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Silent Sunday Nights - October 2012
Remind Me

Silent Animation from New York Studios

Motion picture animation didn't start with Gertie the Dinosaur (1914), nor was it the sole province of Winsor McCay and Walt Disney in the days before sound. From the moment Georges Melies' camera jammed while he was filming a street scene, transforming a bus into a hearse and a woman into a man as if by magic, the potential for bringing the inanimate to life on screen was there. All that was needed was more innovators like Melies to explore what could be done by shooting films a frame at a time.

Lightning Sketches

One of the screen's first animators was J. Stuart Blackton, often called "the father of American animation." The English-born reporter and illustrator got into the movies when the New York Evening World assigned him to interview Thomas Edison about his new invention, the Vitascope. After making a short film sketching a caricature of the great scientist (1896's Edison Drawn by 'World' Artist), he bought a projector and a few films from him and went out on the vaudeville circuit. Once his first run of Edison films had played out, Blackton decided to produce movies on his own and founded the American Vitagraph Company.

Blackton produced, directed, wrote and even starred in his earliest films. He also undertook some early experiments with animation. Starting with The Enchanted Drawing in 1901, he put his sketching talents on the screen. His first effort was a fairly simple piece in which he sketches everyday objects, stops the camera and substitutes the real thing for the sketch. In later films he used stop-motion photography to move objects around. Then in 1906, he applied the process to his sketch work again in Humorous Phases of Funny Faces to bring his caricatures to life by changing the drawings subtly between shots. After briefly showing his hand drawing the figures, he then has the images seemingly draw themselves before changing expression in response to various situations. Historians have called it the first animated film. With 1907's Lightning Sketches, Blackton offered fans more of the same.

Producer: J. Stuart Blackton
Director: J. Stuart Blackton
Cast: J. Stuart Blackton (Cartoonist)

The Haunted Hotel

J. Stuart Blackton also pioneered in object animation. This 1907 short tells the tale of a tourist whose hotel sleep is interrupted by ghostly spirits making the objects in the room seem to move themselves around. Although most of the supernatural effects were done with barely visible wires, Blackton used animation effects for one sequence in which a dinner materializes on the room's table. Shot in close-up, the film offered other pioneering animators the chance to see the process of stop-motion animation up close.

Coming at the birth of the motion-picture industry, Blackton pioneered in a variety of ways. His fake documentary about the Spanish-American War, Tearing Down the Spanish Flag (1898), has been called the first propaganda film. He made some of the first story films, following in the footsteps of Edwin S. Porter, but added cutting within scenes before most other filmmakers were using that technique. He also used the close-up before D.W. Griffith and, while making films in England, experimented with color.

Director: J. Stuart Blackton
Cinematography: Albert E. Smith
Cast: Paul Panzer, William V. Ranous

Down on the Phoney Farm

By the 1910s, animated shorts were being shown in early movie theatres around the world, leading to the creation of studios devoted entirely to their production. Many of the first cartoon characters and animators started out in newspaper comic strips. Paul Terry, for example, worked on the weekly adventures of canine character "Alonzo" for the San Francisco Call. Inspired by Winsor McCay's Gertie the Dinosaur, Terry tried his hand at animation, selling his first film, Little Herman (1915), to the Thanhouser film company. When he tried to sell his second film, the adventures of an aging farmer in Down on the Phoney Farm (1915), one producer offered him less than his production costs for it, claiming, "I'd have paid more if you hadn't put those pictures on there."

A year later, however, Terry found a more secure berth at J.R. Bray Studios, an early animation house founded in 1913. There he turned his farmer character into Farmer Al Falfa, star of a series of 11 cartoons. Terry would continue using the character as he moved to other studios; in 1929 he founded his own Terrytoons and introduced such enduring favorites as Mighty Mouse and Heckle and Jeckle.

Producer: Paul Terry
Director: Paul Terry
Screenplay: Paul Terry

The Artist's Dreams

John Randolph Bray broke into animation with this 1913 short combining live action with animation. The plot is simple enough: an artist draws a dog who comes to life and eats the man's sausages, aptly summed up by the film's alternate title, The Dachshund and the Sausage. The film's use of live action was typical of Bray's efforts to find a way to keep down costs on what was a rather cost-intensive mode of film production.

Bray had learned about animation by visiting Winsor McCay while the man was working on Gertie the Dinosaur and posing as a newspaper reporter. After learning all of McCay's techniques, he patented them and founded his own studio, then tried to sue his unofficial mentor to cut down the competition. Not only did he lose, but McCay was able to claim a royalty, which he would collect for years after from Bray.

Despite its questionable origins, however, Bray Production would prove a major force in the rise of animation. Among the filmmakers who got their starts there were Paul Terry, Earl Hurd, Max Fleischer and Walter Lantz.

Producer: John Randolph Bray
Director: John Randolph Bray
Cast: John Randolph Bray, Margaret Bray

Inkwell -- Trip to Mars

The Fleischer Brothers, Dave and Max, started out with John Randolph Bray, but moved on to their own Fleischer Studios in 1921. While with Bray, they invented a new piece of animation technology, the Rotoscope, used to turn film of live subjects into cartoons. They were smart enough to get the patent in their own names, so that they maintained ownership of the process while out on their own and collected royalties on it for years.

The first showcase for the process was their "Out of the Inkwell" series, with Dave Fleischer turning his own performances into those of the series' star Koko the Clown. For this 1924 cartoon, they combined Rotoscoped images of Dave Fleischer as Koko with live-action footage of Dave as he tries to get his creation to pilot a rocket ship to the moon. When Koko sabotages the operation to save himself, he creates a bigger-than-expected explosion that catapults him to Mars, where he encounters giant monsters and a mysterious subway. This kind of surrealistic action would remain a trademark of the Fleischers' work as Koko was replaced in the sound era by first Betty Boop and then Popeye.

Producer: Max Fleischer
Director: Dave Fleischer

Bobby Bumps Starts for School

One of the earliest series developed at the Bray Studios was Earl Hurd's Bobby Bumps films, the first cartoon series using cel animation. Where previous cartoons had been drawn on paper, with each drawing completed in its entirety, the Bobby Bumps films were drawn on celluloid, allowing the artist to work from a single background painting over which he placed character drawings painted on clear film. Bray and Hurd would receive license payments for the process from all of the major studios until 1932.

The Bobby Bumps character was inspired by R.F. Outcault's Buster Brown comic strip (which would later inspire a cartoon series at Paramount). Like Brown, Bumps is a mischievous youngster who gets into a series of scrapes with his pet dog. The 1917 short was 23rd in the series introduced in 1915. Hurd would continue animating Bobby Bumps until he left the Bray Studio in 1918, and the series would continue without him through 1928. For his part, Hurd would continue working with major animators like Paul Terry, Ub Iwerks and Walt Disney, eventually being hailed as the best animator of his era.

Producer: John Randolph Bray
Director: Earl Hurd
Screenplay: Earl Hurd

by Frank Miller



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