Saturday, 8 July 2017

Making a Piggy Cartoon

Walt Disney wasn’t the only cartoon studio boss who caught the attention of the press at the start of the 1930s. But he was the one who had something worth writing about—Mickey Mouse, then three pigs, then cartoon features. Let’s face it. Bosko and Oswald paled compared to Mickey, just as the Silly Symphony imitations of various paled compared to Disney’s real thing.

Leon Schlesinger eventually ended up with the funniest animated characters but he took a while to get there. At the start, with Hugh Harman and Rudy Ising working for him, his studio’s stars were interchangeable happy singing and dancing animals that existed solely to sing and dance. Schlesinger bought the H-I cartoons and sold them to Warner Bros. for release. Either Schlesinger or (I suspect) Warners launched a publicity campaign for these shorts with money spent on trade ads, and stories planted in newspapers. This one is from the New York Herald Tribune of October 11, 1931. There is no byline, leaving me to speculate it’s rewritten from a studio handout. You’ll notice there’s no mention of Hugh and Rudy.

Papers can publish only so many “how do they make those cartoons anyway?” stories before having to find something else. And Disney had more popular and “newsy” things to offer space-filling editors than anyone. People wanted to read about that amusing mouse, not about Piggy.

Making Cartoon Films Involves Series of Complicated Processes
MOTION PICTURES have their cycles, a screen star may develop overnight and for a time be all the rage until another comes along, but there is one form of screen entertainment which keeps growing in popularity. That form of fare is the animated cartoon.
Animated cartoons are not recent. They are an institution as old as the film industry itself, according to Leon Schlesinger, who produces for Warner Brothers “Looney Tunes” and “Merrie Melodies.” Dozens of screen cartoons were started in the silent days, only to fall by the wayside. It was the advent of sound in pictures that saved the comedy cartoon business.
Sound revolutionized the technique. The average cartoon runs 600 feet in six and seven minutes, screen time, but few in an audience realize the amount of labor which goes into the production. Not many know, for instance, that between 6,000 and 10,000 individual drawings must be made and that a staff ranging from sixteen to twenty-four people works steadily for four weeks to produce one screen cartoon.
Before a cartoon can be produced a cartoon character must be created. This is no simple matter. To begin with, the character must have appeal, just as new motion picture players must have personality. The figure can’t be too large, it can’t be too series or too grotesque, although when in action the more impossible the stunt and situation the greater the laughs.
Once the leading character has been selected and drawn, the plot and action must be developed through means of a scenario. In the case of a song cartoon, such as “The Merrie Melodies,” the words of the song used dictate the action. However, the word “action” must be supplemented with comedy cartoon action, synchronized with the sound effects.
When sound first came in cartoon produced tried making the cartoon first and then fitting the music and sound to the action of the film. That proved unsatisfactory, as it was impossible under this method to achieve synchronization. Today virtually all producers work along the following lines:
The preparation of the script from which each comedy is made calls for collaboration of the writers with a trained musical composer familiar with this type of work. The script is worked into a complete musical manuscript form before turning the work over to the artists or the recording orchestra. The recording orchestra and the vocalists can have their part of the subject completed even before the artists have started work with their pencils. The process calls for mechanical precision. When recording, the musicians and singers sit with earphones clamped to their heads. Above them is the microphone, in front of which stands the conductor. He, too, has earphones. Before him is the complete manuscript music and story worked out in parallel just as the lyrics for a popular song appear in print.
Through their earphones, to each singer and to each sound-effect man, comes the faint click of a metronome behind sound-proof walls in an adjoining room. Precisely on the beat, and at the proper time in relationship to the story, the drummer will thump his wood block and the saxophone will wail just at the point where later the character may get hit with the inevitable brick and his mouth will fly open in a cry. The musicians, however, never know the purpose of the sounds they are making. Only the conductor knows the story.
The artists, in making up the little drawings, emphasize the action to meet the beat. As each drawing means one exposed frame of film, and there are sixteen frames to each foot of film which will move past the projection lens at the rate of ninety feet a minute, the artists know exactly how many frames of film make a bar of music. In this way the brick is made to strike at the identical moment the drummer’s wood block was recorded.
With all the sound effects records, the artists are then put to work. The action of the characters on the screen is obtained by making a succession of individual drawings, first in pencil on thin white paper, then traced in ink on transparent sheets of celluloid, with opaque in[k]s of white, black and gray. Five or six such drawings are required to make a character move a single step. Ten or more are needed when “Piggy,” of “Merrie Melodies,” takes a graceful leap across the screen.
Each sheet of celluloid, or cell as it is called, is numbered. When all the drawings have been made they are passed along to a photographer who operates a regular motion picture camera geared to take a single frame of film at each exposure. Along with the cells is a number sheet, on which is recorded the number of exposures to be given to each cell. Sometimes as many as thirty-two exposures will be given to a single cell, sometimes only one or two or three, all depending on the action required. The camera is rigged on a lens facing a bed on which the cells are laid, one at a time.
Under the cells is placed the painted background, against which the characters move. Inasmuch as the characters on the cells have been drawn with opaque inks and the rest of the cell is transparent, the camera, operated by a foot pedal, photographs the character against the background. As each cell is photographed the background automatically moves the distance of one cell, so that when the finished product is flashed on the screen the character will be seen running down the street or climbing a pole, as the case may be.
With the photographing of the cells there remains only the matter of developing the negative and making the print. The action film and the sound track film are then put together on a single film and another cartoon is ready for the screen, assuming, of course, that the picture is in perfect synchronization and that the cartoon is of the required length.

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