Friday, 11 November 2011

Paul Terry, Aesop and the Missus

There was a time when Paul Terry didn’t have the same toilet-splash sound in every cartoon. That’s because his splash, if there was one, didn’t make any noise. Paul Terry made silent cartoons.

His history has been elucidated in numerous animation history books. But let’s hear Terry in his own words. And his wife’s, too.

Terry’s ‘Aesop Fables’ of the 1920s were, apparently, the cartoons Walt Disney looked up to when he first went into animation. Terry explains how he created them. You can take his story for what it’s worth, especially considering there’s no mention of the heavy influence of Felix the Cat on his ‘Henry.’ This is in the Oakland Tribune of January 16, 1928.

Romance Born In Studio With Terry’s “Fables” Cat
It all began in fun.
That is one way of describing the romance of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Terry—the first member of the matrimonial firm being the creator of those animated cartoons known to the world as “Fables, Inc.,” and the second an artist who drew those same lively wiggles as a member of the “Fables” staff.
Terry is visiting his native California, with his wife, as the guest of his sister, Mrs. Carrie Donnelly, 2159 Stuart street, Berkeley.
“We’ve been married four years, and still speak—a long distance record for the movie world,” says Paul.
“I was the only woman on the staff so he married me to make it a stag studio—but there was no getting rid of me that easily,” says Irma—and snatching a pencil, she produces a cartoon wherein linked hearts and arrows figure.
“There was never any doubt as to my career,” Terry relates. “As a small child, I drew sketches on the wall paper and pilloried unpopular neighbors in chalk on the front steps. Parental efforts at suppressing these tokens of budding genius did not have much effect. Do you remember those old-time little books that children used to slip through rapidly, giving the effect of motion to the pictures on each page? Well, I wasn’t content to look at them. I made them for myself—and that was the beginning of the animated cartoon for me.
“All this was in California. Most of my art training was received at the polytechnic High school in San Francisco, which, by the way, has turned out more successful cartoonists than any other school not specializing in art that I know. I worked on almost all the newspapers on both sides of the bay in the days when camera men and the staff of the art department were one and the same thing. I’ve been a signboard painter and a scene painter, and every bit of that training has been useful.”
Terry’s first plunge into motion pictures was in New York, in 1915, when he gave up his newspaper job and fitted up a studio, because he believed in an idea.
“It took me four months to make my first picture,” he says, “and thank heaven, I sold it! Otherwise I should have been discouraged and quit. Now we turn out a picture a week, and our organization includes 22 men—not to mention the lady. In the beginning, the animated cartoon was a mere novelty. There was so much laborious work and duplication in the tracing that no one man could turn out work fast enough to make any real impression. I had to formulate plans for reducing this mechanical labor, and that is where my knowledge of the camera was invaluable.”
When you realize that Terry has produced 367 “Fables” and 150 previous pictures in seven and a half years, and that each of these pictures, running to about 700 feet of film and lasting from 10 to 15 minutes, .requires between six and seven thousand separate drawings—16 drawings to the second while in action at an average rate of speed—you will readily believe that the antics of “Henry the Cat” are not so simple as they look.
But all of that is of secondary importance to the finding of the idea behind the picture.
“The idea must have a sustaining interest that will keep it buoyant [sic] for 10 to 16 minutes. It must be capable of comic presentation, and yet it must respond to some fundamental human interest. And it must not be an allustrated [sic] text, but a story that tells itself visually—a pantomime. Our scenarios are not written—they are drawn in rough thumb-nail sketches. Then the characters are drawn to fit. Psychologists tell us our thinking is done in images. In the pictures we keep that direct progress by images, without the intervention of words.
The cartooning of Aesop’s Fables, by which Terry won his fame, was not an accidental inspiration.
“At that time,” he reminds us, “the death of the animated cartoon was predicted in short order. The novelty of mere movement had worn off. The production required a disproportionate amount of labor—as much as a regular comedy. Audiences had grown weary of crude slap stick, and there was no apparent future in the field. It was then that I began casting about for some means of resuscitation. In digging around in the library, I ran across, a book that has retained its popularity for 2600 years, and of which more copies are still sold yearly than of any other publication except the Bible. It deals with strong and permanent human motives, in brief stories. That book was Aesop’s Fables. When we ran out of Aesop, we could do what old Aesop did — turn to and invent some more.
“I wish I could say that one night in the firelight I saw a curly-haired infant on his mother’s knee listening in delight to these immortal stories—and the great idea was born. But there is a fatal obstacle to that. We have no children. Unless,” he adds, “we may lay some claim to those children to whom we owe everything, because they sit in the audience and laugh and clap their hands at our fables. Without them, there would be no ‘Fables Inc.’—and this very clever artist here would be out of a job in the studio, though she’d still have a full-time appointment as Mrs. Paul Terry.

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