Saturday 7 November 2020

Puppetoons Go to War

Hollywood went to war in a big way after Adolf Hitler decided an invasion of Poland was a sehr gut idea for the Fatherland. Animation studios played their part.

There were propaganda cartoons for the home front, with unsubtle pleas to Buy Bonds interrupting the story. There were even less subtle caricatures of Axis leaders (Hitler getting bashed around is still funny) and the enemy in general, especially the Japanese (which, I suppose, was funny at the time, but chopped from post-war prints). On top of that, allied governments contracted studios to make films for the military. Disney, Schlesinger, Lantz, Hugh Harman were among them. So was George Pal.

Watching Pal’s characters move is something I still marvel at. That’s not even considering the incredible amount of work that went into designing, making and shooting his stop-motion models. Then combine that with an inspired story and you get something really remarkable; Tulips Will Grow is an amazing film by any standard.

While this story in the Showmen’s Trade Review of December 2, 1942, refers to war-time work, it’s really about how Pal’s Puppetoons were made.

All the studios were hit with staff being called up for war duty. Pal was no exception. The magazine reported on October 10, 1942 that just as Pal’s Jasper and the Choo Choo began production, nine of his employees were told that duty called with the U.S. Army.

Pal got out of shorts in the late ‘40s; it cost too much to make them. He moved into features where he, arguably, received more fame and honours.

Pal Puppetoons Get Wartime Assignment from Uncle Sam
Famous Wooden Characters Star in Training Pictures; Creator’s Technique Detailed

Some years ago when George Pal had the idea of using wooden puppets in animated pictures to achieve third dimension, he probably never realized that his idea, besides revolutionizing the animated picture, would also prove valuable to a nation at war. But that's what has happened, for Paramount's Puppetoon King has joined the ranks of shorts and cartoon producers making training films for the United States Government.
Depth and perspective are important in projecting a realistic miniature scene of an actual maneuver or plan of action in these films, it is pointed out, with the result that Pal's technique is proving its usefulness in wartime.
Nearly a dozen years ago when George Pal received his degree in architecture in Europe, he hoped to make a career of designing sets for feature pictures. He did follow that course for a while, but the idea of making his own wooden puppets so that his pictures would have a third dimension caused him to change his course. He photographed puppets in all sizes and forms, photographed them with a stop-motion camera, studied their action, carried on endless experiments and developed his new technique to the point of perfection. He was then ready to produce pictures.
He Trained a Large Staff
In Eindhoven, Holland, he opened a studio, went to work. His Puppetoons were enthusiastically received in the first-run movie theatres in England and on the continent, and were warmly praised by film critics. Rushed in making pictures to meet the public demand, Pal trained a large staff of assistants. His studio became the largest animation studio outside the United States. It was there that he developed and perfected his revolutionary system of third dimensional animations.
From Holland and England his fame spread to America. Paramount brought him to Hollywood where, in little more than a year, he has become one of the most successful artists in the film capital.
Those stringless puppets romping across the screen represent the ultimate advancement in the field of animated motion pictures. The wooden figures perform against actual sets with synchronized music and special sound effects.
Whereas animated cartoons require a separate drawing in celluloid for each movement. Pal builds a separate wood figure or puppet. The result gives a more fluid action, with the theatrical advantage of complete third dimension.
First steps in the making of a Pal Puppetoon: writing the script, composing the music (done first so movement of the characters may be clearly defined before they are made) and designing the sets. The sets are just as real as in feature films, but small and according to exact scale.
Pal then makes color models of the first, middle and last phase of each movement of each character. Assistants complete the twenty-five or more models of the intermediate steps. Then they are photographed and projected to test the movements.
Each puppet is made up of three sections: body, head and legs. Contrary to common belief, a complete puppet is not made for every step in the action of the picture. Since the body remains the same regardless of the action, only one body is needed. Walking or running action is achieved by changing the legs. The heads number some 200, with varying expressions. For the proper expression. Pal's assistants record the sound track on the film, listen while the expression is run back. Then they select a head with a mouth of the shape and size to synchronize with the sound.
When actual filming begins, the position of the puppet is determined and holes are made in the floor of the- set in which the pin protruding from the bottom of the feet will be inserted. That will hold the puppet in the desired position. The other holes, past and future, are filled with removable pins until they are needed.
Shooting Time: Six Weeks
Altogether, approximately 10,000 individual pictures are taken for the subject that will run seven minutes. Actual shooting time is about six weeks, in spite of the fact that 90 per cent of the work on a cartoon is preparation that has nothing to do with the actual shooting.
The ordinary Technicolor camera takes scenes from behind three different lenses. Not so with the camera used to take a single frame at a time. This camera has a Technicolor attachment consisting of three different color filters. Each frame is "shot" three times, each time with the color changed. When the film is printed, the positive is exposed to each of the three different color frames of the same scene, one at a time. Result: one Technicolor positive, the same as a positive made from the ordinary three-film-color negative.
Hollywood producers have spent millions to develop animated mediums. In spite of the most careful measures to give wooden, plastic and clay subjects smooth animation, the problem had been long unsolved until George Pal came along with his highly developed Puppetoons. His famous little characters, while entertaining millions, will also carry out their acting assignment for Uncle Sam to speed the day of victory.


  1. Jasper and the Choo-Choo will be included on the forthcoming second volume of The Puppetoon Movie this December.

  2. But a key part of the George Pal Puppetoon "process" has never been explained clearly to my satisfaction: How did the Pal sculptors or wood carvers actually create accurate "inbetweens" within the perimeters of the extremes. I read that Pal actually animated each scene in pencil on paper before the sculpting was done, and they based their Madcap Models on those paper drawings. I've also heard that the inbetween puppets were just "eyeballed" by the sculptors. I still don't know the truth of the process after all these years.