Saturday 25 January 2014

The Cartooning Tinkerer

Next to Felix the Cat, I suspect Koko the Clown was the most popular animated cartoon character that didn’t come out of the newspapers for movie audiences of the silent era. It’s still amazing to watch the technical feat of the drawn clown acting in, and interacting with, the real world around him.

Koko was the product of Max Fleischer, who founded the “Out of the Inkwell” studio around the character in 1921. The technical side of animation seems to have interested Fleischer as much as the artistic side. He invented the Rotoscope which made Koko so life-like, and he held a number of patents.

The article below is from Fleischer’s former employer, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, and published on September 14, 1924. It delves into a bit of Fleischer’s past and how the Koko cartoons were made.

Out of the Inkwell to Fame and Fortune
Max Fleischer Was Fired Eight Times for Tinkering, But Now He Is Head of a Million Dollar Movie Project—and Still Tinkering
By Martin B. Dickstein
“COPY BOY! C-ah-pee-e Boy-y!” The man on the city desk, turned impatiently in his chair and exploded. “Where in the name of all that's holy is that kid Max? I've fired him seven times in the last two months, but today he goes for good. C-ah-py Bo-y!”
The City Editor's voice broke in a shrill staccato. Industrious reporters industriously battering upon battered typewriters in the newsroom glanced up uneasily as if expecting the gathering wrath from the city desk to fall upon their own heads. The man on the desk slammed a drawer shut with a menacing bang that augured no good for any one in that journalistic sanctum, the elusive Max in particular. “Damnation! If I ever get—”
A glass door of a telephone booth at the far end of the room was pushed open slowly from the inside and a skinny kid emerged, dragging behind him a drawing-board almost as big as himself on which had been scribbled various hieroglyphics—reflections of an immature artistic mind.
He glanced sheepishly in the direction of the City Editor, who by this time was bordering on a state of hysteria.
“Were you calling for me, sir?” The words came in the squeaky pitch of a fourteen-year-old kid whose voice was just them beginning to change. His number tens shuffled uncomfortably beside the swivel chair of the lord and master of the newsroom. The bristol board he dropped behind him into a convenient waste basket.
“Was I calling you? Didn't you hear me?”
“No, sir,” meekly.
“Where've you been?”
“In the telephone booth.”
“No, sir; drawing.”
“Here, rush this copy upstairs and then go down and tell Mr. Simpson that you're fired.”
That was the eighth time that Max Fleischer had been “fired” as copy boy in the city room of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in the year 1908.
Max Fleischer, originator of the “Out-of-the-Inkwell” animated cartoons, inventor of the recently introduced “Novagraph Analysis” in films, president of the Red Seal Distributing Corporation, successful and still in his early thirties, sat in his office on the sixth floor at 1600 Broadway and rolled reminiscences off his tongue as nimbly as he thinks up stunts for his little screen clown. He mused at length on the kindness of Gilbert Evans, then managing editor of the Brooklyn Eagle, who took Max in hand after he was fired from the city room for the eighth time, and gave him a place on the art staff.
“Gilbert Evans was the greatest newspaper man I've ever known,” continued Mr. Fleischer. “And he could recognize genius when he saw it,” this with a twinkling in his eye which belied what might have sounded like a conceited afterthought. “Evans used to tell me that I had the makings of a great cartoonist. I took him at his word and so, you see, I've been striving for greatness ever since.”
Fleischer is that way. He never takes himself too seriously and doesn't like any one else to. He has a staff of a dozen artists and twice that number of technicians and office assistants in his studio on upper Broadway and everyone jack of the office boys calls him Max.
“It was after I had made a fairly sizable start as an artist on The Eagle,” Mr. Fleischer went on, “that I went to the Popular Science Magazine as a special writer and illustrator. There I first began the study of the possibilities of the animated cartoon on the screen. I had somehow managed to save the magnificent sum of one hundred dollars and with that as a working capital I decided to establish myself as the world's greatest producer of pen and ink movies.
“I resigned from the Staff of Popular Science, rigged up a semblance of a laboratory in my six by ten foot bedroom and with the help of my brother, Joe, began the photographing and developing of some two hundred feet of film. We worked for more, than a year on that strip of celluloid, and when I began peddling it among the distributors, the first one who showed any sign of interest in my new project said he'd buy it if I could guarantee to supply him with five hundred feet of film a week.
“You can see, then, how my first lofty hopes were smashed to smithereens. It had taken me over a year to turn out two hundred feet of that first screen cartoon, and here was a motion picture distributor who said he'd, take five hundred feet a week or none at all. I was practically broke then, I had been for a long time, and it was all too apparent that if I were going to make any headway I would have to find someone sufficiently interested in my idea and with enough ready cash to back it.
“When I had about given up all hope and was ready to go back to magazine scribbling, I met Dr. Hugo Riesenfeld, who had just then been made managing director of the Rivoli and Rialto theaters. He saw possibilities in my new idea and offered to supply the necessary funds to carry on the work. From that day to this we have been turning out two ‘Out-of-the-Inkwell’ cartoons a month, and my little screen clown has grown to be as famous in Cape Town and Shanghai as he is in the five and ten-cent picture houses from Harlem to where the pavement ends in Gopher Prairie.”
Fleischer leaned back in his chair and eyed the stub of his cigar as a thousand successful business men before him have eyed the stubs of their cigars and explained to gentlemen of the press how it felt to be sitting on top of the world. Listening to him talk and watching his slender fingers as they drummed nervously on a blotter pad, we felt that here was a true artist, an artist from the tips of his polished boots to the thatch of black wiry hair, brushed back from his broad, well-shaped forehead.

"And now we're going to let you in on some of the secrets of animated cartooning,” he said as he propelled us in the direction of the studio workshop. He pushed open a door which led into a spacious, high-ceilinged, many-windowed room where some two dozen men were busily engaged before as many drawing-boards. In one corner a group of cameramen were focusing a motion picture camera upon a miniature printing press which, it was explained, was destined to play an important part in the next “Inkwell” film.
We stopped behind a man who was busily engaged turning out drawing after drawing of the famous Fleischer screen clown. Here the originator of the character which was taking shape on the bristol board before us offered the interesting information that a single reel of film called for more than three thousand sketches of that little, clown in addition to the hundreds of other drawings necessary for atmosphere and background. It was needless then, to inquire why Mr. Fleischer did not draw those pictures himself.
From the spacious workshop we passed into a closet-like chamber, black as night. A little red bulb, hanging, it seemed, from nowhere at all, throw an eerie circle of light upon a table-like apparatus which had the appearance of a torture rack of the middle ages.
“That is a camera,” Mr. Fleischer was saying, “specially designed and built for animated photography.” He picked up one of the drawings of the funny little clown, placed it in a glass frame, which lay flat on the surface of the table, and pulled a lever. There was a click as the shutter of the camera opened and closed and the little meter on the side of the table indicated that another half foot of film had been exposed.
“Tedious work that, photographing three to four thousand of those drawings, Mr. Fleischer,” we ventured as we emerged again into the spacious, high-ceilinged room with the many windows.
“That's putting it mildly,” he answered, “but no work is ever too tedious when you're sufficiently interested in the job at hand. And putting life and motion into that little clown is, at least to me, the most interesting thing I can imagine. If I could think of anything more interesting, I'd drown the clown in his own ink and tackle the other.”
As we left him at the elevator we pondered upon that sensible philosophy of the man who does things because he's interested in them, not because it's worth so much to him in dollars and cents. We tried to think how many Max Fleischers there are in this world who spend their days tinkering over funny little contraptions while their neighbors nudge each other and point a finger wisely to the region of their temples. After all, aren't the tinkerers getting the most fun out of life, by doing just the things they like to do? You bet they are! Tinkering is like pulling a little clown out of an inkwell and standing by wondering what he is going to do.
In the case of Max Fleischer, the little fellow scampered off and came back dragging a fortune after him.

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