Sunday, January 15, 2012

Review: The World History of Animation

Last summer, I helped a friend develop a course outline for an animation history course. In looking for a textbook, I found that there wasn't a single volume that seemed appropriate. When The World History of Animation by Stephen Cavalier was later published, I wondered if this book might be the solution. Unfortunately, it isn't.

The book is a wide ranging history of animation. It starts with a short historical summary for different parts of the world before launching into a year by year history where particular films are singled out. The entries are wildly uneven, both in terms of the writing and the accompanying illustrations. One would think that the amount of space devoted to a film would be proportional to the film's importance, but there doesn't seem to be any relationship. Not all the films are represented by stills and here, too, the number or size of the stills bears no relation to the importance of the film.

I don't think I can articulate the author's point of view beyond the fact that he has personal favorites. While art, content and technology are all mentioned, none seems to be uppermost in the author's mind. Directors are the only contributors mentioned consistently. Designers and animators who aren't directors are mostly ignored.

Finally, there are many factual errors. I would not pretend to be an expert on European or Asian animation, but I am reasonably conversant in American animation history. The author is British, which might account for his errors regarding America, but there is no way for me to know if the same number of errors exist in all parts of the book.

I've listed the errors I found during my reading below, if only to document my reservations. There is no doubt that the book is an ambitious undertaking, but it seems to have defeated the author and his research team. Perhaps it isn't possible to get a single volume history of world animation that is accurate and with a defined point of view, but this book does nothing to challenge that assumption.

The errors:

A still identified as being from Gertie the Dinosaur (1914) on page 63 is obviously from one of the later Gertie films, as it has a grey scale and looks to have been done on cels. The 1914 film was just line and done entirely on a single level of paper.

On page 74, Cavalier states that Joe Oriolo was working on Felix the Cat as early as 1922. As he was born in 1913, that would make him a precocious nine year old. In fact, Oriolo didn't meet Messmer until the two were working at Famous Studios in the early '40s.

On page 97, Cavalier says that Steamboat Willie was half finished before Disney made the decision to make it a sound cartoon. This is wrong. The synchronization that is Steamboat Willie's great advance was due to planning the musical beats in advance of animation.

On page 99, sloppy writing implies that Ub Iwerks' multiplane camera was in use as early as the first Flip the Frog cartoon when it was introduced in the ComicColor series. He also says that Iwerks returned to the Disney studio in 1938, when it was 1940.

On page 115, Cavalier implies that the Fleischer 3D setbacks were the Fleischer version of the rotoscope. First of all, there is no relationship. The setbacks were purely for background elements, not character animation. Secondly, as the Fleischers invented the rotoscope, they had no need for their own version.

On page 122, Leon Schlesinger is invited to open an animation studio on the Warner Bros. lot in 1927, when his studio didn't open until 1930. Then the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies are described as being produced at the Harman-Ising studio, which is also wrong. On the same page, Chuck Jones, not Tex Avery, is credited as the director of A Wild Hare.

On page 123, Cavalier states that producer Edward Selzer imposed a 5 week production schedule on each cartoon. While a cartoon may have been forced to move through each department in 5 weeks, there is no way that an entire cartoon was created in 5 weeks.

On page 142, Tex Avery is credited as creating Porky Pig, but Avery had nothing to do with Porky's debut cartoon I Haven't Got a Hat, which was released before Avery's first cartoon at Warner Bros.

On page 198, regarding The Jungle Book, Cavalier states, "for the first time the characters' movements and acting were based on the personalities and filmed performances of the voice actors, who were encouraged to improvise as they recorded." It was hardly the first time, as it was done at least as early as the tea party sequence in Alice in Wonderland (1951).

On page 219, Cavalier states, "Crumb also claimed that Bakshi had got the agreement [to make an animated Fritz the Cat] with his ex-girlfriend more than with him, and that she had no ownership rights, which Bakshi denied." The woman in question is Dana Crumb, who was married to Crumb at the time the contract was signed.

On page 225, Jerry Beck is identified as Jeff Beck.

On page 246, Don Bluth's Banjo the Woodpile Cat is identified as a feature when it is 29 minutes long.

On page 248, MAGI Synthevision is identified as MAG.

On page 286, Cavalier claims that the cgi ballroom in Beauty and the Beast was supplied by Pixar. It was created internally at Disney. I confirmed this with Dan Philips, who was CGI Manager on the film.

On page 308, there is a commentary on Super Mario 64 that sounds more like the work of a public relations flack than a historian. "Shigeru Miyamoto and Nintendo's Super Mario 64 is not only one of the greatest computer games of all time, but also one of the greatest works of art/entertainment of the twentieth century. From the moment the player takes control of Mario and finds that through some simple controls he can run, jump, swim, slide, or even fly in any direction of the beautifully-realized world, he or she is held in a similar state of wonder and exhilaration that the first audiences must have felt when watching Winsor McCay's Gertie the Dinosaur or Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs."

On page 331, in discussing Gendy Tartakovsky's credits, there is no mention of Dexter's Laboratory, a show that he created.

On page 386, Shane Acker's feature 9 is identified as stop-motion, when it is cgi.


Eric Noble said...

Holy cow, is this bad. This is as bad as the film course I took (the topic that quarter was animation), where the professor didn't know jack shit about any animation history.

Such a shame. This book actually looked pretty tantalizing. It might be possible to do a book on the world history of animation with a single point of view, but it would have to be split up into different books, each covering different regions (one for American, another for Japanese, etc.) Of course, that would require an exhaustive amount of research.

David said...

In the great tradition of Ralph Stephenson's “The Animated Film”.

Martin Juneau said...

How shame! Such times wasted for publish a essay. Like Eric says, a accurate animated book should be divided in different countries and genres (As animated shorts, features, TV shows, etc.). I find much interesting animations books in my local library than this book offer us.

Rodney Baker said...

Good points all around. I do wonder about this one though...

'On page 97, Cavalier says that Steamboat Willie was half finished before Disney made the decision to make it a sound cartoon. This is wrong. The synchronization that is Steamboat Willie's great advance was due to planning the musical beats in advance of animation.'

Rather than try to type it all here I've posted my thoughts at my blog:

In short, at least on this point, I'm not yet convinced Cavalier is wrong.

Great review. I assume Cavalier had at least some reason to believe he was correct in these particulars and there is where I see an opportunity to learn.

Rodney Baker said...

What I was planning to say...

I'm impressed by your thorough documentation and correction of these errors throughout.

If you would ever consider it I'd love to know the process you use to document such. For instance do you write into the book itself, add post it notes, can in the page and annotate it on computer. I'd love to know because I'd love to rise to your standard in documentation.

I know this is Standards 101 to you but... if you ever have the interest... I'll soak it up.

Thanks Mark!

Mark Mayerson said...

Rodney, my system is dead simple. When I'm reading, if I find anything that might be wrong, I write the page number down on my bookmark. Once I'm done, I return to the pages I've selected and then compare the information with other books on my shelf or with information that's online.

I need to say that not everything I note ends up being an error. Many times I question things that turn out to be right.

Michael Sporn said...

You were right on everything you pointed to, Mark. You know your animation history. I think "Flowers and Trees" was the film that was scratched and redone to add color. "Steamboat Willie" was never started as a silent film.

Anonymous said...

And Flowers and Trees was first shot with a three strip color camera--and later reshot successive exposure.

Jenny Lerew said...


Rodney Baker said...

I appreciate the clarification on your process Mark. I like it. The simpler the better. Thanks!

GW said...

I think it would be a pretty hard task. I haven't read this book, but trying to describe everything from the NFB to Zagreb and anime is not an easy task. I'd never manage it.

I'd like to see a book that gets into how animation developed in regards to economics and to some degree politics and where it's yet to go.

I think it's important to look at Russian animation's history because they've surpassed the US industry in so many different areas. Looking at what they've accomplished it feels like I'm an ignorant European learning from Arabic culture before the Renaissance.

There's scarcely been a word printed on Vladimir Tarasov and Anatoliy Petrov among others. But they've both explored areas which nobody in the US has. Most of their films haven't been translated unforunately, and I don't speak Russian. There's other examples in other countries, but those were the first two to come to mind.

There is an overwhelming need for less well known works to be examined more deeply. Where is everybody who's studying the works outside of the US golden age and anime? There's a gold mine of information out there waiting to be absorbed by fans and used by animation professionals. If people only knew and internalized it the industry would be leagues ahead of where it is now.

Maybe I'm just missing all the good commentary, but there's a lot of room for improvement from what I've seen.

S Cavalier said...

Dear Mark

Thanks for your interest in the book. Hope you don't mind if I address a few of your issues.

About the structure. Overall the book is a history of ideas. I feel ideas are the most interesting and important thing in any art form, and for anyone who wishes to work creatively in the medium the ideas are the most inspiring part of the history. Plus, when you are trying to assess the whole massive history of animated films you often have to boil things down to the essence, the idea. Good ideas stay relevant while information goes cold fast. So the book isn't so much about drilling down into specific areas and presenting streams of facts, names and dates, as much as telling the big story of the big ideas of worldwide animation. Animation of all types, and I mean all.

So I decided that if you were going to tell this global story that a chronological timeline was a great way to communicate this, to show how the ideas developed in one place affected what was happening in another. To see for instance how early American shorts of the 1920/30s directly influenced early Japanese animation while the 'visual music' of the animators in Germany at this period cast an influence over Disney's later Fantasia, at around the time the early modernist animators in the UK and USA were influencing each others work.

This 'big story' is what interested me and I wanted to tell it in the most accessible and easily digestible way. The intention was to write not a dry book from a lofty standpoint, but an enthusiastic book for enthusiasts, animators and budding animators. The fact that nearly all the dozen or so reviews online are positive reassures me that I wasn't too far off the mark.

If you understand that ideas were paramount then you can begin to see can see why maybe there is more written about, say, an obscure 'direct film' made by Stan Brakhage in 1963 in which he attached insect wings to celluloid, than on say, Toy Story 2. Because the idea is more original and interesting. That’s not to say Toy Story 2 isn't great (and to be fair I wrote quite a lot on Toy Story 3), but in terms of the idea, well.. it’s a sequel. I realise this is quite an eccentric /eclectic approach at times, but this is one reason why the comparative amount written about various subjects doesn't seem proportional to you. Idea are quite subjective so these decisions are actually the 'voice', that you complain isn't there.

There are other individual reasons for subjects being focused on or not, but that’s the main one.
In terms of images, I had little control over what rights were available and what images we could afford, so, as in other books, whether an entry carries an image or not is of little relation to its significance.

About the 'voice' thing, that you complain isn't there. I sort of agreed with the publisher to keep my voice quite low key, as the book isn't about my ideas, it’s about other peoples. And its not a blog, it’s a history book. When the voice is to the fore though, you complain about that as well (presumably because you don't agree with it!). For instance, the part about Super Mario 64? That isn't from the PR people as you suggest, that’s me, that's my voice, my enthusiasm. Like it or not, video games are as important to most young (and some old) people as films or TV, and Super Mario 64 is as important in that medium as Snow White was in animated films. Most people who know about games wouldn't disagree. And as video games are as culturally important as any other medium right now, the importance of this work shouldn't be underestimated.

Having spent most of my life as an animator, and animation is nothing if not a collaboration, I would have loved the luxury of detailing the animators and artists involved in the films. But the director is ultimately the person who marshals the idea and as such is the one traditionally name checked when space is limited, and it’s no different in this book.

S Cavalier said...

None of this 'big ideas' stuff is to say there wasn't great attention to detail. The information for all the well trodden areas such as the American Golden Age that you talk about, was extracted and cross checked from many the brilliant books that have been written previously (which might confirm your supposition that its pretty much impossible to write a book of this type and scale without any errors). Disney and other studios have also checked the text, before they gave image consent. But anyway to address in detail some of your comments about detail:

Gertie the Dinosaur – The image in question was supplied to us by an image library who identified it as from the 1914 film. Now you could be right and they could be wrong in that it is from the later Gertie films, but the image library stock (in this case at least) is largely publicity material supplied by the distributors at the time, and the images supplied for a films publicity are often not taken directly from a film but created especially for publicity purposes and therefore often an 'enhanced' version of what is in the actual film. Therefore this issue can be a grey area. (Or a gradient area in this case).

Felix the Cat- The book says Pat Sullivan acquired the rights in 1922, not that Joe Oriolo was working on it at that time.

Steamboat Willie- In the accounts I've read (ie Charles Solomon's Enchanted Drawings , Leonard Maltin's Of Mice and Men ), a test screening was arranged with the film, in Disney’s words, 'half finished'. The silent film was projected and the sound effects were produced live in another room. The audience reaction was very positive and they then went ahead with the production. As this was a test as to whether the sound worked with an audience, then it seems to me that the decision about viability of sound hadn't been fully made at that point.

Flip the Frog- The book actually says ‘Another development in Iwerk’s films was the development of the multiplane camera’. Not sure how that ‘implies’ that happened specifically on Flip the Frog.

Warner Bros- Although, as you point out (and as the book says in the WB biog) Tex Avery wasn't involved in Porky’s debut, he was generally credited with shaping this minor character into the star we all know. In this sense Porky is often credited as Avery's creation. Most of these characters didn’t have a direct creator but developed over time under many hands. The Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies were produced for Schlesinger at the Harman Ising studio (you see what they did with the names there!) from 1930 to 1933 (or 1934, as is often the case there’s conflicting accounts of the dates) whereupon H+I departed and Leon Schlesinger productions took over. Several sources (including the Maltin book and Michael Barrier’s Hollywood Cartoons) state that after he took over, Edward Selzer indeed imposed a gruelling 5 week schedule.

Well I’ve run out of time and seem to have nearly written another book here, so I'll stop now.

Except to say; of the other points you raise some are indeed silly errors, mainly on my part. Typos and muddles of the kind that can happen when working with a team of researches worldwide, against a deadline, to produce 180,000 words which then get boiled down to 80,000, as you may one day find out. (You should do it! That way you get paid for all your researching and checking.) They should have got caught at our own checking phase but didn’t. So thanks for highlighting the slip ups, we can make sure they are corrected in the next edition

Love the blog. Hope you don't mind me dropping by.
S Cavalier

Rodney Baker said...

That was an interesting read Stephen. I'm still absorbing what you've written and it looks to me like you put a lot of effort into the book.

I'm learning a lot here and I thank everyone who has commented for that. I've know I've still got a lot to learn.

Stephen has just emboldened me a bit further so my apologies in advance and I hope this isn't read as confrontational. I admit that I really wanted to respond when I read Michael( Sporn)'s response that "'Steamboat Willie' was never started as a silent film" as what little I've seen seems to clearly suggests otherwise. My initial thought was "Who the heck am I to question freakin' Micheal Sporn???" which was quickly followed by an odder sensation that suggested, "I sure hope I'm wrong."

Does any of this matter?

I think the whole point of Mark's blog article/review of 'The World History of Animation' is that these facts and interpretations do matter and where errors can be deduced we want to do our due diligence to either get them corrected or make those errors well known. I trust we can all agree in this.

With regard to Michael's statement that "Steamboat Willie wasn't" and Stephen stating that 'it was' I'm inclined to follow the evidence as suggest that it was but I must admit that I still don't really know. I certainly would like to have a good deal of confidence in what is known.

I don't want to focus too much on 'Steamboat Willie' here as that is just a soundbite from the book but that's were I got involved in this discussion. As such I remain curious and would like to know if there is anything in the way of evidence or testimonial that suggests 'Steamboat Willie' was not initiated as a silent film?

Credit where credit is due, Stephen has at least indicated his sources. I'm in the process of moving but perhaps in the transition I can dig those sources up.

Mark Mayerson said...

Stephen, if I have made errors, I am happy to correct them. However, what you are saying in these comments is not what you have written in your book.

With regard to Felix, here's is your statement on page 74. "In 1922 Sullivan acquired the rights to Felix from Paramount. With Messmer and his team, including his protege Joe Oriolo, creating a steady supply of the cartoons - one every 15 days for a long period - Sullivan proceeded to practically invent merchandising by selling a vast array of Felix objects while traveling the world publicizing his property." Joe Oriolo never worked for Pat Sullivan, never worked on the silent Felix films and didn't meet Otto Messmer until the early 1940s when Sullivan was dead and Felix cartoons were no longer being produced.

No one disputes that Steamboat Willie had a proof of concept screening when it was half finished to see if the idea of synchronized sound would work with animation. However, on page 97 you wrote, "The movie was already finished as a silent short before Disney had the idea to make it a synchronized sound film." The decision to make Steamboat Willie with sound was made before the short was started, as everything in the film is animated to a musical beat.

Poor writing or editing is responsible for connecting Iwerks' multiplane camera to Flip the Frog. On page 99 you wrote, "The first Flip the Frog film was called Fiddlesticks and featured Flip dancing on stage and playing piano along with a character very similar in appearance to Mickey Mouse (another Iwerks cocreation, although of course owned by The Walt Disney Company). Despite not being radically different from Disney's shorts, the film was notable for being made in two-color Technicolor. Another technical milestone in Iwerks' films was the development of a multiplane camera (several years before Disney, but several years after the version used by Lotte Reiniger)." As there is no paragraph break between the last two sentences and no date to indicate when Iwerks' multiplane was first used, the reader is left with the impression that Fiddlesticks was in two-color technicolor and used multiplane.

Checking the index for Of Mice and Magic by Leonard Maltin and Hollywood Cartoons by Michael Barrier does not lead one to find anything linking Ed Selzer to a five week schedule. As I stated earlier, each department (story, direction/layout, animation, ink,paint,camera) may have been given 5 weeks to do a cartoon, but with the crew size at Warner Bros. it would be impossible for an entire cartoon to be made in that time. As the cartoons were 600 feet long and there were four or five animators doing 25-35 feet a week, the math shows that just animating a cartoon took five weeks.

There is no question that Avery helped develop the character of Porky Pig, but you state on page 142, "Avery worked at the Warner Bros. animations studio between 1935 and 1941, where he created Porky Pig and Daffy Duck." That implies that Avery was there at Porky's birth, and he was not. That took place in Friz Freleng's unit in I Haven't Got a Hat, released before Avery's first Warner Bros. cartoon.