Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Six Authors In Search of a Character: Part 3, The Historical Roots of Animation Industrial Practice in the Silent Era

The creation of coherent behaviour in animation got off to a slow start, as did animation itself. Regular production of animated shorts didn’t begin in earnest until 1913, more than a decade after live action studios were releasing films on a regular schedule. By the time regular animation production existed, the larger film industry and its audience had well-developed expectations regarding costs, film lengths, and release schedules. As animation always comprised a minority of film releases and didn’t generate enough box office revenue to influence the motion picture industry, the animation industry had no choice but to adapt to prevailing conditions if it was to survive.

Those conditions had a major impact in how animation production was organized, that in turn had a major impact on how character behaviour in animation developed. While there was a unity between performer and character in live action, this unity was discarded in animation as soon as it became a studio-produced medium. This lack of unity continues to be a fact of life in animation, though the industry has taken steps to control its effects.

In its initial, pre-studio, stage, animation was presented to audiences purely as a novelty. The fact that objects could move of their own accord or drawings could come to life was sufficient to satisfy audiences.

There are at least two surviving Edison films from 1905 that feature object animation. How Jones Lost his Roll utilizes animated title cards and The Whole Damm Family and the Damm Dog has a scene of stop motion where the dog’s body assembles itself (Crafton, Emile 130-31).

J. Stuart Blackton’s Humorous Phases of Funny Faces (1906) is the earliest known example of drawn animation. Blackton was one of the founders of Vitagraph in 1898, a major early film production company (Musser 253-54). His background included time spent as an artist for the New York World newspaper and he himself was the subject of several Edison films in 1896 that photographed him drawing (Musser 120-21). These films led to opportunities for Blackton to perform a sketching act in vaudeville (Musser 121). Blackton continued to use his art skills at Vitagraph, including a film called The Enchanted Drawing (1900) that did “not use frame by frame cinematography, but instead borrows Mèliés stop-action tricks” (Crafton, Before 52).

In Humorous Phases of Funny Faces, the film’s title draws itself on the screen. This is followed by Blackton’s hand sketching a man on a chalkboard. When the man is complete, a woman character is drawn on screen without the evidence of a human hand. The man’s eyes animate to look at the woman and he wiggles his eyebrows. She winks at him. Eventually, the man smokes a cigar and the smoke obliterates the image of the woman. Blackton’s hand then re-enters the frame and erases the chalkboard.

While the behaviour here is extremely rudimentary, the characters do interact with each other and the audience has no trouble understanding their behaviour. Blackton is the first known case of a film animator creating character behaviour through his drawings. As he was the sole artist working on the film, the behaviour is undiluted Blackton.

Humorous Phases also includes a man tossing an umbrella and a clown and dog that appear to be chalk drawings but on closer examination are actually animated cut-outs. There is another drawn animation segment of a man and a woman that appear to have been shot in reverse. These other segments don’t contain much in the way of emoting.

The film, as a whole, has no narrative. It is similar to vaudeville sketch acts where the audience watches an artist draw, but adds the novelty of the drawings coming to life.

Despite Blackton’s history as an artist and his experiments with animation, it was clearly a minor part of Vitagraph’s output. By August 1907, the studio was releasing at least two new films a week, most being half reels (Musser 473). While Blackton was also involved with the 1907 release The Haunted Hotel, a film that used stop motion animation of objects (Musser 471), animation was simply one genre of many at Vitagraph, and nowhere near a majority of its output.

As Donald Crafton writes,
“Between 1908 and the first world war animation was gradually defined as a cinema genre by Emile Cohl and Winsor McCay…. Before then it was a “special effect” and not unlike other effects such as irises and lap dissolves. But with these artists, the technology began to be associated with recurring dramatic situations, narrative structures, iconography, and expectations concerning content” (Before 9).
Vitagraph would play a role in the distribution of animation by Winsor McCay, perhaps the most influential of the first generation of animators. McCay, like Blackton, was a newspaper artist. At the time of his first animated film, he was working for the New York Herald, where he was the author of several comic strips: Little Sammy Sneeze, Hungry Henrietta and Little Nemo in Slumberland (Crafton, Before 93-98). Also like Blackton, McCay had appeared in vaudeville, doing a sketch act entitled “The Seven Ages of Man” (Crafton, Before 98).

McCay’s animated film Little Nemo (released by Vitagraph in 1911) is similar to Humorous Phases in that it has no narrative and is built on the novelty of drawings coming to life. Indeed, the first drawn image of the animation is the character of Flip from the Nemo comic strip with the words “Watch Me Move” written over his head. The character of Impy is assembled out of falling cylindrical pieces and Nemo is assembled from lines that animate in from off-screen. Nemo draws the Princess character, who then starts to move.

A live action prologue was filmed, showing McCay making a bet that he could do 4,000 drawings to make an animated film, perhaps the first time that an animated film was publicly defined by the amount of work necessary to create it.

(This is not a complete copy. Sorry.)
McCay used the film in his vaudeville appearances (Crafton, Before 98) as he did two later animated films, How a Mosquito Operates (1912) and Gertie the Dinosaur (1914) (Crafton, Before 110). The live action prologue to Mosquito is lost (Crafton, Before 107) but the prologue for Gertie survives. It once again shows McCay taking a bet that he can bring a dinosaur to life through a series of 10,000 drawings. In the vaudeville version of the act, McCay stood to the right of the screen and interacted with Gertie by barking orders that she (usually) followed. For the filmed version, McCay’s commands were used as intertitles.

Gertie is perhaps the first successful animated character. She comes across as easily distracted and somewhat stubborn. She exhibits fear and sorrow with personality touches like scratching her head with the tip of her tail. Except for her size and strength, she behaves in a manner familiar to anyone with a house pet, alternately cute and stubborn.

Blackton and McCay both had day jobs, so to speak, so animation was not their main occupation. Neither ever attempted to do a series of animated films with a regular release schedule. The one animation pioneer who did attempt this was Emile Cohl.

Cohl was an established illustrator in France who also wrote poetry and two comedies for the stage (Crafton, Before 64). He was associated with a group known as The Incoherents, whose philosophy was “iconoclastic, antibourgeois, antiacademic, and violently antirational” (Crafton, Before 64). His first contact with films seems to have been in 1908, when he started contributing scenarios to the Gaumont company in Paris (Crafton, Emile 93). Those scenarios were for a variety of genres, including chase films, comedies and fantasies (Crafton, Emile 119). He was promoted to directing at Gaumont, and his output included comedies, documentaries and dramas, though he specialized in animation. In late May or early June of that year, he completed his first animated film Fantasmagorie (Crafton, Emile 93).

Like Humorous Phases, Fantasmagorie begins with the hand of the artist creating a drawing. Fantasmagorie appears to be an improvised film, with images succeeding each other with very little logic. There is metamorphoses animation, with objects turning into other objects. A man turns into bottle that turns into a flower and then the flower’s stem turns into an elephant’s trunk. While the character of a clown appears throughout the film, Cohl is clearly more interested in the transformations and the succession of images than he is in having the clown or any of the other figures on screen emote.

All three of these animation pioneers attempted to find short cuts due to the amount of work animation required. Blackton resorted to using cut-outs in Humorous Phases in order reduce the amount of drawing that had to be done. Cohl exposed each drawing in Fantasmagorie for two frames, not one, in order to only do 8 drawings per second instead of 16 (Crafton, Before 61). McCay developed the use of “reverse and repeats” and “cycles,” both techniques for using drawings more than once in order to create more footage.1 In addition, he hired an assistant named John A. Fitzsimmons who traced the background McCay created onto every animation drawing of Gertie the Dinosaur (Maltin 4).

As Donald Crafton points out,
“By far the greatest disadvantage was the length of time required to complete a film, which seemed, in 1908, like an eternity. In November Cohl had less than 200 meters of released film to show for seven months of hard work. [At 16 frames per second, this is less than 11 minutes of screen time.] This amount normally represented three to five days of shooting for a typical Gaumont film. And the three films had netted only 750 francs for the artist” (Emile 140).
After his initial three films of drawn animation, Cohl “could no longer sustain the heroic effort that their production demanded” (Crafton, Emile 141) and was forced to shift to other animation techniques such as object animation, puppet animation and cut-out animation in addition to padding his films with live action. Using only a camera operator as an assistant, he completed animated segments for “about four films each month” (Crafton, Emile 120). By using these techniques, he was able to create over seventy films in a three-year period, almost all of them containing animated sequences (Crafton, Emile 151). This level of productivity separates Cohl from Blackton and McCay and prepared him to produce the first animated series with continuing characters, The Newlyweds.

Traveling to Fort Lee, New Jersey, to work for the Éclair company, Cohl completed thirteen films based on George McManus’s comic strip The Newlyweds between March 1913 and January 1914 (Crafton, Before 83). While this is a prodigious output for an animator working alone, Cohl failed to meet Éclair’s release schedule of a new film every two weeks (Crafton, Before 83). Unfortunately only one film in this series has survived, and it shows that the series was made with both drawn and cut-out animation (Crafton, Emile 164).

The use of continuing characters was a natural outgrowth of the star system that was developing in live action. While actors did not receive billing in early films, audiences still came to recognize them from their repeated appearances. Performers and studios began to capitalize on the audience’s interest by using actors as a marketing tool. Years before The Newlyweds series, the IMP company lured both Florence Lawrence and Mary Pickford away from Biograph with the promise of screen credit and then advertised the presence of these performers to the movie going audience (Mast 122).

Lacking live stars, animation’s equivalent strategy was to use continuing characters. Newspaper comic strips featured characters already known to the movie-going audience in their original drawn form and in live action movie adaptations. In 1901, Edison made films based on Happy Hooligan (Musser 316) and in 1904 based on Buster Brown (Musser 357). The newspaper strips also provided gags and a drawing style, so they were a logical source for animated films.

The use of continuing characters was a turning point in animation’s popularity. As Donald Crafton notes, “A survey of the trade press shows that before the 1913 Newlyweds series [sic] animated films were sporadic novelty items; after the commercial success of the Éclair films animated series popped up like mushrooms" (Before 86).

The problem was that an animator working by himself could not maintain a steady release schedule. The answer was to create animation studios. In the period immediately following The Newlyweds, two studios sprang up, both focusing on series with continuing characters.

Raoul Barré and Bill Nolan opened a studio in the Bronx that produced a series for the Edison studio called Animated Grouch Chasers starting in 1915.
“Assembly-line techniques were developed in which employees were trained for one specific task. Barré himself eventually acted only as coordinator and supervisor. With many apprentices working on a single cartoon, it was necessary to schematize the drawing style to maintain uniform consistency. To save time, each drawing was sometimes photographed three or even four times to “stretch” the footage, often resulting in jerky and repetitious movements on the screen” (Crafton, Emile 177).
This was a seminal moment for animation. Rather than follow a theatrical performance model, where an artist would be cast as a character for the length of a film, the studios followed an industrial model where the character’s activity was broken into parts so that it could be produced by many hands on an assembly line. This decision, made almost one hundred years ago, has shaped animation production ever since.

In general during this decade, animation studios were preoccupied with the creation of technology that would aid them in production. Barré is credited with the invention of pegs and a punch system to register drawings (Crafton, Before 194). This allowed the spatial relationship between successive images to be fixed, whether on an artist’s drawing board or underneath a camera. Bill Nolan figured out how animation could simulate a tracking shot or pan by moving a long piece of background art under a character that was walking in place (Maltin 11).

John Randolph Bray opened a studio after he showed Charles Pathé his initial film The Artist’s Dream. By 1916, Bray was delivering 1 film a month with a crew of 9 cartoonists, 30 assistant artists and 4 camera operators (Barrier, Hollywood 17). Bray created the character of Col. Heeza Liar, a blowhard adventurer, to star in the cartoons that debuted in 1914. The character ran for about five years and was then revived in 1922 (Canemaker, Bray 28).

Bray also saw animation in industrial terms; Donald Crafton has described Bray as the Henry Ford of animation (Before 137). He patented several animation processes and combined his patents with those created by Earl Hurd. The two controlled the process of tracing characters onto clear celluloid, so that the background art did not have to be redrawn on a frame-by-frame basis, as was the case in Gertie the Dinosaur. Instead, the background showed through the clear celluloid anywhere not covered by an opaque character. It was responsible for speeding up production and allowing for more elaborate background art.

The industrial model was adapted due to one of the hard economic lessons of the film business. Film was paid for by the foot, regardless of what images were on the film (Crafton, Before 28). Because frames of animated films were produced more slowly than live action, the studios were in a more precarious financial position. With a fixed income per foot of film, studios were focused on developing efficient ways to produce and deliver films more than they were focused on creating characters who behaved in a consistent fashion.

Dick Huemer recalled working under Barré in 1916 at a later studio that produced Mutt and Jeff cartoons. The studio had a staff of five animators who turned out a 450 foot film per week. The creative atmosphere was relaxed in the extreme.
“We were given a portion of the picture, over a very rough scenario. Very, very sketchy, no storyboards like we have today, nothing like that. The scenario would probably be on a single sheet of paper, without any models, sketches or anything. You made it up as you went along. You were given a part of the picture and you did what you wanted. If it was a picture about ice skating, you took a scene of somebody on ice skates and you used your own gags and made it all up” (Adamson, AFI 12).
The casual nature of creating the films was not restricted to one studio. Newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst opened a studio in 1916 to create animated cartoons from his comic strips. Walter Lantz was an animator there at the time.
“We didn’t have any theories that we discussed in those days. I’d just animate a scene, and say to Nolan, “Look, Bill, I’m taking ‘em up from the left and you pick ‘em up from there.” And he’d animate a scene and tell the next animator, “I’m taking ‘em out from the right and you pick up the action from there.” And that’s how we turned out cartoons” (Peary 193).
I. Klein was hired to work with animator George Stallings at the Hearst studio in 1918. The lack of concern for how films were put together even affected individual scenes. Klein recalled that animators left important details of their own scenes to be done by other artists.
“The drawings that Stallings flipped were in pencil. My job, he explained, was to ink them. Offhand, that sounded as if I were to trace over his pencil lines. It was not that simple. The faces and bodies were without features or any other details beyond the animated action. I had to ink in the features of the characters directly, without further pencil drawing. I was given a model chart of the Captain, the Inspector, Mama and Hans and Fritz” (Klein 30).
The use of assistants changed somewhat in the 1920’s. Rather than have assistants add detail to an animator’s drawings, their jobs were shifted to creating drawings from scratch. In the animation process, the drawings that define the shape of a movement are referred to as “keyframes” or “poses.” The animator would be responsible for these. They might be drawings 1, 5, 9, etc. Other drawings serve to connect the keyframes together and these drawings are referred to as “inbetweens.” They would be drawings 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, 8, etc. Starting in the 1920’s at the Fleischer studio, Art Davis was assigned to draw inbetweens for animator Dick Huemer. The job classification became known as inbetweener and Huemer estimated that Davis would do 75% of the drawings in a scene (Adamson, Fleischers 25). Huemer was the Fleischers best animator and Davis was assigned to help increase Huemer’s productivity.

These tight deadlines, division of labour and the casual approach to story and characters worked against any kind of coherent characters in the films of the time. While studio animation existed for 15 years before sound altered the production processes, only one character emerged from the period who can be said to have developed a consistent personality: Felix the Cat.

Felix was the work of Otto Messmer, an employee of the Pat Sullivan studio. Messmer started in the animation business in 1915, just as studios were getting off the ground. He was working for Sullivan by 1916, when he contributed to a dozen animated cartoons based on Charlie Chaplin (Canemaker, Felix 38). Messmer recalled that, “Chaplin sent at least thirty or forty photographs of himself in different [poses]…and we copied every little movement that he did” (Canemaker, Felix 38).

By 1916, Chaplin had already enlarged film comedy’s vocabulary and would continue to do so into the 1920’s. Perhaps Chaplin’s greatest contribution was acting that was far subtler than earlier performers who mugged and waved their arms. It’s significant that Messmer spent time attempting to match Chaplin’s gestures in animation as Felix would later achieve the reputation of the best character in silent cartoons.

Messmer created Felix in 1919, though the cat wasn’t named Felix until his third film (Canemaker, Felix 56). In the film, Felix woos a female, despite the attempted interference by humans. Canemaker describes Messmer’s style as having “a coolly detached yet determined protagonist, who uses his brain and the magic of metamorphosis to solve problems; the simple, direct pantomimic acting; dry wit expressed through visual puns” (Felix 18).

Initially, Messmer was able to avoid the assembly-line nature of the studio as he was the sole animator on the Felix series until 1924. In that year, when the release schedule was doubled to a cartoon every two weeks, guest animators were brought in to help. Bill Nolan and Raoul Barré each worked on Felix at separate times as guest animators (Crafton, Before 310-12).
“The crew worked on only one film at a time, on a two-week schedule, but naturally there was a lag between the various phases of production. The animators were ahead of the inkers and blackeners, and the cameraman might be behind half a film, or even finishing work on the previous one. This system differs from, say, those of the Terry or Fleischer studios, where subcrews worked on two or three films simultaneously. The reason is evident: The Assembly line was essentially an extension of Messmer. It was linear so that he could control the operation completely and efficiently” (Crafton, Before 314-317).
Crafton should have added stylistically as well. Messmer’s tight hold on Felix provided him with a consistent personality, perhaps the major key to his popularity with audiences. Felix was the first merchandising phenomenon to come out of the animation industry; there were Felix toys, dishware, comic strips, clocks and popular songs (Canemaker, Felix 4).

In many ways, Felix was the prototype for what animated characters would become in the sound and TV eras, especially in terms of presenting a coherent persona to audiences. Because Messmer controlled his character more tightly than the filmmakers who made Mutt and Jeff or Krazy Kat, he was able to counteract some of the fragmentation introduced by the assembly-line system. This was still a far cry from the unity of a theatrical or film performance, but Messmer demonstrated that with a strong guiding hand, a small crew of artists could be made to work in a consistent fashion, giving the appearance of a character having a unique, individual mind.

This approach continued to be used in the sound era, though at times the creative force was the producer, the director or a lead animator. However, while a variety of approaches evolved, they all involved someone leading a crew. The speed animation was produced prevented the possibility, in most cases, of a single person controlling a single character’s behaviour in a studio setting.

Three other issues affected the status of character behaviour in animation during this time period: source content, artistic lineage and the length of films.

The content of live action film was based on a variety of sources. Some were based on comic strips, such as Porter’s Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend (Edison, 1907), but others were based on historical subjects (The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots; Edison, 1895), novels (Uncle Tom’s Cabin; Lubin 1903), plays (Passion Play; Lubin, 1898) operas (The Barber of Sevilla; Mèliés, 1904), and popular genres (Adventures of Sherlock Holmes; Vitagraph, 1905 and The Great Train Robbery; Edison, 1903). By contrast, the content of early animated films was based on the vaudeville genre of the sketch act (Humorous Phases of Funny Faces and Fantasmagorie), comic strips such as The Newlyweds and Mutt and Jeff, and the circus, with McCay playing an animal tamer in Gertie the Dinosaur.

I mention this specifically because the range of content that live action drew from had a more developed sense of characterization than the source material for animated films. Because the source material for animated films was based more on novelty and gags than live action films, animation prior to Disney was not nearly as concerned with characters behaving in a consistent fashion.

There is also the issue of artistic lineage. Many of the actors for live action came from vaudeville and the theatre, so playing a role was their stock in trade and they entered films as experienced performers, though they had to adjust their technique for the camera. In the theatre, they had the benefit of working with more experienced performers and had the entire tradition of acting to draw on. Most importantly, they had direct contact with an audience, allowing them to gauge their success as performers.

Many of the early animators had worked as cartoonists for print media. They were not academically trained, so they were ignorant of art history. They were not used to creating narratives longer than a Sunday comics page. They found themselves in a medium where art now had to move, but there was no tradition to draw on and no predecessors to learn from. They had no experience of an audience’s presence, so relied more on personal judgment.
As a result, their goals were more modest than experienced actors’. The animators’ only goal was to get a laugh. This is why a Mutt and Jeff cartoon could be split among several animators with no concern for the lead characters behaving in a consistent fashion.

At the time the animation industry was developing the capability of hitting a regular release schedule, the live action industry was increasing the length of films. Where one and two reel films had been the standard in the first decade of the 20th century, the succeeding decade saw many producer, directors and stars move into films longer than two reels. Dramas by D.W. Griffith (The Birth of a Nation), Thomas Ince (Civilization), William S. Hart (Hell’s Hinges) and John Ford (Straight Shooting) are examples of this trend.

Comedy, as a genre, was slower to expand into longer lengths. While Mack Sennett directed the feature Tillie’s Punctured Romance in 1914, it really wasn’t until the 1920’s that comedians like Chaplin, Arbuckle, Lloyd, Keaton and Langdon moved from one and two reelers into feature films.

During this time period, animated films stayed at less than a reel in length. The shift to longer films put pressure on live action narratives and characterizations to be more complex in order to hold the audience’s attention. Because animated films remained short, they did not experience the same pressure.

At the same time film lengths were increasing, the live action film business was migrating away from New York and New Jersey and moving to California. The animation industry remained in New York, physically separate from the major part of the business. In addition, while major live action studios were growing in the 1920’s (the merger of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer; Warner Bros. buying Vitagraph and First National Pictures), animation studios remained small and independent. The artistic advances being made in live action acting and storytelling had little effect on animation, as animation studios were separated by distance and the lack of close business relationships (except for distribution) with the larger film world.

Given all these things, it isn’t surprising that characters in silent animation were underdeveloped and that animators were not concerned with the lack of unity in how a character behaved.


Anonymous said...

Fantasttic! Can't wait to read more!

Pseudonym said...

I never knew that McCay was also the pioneer of the staged "making of" DVD extra!

Tommy José Stathes said...

Very well written. It should be noted however that Messmer may have misremembered certain facts...for instance, trade magazines and copyright synopses date the Chaplin cartoons to 1918-1919, not 1916. Charlie cartoons from this earlier period were done by the Movca company and did not involved Messmer nor Sullivan.

Steve Segal said...

This is great stuff. I enjoy reading it. I would nominate Émile Reynaud as creating "the earliest known example of drawn animation" instead of J. Stuart Blackton. His Theatre Optique was presented in 1892, and by all accounts was animation that told a story. The only caveat was that it wasn't presented on traditional movie film.