Thursday, May 11, 2006

The Pied Piper of Basin Street

First, thanks to Kevin Langley for posting the complete cartoon to

There's a lot to talk about with this cartoon, so I think that I'll be writing about it for several days. There are interesting things here about direction, layout, and animation that deserve mention.

James (Shamus) Culhane is a director who doesn't really get the attention he deserves. Maybe that's because his work is not readily available on DVD. Culhane moved around a lot in the animation business, so he never established a reputation tied to any one studio. On top of that, he's not really associated with a particular character. Yet he directed some interesting cartoons at Fleischer, such as Popeye Meets William Tell, and his cartoons for the Lantz studio are an impressive body of work. In the '30's, the Lantz studio really couldn't touch Disney or MGM, yet when Culhane started directing, he significantly raised the quality of the Lantz cartoons to where they could hold their own against anybody.

You can read a short bio I did of Culhane here. Mark Langer also wrote a short bio. Tom Sito, who was fortunate enough to work with Culhane, has this to say about him.

Culhane's autobiography Talking Animals and Other People is a great book that covers a lot of history. As he worked for Mintz, Fleischer, Iwerks, Van Beuren, Disney, Lantz and Paramount, in addition to owning his own commercial studio, Culhane perhaps had the widest experience of anybody during his years in the business. His other book, Animation From Script to Screen, is full of very practical tips on production.

As a director, Culhane was willing to try things. In The Barber of Seville, a Woody Woodpecker cartoon from 1944, he was pretty aggressive in how he timed scenes. While Culhane admitted he had no feeling for jazz, because he studied violin he had a strong grasp of music. His Swing Symphonies, such as this cartoon, work beautifully with their soundtracks.

If you compare this cartoon to The Nifty Nineties, which I talked about earlier, you can see several differences in the approach to direction. The Nifty Nineties is willing to let animation carry large parts of the film. The cutting is fairly leisurely and animators work on continuous sections. Culhane is very interested in using cutting to keep a cartoon moving. He also cuts between characters or locations, so he doesn't have to worry too much about hook-ups. With 8 animators working on this film, that made everybody's job easier.

Eight animators is a large crew for a short, and that may be why scenes don't seem grouped logically by animator. I know from my own experience that while a director intends a particular animator to do a scene, necessity often forces the director to hand the scene to the next animator who needs work. So for instance, if you look at shots 18-23 (the numbering is mine, not the Lantz studio's), you see that 3 animators do those 6 shots, even though it would be logical for a single animator to do them all.

You can see, though, that Culhane has cast his animators. Pat Matthews, Emery Hawkins and LaVerne Harding do the personality scenes for the lead characters. Les Kline gets less important personality scenes. Dick Lundy, Don Williams and Paul Smith get the mice. Surprisingly, Grim Natwick doesn't get a lot to do in this cartoon and gets single stand-alone scenes. Paul Smith gets a lot of action scenes or scenes that require no acting.

I'll talk more about layout and animation in my next entry.


Thad said...

Great post, Mark. This is one of my favorite Lantz shorts!

I was pleased to see that I knew what Emery Hawkins did before looking at any sort of reference guide. And I was also pleased that Paul Smith animated my favorite scene in the short - the rats getting revenge on the mayor!

Marc Deckter said...

Thanks for posting this, Mark!

Kevin Langley said...

Nice post. Thanks for posting all that information about Shamus. I know, or knew, so little about him.

Anonymous said...

First time I post a commentary here,but I always visit you blog.Nice write-ups about Culhane.
Show it to John K.

Jenny Lerew said...

Great stuff here, Mark. Thanks for all of it.