Saturday, 3 December 2016

A Day at the Van Beuren Studio

New York City had three cartoon studios in the 1930s that were busy with theatrical releases. The Fleischer studio released its Betty Boop and Popeye cartoons through Paramount and was the best of the three. Terrytoons had several corporate relationships but its cartoons went out with 20th Century Fox features. And then there was Van Beuren, which released several other short subjects besides cartoons, and was partly owned by RKO. In 1936, RKO decided it would rather hand money to Walt Disney to make cartoons for it, so it closed the Van Beuren studio.

I feel bad for Van Beuren. Its early cartoons are not very well drawn at times and most have no real story to speak of, but there’s something likeable about them. The studio should have been able to get its act together. By 1936, it had some pretty good animators like Jack Zander, Bill Littlejohn and Carlo Vinci. It had solid properties in Felix the Cat and the Toonerville Trolley (though neither were owned by the studio). It had Joe Barbera, who knew how to construct a funny story and add gags along the way. Okay, it had Burt Gillett and his rather unstable style of managing. But if the studio had decided to go for slam-bam comedy, it might have finally turned the corner. But it was not to be.

Let’s tour the Van Beuren studio, courtesy of this feature story in the New York Herald Tribune of April 17, 1932. No one is quoted and no names are mentioned. It’s simply an outline of how the studio made cartoons. Interestingly, there’s no mention of dialogue, but the sound was added after the drawings were made and not before. And readers certainly got a lesson on how cartoons were shot in painstaking detail. Four people seemed to be working in the camera department at any given time.

Putting the Animation in Cartoons
For approximately fifteen years animated cartoons have been entertaining motion picture audiences with the antics of their funny characters and mystifying those who wondered how the little figures acquired life, how they learned to sing and how the sound effects were timed so perfectly.
A visit to the studio where Æsop’s sound fables are produced by the Van Beuren Corporation for RKO release will give an idea of the amount of tedious work that is required for one cartoon.
Motion pictures do not move of themselves, but are a succession of still pictures projected on the screen at the rate of ninety feet a minute, or a foot and a half a second. There are sixteen “frames,” or pictures to one foot of film and therefore twenty-four separate pictures are shown on the screen each second. Ordinarily motion pictures are photographed at the same rate of speed at which they are projected, but in animated cartoons the camera photographs but one frame of picture at a time. But before the photographic stage is reached there are many other details that must be taken care of.
In the days of silent pictures a staff of twenty-five men was sufficient to produce a cartoon each week. Today, not counting the music and effect men employed for recording purposes, twice that number are needed to make one cartoon every two weeks.
Artists Maps Out Story [sic]
First there is the story to be worked out. As so many technicalities are involved, outside scenarios are not solicited and the artists gather in a conference room to map out the story. At this meeting, in addition to the artists, there are the musical director [Gene Rodemich] and what might be termed a “song and dance” man [Jack Ward]. Music to accompany the various scenes must be selected in advance. Various steps or gags are demonstrated and the artists jot down their notes and make rough sketches. Also, they often attempt to illustrate the action of a character. Sometimes two or three days are required before the artists can return to their boards and get down to actual drawing.
Fifth men are employed at the studio, all of whom devote their time exclusively to drawing. These are divided into three groups: artists, or animators at they are genuinely called, the tracers and the inkers.
Fifteen artists sketch their drawings on translucent tissue paper. The average cartoon of 700 feet requires from 10,000 to 15,000 separate drawings, as well as from twenty-five to thirty backgrounds. This may seem an impossible task, but some of the drawings consist merely of a hand or a food, later to be superimposed over another drawing to make the complete picture.
The artist’s desk consists of a large drawing board with a square approximately seven by nine inches cut out of the center in which is fitted a piece of plate glass. Below the glass is an electric bulb, the reflected light enabling the artist to follow through several layers of paper the action of the figure he is drawing. The paper has two perforations at the top which fit over two pegs on the drawing board. This system of holes and pegs is used throughout the entire process, including photographing, the purpose being to insure proper registration of the drawings.
The artist now begins his scene, which may be a cat walking. The first sketch would show the cat starting a step. The next would show it finishing the action. By placing these two drawings above the light, the artist can see the start and finish of the action and he must then fill in the intermediate drawings to give the process smoothness. This is termed “animating” and requires great skill. The drawings are numbered according to scene and group and must be made so that the action will synchronize with the music. For this purpose the music is set up by the musical director by “beats.” Sometimes the artist will not even know the musical selection for the scene he is drawing, but if he knows the number of beats a minute he can make his animation in perfect synchrony.
The Tracing Department Enters
As scenes are completed, the drawings are turned over to the tracing department, where the outlines of the figures are traced in ink on specially treated celluloid. The use of celluloid is a great time-saver, but this will be explained later as its use more directly applied to the photography.
As the tracers finish the drawings, they are placed on drying racks and are turned over to the opaquing department, which fills in the outlines with black, white or gray paint, a chart being provided with each scene designating what shades are to be used on each character. When the opaquing department has completed its work, the celluloids or “cells” are ready to be turned over to the camera department.
Photographing an animated cartoon is a tremendous task necessitating two camera men and two assistants working from morning to night. The average time required is eleven to twelve days. With each scene that is delivered to the camera department there is also delivered an exposure sheet on which are shown the background and celluloids by number for each individual frame or picture. Four separate drawings are photographed at the same time, one atop the other, and here is where we see the saving of time made possible by the use of celluloid. Only objects that actually move must have separate drawings. The camera is mounted directly above a rack, or table, on which the camera man first places the background. On this background are shown the objects that do not have animation or life throughout the scene.
After the background is put in place, three layers of celluloid are placed on top of it, various characters appearing in the scene being on the separate layers of celluloid. For instance, three characters walk into the picture, one at a time, and then stand alongside another to sing a song. The camera man would first place his background with three blank celluloids above it and snap several frames to give the final picture continuity and so that the characters do not appear to rush in. This action would be marked on the exposure sheet for the proper number of frames.
Then the first character appears. To complete one step requires from five to ten drawings, depending on the speed desired, the faster the action the fewer the drawings. However, if too few drawings are made the action becomes jumpy. While the first character is walking in to take his place the action is confined to one celluloid, the set-up on the camera being first the background, then two blank celluloids and on top the celluloid on which the character appears. When the first character takes his position in the scene the second character starts to enter, the action being the same as the first.
How Celluloids Are Arranged
The set-up would now be changed so that first there would be the background, then the first celluloid with the character who is already in his place, then a blank celluloid, and on top the celluloid on which is traced the outline of the second character. When the second character is in his place the third character enters. Now all three layers of celluloid are in use until the third character is in place.
For the purpose of better illustrating the celluloid process, let us say that the three characters do not move their bodies while singing, merely opening their mouths in unison. The three figures would then be drawn on one celluloid and the three heads on another, so that separate drawings to animate the heads only would be needed, these being so set that when the celluloids are in place they would appear as one picture. there would then be an extra celluloid which might be used if the singers were to move their hands or feet for the purpose of adding gestures.
The camera man in photographing would following his exposure sheet which would read “Background No. 1.” “Celluloids 1, 2, 3” for the first frame or picture. The next exposure would read “Background No. 1,” “Celluloids 1, 2, 4” on down through the scene, the celluloids being changed by the cameraman as indicated on his exposure sheet. But this is not the only thing the cameraman must keep in mind. Sound enters into the photography as well as every other operation in the making of a sound cartoon. The cameraman is instructed on the rhythm or number of beats of the music that is later to be added and by means of a secret process [the Rufle baton?] registers the beats on the negative film.
When the photographing is completed, the various scenes are arranged in order and a master print is made. All this while the musical director has been working out his music and rehearsing it, arranging original composition whenever necessary, so that, by the time the print is returned from the laboratory, he is ready for a final rehearsal. Minor cuts are sometimes necessary, but as a rule the work is so perfectly timed that the operations go through without a hitch.
The operations now shift before the microphone. The essential requisites are a sound proof room, the necessary recording apparatus, a projection booth and machine for the purpose of projecting the picture (silent) on the screen and last, but not least, the men to supply the music and sound effects. The film is started, the men get their cue, and the score is rehearsed, music, footbeats, thunder and lightning effects, all coming in at their proper places. The preparatory work has been so complete that one rehearsal is generally sufficient. The microphone is next put into action and the recording takes place.
It now merely remains for the picture negative and the sound track negative to be delivered to the laboratory, matched up properly, and hundreds of prints made so that another cartoon may be presented to audiences around the world.

Use 12,000 Units In Single Cartoon
Here some some figures prepared by a cartoon artist which give a concise estimate of the work involved:
Fifty artists make twenty-six animated cartoons a year.
Each cartoon averages 12,000 drawings.
Each drawing is handled five separate times—penciling, inking, opaquing (black, white and gray).
312,000 drawings are animated in one year.
312,000 drawings are worked on 1,560,000 times.
The drawings make approximately 18,200 feet of film.
All this, one year’s work of fifty men, can be shown in the screen in 3 hours and 20 minutes.


  1. "Its early cartoons are not very well drawn at times" is an understatement, but I enjoy watching VBs animators struggle to make even the simplest movements.

  2. Great article. Thanks for transcribing it! ...Rowby.

  3. Next to the Max Fleischer stuff, the Van Beuren cartoons are some of the most bizarre animation ever done. Their cheapness often enhanced their weirdness.