Sunday, February 24, 2008

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.)

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