it is replaced by the sound track.
The baton serves as an automatic leader, and also enables the musicians to rehearse sometimes as much as half the score before the scenes are photographed. All they need to rehearse—or even, in some cases, to make the recording—is the score and the automatic leader. Sometimes half the synchronization is recorded without the musicians seeing the film, and the timing, as shown in the completed film with sound track, will be perfect. When Mr. Rodemich wants a section of batonized film he simply asks the cameraman to give him a certain number of feet of three-quarters time, or whatever the time may be, and the cameraman makes the necessary number of pedal exposures.
THE SCENE CHANGES for the next step the making of a modern Fable. One must cross the Hudson to the New Jersey sound studio in which the recording is done. There, in a large, barnlike room, one may find Mr. Rodemich with an orchestra ranging in number from ten to twenty-five, including half a dozen members called effect men.
The realm of sounds has been exhausted in search for comic notes and novelty, and many combinations of instruments have been tried. Mr. Rodemich has done whole films with two cornets, a clarinet and a piano; another combination he favors is a flute, clarinet, oboe and bassoon. The effect men have trunkloads of queer devices at their command, not counting the regulation trap drums and such conventional noise-makers as the xylophone, tom-tom and cymbals. Penny whistles, sleigh-bells, sandpaper blocks, rattles, tambourines and many such devices are used to counterfeit the strange, universal language used by the animals in the new Noah’s Ark. The human voice is used sparingly, various members of the staff being called upon to pinch hit for the creatures whenever occasion warrants.
WHENEVER POSSIBLE the creatures are made to express their loves and hates by gibberish which suggests only in tone the required emotion. This is due to their international nature. The Noah’s architects must never forget that Henry Cat is equally welcome in Rangoon, Cape Town and Vienna.
When the orchestra is all set the film is run off upon a screen in front of them. They rehearse the scenes to be recorded five times before going through with it with the microphones in action. The resulting sound tracks are fitted to the corresponding film sequences and the whole picture subjected to careful editing.
All in all, some forty artists are employed to make the Æsop’s Fables. They make an average of twenty-six cartoons a year. To do this they must animate 152,000 drawings, each of which is worked on five times before completion. All the drawings occupy 18,200 feet of film. And the full year’s work of forty men, if shown continuously, could be unreeled on the screen in three hours and two minutes!
UP TO THE PRESENT TIME the make-believe world of the fantastic animals has been in black and white, with the exception of a few experimental subjects, such as the colored cartoon incorporated in “The King of Jazz.” Whatever advances color photography itself has yet to make in the wider world of the feature picture, it is ready to be adapted to the cartoon strip. Therein the artist may choose shades which photograph well and match carefully.
One naturally asks, then, why is not more color used? It is wholly a matter of expense. The addition of color to the cartoons would be a simple matter. In the Æsop studio it would simply necessitate the employment of artists to tint the pictures in place of the tracers who now fill them in in black and white. The extra expense of this operation would be negligible.
BUT WHEN IT COMES to printing the films it is a different story. The film must go through many costly operations, one for each basic color used, and this increases the cost of the print seven or eight times. This cost would fall heavily upon the proprietors of the smaller cinemas, and this difference they are either unable to unwilling to pay for at the present time. If the fascinating creatures of the cartoons are to take on colors, there must be a definite public demand to offset this added expense.
However, they have done well enough in black and white, and, since they do not imitate life except in a broad and ludicrous fashion, the added realism of color is not needed. It is the idea which counts most, and there are whole new realms of fancy still to be explored.

1 comment:

  1. With all the Noah's Ark references, where they making "Noah Knew His Ark" at the time?