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CG to Celluloid: The History of Silent and Early Sound New York Animation

CG to Celluloid: The History of Silent and Early Sound New York Animation

This is the last of three installments of posts on my attendance of the recent Academy events CG to Celluloid.

The presentation took a comprehensive look at the early cartoons created in New York between 1900 and the late 1920s. The event was held on May 19, 2015, at the Lighthouse Academy Theater, NYC.

The talk was presented by Tommy Stathes with special guest J.J. Sedelmaier.

Patrick Harrison, NY Director of Academy Membership, produced the program. He gave a short introduction. He touched on how all of the presentations had given an overview of different techniques from stop motion to CGI to cell animation. He also spoke about how the programming at each event has touched audiences. “We’ve learned that 75 years later Pinocchio can still makes us tear up. Filling the theater on a Tues night [proves]  there is an interest in silent animation.”

Patrick Harrison

He then introduced J.J. Sedelmaier and Tommy Stathes.

Here are the program introductions:

Dubbed "the youngest serious collector of old cartoons in the country" by the New York Daily News, Tommy Stathes is a film historian, archivist, and curator living and working out of Queens, New York. The Stathes Collection holds over 1,000 animated shorts, and features classics such as Felix the Cat and Farmer Alfalfa, as well as additional early Bray Studio and Walt Disney productions. For more information, go to  CartoonsOnFilm.com.

J.J. Sedelmaier, President/Director of J.J. Sedelmaier Productions Inc., is responsible for the launch of MTV's "Beavis and Butt-head," Saturday NIght Live's "Saturday TV Funhouse," Cartoon Network/Adult Swim's "Harvey Birdman - Attorney at Law," and more than 500 TV commercials, animation and design pieces. J.J. is a bi-monthly contributing associate editor to Print Magazine's blog "Imprint" and a regular presenter at the New York and Chicago ComicCons.

J.J. Sedelmaier and Tommy Stathes

JJ began, "NYC is the Capital of where animation started". So much [early] Animation began in New York."

JJ and Tommy met 7 years previous.  JJ said while he and the Academy were putting the program together, "[Tommy] was not only the first person [he] thought of he was the only person [he] thought of."

The two gave a short introduction of what we should expect in the first reel.

Joel Forrester provided live piano accompaniment for the first reel of silent films. His performance matched the action so perfectly it was easy to forget the music was live. He added an element of precision and class to the historic shorts.

Reel 1: Beginnings and Primitives

The Enchanted Drawing

The Enchanted Drawing (Blackton, 1900, 16mm) J.Stuart Blackton 
"The Enchanted Drawing" is part vaudeville act, part camera trick, and part fast illustration. A line drawn bottle and glass turns into a real bottle and glass. A line drawn top had turns into a real top hat. The drawings react to the illustrator and to one another as props are drawn, removed, and returned. 

Blackton was know as "The Komikal Kartoonist", drawing lightning fast sketches. He worked as an illustrator and journalist and an interview of Thomas Edison lead to a collaboration of art and science. Blackton later formed one of the first film studios, The Vitagraph Company, with Albert E. Smith. As J.J.  stated, "animation has always been linked to technology."

Humorous Phases of Funny Faces

Humorous Phases of Funny Faces (Blackton, 1906, 16mm)
The "Humorous Phases of Funny Faces" is a collection of line drawn animated montages. The characters are born in line and react to one another. A medium close up of a bald man with a bow tie and a woman in a feathery dress is drawn in. The man's eyes dart around toward the woman. He winks, smiles, and raises his eyebrows. His hair stands on end. A cigar emerges and the man smokes it. The young woman frowns. The man smokes her out in a cloud of chalk dust. The hand drawn sequences morph into a combination of hand drawn and cut out sequences. A clown takes off his hat and rolls it from one arm to the next. A dog jumps through the air onto the clown's arms and through hoops. The artist's hand emerges to erase the drawing. Half way through his extinction, the clown kicks his hat to his head. The rest of the image is erased. The timing of the animation is slow and clunky but it's the ingenuity of the ideas that is really magical. There is experimentation in technique and exploration of entertainment happening here. 

The Haunted Hotel

The Haunted Hotel (Blackton, 1907, 16mm)
"The Haunted Hotel" is a stop motion movie with elements of horror. Three travellers are walking town a road during a storm. They enter a house to escape the elements. The travellers are confronted by a series of poltergeists and ghosts. Chairs disappear, removed coats come to life, table settings move around on their own power. A clawed demon ousts the weary guests and sends them back to the wilderness, stunned. The movie is a combination of slapstick gags, stop-motion wonder, and spooky story. 

How a Mosquito Operates
How a Mosquito Operates (McCay, 1912, 16mm) Winsor McCay
"How a Mosquito Operates" is a beautifully drawn grotesque tale. The mosquito is all business. He sharpens his stinger and then goes to work on a sleeping business man. It's horrifying. The mosquito repeatedly sinks it's stinger into the man's face. The mosquito becomes so engorged with blood that he begins to roll back on his own torso. He is too fat to fly he begins dropping inventory to lighten the load. Before he takes off, he decides to take one more drink from the man’s face and then explodes. 

Winsor McCay also worked in vaudeville doing speed drawing. He performed his "chalk talks" alongside Harry Houdini and WC Fields. His work commented on contemporary society at the time and he was known for pushing boundaries with his subject matter. He worked as a billboard artist and a cartoonist creating Little Sammy Sneeze, Dream of the Rarebit Fiend, and Little Nemo in Slumberland. Gertie the Dinosaur was created a an interactive routine which incorporated a hand-drawn trained dinosaur.

The Artist's Dream
The Artist's Dream (Bray, 1913, 16mm) John Randolph Bray
A cartoonist is at work. He calls over the client to appraise his efforts. He hears criticism and walks away dejected. “No action in the dog - too stiff - awful!” The Dachshund in the drawing over hears the criticism and springs into action. He decides to grab a sausage sitting atop a cupboard. The artist returns and notices the sausage has disappeared. He draws in more sausage. The Dachshund succeeds in grabbing that bunch, too. The dog eats too much, expands, and then explodes. The artist tells a fellow worker that something is going on in his studio. The look at the remains of the explosion in the drawing. The artist is asleep at his desk. He is awakened by a woman. It was all a dream.

Col. Heeza Liar Wins the Pennant (Bray, 1916, 16mm)
Col. is the first animated star. Col. was one of the first animated characters who was a "cartoon star".
Translucent cells were used for levels so the backgrounds didn't have to be redrawn. Pans were also used.

JJ, notes that animation is "not for kids yet". The work moves from "trick film to something that is somewhat narrative". There is a huge illustration and Comic strip influence in New York animation, at this point.

Reel 2: "Cartoons" Begin

How Animated Cartoons Are Made

How Animated Cartoons Are Made (Bray Studios, directed by Wallace Carlson1919)
This short film is supposed to show you how Bray Studios operates. Animator (“Mr. Wallace Carlson”) is hard at work at his desk. “The first thing to do is to get an OK on the scenario.” He takes some paperwork into Mr. Bray’s Office. He is thrown out with the papers fast behind. “He says, ‘It’s great. But it needs a little refinement.’” He draws and paints in the “simplest” scene in a sped up fashion, like an explainer video. He adds the main character. He adds the animation. “This is how we’ll make him talk.” He draws 3 heads with different mouths on a strip and pulls the strip back and forth. “The faster this is done, the more realistic the effect.” There is no real lipsync here, just open and closed mouths. “Now to make the dog mad.” A different scene is shown, already drawn. Mr. Wallace Carlson thinks and then acts out a motion at his desk, he shows the animation repeating the action. There is no timing. He shows the dog reacting to the couple cuddling. “After all the necessary drawings are made --” It shows the animator with a very tall stack of drawings next to him. He is adding drawings. He hands half to a woman. “We put them under the camera to be photographed.” The animator takes the drawing to the camera. “Every sixteenth turn of the handle produces a long foot of cartoon - nearly always.” The animator is shown scanning each of the drawings into the camera with a crank. “Forty-eight hours later.” The animator is almost done transferring all of the drawings. “After the film is developed and printed, the cartoon is projected for criticism.” The animator projects the animation and we can watch the show. The little girl tells Dud that the cop is going to marry their servant. The dog runs over to the bench. The animator is shown cranking the projector and enjoying his work. The story continues. The scene shows the woman squeezing and loving the cop. The dog chews on the woman’s wooden leg and the cop discovers her secret. He makes a get away and she chases after him. His boss is more stern. “Stop,” he says. “A woman with a wooden leg doesn’t run that way.” He mimics running in place with a hop. “All right, we’ll fix that.” The animator is back at his desk. “Just as soon as we correct that ‘run’ and do the other sixty-two scenes, we’ll be glad to have you see the picture.”

Cartoons on Tour

Next up is "Cartoons on Tour". JJ noted, "keep in mind the narration is 'needy' and from another era."

Cartoons on Tour (Barré , 1915, 16mm) Barré Studio
This example uses inset animation, shadow, and the slash and tear system. (In this system the paper torn away to accommodate additional animation of the character's parts.) Animated Grouch Chaser series was produced for Edison. (Paul Killiam syndicated ‘Movie Museum’ TV package, 1954.) The film includes a very displaced narration by Paul Killiam that is unintentionally entertaining. He narrates both live and action cartoon animation and it feels off the cuff and unedited. Silent movie, piano music, and stilted narration. He seems to just make stuff up. Preparing to elope, Miss Lucille Higgins gets a telegram from her fiancee. “Will call for you today. Be ready. Have license and ring.” Her father doesn’t think she is ready for marriage. They use the comic book which is animated to distract the live action characters throughout the film. There are a variety of animated scenes including “The Tales of Silas Bunkum”, “Kelly Kids Kite”, “Mr. Hicks in Nightmareland”, and “The Pleasure of Being a Grandpa.” Paul Killiam gives highly detailed narration and back history of the pieces. It’s fascinating and quirky. “True Love and comic books conquer all,” says Paul Killiam.

The animated sequences are sometimes dark, controversial and slightly sinister. It's a live action sequence peppered with animated comic strips.

Bobby Bumps

Bobby Bumps and the Detective Story (Bray, 1916, 16mm)

The Dummy
The Dummy (Bray, 1920, 16mm)
Dog Gone
Dog Gone (1926, 16mm)

Mutt & Jeff, After Mutt is appointed judge of a dog show, Mutt decides Jeff should dress up like a dog and enter the dog so he can award him the prize. Jeff puts on the dog suit. Mutt peruses the dogs in the show. Mutt gives the blue ribbon to Jeff. The rest of the dogs rebel and chaos ensues. They take after Jeff in force and run over Mutt. Jeff runs from the mob of dogs. “Schultz the Sausage Man” gets excited seeing the mob of dogs and pulls down the stairs to his truck in an attempt to lead the pack into his truck. Jeff is saved by the action but the Sausage Man thinks Jeff is a real dog and grabs him and throws him into the van. Mutt follows after the horse powered cart. Mutt runs so fast he runs out of his clothes. An involved clothing gag follows. In the meantime, the sausage guys start loading the dogs into the sausage maker. This is frankly, disturbing. Dogs slide in and sausages and sausage links fly out. A cat is part of the mix and the sausages re-enact classic adversary behavior in sausage form. Finally, Jeff is thrown into the machine room. He jumps over the other dogs that are thrown in, including a very long dachshund. The sausage man swats Jeff with a broom trying to knock him into the machine. After a long suspenseful exchange the broom falls into the machine and becomes linked. Jeff’s tail gets caught in the machine and he jumps out of it and hangs from the gear shaft. Mutt arrives on scene and goes looking for Jeff and falls into the machine. He gets partly linked and Jeff pulls him out and away. Jeff goads Mutt about his linked state and Mutt smacks Jeff on the head, braining him.

In Mutt and Jeff the animation is much more sophisticated. The timing feels better and the gags are funnier. As JJ mentioned, it's "very 'Ren and Stimpy' ish with the cut aways".

Reel 3: Famous Funnies

Cartoon Factory

Cartoon Factory (Fleischer, 1924, 16mm)
An artist dips his pen in the inkwell and paints the background of a scene. He throws a switch and a stop motion segment begins. His tools move around the table. The brush moves on it’s own and paints in a clown character. The animator hooks up the clown character to the machine. The animator uses his machine to animate the character and the clown is zapped into motion. The character is unplugged. The brush paints in a drawing machine. The clown gets the crank going and the machine starts to create. The drawing machine seems to have a mind of it’s own. It draws a turkey dinner and then erases it when the clown grabs the knife and fork. It draws a pretty girl and then erases her when the clown moves in to kiss her and the clown kisses the wall. The clown jumps on the machine and rides away on it. The drawing machine paints a background while the clown cruises across the page. It draws a structure  and a doorway and the clown rides through. The machine paints in a room interior. The clown rides out to ta machine shop. The machine creates components for a soldier and the clown helps assemble them. The soldier wheels away. The clown oils the soldier and the soldier morphs into a live action soldier. He goes to the wall and begins to draw. He draws soldiers along the wall. He commands the soldiers and they snap into action. He orders them to charge. They all charge after the clown. The clown runs away and the solder keeps drawing recruits. The clown jumps on the drawing machine and gets it going. He uses the eraser as a weapon and erases the charging onslaught. The clown makes the drawing machine draft a cannon. Cannon balls shoot at the soldier. The machine shop begins to automate and more soldiers are created. The clown jumps into the inkwell to escape and the soldiers jump in after. The artist flips the switch and then stoppers the inkwell.

Cinderella (Image from YOONIQ images)
Cinderella (Lantz, 1925, 16mm) Walter Lantz
Felix in Astronomeows

Felix in Astronomeows (Sullivan, 1928, 16mm) Felix the Cat
Felix is on a soapbox giving a speech. It is broadcast to the crowd and through the radios into homes. He is a hit with the entire crowd. The populous goes wild. Felix gives a speech in cat sounds and pantomime, presumably about shooting high. Felix shoots a harpoon to Saturn. It hits the bike tire of one of the cyclists rolling around the ring track of Saturn, as they do. Felix is pulled up to Saturn by the biker. Felix gets pummeled and then kicked to Mars. Felix makes some noise. A Martian is awoken and heads toward the noise along with a robotic bird.  Felix is pounded by a hammer robot. Felix is picked up by the King and he begs for his life. He is scrutinized. The martians are entertained by him. A rogue shooting star is making it’s way toward the planet. The comet chases the king. Felix puts on his boxing gloves and dukes it out with the comet. He knocks down the shooting star. He uses the star to send a note back to his home planet, Earth,  telling them all to come up to Mars. They all move up, marching in force, and the king faints.

Dinner Time

Dinner Time (Terry, 1928, 16mm) Paul Terry
A crow hops out of his bed and washes in his water basin. The spider elevator takes him down the tree. He tries to trap a breakfast worm but the clever beast escapes. Our crow lands on a laundry line and a cat tries to pull him in. He outmaneuvers the cat and his comrade crows cheer. The cat tries again and is able to latch on to the crow’s tail. The crow pulls up the cat and he falls onto the laundry line. The crow snaps the line and the cat falls almost using all of his lives. A dog walks with his map collecting the bones he’s buried in a basket. A larger dog takes the basket. A bigger dog takes the basket and scolds the dog while he eats the bones. The little dog kicks him, takes the basket, and runs away. A fight ensues. The little dog is walking with a bone. He tosses it in the air with glee. He grabs another bone from the lake. A butcher is tenderizing meat. One dog grabs the tenderized meat. The other grabs a side of beef. The dogs mob the butcher shop. The butcher chases after the two original dogs. The butcher loses it. He sounds the alarm. The dog pound cart heads toward the shop. The butcher loads the dogs into the truck. The big dog knocks out the human and lets the dogs out, again. He loads the butcher into the truck and the truck is off. The butcher is let out of the truck and proceeds to pummel the dog pound guy. It turns into a full fight. In the mean time, the dogs pick up the butcher shop and carry it off. The butcher runs after.

Steamboat Willie

Steamboat Willie (Disney, 1928, 35mm)

The new 35mm print of Steamboat Willie was screened courtesy of the Academy Film Archive. Screened with permission from Walt Disney Studios.

The new print was from original negative which premiered at the The Broadway Theatre (formerly Universal's Colony Theatre, B.S. Moss' Broadway Theatre, Earl Carroll's Broadway Theatre, and Ciné Roma).

A steamboat is cruising along the water. The pipes squeeze out smoke. Steamboat Willie is whistling and dancing while he steers. He reaches up and pulls the whistle. The whistles are almost characters themselves. He is laughing and enjoying his job until his disgruntled boss puts an end to the party. He is kicked downstairs and relegated to scrub. A parrot laughs at him. He throws the bucket of water on the parrot. The boss beast spits tobacco and continues on. The boat heads toward the dock. Willie starts loading the animals on to the boat. Minnie is rushing to the boat. She is picked up by the crane and the saved by Willie. She drops her instruments and sheet music. A goat eats the transcript and begins to emit music. The guitar is not saved. Minnie cranks the goats tail and music eminates from the goats mouth. Willie creates a makeshift percussion set. He plays the washboard. He plays the cat. He plays the goose. He plays the piglets. He plays the Mama pig. (This segment of the film is not always shown. It's to risque!) The crow dances. He plays the cow’s teeth. The boss shows up. He throws Willie into the potato bin to peel potatoes. The parrot teases him. He whips a potato at the parrot and knocks him out of the window. The parrot falls into the water and Willie belly laughs.

Steamboat Willie has way more complex movement and animation keys. It includes character development through successful animation. The elements of humor run throughout the character animation and the story. Elements in the environment become supporting characters. Steamboat Willie blows everything else out of the water! It really does feel revolutionary.

JJ commented, "clearly sound is the issue here". Felix was a silent film in 1928.
Paul Terry had sound but then Steam Boat Willie was released with film more sophisticated sound, a few months later.

JJ and Tommy then talked about some of their influences. 

Tommy got into silent and early animation via VHS tapes given to him at a young age. 
Those VHS tapes, given to him as a toddler, were the start of the collection. The monochrome characters stood our to him in films and books. He started collecting 16 mm films, focusing on early silent animation. Since then he has found and collected films from all kinds of different places. For example a print of "Dinnertime" was found in a barn through a post on ebay. Two radio repair men posted their find and there were 200 films like it. The films had to be scanned. The safety film was in great shape but the cans were rusted through. He is also continually on the hunt for lost films. There thousands of films before mickey mouse which have been created and lost.

JJ was influenced by TV and old movies.  He watched Tex Avery, Looney Tunes,Tom and Jerry, Mighty Mouse, and Laurel and Hardy. (He felt a particular connection to the haunting incidental music.)
JJ's Dad is a filmmaker. He introduced his son to Chaplin and Keaton. JJ used to bring 16mm films to show and tell.  He was also influenced by comic books and School House Rock!

He said he loves being able to "parody stuff [he] studied and watched" in childhood.

Together, they made an entertaining and informative team!

Here are a few links to resources on the subject of silent and early animation:

Donald Craften book ("Before Mickey: The Animated Film, 1898-1928") 

Steve Stanchfield (Detroit) collects films mainly from sound forward

Tommy Stathes

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