Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Gordan Sheehan Part 3

(This is the continuation of an interview with Gordon Sheehan conducted by Harry Arnold and Dave Daruszka and printed around 1976 in Zoetrope, a trade publication. You can read part 1 here and part 2 here.)

Zoetrope: Another unique element in Fleischer films was the three-dimensional backgrounds behind the cels. How was was this done?

Sheehan: Max was a prolific inventor, and quite scientifically and mechanically-minded. He invented the three-dimensional type of background. It was comprised of a big revolving aluminum cylinder about six feet in diameter, with a flat table top, and holes drilled in it about every inch or so, so tiny props could be inserted in the holds. Miniature background settings would be placed on this table; such as a city scene with buildings and telephone poles and that sort of thing. The table would be situated behind the cels, and the camera would shoot the cartoon characters on the cels and pick up the background on the table behind them. As the cels were changed, the table would be revolved one frame at a time to give the illusion of panorama, plus a marvelous third-dimensional effect.

Zoetrope: What type of animation stand was used in this setup?

Sheehan: Max used lathe beds for his animation stands, in other words it wasn't a vertical setup, it was horizontal. The camera was situated on one end, and on the other end the upright platen. The cels were held in place by vacuum air pressure. I don't think Max ever used a vertical animation stand.

(You can see the Fleischer camera systems, including the 3D setups, starting at 2:50 in this documentary film.)

Zoetrope: How long did you work for the Fleischers?

Sheehan: As I said, I started with the Fleischers in early 1933. I believe it was 1942 when the Fleischer brothers lost their studio to Paramount, who sort of ousted them out. I had been with them all of that time, which was the good part of ten years. Then I continued with Paramount, after they renamed the studio "Famous Studios" and moved us from Miami back to New York. They kept the same staff, but the Fleischers and their relatives were out, all except Max's son-in-law, Seymour Kneitel. Paramount gave control of Famous Studios to the ex-production manager of Fleischer, Sam Buchwald, Seymour, and another fellow named Izzy Sparber.

I as never particularly happy with Paramount and New York City after we moved back there. The war was on at the time. It was about a year after Pearl Harbor. We started doing a few films for the government. I did some technical animation for companies like Westinghouse that was aimed towards the war effort. I remember Paramount News put out an animated version of the Allied invasion of Europe six months before it happened, and it was almost identical to the actual battle. I began doing freelance animation in New York. There was a lot of freelance available as many of the animators were in the armed services. I became connected with a firm on Broadway and 46th Street that produced training films for the U.S. Navy. They offered me a good spot to come over and set up an animation department. So I left Famous Studios and went to Soundmasters. The people at Paramount didn't like that too much as they were having a difficult time finding experienced help. But I liked it much better, and I got a chance to direct and organize my own department. The productions were much more interesting, even though it was mostly technical animation. It was more exciting than working at a desk drawing the same character day in and day out.

Zoetrope: How long did you stay there?

Sheehan: I stayed at Soundmasters all through the war. The firm I worked for also produced a great number of commercial motion pictures. We had been experimenting with television animation even when the war was on -- before the television market came into its own. Television had been invented and pretty much perfected for home use, but it wasn't being marketed because the materials needed to produce it were not available. But after the war television came into its own, manufacturers started making sets, networks started to form, and we began to produce some of the first television commercials. I did a series of thirteen films for Pepsi-Cola, one of the first animated-commercial series.

Zoetrope: What year was that?

Sheehan: That was about 1946 or 47. I worked with Rube Goldberg, who was a senior citizen then. Rube wrote the gags for Pepsi and Pete, the Pepsi-Cola Cops. It was the sort of a situation where there always would be somebody in trouble, then Pepsi and Pete, like Popeye eating his spinach, would reinforce themselves with Pepsi-Cola and go to the rescue. They had to do it all in one minute. All animation was shot on ones, and every frame counted. They took about ten seconds of the sixty to sing their jingle: "Pepsi-Cola hits the spot, twelve full ounces, that's a lot." We produced several commercials of this sort plus many inudstrial films. I left this company to start my own studio in New York, and was quite successful there, doing a number of television spots and other types of animation.

(To be continued.)

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Two New Links

I've added two new links on the side. The first is Brad Goodchild, who I had the pleasure of working with at Nelvana years ago. Recent posts of his include work by Disney designers Albert Hurter and Ferdinand Horvath.

The other link is Kevin Koch, who I've never had the pleasure of meeting. His recent posts have included some James Baxter quicktimes from Sinbad as well as some very interesting discussions about spacing (that's the distance between drawings or frames for those who don't know).

Gordan Sheehan Part 2

(This is the continuation of an interview with Gordon Sheehan conducted by Harry Arnold and Dave Daruszka and printed around 1976 in Zoetrope, a trade publication. You can read part 1 here.)

Zoetrope: What was the atmosphere like?

Sheehan: It was a very grueling job you might say. Doing these things over and over again; painting, inking, inbetweening, that sort of thing. Fortunately, there was a lot of good companionship. There were a lot of nice young people in the company. Almost everyone in the business at that time was quite young. The heads of the company, Max Fleischer couldn't have been more than fifty years old and Dave, perhaps around forty. To me, at the time, they were old men. They were about the oldest in the company, with the exception of one other person, the janitor, Mr. Cheeseman. He was probably about sixty and the only person in the company, by the way, who was called "Mister." Everyone else was on a first name basis, even Max and Dave Fleischer. Mr. Cheeseman, I guess because of this age, always rated that title.

Zoetrope: How old were you when you started?

Sheehan: I was twenty-three when I started in the animation business. I was twenty-five or twenty-six before I was put under contract as an animator, and got to move the characters around. I began by painting cels, and fortunately, this was only a two week experience for me. I was promoted to tracing almost immediately. I did spend a great deal of time in the tracing department, mostly because I wasn't too keen about staying in animation. At that time, the lower jobs didn't pay well. If it wasn't for another job I had moonlighting, I wouldn't have been able to live on that amount of money. I painted posters for a YMCA in Brooklyn for my room.

Zoetrope: How did they go about training you at things such as inbetweening?

Sheehan: You had to practice inbetweening on your own time, bring in samples, and show them to the head of the inbetweening department. It happened that it was a woman [Edith Vernick] in charge of the department in those days. Once she felt that you were acquiring a certain amount of skill in inbetweening, you would be promoted to that department when the next vacancy occurred. Once in the inbetween department you couldn't help but learn, because you were handling experienced animators' extremes all the time. You were flipping drawings constantly. We hardly ever used moviolas in those days, in fact I don't believe we used moviolas until we did our first feature, Gulliver's Travels. An animator judged his timing and the effect of his action, by flipping the drawings. Holding them in one hand, and flipping with the other; like a flip-book. By flipping the scenes that came into the department from the animators one couldn't help but learn something about animation techniques. Most of us would try to animate something of the same type of action for practice. In inbetweening you learned to work from exposure sheets. You didn't fill them out, but you studied them to learn how drawings were combined and timed.

Every Friday afternoon the Fleischers would screen a picture that was just finished. This could be a Screen Song or Betty Boop or Popeye; whatever happened to be coming through that week, and the whole studio would get to see it. Not all at one time, because I think there were one hundred to one hundred and twenty-five people working in the studio at that time. The first in would be the executives and the head animators, then the animators and inbetweeners, finally the opaquers and inkers. But you would get to view the films, and observe scenes you had worked on.

Zoetrope: You spoke earlier of flipping the drawings to get a feeling for the action. Where there any type of pencil tests done?

Sheehan: Pencil tests just weren't heard of in those days except in a few extreme cases. There were a few pencil tests for certain types of scenes. I remember Max did a film of Betty Boop as Cinderella [Poor Cinderella] and I believe there were scenes taken from rotoscope which were pencil tested. By the way Max Fleischer invented the rotoscope, and used it with Koko the Clown, back in the silent days. The rotoscope process was simply photographing human motion, and projecting this film up onto frosted glass. The outline and key details of the character were traced off onto paper. We didn't use much rotoscoping in the animated shorts, but when Gulliver's Travels came along several years later all of the Gulliver character was rotoscoped. In Mr. Bug Goes to Town, another feature that we produced in Miami, Florida back in the late 1930's the human characters were rotoscoped. The cartoon characters were very seldom rotoscoped, unless in a special case such as a dance scene in which the rhythm and movement were important.

(To be continued.)

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Somebody Gets It

I have never worked in the video game industry and I don't play games either. I am aware, however, that games have become a major part of the animation industry. The New York Times has an article about John Riccitiello, CEO of Electronic Arts, one of the largest companies in the gaming business, but one whose market share and reputation have slipped lately. Riccitiello has apparently seen the light, realizing that creative businesses are not like others and that management's approach has to be different as a result. I hope that this realization is genuine and not just a public relations ploy.
With his new outlook, Mr. Riccitiello echoed the film director Gore Verbinski, who gave the keynote address at the Design, Innovate, Create, Entertain conference. Mr. Verbinski hammered on a point that is often obvious to consumers of popular entertainment but is lost on the corporate overseers of mass media: a company’s main asset is not a brand or a marketing tie-in, but people. Intuitive, idiosyncratic and sometimes maddening, the writers, artists and designers at the core of the creative process are those who drive the business of intellectual property.

“Frankly, the core of our business, like in any creative business, are the guys and women who are actually making the product,” Mr. Riccitiello said. “You can’t just buy people and attempt to apply some business-school synergy to them. It just doesn’t work. The companies that succeed are those that provide a stage for their best people and let them do what they do best, and it’s taken us some time to understand that.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Gordan Sheehan Part 1

(This interview appeared in a trade publication called Zoetrope around 1976. Zoetrope was published in Chicago by Larry Janiak. Because the pages are oversized and won't fit on my scanner, I'm transcribing this interview and it will appear in several parts. Here we go:)

Gordon Sheehan has spent his professional life in the field of animation, which is not bad considering he never intended it to be that way. Beginning with the Fleischer Studios, Gordon has worked his way around the country including some pioneer commercial work for Pepsi Cola, recently retiring from Coronet Films where he had started an animation department a number of years earlier. In this interview with Harry Arnold and Dave Daruszka, Mr. Sheehan talks about his hears with the Fleischers and his impressions of the animation industry.

Zoetrope: When did you get started in the field of animation?

Sheehan: I started working for Max Fleischer in New York in 1933. Max Fleischer and Dave Fleischer had been very successful in producing Betty Boop and Koko the Clown along with several other cartoons, and their experience dated back into the 1920's. When sound came along, Betty Boop became a popular singing cartoon star. Shortly after that, when I got into the business, they were just trying out a comic strip character; Popeye the Sailor who became quite a sensation in the cartoon world.

Zoetrope: What brought you to Fleischer and why did you choose animation as a career?

Sheehan: Well, it was kind of a fluke. I had attended Pratt Institute in Brooklyn for three years, graduated and got out during the Depression. I had studied magazine illustration. I didn't consider myself much of a cartoonist, in fact I didn't care much for this line. But in the Depression days, you couldn't pick your career. There were too many people out of jobs and too many looking for jobs, especially in the art line. After pounding the sidewalks of Manhattan for a good nine or ten months, I finally got a connection with the Fleischer Studios on Broadway. They were just starting to expand then. The motion picture business, by the way, was one of the few industries that prospered during the Great Depression era. Magazines, newspapers, and advertising agencies were folding. The movie business was booming because people had to go to the movies, I suppose, to get away from their troubles and worries. So I got into the animation business sort of as a tie-over job. I had no intention whatsoever of making a career of it. It was a new business, nobody knew much about it , and very few people had much confidence in animated cartoons as an entertainment media.

Fleischers had a very unique system of apprenticeship. They started you off painting on acetate cels, in black and white of course; everything was done in black and white in those days. Then after you became proficient at painting, you were promoted to the tracing department where you traced with ink on acetates, then eventually you would be promoted to the inbetweening department. That is, if you practiced and were accepted; this was the very lowest stage of assistant animation. Then eventually you got into assistant animation, and then full animation. Of course you could go higher, and become a director or start your own company, I suppose.

The common theory was that one could become an animator through this apprenticeship system within two years. There was one fellow who made it into animation in one year, but it turned out he was a relative of one of the employers. A bit of nepotism. It took me the best part of two-and-a-half years to get into the animation department.

The pay was very meager in those days, to say the least. We worked forty three-and-a-half hours a week, but instead of working a half day on Saturday as many companies did, we would work on Friday nights for three-and-a-half hours. We could then have two full days off for the weekend. I started at the tremendous salary of twelve dollars a week. I think there was a labor law at the time which said if anyone worked over a certain number of hours a day, he would receive supper money. So on Friday, the day we worked through till ten thirty in the evening, the accountant would come around with a big bag of silver half dollars, and give each worker a half dollar for supper. This made my salary $12.50 a week.

It was a very exacting routine, and it took a lot of practice to get promoted. Once a person got into the animation department, they were signed to a three year contract. Written into the contract was a raise every six months. You started at thirty dollars a week, then in six months you would get a five dollar raise. Eventually, when your contract was up, you would be getting sixty dollars a week. This was pretty fair pay in those days.

(To be continued.)

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Happy Birthday Børge

Kaj Pindal tells me that February 17 is Børge Ring's birthday, so I want to take this opportunity to wish Børge many happy returns.

I wrote about his film Anna and Bella here, and it remains a touchstone film for me. Many independent animated films can only be appreciated by artists or fans, but Børge's films don't require any special knowledge or perspective in order to be appreciated. Because his films are about families and relationships, they speak to the world.

I recently read a profile of filmmaker Jean Renoir by Penelope Gilliatt and she quotes Renoir as saying, "Something many people ignore is that there is no such thing as interesting work without the contact of the public -- the collaboration, perhaps. When you are listening to great music, what you are really doing is enjoying a good conversation with a great man, and this is bound to be fascinating. We watch a film to know the filmmaker. It's his company we're after, not his skill."

I agree with Renoir's viewpoint. There are relatively few animation filmmakers I choose to keep company with, and Børge is certainly one of them. If you are unfamiliar with his films, take a look at Anna and Bella, Oh My Darling and Run of the Mill. And will someone PLEASE collect these films and the documentary on Børge and release them on DVD?

Saturday, February 16, 2008

A Correction

In reviewing Jeffrey Stepakoff's book Billion-Dollar Kiss, I printed something that Stepakoff credited to an internal memo by Michael Eisner. That quote presented Eisner purely as a mercenary, uninterested in anything besides money.

Commenter David Lemay noted that the quote was not accurate according to Disney War by James B. Stewart and that the quote wasn't even from Eisner's time at Disney. It dates from his time at Paramount. I've since read the relevant portion of Stewart's book and what Lemay said is completely the case.

Because Stepakoff worked at Disney and credits the quote to "an internal memo," the reader is left with the impression that Eisner's memo was sent while at the Disney studio and that Stepakoff received a copy. I have no idea if Stepakoff was aware of the quote being inaccurate or if he intended that impression. However, as I related that quote with the belief that it was accurate, I have to acknowledge that wasn't the case. While I am hardly a fan of Michael Eisner, I am not a fan of distorting the truth even if it bolsters my own prejudices.

You can read the correct version of the quote in David Lemay's comment here.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Emery Hawkins

Thad K. has posted John Canemaker's complete interview with animator Emery Hawkins and created a compilation of Hawkins' animation from Columbia, Warner, Lantz, MGM and Disney cartoons (there's even a Hubley commercial in there).

The Hawkins interview was done for John Canemaker's 1977 book The Animated Raggedy Ann and Andy, as Hawkins animated much of the character of The Greedy in the feature directed by Richard Williams. While portions of the interview appear in the book, this is the first time I'm aware of that the entire interview has seen print.

In the 1940's, Hawkins was doing brilliant work at Lantz and Warner Bros. His Woody Woodpecker is probably the most attractively drawn version of the character, yet he doesn't skimp on Woody's hard, manic edge. Hawkins' animation for the Art Davis unit at Warners is a highlight of cartoons that deserve to be better known and appreciated. His work in this period was built on rounded forms with lots of follow-through. There's so much drag on the characters that sometimes it appears as if they're moving underwater (though they're still timed normally).

Starting in the '50s, Hawkins worked for John Sutherland doing industrials and many studios that did commercials. That work is generally obscure, which is a shame. Hawkins was too good for his work to be anonymous. Undoubtedly there are hidden gems waiting to be discovered, but Hawkins wanderlust took him to so many studios in his career that compiling any kind of filmography is a daunting proposition. His work on theatrical shorts is reasonably well documented, and Thad's excellent compilation will give you a good idea of Hawkins' gifts.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Thru the Mirror Part 4

History isn't fair. Bob Wickersham had the misfortune to animate at Disney in the 1930's, when there were no screen credits. In the 1940s he directed at Columbia on series like The Fox and the Crow, but those cartoons were never highly visible on TV, VHS or DVD. According to Alberto Becattini, Wickersham has a pretty good filmography as a Disney animator. He worked on The Band Concert, Pluto's Judgment Day, Lonesome Ghosts, The Flying Mouse, Who Killed Cock Robin?, The Old Mill, Little Hiawatha and Wynken Blynken and Nod. It must have been tough to work on the cream of the crop with no public acknowledgment whatsoever.

In Thru the Mirror, Wickersham gets the entire opening of the cartoon, setting up the situation and taking Mickey through the mirror, up through jumping rope on the telephone cord. Wickersham knew how to draw appealing poses. His drawings don't have the same strong rhythm as Fred Moore's, but the proportions are very pleasing and the poses are well balanced. Wickersham's Mickey is also extremely flexible and he has a functioning brain. If you keep your eye on Mickey during these opening scenes, you see that Mickey reacts to everything that happens to him in a variety of subtle ways.

When the animation passes to Dick Lundy, Lundy's proportions are not as appealing as Wickersham's; Lundy draws Mickey's eyes, nose and ears somewhat smaller. When it comes to animation, though, Lundy is as good as anyone in this cartoon. He does three dance sequences: one on the top hat, one with the gloves and one with the Queen (a Garbo caricature). Each dance is completely different from the others. Animating dance is difficult enough, but Lundy had to master three different styles all for a single cartoon. That's a real achievement.

Leonard Sebring is less well known than Wickersham. According to Becattini, he only worked in animation from 1933-36 and only at Disney. I wish I knew why he left the field. While his dance animation isn't as sophisticated at Lundy's, he meets the challenge of dealing with a deck of cards and matching a musical beat. These scenes are not simple by any means and Sebring handles them flawlessly.

Hardie Gramatky is best known as a childrens' book author and illustrator. He created Little Toot as a book, which Disney adapted to animation in Melody Time. Is there a case where anybody else left Disney and created something that the Disney studio then animated? I can't think of any.

Gramatky's animation isn't as controlled as the other animators. He doesn't have a good sense of weight and his animation feels a little twitchy, as if he didn't understand spacing fully. His drawing of Mickey is also the crudest in this cartoon. Mickey's exit in shot 33 feels like he's being pulled out of the scene rather then moving under his own power. I don't think that it's any mistake that Gramatky was given the broadest scenes to animate, where his looseness would be least noticeable to the audience.

Wickersham handles the end of the cartoon, and his scene of Mickey growing back to normal size is done completely differently than the shrinking scene he animated early in the cartoon. Like Lundy doing dances, the Disney animators of the time had multiple solutions to any problem and didn't need to repeat themselves.

This cartoon, like many mid-'30s Disney cartoons, gets by on charm. The story is slight and there's not much acting. However, there's no shortage of gags or imagination and each idea is so well timed and executed that it captivates the audience. There's a level of skill and confidence in this cartoon that leaves most other studios of the period in the dust.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Thru the Mirror Part 3

Some beautiful animation by Bob Wickersham, showing how entertaining flexible shapes in motion can be. This is the underlying essence of animation and one that is too often ignored in favour of design or dialogue. I defy anyone to look at these drawings without smiling.

I'm going to write more about the animation in this cartoon, but Mickey achieves a kind of perfection in Thru the Mirror in terms of his proportions and his flexibility, especially in the hands of Wickersham and Dick Lundy. While The Band Concert might be a better cartoon, I much prefer how Mickey looks in this one.

Later cartoons with Mickey push his acting farther and are slicker. Maybe they're too slick. This cartoon is balanced between Mickey's primitive design origins and sophisticated motion. As the motion and drawing become more sophisticated in later cartoons, the balance tips and a lot of Mickey's basic visual appeal gets lost.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

The Triumph of the Assembly Line

The following is part of the commencement address given by Alan Alda to the 2003 graduating class at Southampton College on Long Island. I'm quoting it from Alda's most recent book, Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself.

The single greatest American invention was not Henry Ford's car -- it was Henry Ford's assembly line. In our time, it's reached the peak of perfection. Everyone on the line has a specialized role to play. Crank your nut, slam in your bolt, and go home. No one is responsible for the whole thing, just his or her little part of it. It only has to be good enough to sell -- and its value, its worth, is reckoned by the price it gets. Your ambition will be directed at getting a better place on the assembly line and someday maybe even running the line -- but as in that great Lily Tomlin aphorism, "The trouble with the rat race is even if you win, you're still a rat."

So what chance do you have to be "our future"?

This chance: You can decide to think for yourself. You can say to yourself, I will make a silk purse out of every sow's ear that comes down the assembly line.

You may be expected to tell people only what they need to know to make the sale. But if you learn to find out what they actually need and help them get it, I bet you'll feel better and even do better. It takes more energy -- much more energy -- but it's also more fun. Edmund Burke said: "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." And I say that the only thing necessary for the triumph of the assembly line is for creative people with the energy of youth to do nothing but learn the ropes.

Gus Arriola (1917-2008)

Gus Arriola, best known for the comic strip Gordo, has died at the age of 90. Arriola, like many artists during the Great Depression, spent time in the animation industry as it was one of the few places an artist could earn a steady living.

Arriola started at the Mintz studio as an inbetweener. When MGM started their in-house studio in 1937, Arriola moved over and started working his way up the ladder. He was more interested in the story department than in animating and he first worked on story for Hugh Harman on cartoons like The Lonesome Stranger (1940) and Abdul the Bulbul Ameer (1941). In addition to story sketches, Arriola also did character designs. Moving over to the Rudy Ising unit, Arriola worked on Dance of the Weed (1941), Bats in the Belfry (1942), and The First Swallow (1942).
An Arriola design from Abdul the Bulbul Ameer
An Arriola design from Dance of the Weed

In 1941, he sold Gordo as a comic strip and continued it until 1985. Gordo was notable for its Mexican locale and Arriola's interest in promoting Mexican culture. He was an excellent designer whose daily strips were crisply drawn with judiciously placed black areas. The Gordo Sunday strips showed off Arriola's flair for colour.

In 2000, Robert C. Harvey and Gus Arriola collaborated on Accidental Ambassador Gordo, a generously illustrated biography of Arriola.