The following is a draft of the first chapter of my book on the Fleischer Studios.
Art and mechanics: a strange combination
Will there ever be a technology married to an art form that will have as much impact on modern society as motion pictures?
It is difficult to truly imagine how the first motion picture audiences must have felt when they gathered to see the works of the Lumiere Brothers at the end of the 19th century. We have the reports that sophisticated French audiences gasped and moved out of the way when they saw footage of a train arriving into a station in a Dec. 28, 1895 showing.
Consider for a moment that the experience of seeing moving photography on a large screen basically had no precedent for these early audiences. While the Internet has changed our lives today, its form and function were not shocking to us.
The literal reproduction of everyday life was indeed startling and when early filmmakers began to realize that motion pictures could be used for telling stories that normally would have been considered for the stage, new horizons were discovered.
Like the development of the linotype and wood pulp paper, which made the mass production of books and newspapers
possible, motion picture technology created a way for people to share drama, humor, and fact with breathtaking immediacy.
When French stage magician and theatrical producer George Melies discovered through an accident that a wagon was transformed into a hearse on street scene footage he was filming, the reputation of cinema changed from being a medium that mirrors reality to one that could create reality. Melies became one of the most celebrated filmmaker of this earliest era by producing hundreds of short “trick” films that exploited the strengths of the new medium.
It was in this heady time of pioneers that two men emerged who changed the face of motion pictures forever.
Film scholars credit Emile Cohl and J. Stuart Blackton as the fathers of cartoon animation. Blackton, a cartoonist turned film producer, was one of the partners in the Vitagraph Company. He used a chalkboard to create crude animation in 1905. Blackton had come from a rich stage tradition known as the “lightning artist.” These artists, who were a staple of vaudeville, would create humorous drawings in a matter of moments. Blackton used many of the non-animated tricks developed by Melies, in his 1906 “Humorous Phases of Funny Faces,” but also began to actually animate as well.
A French caricaturist and avant-garde artist, Cohl took Blackton’s idea and went further. His film, “Fantasmagorie” in 1908, established much of the format of what we know now as animated cartoons. It was made of sequential drawings – 700 of them – and had a central character that appeared in other Cohl films. It also originated connecting the action on the screen with an artist by showing the artist’s hand at work creating the drawings.
Motion pictures were quickly becoming one of the most collaborative artistic mediums. Cohl’s inclusion of his hand was a reminder that there was a single person behind these moving drawings – a convention adapted by many subsequent artists even though a studio produced the film.
Cohl was a live-action filmmaker as well and he integrated animated sequences into his live action comedies. In his 1909 film, “Les Joyeaux Microbes,” a doctor invites a patient to take a look into a microscope. There he sees a series of gags in which microorganisms transform themselves into human faces.
In 1909, Cohl was the first to combine animation and live action through the use of matte photography in the film “Clair de Lune Espagnol.”
"Le Peintre néo-impressionniste,” made the next year, had the animated sequences as canvases presented by an artist to a potential client. Although “Les Joyeaux Microbes,” used pen and ink on paper as the animated medium, this film featured hinged cut-out paper figures that were introduced by a vaudeville “lightning” sketch.
“Bewitched Matches,” showed what happened when a father shooed away a ”witch” about to tell his daughter’s fortunes. She manages to put a spell on his matches, which move in a variety of ways, terrifying the father.
Another Cohl accomplishment was his producing the first animated series. He made 13 shorts based on the George McManus comic strip “The Newlyweds” from 1912-13.
Cohl’s films were highly popular and influential on both sides of the Atlantic. However, the First World War essentially halted Cohl’s career in animation. His last live–action motion pictures was made in 1921. And he faded from sight and memory for many years.
By today’s standards the stick figure drawings are crude, but Cohl – and to a lesser extent Blackton – deserve their credit as the men who developed the rudiments of animation. In many ways, Cohl was the D.W. Griffith of animation. He developed techniques and conventions that others would follow. There would be many innovations made, but they were always built on the foundation laid by Cohl.
It was another artist out of vaudeville who brought animation up to a new level: Winsor McCay.
Still celebrated today for his incredible imagination and draftsmanship in his comic strips such as “Little Nemo in Slumberland” and “Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend,” McCay was also an accomplished stage performer who was a vaudeville star as early as 1906.
McCay was often described – sometimes by himself – as “the father of animation.” He wasn’t, of course. As a seasoned vaudeville performer and newspaper artist, McCay understood the necessity of hyperbole to sell himself in show business.
What McCay did do was to elevate the art of the animated film. He took his time to create films with the kind of detailed art one saw in his comic strips. This attention to detail was timely and costly, but since McCay was producing the films himself, he apparently didn’t care what it took to achieve his artistic goal.
In 1911, McCay had begun using his first film, one based on “Little Nemo,” as part of his vaudeville act. His next film, though, became the one for which he is still known today, “Gertie the Dinosaur.”
Gertie is the first “character driven” film. The humor comes naturally out of the personality McCay established rather than through a succession of gags. Gertie, although looking like a brontosaurus, is just a pet – an occasionally willful one – but a pet none-the-less.
McCay broke new ground in animation again in 1918 with the release of “The Sinking of the Lusitania.” For the first time, animation was being used to portray a real event and to make an overt political statement.
McCay’s films were the product of one artist, with the help of an assistant. For the busy cartoonist and illustrator, they were a sideline to his career, though. McCay made only six films theaters were released to theaters, plus three more that were never completed, from 1911 to 1921.
McCay’s films edged closer to fine art, reflecting his superior draftsmanship, than any other animated film seen in theaters during that time. They were like boutique cartoons, charming and breath-taking single works of art.
For those who didn’t share McCay’s vision of animation reflecting in motion what artists could accomplish in print, animation presented a bruising reality. No matter how much audiences might enjoy it, it was expensive to produce.
The problem remained on how to make animation cost efficient.
It was the combined vision of two men who made commercial animation possible. John R. Bray and Earl Hurd were both artists and animators who sought a way to conquer the crushing costs and time needed to produce animation.
Hurd’s 1914 invention of using transparent cels instead of paper as the medium for animation drawings was the key to affordable animation. Up until then, artists had to re-draw everything in the scene over and over, including backgrounds. The clear acetate cels meant the illustrative elements that comprised sequences could be broken down and only those elements that actually moved needed to be re-drawn.
Artists could draw a background one time and use it over and over for a sequence. For instance, McCay and his assistant re-drew the background mountains in “Gertie” on every rice paper drawing.
A character could be drawn on one cel and only those parts of his body that moved needed to be drawn again on other cels.
Bray’s contribution was borrowing the division of labor from manufacturing. Bray understood that one artist could not produce an animated film like they would a comic strip.
Cels enabled producers to establish an assembly line to produce animation in a cost effective manner and Bray and Hurd’s collective patents made them the industry leaders.
Taking a page out of Thomas Edison’s playbook – who tried to control the film industry by making producers take out licenses on cameras and other equipment – Bray and Hurd then enforced their patents, making other animation companies buy a license from them if they wanted to us the techniques they developed.
What Bray and Hurd did was to wrestle the medium of animation away from individual artists and make it commercial. It was the official acknowledgment that commercial animation had to be collaboration in order to be commercially successful. One person could guide an animation studio, but one person couldn’t do all of the artistic chores.
Max Fleischer was one of the second generation of cartoon animators, artists who followed pioneers such as McCay, Cohl and Blackton. Max was just a teenager when Blackton produced his first animated films that used a chalkboard instead of paper and pen.
Max's “class” included Paul Terry of Terrytoons and Mighty Mouse fame and Walter Lantz, the father of Woody Woodpecker, both of whom had long and successful careers. Unlike Terry and Lantz, though, Max was something more than just an artist. He was an inventor and innovator.
It’s no wonder that Max was attracted to animation and its combination of art and science.
Born in 1884 or 1885, Max immigrated with his family to the United States from his native Austria when he was four or five years old. Max's father was a tailor, specializing in riding outfits for the upper classes. The family settled in New York City and had a shop where Radio City Music Hall now stands. Max was the second eldest child in a family of four other boys and one girl. The talents of his brothers and his relationship as the leader of the Fleischer siblings would later prove to be both an asset and a hindrance to Max's adult career.
Max described the roles his siblings played at the Fleischer Studio in a 1939 autobiographic essay.
“I have four brothers. Dave is the director. Joe is the electrician. Lou is in the music department. Charlie is the machinist. I have one sister – Ethel – whose job is being married.”
In a 1980 interview conducted by film historian and animator Ray Pointer, Lou Fleischer said that his father’s business was successful until ready-to-wear garments became popular. Despite an effort by the elder Fleischer to enlarge his operation so he could sell to wholesalers, his business failed and the family moved from Manhattan to Brooklyn.
There was an additional Fleischer brother, Sol, whom Lou said died at age two of typhoid fever.
Max’s daughter, Ruth Kneitel showed this writer yellowing notebooks that attest to Max's childhood love of drawing. Max attended the public schools of New York, the Art Student’s League, Cooper Institute, The Mechanics and Trademen’s School and the New York Evening High.
Surviving comic strips from Max's days at the “Brooklyn Eagle” at the turn-of the-century show an interest in humor. Fleischer started as a copy boy at the newspaper and eventually became a staff artist, a position he left to go to “Popular Science Magazine” as its art editor. At his new position, Fleischer produced many two-color illustrations of engines and other machines.
At age 21, Max married Ethel Gold and subsequently had a family of two children; his eldest was Ruth who eventually married the Fleischer Studio artist Seymour Kneitel, and the youngest was Richard who became a prominent and successful film director.
“I worked with cartoons ever since I can remember – even when I went to school. My first job was with the ‘Brooklyn Daily Eagle’ in the art department. Got $2 a week running errands. I was willing to pay them $2 a week to let me in. I was advanced and became a cartoonist on the ‘Eagle.’ Then I went into the photo-engraving business and stayed in that business for a number of years. I became art editor of the ‘Popular Science Monthly” and while I was in their employ, I realized I was not only artistically inclined, but had a very keen and instinctive sense for mechanics. I liked them both. A strange combination. To me, machinery was an art, also. I still see great art in machinery.”
Ruth Kneitel still had originals of Max’s artwork when I met her in 1977. She had a pen and ink original of a comic strip Max did when at the “Brooklyn Eagle” and several paintings of various machines he did for “Popular Science.” The paintings are small masterpieces of the use of gray tones to portray the shine of metal surfaces.
This fascination with machinery became a re-occurring theme in Fleischer cartoons. Perhaps the most famous is “A Dream Walking,” in which Popeye tries to rescue a sleepwalking Olive Oyl as she passes through a construction site narrowly making missteps on moving girders.
In the new medium of animation finding the artists who could imagine movement in their minds and then construct the sequence of drawings to convey that movement to the screen was not easy. Undoubtedly the cost of labor was one of the most significant expenses in the industry.
Perhaps that’s why Bray was intrigued by Max’s invention of the Rotoscope.
The Rotoscope was designed to produce life-like movements by tracing over individual frames of live-action footage. The skills of the artists did not have to be as developed when working with the Rotoscope and yet the results were very life-like.
“While working with the Popular Science Monthly, I had an opportunity to write technical articles on the latest inventions and I began to wonder whether it wouldn’t be possible for me to apply cartoons to the mechanics and make it a practical thing for producing motion picture cartoons by machinery,” Max wrote in his 1939 essay.
The first rotoscoped film was begun in 1915, the year after Gertie the Dinosaur’s debut. The youngest Fleischer brother, Dave, had always shown an interest in show business, and he was photographed on the roof of Max's Brooklyn apartment building cavorting in his clown suit. The live-action footage was then projected one frame at a time onto a frosted glass plate that was part of a drawing board. The animator could then trace the movements of the live action, frame by frame onto paper or cels. The completed drawings were then photographed, and the first rotoscoped cartoon was made. The Fleischer brothers worked at night in Max's apartment with improvised equipment, and the production took two years to complete.
Max patented the Rotoscope in 1915. It is still a basic tool in the special effects field more than 90 years after Max developed it.
Max recalled an anecdote that described the origins of the name “Out of the Inkwell,” which was ultimately the name of Max’s studio and his first cartoon series. Max wrote of an accident during the production of the first rotoscoped cartoon. Late one evening in 1917, Max and his brothers Dave and Joe knew they were in serious trouble. They had been testing the patience of Max's wife Essie by working nightly in her parlor on Max's animated cartoon, but now they were worried. A bottle of India ink had fallen off their worktable and had left an indelible stain on her prized carpet. No amount of soaking or scrubbing could lift the blot, so, quietly they re-arranged the furniture to hide it.
“At the time I was making these experiments, I explained the idea to my brother Dave. Told him I had applied for a patent. I used up every cent I had on the machine with which I was experimenting – about $100. I explained the system I intended to use and he was fascinated by it. He couldn’t sleep any more. We built the machine but we had nowhere to work it, so our missus said we could use the living room, if we didn’t upset it too much. But we wanted a place that no one could disturb during the day because I was working at ‘Popular Science.’ We would meet at night and work after hours, from seven in the evening until three or four ever morning. We would close the doors and ask our missus not to disturb us. We did make the room look very bad, I guess. We had electric wires from the chandeliers, motors, etc. But we didn’t want anyone to go in there until we were through, for the slightest disturbance would upset our work.”
The first production took the Fleischer brothers almost a year to make and ran only 100 feet – about a minute’s worth of footage.
Max made the rounds of the New York studios with his test reel with initially no luck.
“I took the film to a distributor and in the blink of the eye it was run off. He said, ‘That’s very nice. What are you going to do with it?’ I said, ‘I don’t know. I just thought it was something. That’s all.’ He said, ‘Could you make one of these every week?’ I laughed. ‘Why no, it’s a physical impossibility.’ ‘How long did it take you to make this thing?’ he asked. ‘It took a year.’ ‘My dear fellow, go home and make something practical. If you had something we could offer for sale every week or every month, you’d have something, but once a year – Nix.’ ”
He finally found some interest at Famous Players where a colleague from the “Brooklyn Eagle” was in charge of short subjects. J.R. Bray.
Bray realized Fleischer's film had beautiful fluid movement and was impressed enough to hire Max and Dave Fleischer. World War One interrupted Bray's plans to use the Fleischer product as part of the “Paramount Screen Magazine,” a weekly short subject that had both cartoon and newsreel elements.
While serving in the Army, Max made some of the first training films used by the U.S. military.
“In 1917, I joined the general staff of the U.S. Army under [General John] Pershing. I went to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, with the U.S. Army and produced a series of education motion pictures for the rapid training of troops. The pictures were very successful. They were practically all drawn by hand and it was estimated that the films cut training time down by ten percent. Prints of these pictures were sent to all army camps and are still in use [in 1939]. They were designed to show men what went on inside their rifles as there was no other way of showing them.”
Some of the films Max worked on included “How to Read an Army Map,” “How to Fire a Rifle Grenade,” and “Methods of Harnessing Artillery Horses.”
Out of the army, Max rejoined Bray and Max’s cartoon creation began his career there. Slowly but surely, a star in the shape of a cartoon clown named Ko-Ko was born.
Ko-Ko the Clown was undoubtedly inspired by Dave Fleischer’s cavorting in a clown suit in the earliest experiments, but the character soon developed into a classic 19th century “bad boy” in the tradition of Tom Sawyer and Peck’s Bad Boy. Although he was the creation of the on-screen cartoonist played by Max, Ko-Ko held little respect for him, and delighted in making as much mischief as possible.
“I selected the character ‘Ko-Ko the Clown’ because he would be universally understood in pantomime. A clown doesn’t have to say very much because his action tells the story. The title ‘Out of the Inkwell’ was used for want of better name. The pictures were done in pen and ink. In addition, there are so many things which can come out of an inkwell.”
The early Fleischer cartoons were part of the Goldwyn-Bray Pictograph, an omnibus sort of short subject reel that could also included educational footage. Bray had not been wrong about the Fleischer short. Trade publications and even the staid New York Times loved the misadventures of the Fleischer clown.
“One's first reflection,” wrote a critic in New York Times on April 21, 1919, “after seeing this bit of work is ‘why doesn't Mr. Fleischer do more?’ After a deluge of pen and ink ‘comedies’ in which the figures move with mechanical jerks with little or no wit to guide them it is a treat to watch the smooth motion of Mr. Fleischer's figure and enjoy the cleverness that animates it.”
© 2006 Gordon Michael Dobbs