Archive for Fleischer

A Brief, but Hopelessly Inaccurate, History of Animation

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on July 31, 2020 by dcairns

In FELIX THE NIHILIST (1921), the beloved cartoon cat flirted with terrorism.

America’s first cartoon star, Felix the Cat, was originally a real cat, but showman Aubrey Visser found it impractical to display a live cat in hundreds of movie theaters at once, so he resorted to showing drawings. Audiences didn’t respond enthusiastically to a single crudely-rendered drawing of a cat being held in front of them for five minutes straight, so he experimented with displaying six or seven such drawings in succession. This still didn’t enthrall the populace, so he added more and more… by the time he was rapidly shuffling sixteen drawings a second, he had simultaneously discovered animation and repetitive strain injury, and a new medium was born.

The popular animated flapper Betty Boop was the creation of actor and political activist John Wilkes Boop, who based the characterization on his mother, also a popular animated flapper.

With the first cartoon to feature dialogue and sound, Walt Disney was all set to score a popular hit, except he had unexpected trouble with the Hays Office over the title, Steamboat Penis. Disney offered up a variety of alternatives: Steamboat Cock, Steamboat Dong, Steamboat Trouser Snake, finally settling on the more acceptable Steamboat Dick John Thomas Percy Johnson. The final touch which ensured his success was a radical redesign of the main character:

With his instantly recognizable characters such as Michael and Winifred Mouse, Donald  Amberson Duck, and George “Goofy” Babbage, Disney became the king of cartoons, eventually founding his very own kingdom in the form of an amusement park, Waltworld or something. But it wasn’t enough to fill the stagnant emptiness corroding his innards, and so he ordered his poorly-paid minions to create America’s first animated feature film, originally entitled SO WHITE AND THE SABINE DWARFS. Endless story conferences eventually ironed out the plot, which originally had the Aryan princess heroine kidnap a group of dwarfs who eventually contracted Stockholm Syndrome and refused to leave her. In one intermediate version they contracted Stockhausen Syndrome, causing an addiction to musique-concrète, and in another the affliction was Stockard Channing Syndrome, named for the as-yet-unborn Tony award winner.

Disney’s gamble paid off, and led to a succession of hit movies. No major cultural event of the forties and fifties was allowed to go untackled by a Disney animation: with PINOCCHIO he blew the lid off the lying puppet problem in Italy, while DUMBO drew attention to the grave dangers posed by levitating pachyderms, pink or otherwise, and in 1940 FANTASIA warned a world plunging into global warfare of the destruction that would ensue if ballet dancing was ever taken up by hippopotami.

Meanwhile, the Fleischer brothers did something awful with insects.

While Disney reigned supreme in feature animation, he did have rivals in the short subject category. To compete with his Silly Symphonies and Crazy Concertos, Warner Bros rolled out their anarchic Merry Melodies, Looney Tunes, Phobic Phanphares and Bipolar Bagatelles, starring violently-inclined rodents, fowl, swine, etc. These were successful but led to concerns that showing such aggressive by livestock could cause problems with imitative behaviour. In 1947, the Herschell Gordon Freleng cartoon FUDD FEAST had to be briefly withdrawn after an incident in Fort Collins, Colorado, involving a duck and a stick of dynamite. It was later reported that instances of coyotes strapping themselves to rockets quadrupled during the years when Chuck “Charles M.” Jones was directing his beloved ROADRUNNER toons, and anti-violence campaigners point to the fact that such incidents are seldom reported today as proof of the deleterious effects of animated mayhem upon impressionable canines.

Pixar’s KRAZY KOMPUTER is often cited as the first computer animation, but in fact it is a conventional cel animation DEPICTING a playful computer doing sums and emitting a long piece of paper. But soon, computers everywhere were DOING the animation, saving colossal amounts of time and money, which is why animated feature films today are so famously cheap and quick to make. The photorealistic approach also allowed animation to stage a successful takeover of the live action film, with first special effects, then sets, then makeup, being infiltrated by the pixel-pushers. Today, everything is a cartoon, from the action cinema of James Cameron, to the sensitive dramas of Noah Baumbach (Adam Driver is based on an old Ub Iwerks drawing found torn up in a wood) to the news. The world is governed now by cartoon characters. They draw the editorial cartoons first and then get semi-convincing CGI creations to act them out.

Don’t tell me you hadn’t noticed.