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In a Cartoon Studio

1931. Van Beuren Studios.


Sooner or later (and it's usually sooner), every animation studio turns a lampooning eye on its own processes and personnel. The cartooning enterprise seems to be full of irresistible gag opportunities—whimsical artists, mischievous critters, a nut-house atmosphere. Add to this the heavy strain of self-consciousness and self-promotion that has been part of animated movies since Winsor McCay. It's a kind of showmanship left over from 19th century displays of technological wonders (I recommend a new book called Wonder Shows by Fred Nadis), a belief that the pleasure people take in the finished product is enhanced by knowing how it was done.

Case in point: a 1931 cartoon called In a Cartoon Studio. Once again (see Alice's Wonderland), a member of the public knocks on the door of a cartoon studio and says "I always wondered how they were made!"

Invited inside, our visitor sees the following: All personnel are animals. A band plays frantically in the middle of the room. Papers fly. Employees march through like clockwork carrying huge stacks of papers. Animators periodically leap from their drawing boards and engage in a free-for-all fight complete with flying stars and exclamation points.

There are many jokes about the animation process. An animator (a dog, I think) sits at a drawing board with the characteristic pins securing the cel at the top. A model poses. He draws her, reproducing her pose exactly. He attaches a new cel, she assumes a slightly different position, and he draws the next frame. Since we see both the model and the drawings, we essentially see a dual image of the same figure. When the animator thumbs through his drawings, making them "move," the model on her pedestal gyrates—involuntarily, it seems—in perfect sync with her drawn counterpart.

A camera walks around on tripod legs filming over the animators' shoulders as they flip through their drawings. The camera then strolls to another department and acquires a sound track via a sort of reverse phonograph. Finally the finished cartoon is shown to a audience of animals. We see the cartoon along with them, but the lines defining the screen are visible to us, keeping us aware that we are watching a movie within a movie (in this case, a cartoon within a cartoon).

I have a little theory here. Cartoons, like all movies, function as both technological marvels and aesthetic experiences. The balance has changed over time. Early audiences were impressed and delighted merely to see projected movement; only later did their attention switch to stories and "characters." Animators especially made sure that audiences were aware that they were collaborating in a trick involving speeded-up drawings. When Winsor McCay heard that viewers thought he made his films with puppets and strings, he rushed to film a "documentary" about the "thousands of drawings, each one a little different from the preceding one" that he had drawn.

Throughout the silent era, cartoons such as the Inkwell series exploited both aspects of animation—audiences could be amused and even occasionally frightened by Koko's adventures, while they were kept aware that Koko was just ink on paper, given the illusion of life by a very clever technological process. But eventually cartoons stopped presenting themselves as constructed "novelties" and opted instead for completely animated stories taking place within self-contained cartoon universes. When this happened, audiences lost sight of half of the formula. Animation became so accomplished that people actually forgot that they were seeing the result of art, skill, technology, and a hugely laborious and expensive process.

So it's no coincidence that after a few years of what we might call "seamless" cartoons, we start seeing extra-cartoon publicity about the art of animation. The kinds of information that the Inkwell cartoons contained within themselves found other outlets: magazine articles, short films, mail-order cartooning courses, newsreel features, all sorts of inside information, culminating in that weekly hour-long commercial called "Disneyland." Walt Disney and Walter Lantz (remember him introducing Woody Woodpecker on TV?), having refined animation to the point where it looked effortless, now came before us demanding full credit for the phenomenal effort involved. And re-captivated audiences by reminding them that animation is a trick and we're all involved in making it work.

For my money, though, nobody did it as well as Dave Fleisher, who filmed himself drawing Koko the Clown and then had to deal with a rebellious Koko flinging ink back in his creator's face.

(4/3/95)

 

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copyright ©2005 Barbara Bernstein