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In Conversation With Animation Historian Tommy José Stathes

Tommy José Stathes is a historian, archivist, educator and distributor of animation from the 1900s through 1930s. Through his research and preservation, he makes available film animation on that would be otherwise difficult or impossible for audiences to enjoy. Noah Tavlin, ANNY [Animation Nights New York] Correspondent to Animation For Adults, discussed archiving animation on film with Tommy José Stathes.

AFA: How and when did you become interested in archiving silent-era cartoons?

Tommy Stathes: It was a very gradual, drawn-out process, which began when I was a toddler. I started seeing a few early cartoons in a passive way. There used to be inexpensive VHS tapes with cartoons on them that were around. They were everywhere in the late 80s, early 90s. Some of those tapes had black and white Mickey Mouse, Betty Boop. I liked all kinds of animation, but those early, surreal, monochrome cartoons stuck out to me. They were different from what was contemporary and I thought they were fascinating. As I got a little older, not much older, five, six, seven, I started buying and collecting those sorts of tapes.

Then I started reading up on the history of animation. That's where I learned that there were a lot of films made before Mickey Mouse. This went on for many years. Then finally, I began acquiring some film prints, which I didn't know what to do with because I'd only been familiar with video tapes. My godfather had a film projector and he screened them for me. I thought "This is really fascinating" watching movies in this old fashioned, mechanical way. These films are not on tape and they're not on CDs. A lightbulb went off. I started collecting more and more film prints. The active collecting and archiving started that way, but it really took off when I was a preteen and eBay was available. I started to heavily look through what prints were available and talk to other collectors.

As an educator, do you feel like most people's idea of the history of animation begins with Mickey Mouse?

Generally speaking, I would say yes. Some people know about Gertie the Dinosaur (1914) and things like that. However, I get the impression that people who are aware of Gertie or Winsor McCay, they probably think of these films as these one-off novelties that were made here and there. The fact is, there were thousands of animated films produced before in the silent era. There was a whole world of animation.

What do you feel like has been lost in animation over the past 80 to 90 years or so years since the period of animation you study?

Well, for one thing, besides title cards vs. on screen dialog, that sort of thing, the silent films really relied heavily on visual gags and visual concepts. That was still around in animation for a good ten to 20 more years after sound emerged. Animators still employed a lot of high-octane, visual gags as plot or humor devices. Once you start moving away from that in the 1950s, 60s and beyond, TV animation and now, a lot of things become very dialogue-heavy in terms of spoken dialogue. The visual information gets downplayed quite a bit. In recent years there's been such a heavy focus on special effects and its ‘wow’ factor. The rudimentary visual gags and slapstick humor have been lost over the years.

It's leaner in a sense, to have this marriage of form and content. Who were these cartoons being created for and what was the context that audience would have watched them? As this is for Animation For Adults, many of the cartoons in your collection feature drinking, violence, etc.

At that time they were almost all intended for theatrical use. Anyone could go to the movies and see a feature film. Included in this screening would have been a newsreel, a cartoon. From the beginning, let's say in the mid 1910's, when animation was really a professional product for the first time, it was intended for theaters and mostly for all-ages.

However, right from the beginning, animation contained adult themes. It was also the beginning of World War I, so there were themes of war. With prohibition came a lot of alcohol-related cartoons. Not surprisingly, a lot of early animation we would recognize today as racially insensitive. So they're adult in many ways. Children enjoyed them because they were moving drawings, but much of the content was aimed for adults at that time.

In this era, were cartoons created by large studios? Or were they more individual efforts that found distributors?

That goes back to Winsor McKay. He was one of two or three men we would call “independent” today. The first studios began around 1913. The first large, successful studio was Bray Studios in New York. Right from that point in 1913, they start getting lucrative contracts to produce material regularly for theatrical distribution. Other people in New York, and later in other states and countries, followed suit and founded their own studios. From the beginning it was a very organized, assembly-line style of production.

Do you collect foreign cartoons from the silent era in addition to American?

I have some foreign things, mostly from France by directors such as Emile Cohl and Lortac, but most of my collection is American. That's for a few reasons. At that time, most animation was American. Cartoons from other countries were not reproduced much and are more difficult to find. In large part, this was due to war. Reels were destroyed.

Was this early period of animation, was there any stop-motion produced? Or was it all hand-drawn 2D.

There's quite a bit of stop-motion from this era. I would say the earliest animated experiments employed stop motion. Stop-motion is probably the most rudimentary understanding of making something inanimate move. Just moving an object in photography. So there are films going back to the early 1900s. Usually they were jointed wooden toys or figures. I have a couple things like that. Even in the 1910's, 20's, there were series' of stop-motion films using toys, dolls, clay. They're not as common as the 2D stuff, but they were made and some are around.

It makes sense that most of the hand-drawn animation from this era is black and white due to the economy of mass production. But was anything produced in color?

A great one that should be seen, Bray produced, called The Debut of Thomas Cat (1920). It was the first color cartoon. There were very few color film processors. There were a few experimental ones. In the 1920's there was a series called The Redhead Comedies. They were made with an early two-color processor, so they came out reddish and greenish.

There was also hand coloring that was done. Cartoons would be produced and printed in black and white, but then someone would go through the trouble of hand-coloring each frame.

What's the oldest film you have in your collection?

Well, it's not a very old copy, but it is one of the first cartoons ever made. The Enchanted Drawing (1900). It's not fully-animated, but it's considered possibly the first animated film of it's time. I also have Humorous Phases of Funny Faces (1906). That's considered one of the first really animated cartoons. I have a few films from that period.

Who is an animator or studio from the silent era that you believe hasn’t been given their due?

Well definitely Bray, who owned the first successful studio. He's really responsible for turning animation into an industry. Also, he gave a lot of later studio heads their start, like Walter Lance, Paul Terry and Max Fleischer. For the most part, they started in his studio, going back to the 1910’s.

Tommy José Stathes is a New York-based animation historian, archivist and educator. You can learn more about his work on his website, and you can follow him on Twitter here. If you live in the New York-area, you can like The Tommy Stathes Cartoon Carnival on Facebook for information on his regular screening events.

Noah Tavlin is a New York-based writer and ANNY’s Correspondent for Animation For Adults.You can follow Noah on Twitter here, and you can follow ANNY on Twitter and Facebook for more information about their monthly independent animation screenings.

See also:

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