Saturday 28 August 2021

How To Make a Van Beuren Cartoon

Sound cartoons were still reasonably new in 1930 and—thanks to a Mr. W. Disney and a mouse—were getting a fair bit of publicity.

Popular Mechanics decided to satisfy the curiosity of its readers by explaining and showing how the cartoons were made now that characters talked, sang and played musical instruments on screen.

This story appeared in its edition of September 1930.

Mr. W. Disney and a mouse don’t appear in this article. Instead, it focuses on the Van Beuren studio, which had made the transition from silent Aesop’s Fables to sound ones.

The pictures accompanying the story are more interesting than the text to me, and it’s truly unfortunate the photo scans are of such low resolution that you can’t make out details through the murk. Also unfortunate is that no one in any of the pictures is identified. I’d love to see a bigger, clearer shot of the cartoon studio itself. Oh where, oh where, did Van Beuren’s photo files go? The picture to the right shows a background drawing from Jungle Jazz starring Don and Waffles. It’s another one of those really warped early Van Beurens with zooming heads, weird character designs, skeletons (okay, a skull) and that swirling fear animation the studio loved doing.

The makeshift sound room where the effects are made is fascinating, even if it’s blurry. With the mike in mid-studio, I wonder if the dialogue was recorded at the same time. Until Cubby Bear came along, most cartoons seem to have the same one or two people voicing everything. Anyway, you can click on the pictures to make them larger, but not clearer.

BETWEEN ten and twenty thousand penciled drawings, including no exact duplicates, are sketched on separate sheets of translucent tissue paper by a staff of fifteen artist-animators, to serve as the basis of a single Aesop’s sound fable, animated talkie cartoon.
In addition to this prodigious task, every single one of those drawings must then be traced from the tissue to a sheet of celluloid of the same size, which is conveniently handled on an ordinary drawing board. Twenty-five artists, who are called “tracers,” are engaged in this work on one cartoon.
These “cells” are then used by the photographers to make the movie film, which is accompanied by music from a twenty-five piece orchestra and by numerous supplementary sounds which the “effects men” produce. The photographers make the pictures of the cells by photographing them, one at a time, with a special camera, so that, when the resulting reel is run off, there is an optical illusion of movement, because the pictures are changed so rapidly as to deceive the eye.
So, altogether, nearly one hundred experts combine their art and skill to produce one of these amusing little fables. The staff is reported to be three times the number required to make a silent animated cartoon. It requires three times as much time, too, to make a sound cartoon as it does to produce a silent one
This new sound cartoon may be compared to the ancient puppet play in that inanimate persons and animals occupy the stage, walking, talking, singing, laughing, sighing, eating, drinking, and in other ways sustaining interest of the audience. To see how the wheels go around in the puppet play, it is necessary to go backstage. Also, it is behind the scenes that a spectator must look to view and understand unseen human forces which are combined to produce a modern sound cartoon.
In viewing a sound cartoon, the talkie audience sees no sign of human activity, yet back of it all is the harmonious cooperation of almost one hundred actors. It starts with an idea. This idea is someone’s suggestion about a possible plot. In the studio in a New York skyscraper, fifteen artists sit at drawing boards and rapidly sketch on tissue paper. They make arms and legs and funny faces and folks and animals and barns, and all sorts of seemingly unrelated things. They are visualizing various ideas of the artist-animators and other members of the staff. For several days conferences are held every morning between the artists and the musical director and the “song and dance man.” You see, everything must be in time with the music. The characters that dance must be given steps that are not merely a jumble of hops and jumps, and funny “gags” must be enhanced by the music.
After many thousands of penciled drawings have been completed and approved, they are handed to the tracers, who transfer them from the tissue to celluloid sheets. The completed drawings are then numbered by the supervising artist, and the number of photographic exposures to register the desired action is made. Sixteen pictures or frames are made per second by the ordinary motion-picture camera, but the cameras that are used in photographing sound cartoons are so arranged that only one frame or picture is taken with each turn of the camera crank. The cameras are so designed that the operator merely pushes a pedal to turn the handle which brings about an exposure. Between 10,000 and 20,000 sheets of celluloid drawings are handed over to the photographers. A background is placed under the lens of the camera. The cell is fitted onto two pegs that protrude from the camera table. The camera is poised above the cameraman and is directed downward to the pictures on the table. A schedule of what cells should be put together to make a completed picture hangs in front of him.
Suppose the scene shows Henry Cat emulating Robin Hood shooting an arrow into the air. Sherwood forest is pictured on the “setting sheet” or painted background. This drawing is placed under a frame directly beneath the camera, which is focused from overhead. A cell, bearing a drawing of Henry standing is superimposed over the background. This shows Henry in a natural position for archery except the arms, bow and arrow are missing. On a second or third sheet of celluloid these members appear. The extra sheet or sheets being placed atop the background and the first cell, the complete picture is photographed. To show the cat shooting the arrow, the arms are made to draw back the arrow on the string by substituting various sheets that contain drawings of the arms and bow and arrow in stages of progressive movement.
The next step is to synchronize the picture. The scene shifts to a sound studio. Here, in front of a motion-picture screen, is seated an orchestra of twenty-five musicians. These men have their backs to the screen and face their director. A few feet from the orchestra is a long table upon which there are scores of all sorts of odd instruments and gadgets. These things are to be used by the three effects men who are behind the table.
At a signal, the lights of the studio are turned out. The animated cartoon is flashed upon the screen. As the main title appears, the conductor waves his baton and starts to lead his musicians through the picture, keeping perfect time with the action, antics and dances of the characters exactly as he planned to do when the picture was first discussed in conferences. The effects men watch alertly for those spots in the film where effects are needed.
Five times the orchestra and the effects men rehearse with a complete showing of the film. Then the final “take” is made for showing throughout the world.

1 comment:

  1. It's nice to see more behind the scenes photos of Van Beuren