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.)

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