REMEMBERING RUSSELL MERRITT (1941-2023)

Russell Merritt (1941-2023) was a brilliant man of parts, a knowledgeable, articulate scholar whose lasting accomplishments in film history research, writing and teaching originated in his insatiable appetite for lifelong learning.  He inspired students and readers internationally with his intelligent, witty lectures, films, books and periodicals, all delivered with a signature brio.  We, who were lucky enough to enjoy a personal friendship with Russell and his wife Karen, were shocked and deeply saddened by his untimely death in March 2023.

Russell Merritt was born in 1941 and grew up in New Jersey and Connecticut.  In a bow toward self-education, he often skipped school to join his young friends in attending Broadway shows and movies (both contemporary and historic films) in New York City.  Other of his early interests was a passion for Sherlock Holmes mystery stories.   At age 16, precocious Russell became the youngest member of the ultimate Holmes society, the Baker Street Irregulars.

His formal higher education was equally impressive, including attendances at Boston University and Northwestern University, and Harvard, where he received a Ph.D in English in 1970 with a dissertation on D.W. Griffith’s films.  Years later, he became a senior adviser to Kevin Brownlow and David Gill on the American Masters three-part Emmy-Award nominated television series, D.W. Griffith: Father of Film.

In 1968, Russell began his pedagogical career at University of Wisconsin, where he started a film studies program and directed the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theatre Research, which attracted numerous film and television collections.  He soon rose to full professor status with an ever-widening resume of lectures on film and related topics.

Russell and Karen Merritt visit John Canemaker’s office in the Animation area of New York University Tisch School of the Arts, 2020

In 1970, he and his beloved Karen Maxwell began their 52-years of married life.  They were well-matched:  she is also a prolific writer, lecturer and teacher, on topics including Women’s Studies, Higher Education, as well as cinema. 1   She has also held academic administrative and consultancy positions in Wisconsin and California, and, until her retirement in 2006, was Director of Academic Planning at UC Merced.

When the couple moved to Northern California in 1986, Russell taught film courses at UC Berkeley, Stanford University and San Francisco State, while adding to his research publications; for example, his impressive essay, “Recharging Alexander Nevsky: Tracking the Eisenstein-Prokofiev War Horse” (Film Quarterly, Winter, 1994-1995. Vol. 48, No. 2, pp. 34-47).  Russell’s detailed explanation of how Eisenstein and Prokofiev studied Disney’s Snow White and the recording techniques of Fantasia when creating Alexander Nevsky is a high achievement of deeply researched, cogent writing about the making of Eisenstein’s 1938 historical drama film.

John Canemaker and Russell Merritt lunch at Pixar Animation Studios, Emeryville, California.

Russell also enjoyed contributing valuable programming and lectures to UC Berkeley’s Pacific Film Archive, and was active in the International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF).  He was especially proud of his close affiliation with the San Francisco Silent Film Festival (he became a member of the Festival board in 2014) and Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in Pordenone, Italy.

The latter festival, in 1992, published the first of two scholarly, entertaining, beautifully illustrated animation history books, co-authored by Russell Merritt and his friend, the esteemed Disney animation/American silent film scholar J.B. Kaufman.  Walt in Wonderland: The Silent Films of Walt Disney — a bilingual edition that was revised in 1993, which I reviewed for the New York Times Book Review.  2

The second book, Walt Disney’s Silly Symphonies – A Companion to the Classic Cartoon Series, was published in 2006, revised in 2016. In an article (“Lost on Pleasure Island”) in the fall 2005 issue of Film Quarterly, Russell Merritt previewed the Silly Symphonies book in a detailed essay about the film series’ powerful storytelling techniques.  The article again showcases Russell’s value as a critical analyzer who digs deep for “another look” at film classics; in this case, “the psychological underpinning of . . . Disney’s unsettling power [which] comes from his ability to explore the inner life of the child.”

Russell received two lifetime achievement awards in 2018: Le Giornate del Cinema Muto’s Jean Mitry Award for his work in restoring and celebrating silent film history;  and a special recognition from the Denver Silent Film Festival, when Russell became the first David Shepard Career Achievement recipient for his collaboration in several silent film restorations, such as the 1916 William Gillette film Sherlock Holmes and the Polish Film Archive and San Francisco Silent Film Festival restoration of Der Hund von Baskerville.

Venice, 2007: Karen Merritt, Joseph Kennedy, Russell Merritt, John Canemaker.

On a personal level, I and my husband Joseph Kennedy enjoyed the great pleasure of many happy times in various locales spent in the delightful company of Russell and Karen Merritt.

Karen Merritt, Joseph Kennedy and St. Mark’s Square pigeons.
John Canemaker, Russell and Karen Merritt, above one of the 150 different canals.

One time, after attending the Cinema Muto festival in Podernone, we four traveled to the Merritts’ favorite city, Venice, where they gave Joe and me a personal tour of the city’s grandest sights and delicious restaurants.  For, among their many talents, Russ and Karen were connoisseurs of fine food who shared gourmet feasts with us during their annual Manhattan visit (at, for example, Le Bernardin), or when we were in San Francisco (the legendary La Folie).  Through the years, he and Karen often attended my lectures and exhibitions at the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco and the Pacific Film Archive.

John Canemaker, Diane Disney Miller, Russell and Karen Merritt during a private dinner party at the Walt Disney Family Museum, 2012.
Karen Merritt, J.B. Kaufman, Russell Merritt, John Canemaker at the Heinrich Kley exhibition
at the Walt Disney Family Museum, 2012

In his spare time, Russell was an eager volunteer in the San Francisco City Guides, often leading tourist walking tours through the historic Castro district and the famed Castro Theatre.  When Russ and Karen came east, Joe often reciprocated by offering a knowledgeable tour of Manhattan’s historic parts; such as the Five Points, the infamous 19th century slum, now part of Chinatown, showcased in Martin Scorsese’s 2002 film, Gangs of New York.

Karen and Russell Merritt with Joseph Kennedy at the Castro Theater for the San Francisco Silent Movie Festival, 2013.
Karen and Russell Merritt during a guided tour by Joseph Kennedy in 2020 of Lower Manhattan of the notorious 19th century Five Points area.

Through the years, Russell and I enjoyed lively email and telephone conversations.  In our last communication online, we discussed his thoughts about two museum exhibitions Joe and I encouraged them to see during their brief New York visit in early January of this year.

Russell was enthusiastic about the puppet production art and props displayed at MoMA’s Guillermo del Toro: Crafting Pinocchio.   It inspired him, upon return to California, to study the stop motion film in detail on Netflix.  “I had a fine time the other day watching [del Toro’s] Pinocchio without sound,” he wrote.  “The great surprise:  how important lighting was to creating atmosphere.”

The other highlight during their last visit, was the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s two exhibitions of Mayan and Tudor Art [Lives of the Gods: Divinity in Maya Art; and The Tudors:  Art and Majesty in Renaissance England].  Russell reported:

I kept flinching at the complexity of the Mayan treatment of animals and gods — how can I live long enough to explore all this adequately?

     The Tudors, on the other hand, brought me back home.  The tapestries in particular were a call to my grad student days as an English major. More wallowing: this time in all those historical and mythological allusions and all that opulence.  We usually skip over Henry VII to study his kids.  But dad knew       a good Flemish tapestry when he saw one, and was a trend  setter in finding those Dutch painters to paint his phiz [physiognomy].  3

In these two brief observations by Russell Merritt, one can see the joy he always took in learning, analyzing, and making his discoveries interesting to his audience, even if it was one person.  He was a master communicator.  Particularly enjoyable is the direct way he made his views and connections so personal and such fun to hear – especially his freewheeling humorous word usage.  No wonder his students loved him.  He shared so much knowledge and positive energy with them.

“Hearing your voice over the phone made me so happy,” said one of Russell’s former students, now teaching middle school in Brooklyn, in a February 22, 2023 note he proudly shared with me.  “Inspired by your positive experience with MoMA’s Pinocchio exhibit, I went there yesterday and enjoyed every minute of it . . . This exhibit has motivated me to sign up for a stop motion animation course this fall,” the better to help prepare to bring animation into her classes.  Russell told me the note “shows the far-reaching effects of our get together in New York . . . I begin to understand how midwives feel.”4

January, 2022. Russell Merritt, John Canemaker, Karen Merritt and Joseph Kennedy inspecting a colorized blowup of a 1908 photo of Hammerstein’s Theatre at Manhattan’s 42nd Street, with Winsor McCay’s name on the vaudeville bill. (Seen to the left of Russell’s shoulder.  Detail below.)
Hammerstein’s Victoria, 42nd Street and Broadway, 1908, with placard featuring Winsor McCay.

I phoned him on February 28 and we had a wonderful laughter-filled one-hour talk.  He emailed me on March 1: “Here’s hoping this was the first of catch-up calls. It was a lovely treat.” He signed off with “How are you enjoying retirement? I’m still adapting. Love to you both, Russell.” 5

His passing two days later at age 81 was a great shock.

It is a heartbreaking loss to his devoted wife Karen, and his sister, Carole Merritt Nichols; also, to the world of cinema scholarship and education, and his many students and legions of friends around the world.   Joe and I are not alone in missing him greatly.

Notes

  1. “The Little Girl/Little Mother Transformation: The American Evolution of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” by Karen Merritt. Storytelling in Animation, ed. John Canemaker (Hollywood: American Film Institute, 1988). (Published in Italian as “Da bambina a piccola madre: la trasformazione americana di Biancaneve e i sette nani,” Griffithiana, n. 31, December, 1987.)
  1. John Canemaker, “Walt in Wonderland,” New York Times Book Review, 10 July 1994.
  1. Email to JC & JK from RM, 12 Jan 2023.
  1. Email to JC & JK from RM, 28 Feb 2023.
  1. Email to JC from RM, 1 Mar 2023.

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LIVES OF THE GODS:
DIVINITY IN MAYA ART
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Nov. 21, 2022 through April 2, 2023

 

“The Mayan artist was most interested in abstractions. The use of line, volume, and color for non-descriptive, highly intellectualized purpose, was as natural with him as an objective fidelity is to the camera. As a result, this art stands as one of the wealthiest mines of theological motives and plastic abstractions the world has ever known.”

Art From the Mayans to Disney by Jean Charlot.   Sheed and Ward, NY & London, 1939. *See note below

 

The ruins of Tikal today. Click image to enlarge.

A surviving limestone stela depiction of King Yuknoom Took’ K’awiil,
dated to AD 731. Click image to enlarge.

One of the last great military rulers of the city of Calakmul, his name reflects his connection to the powerful Lightning God K’awiil (see below). Dressed in royal cape and snake headdress, he brutally stands on a captive from the rival city of Tikal. This is one of the few existing Maya monuments that includes the names of the sculptors in the incised text: Sak[…] Yuk[…} Took’ and Sak[…] Tib’ah Tzak B’ahlam.

Roaming this large, immersive exhibition at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, my Animated Eye marvels at the variety of graphic styles, materials, and visual storytelling techniques displayed in 120 rarely seen masterworks of the Mayan Classic period (A.D. 250-900).    Abstraction is but one graphic means employed by highly accomplished (mostly anonymous) artists who visually communicated the power of Mayan deities, and their close links with royal leaders of the Maya court, who interacted with the supernatural world.  Towering limestone carvings and small sculptures, line drawings on cylinder vessels and pottery, decorative ornaments, figurines, wall murals, and masks offer both realistic draftsmanship and sophisticated caricatures that often mingle with intricate, grotesque phantasmagoric designs.

Beginning 4,000 years ago in Mesoamerican rain forests, the ancient Maya built a sophisticated, complex society populated by artists and scribes, astronomers, mathematicians. They were also brutal, vengeful warriors. Bloodletting, of oneself or a prisoner of war, was based on widespread Mesoamerican religious beliefs.

The Maya ruler’s role on earth was as the embodiment of, and chief communicator with, dozens of gods, who could appear old or young in human and animal form.  The rulers of the city-state often included women as warrior-queens and powerful priestesses.  The numerous deities of the supernatural world profoundly influenced every aspect of the natural everyday world of the ancient Mayans. The visualizations of 9th Century Mayan art — fearsome, fanciful and  sensual – still evoke emotions of awe, humor and horror in 21st Century viewers.

Recent discoveries have made new inroads into deciphering Mayan glyphs, phonograms, and visualizations; but much more information needs to be discovered.  However, universal communication principles, actions and emotions can be ascertained through these silent artworks in their presentation of basic body language, design, composition and symbolism. As an animator and archaeology fan, I’m intrigued by the mystery, beauty, imagination and humor found in Mayan artworks. Here are random thoughts about a selection of artworks in the Met exhibition that particularly caught my eye.

 

MAIZE GOD. Temple 22, Copan, Honduras, 715. Click image to enlarge.

Corn was the Maya’s most important food, so no god was more important than the Maize God. Over the centuries, artists changed his appearance as he developed from birth (planting) to maturity (humans tending the crop) to death (harvesting). However, his portraits consistently include a long, curved head (like a corncob) with hair adorned by seeds and foliage. This nearly life-size limestone bust is one of twenty Copan temple adornments of the Maize God as a beautiful young man, foliated with corn plant designs growing out of his head. He appears to be singing, swaying and gesturing to unheard music. He is the embodiment of the Mayan sacred narrative of renewal from the dark Underworld.

 

PLATE WITH THE MAIZE GOD. Uaxactun, Guatemala. Late Classic Period
(600-900). Click image to enlarge.

This large plate depicts a startlingly modernist caricature of the Maize God dancing. The exaggerated shape and color silhouette remind me of 20th century cartoons by Ronald Searle, Gerald Scarfe and T. Hee. Or George Lichty, in the figure’s loose, disconnected lines and minimal brush strokes. There is wonderful spontaneity in the elegant figure’s expression of movement. Undulating lines in the god’s hairpiece suggest wind passing through corn stalk tassels and rounded kernels. Five panels flaring out from a protective belt, used by Mayan ballgame players, seem to be settling, indicating the fertility dance (or a movement within it) may have stopped abruptly. The god’s left arm strikes a strong pose with fingers outstretched, perhaps graphically expressing a fast upward gesture. Film animators often use similar “drag” or “smear” drawings when a character moves quickly from one main pose to another.

 

CHAHK, RAIN GOD. Tripod plate with mythological scene.
Guatemala or Mexico, 7th-8th century. Click image to enlarge.

The very name Chahk sounds like a crack of thunder in a tropical rainforest. The fearsome Rain God wields an axe to strike clouds to produce life-giving rain and thunder. Because the Mayans basic survival needs relied equally on rain and corn, they shared a reliance on and fervent devotion to both Rain God and Maize God. In this large (16 1/2 in. diameter), tripod feasting plate, Chahk is center-stage, dancing waist-deep in black primordial waters. The creatures slithering from him signify the birth of other deities, including the Maize God. This stunning drawing of detailed kinetic biomorphic designs is elegant, beautiful and psychedelic.

 

VESSEL WITH MYTHOLOGICAL SCENE.
Attributed to the Metropolitan Painter (active 7th-8th century CE).
Click image to enlarge.

A masterful artist realistically captures Chahk the Rain God in a vigorous dance, thunder axe in one hand, a stone raised in the other. Hair tumbling with loose strands, his scant garment trails behind a hefty thigh. His skin folds mid-torso lend weight and physical veracity to the frozen action. Though human in form, visual clues show he is actually a superhuman associated with things aquatic: shiny fish scales shimmer behind his legs, a water plant grows from his forehead. Chahk’s expression is intense and focused, an action figure powerfully stomping out survival choreography. This highly detailed vessel image is delicately painted in the “codex” style. So named for its resemblance to Maya painted books, most of which were destroyed by the Spanish Conquest of the Maya region in the late 1500s. In an effort to eradicate the Mayan religion and history, Catholic zealots burned most of the documents; only four paper codices survive. The illustrations on ceramic cups and pottery give us an idea of their lively storytelling powers.

 

K’AWIIL, LIGHTNING GOD.
Rollout view of vessel with snake-lady scene.
Guatemala or Mexico, 650-800. Click image to enlarge.

Where there is a thunder and rain god, there is also K’awiil, the lightning lord of the skies. He is easily identified by a flame or smoke element emerging from his forehead, and especially the shape of a large snake grown out of one of his legs. The electric K’awiil strikes quickly, a serpent who affects human lives, like Mayan kings – those aggressive royal mortals who often used a sculpted image of K’awiil as a scepter, a symbol of their intimate connection with the gods. K’awiil’s electric powers are also linked to survival through fertility and abundance. This storytelling ceramic vessel depicts the seduction of a beautiful goddess ensnared by K’awiil’s serpent leg. From the snake’s huge mouth (far right) an old god emerges, reaching for the young woman. The hieroglyphic text refers to the birth of a god, the likely result of this forced encounter.

 

WHISTLE FIGURINE. EMBRACING COUPLE.
Mexico, 700-900. Terracotta, pigment. Click image to enlarge.

Old men embracing or attempting to seduce young women were a common subject of classic period Maya artists. Sometimes the woman depicted is the Moon Goddess, and the man her aged spouse, the Sun God. Sometimes it is a sexual encounter between mortals. Here, a small, wizened man gazes at a taller, voluptuous young woman as he lifts her skirt above the knee. She faces away from him, her raised arm and hand in a midway gesture that invites the viewer to speculate about their relationship. Will the gesture end in an affectionate caress or a sharp slap across the geezer’s wrinkled face? In other versions of this popular “embracing couple” sculpture, the woman’s hand gently touches the elder’s cheek as she returns his gaze. The gifted sculptor has brilliantly designed and staged the characters, allowing us to imagine the narrative. There is also an audio element: most of the vessel is hollow and can be used as a whistle or a musical instrument for ritual and pleasure.

 

CODEX-STYLE VESSEL with two Scenes of Itzam Instructing Young Pupils,
c. A.D. 700-750.
Ceramic cup. Click image to enlarge.

The elder deity Itzam, wearing a pre-Columbian snood, teaches young men lessons about the creation cycle of the gods. There is much to admire in this beautiful, subtly caricatured drawing of the learning process. Teachers of any era can relate to the mood that the gifted (unknown) artist presents in two scenes of classroom knowledge transference. The silhouettes of the characters leaning in are strong as visual storytelling poses. Also, there is the stern facial expression of the hunched-over professor, looking intensely at his students, challenging their comprehension of the lessons. In one scene, Itzam speaks, while elegantly, casually gesturing with a writing instrument, toward a folded codex on the floor, as two circular speech lines (the birth of comic strip balloons) conjure arithmetical symbols. In a second scene, Itzam taps a thin finger on the floor to emphasize points as a glyph lecture emanates from his mouth, again via a dotted speech line. The attentive, respectful pupils soak up the master’s teachings. Stylish thick and thin painted outlines offer realistic anatomies of each individualized man; their torso skin folding over, their arms contrasting straight (bone) with rounded (muscle) shapes. This is an understated early example of the animation principle “stretch-and-squash,” which the great Disney film animator Milt Kahl admired in Degas nudes, where “you’ll have something that’s fairly straight and then, as the weight comes into it, you’ll get the bulging of the muscles . . . you’re making statements when you do that.”

 

Above and below, TWO WHISTLES with old men emerging from flowers.
7th-9th century, Mexico. Click images to enlarge.
Dead Mayan ancestors were often depicted as flowers growing in the afterlife. The artists’ fanciful designs anticipate and rival the imaginative anthropomorphism of Lewis Carrol’s Garden of Live Flowers and J.J. Grandville’s Flowers Personified. These fanciful sculptures of old men emerging from lilies also served, like the earlier “Embracing Couple” figurine, as whistles used in various rituals. This 4 min. video of ancient ceramic Inca wind instruments offers a demo of their varied sounds: https://twistedsifter.com/videos/inca-whistling-water-vessels-mimic-animal-calls/

 

Above, LIDDED VESSEL with mythological turtle, 4th century, Guatemala
Below, LIDDED VESSEL with peccary, 4th century, Guatemala.
Click images to enlarge.
Cartoonish, macabre humor and design genius is showcased on the lids of two Maya feasting vessels. Atop a stylish incised black ceramic pot, a sculpted turtle’s head is poised to chomp on a human head in its mouth. And emerging from a flat-painted body splayed on a bright orange pot, a dimensional wild pig head smiles with heavy eyes and rueful smile. The artwork is as tasty as the food must have been.

 

SCULPTED THRONE BACK. A.D. 600-900,
Guatemala or Mexico. Click image to enlarge.

A scene of quiet but intense concentration, or consultation, between three strongly silhouetted figures, masterfully sculpted in a limestone throne back. A bearded king (on the right) in the guise of the sky god Itzamnaaj, accompanied (on the left) by either his wife (or a courtier or a goddess) lean in to hear a small avian deity seated between them. The diminutive creature, a Pax God (named for the Mayan month of Pax) with its human body, winged arms and jaguar deity’s head, is a messenger from the sky god. This extraordinary artwork depicts the links between the Maya court and the supernatural world, the close relationship of kings to divine power. What message from the god might the royals be hearing? Perhaps a command regarding war and death, considering that the Pax deity was associated with war and blood sacrifice. Or maybe a subject more mundane? Note the woman’s gesture: the back of her left hand touches the Pax God. Is she gently comforting the visitor after its long journey? Or merely reiterating (for us the viewer) the equality and familiarity shared by Maya royalty and their gods.

For those of you who cannot see the exhibition Lives of the Gods: Divinity in Maya Art in person at the Met in New York (it closes April 2), here’s a link to an excellent 28-min video tour with two curators of the exhibition.

 

It is an informative virtual exploration of an exhibition of rarely seen masterpieces and recent discoveries tracing the life cycle of the gods, from the moment of their creation in a sacred mountain to their dazzling transformations as blossoming flowers or fearsome creatures of the night.

Enjoy!

*Note: The Jean Charlot Foundation has published Art from the Mayas to Disney online:

https://vault.jeancharlot.org/book/jean-charlot_text-ae.pdf

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In Search of Nat Falk – Author of
How to Make Animated Cartoons (1941)

A stereoscopic image of Nat Falk in Union Square, New York City, circa 1930.

In 1959, I was sixteen and already deeply interested in animation.   In Elmira, New York, my hometown, I scrambled for information on the history of the art form and how to make my own cartoon films.  Initially, my curiosity was sparked by two television series:  Disneyland (1954) and The Woody Woodpecker Show (1957), where, respectively, “Uncle” Walt Disney and “Uncle” Walter Lantz would occasionally demonstrate their animation “secrets.”  In fact, the 1955 Disneyland program “The Story of the Animated Drawing,” introduced me to the earliest film animators, including the genius comic strip cartoonist and animator Winsor McCay, whose biography I would write three decades later.

At the time, books on animation history and/or the medium’s techniques were few.

But, like water on a desert, they were life savers:  informative, profusely illustrated and inspiring.

Bob Thomas’ The Art of Animation (1958), for example, a lavishly illustrated tome promoting the making of Disney’s 1959 feature Sleeping Beauty, also included a small section on pre-Disney animation.  There was also Preston Blair’s Advanced Animation, an iteration of his enduring 1947 how-to manual on Hollywood cartoon principles.  And Britain’s John Halas & Roger Manvell’s The Technique of Film Animation (1959) offered tantalizing glimpses of international/avant-garde animation.

I devoured each book, and searched for more information in local libraries and, primarily, at The Art Shop, a small Elmira store that sold artists materials, painting restorations and framing.  Arthur Rosskam Abrams (1909-1981), the kind-hearted owner, was an exhibited abstract painter and lecturer who encouraged my flipbook experiments, sequential drawings and my many annoying questions.  He and his wife Sally also allowed me to study and draw an original ­­­Disney cel and background setup they owned from the Courvoisier Gallery in San Francisco of Mickey Mouse in Fantasia (1940).

A picture framer at The Art Shop, Delos Smith, was also supportive and generous.  He gave me two older books on animation that he owned: The Art of Walt Disney (1942) by Harvard professor Robert D. Feild, the first serious analysis of Disney’s contributions to the development of character animation.  The other book was a paperback edition of How to Make Animated Cartoons, published in 1941 by Foundation Books, New York, written by an illustrator named Nat Falk.

The Art of Walt Disney (1942) by Robert D. Feild

 Below, four pages from Nat Falk’s How to Make Animated Cartoons:       

I found both books illuminating.  The Falk book was particularly revelatory in its detailed information about “early attempts to obtain motion in drawings.”  Its 80-pages include a concise history of motion in a larger pictorial art tradition — e.g., the prehistoric “wild boar of Altamira,” Temple of Isis, and Leonardo, among others, through 19th century pre-cinema mechanical toys (Thaumatrope, Phenakistoscope, Zoetrope, “Flipper Books,” etc.), and a section on early “contributions of the early 20th century” silent film animators (McCay, Bray, Hurd, Messmer and others).

There is also a showcase of seven contemporary (circa 1941) American cartoon studios, including Fleischer Studios, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Cartoon Division (Hugh Harman and Rudy Ising); Walter Lantz Productions, Leon Schlesinger Productions, Screen Gems, Inc., and mostly on Terry-Toons Inc.  Paul Terry, a friend of the author, wrote the book’s foreword and provided most of the illustrations of animation production processes.

The Disney studio refused Falk permission to use Disney artwork and photos, possibly due to the pending publication of Field’s Art of Walt Disney book.  I speculate that fourteen years later, researchers for the Disneyland TV show on “The Animated Drawing” referred to the Falk book as an informational source on early animation.

Falk’s How To book influenced a generation of World War II babies and Boomers who became animation artists and film historians.  In the first paragraph of his 2009 instructional book, The Animator’s Survival Kit, Richard Williams writes about discovering Falk’s book in 1943, when he was ten years old.  “The book was clear and straight-forward,” Williams relates, “the basic information of how animated films are made registered on my tiny ten-year-old brain and, when I took the medium up seriously at twenty-two, the basic information was still lurking there.”  He also “used it as a handy reference guide for 1940s Hollywood cartoon styles when I designed the characters and directed the animation for Who Framed Roger Rabbit.”

When I wrote my first book, The Animated Raggedy Ann & AndyAn Intimate Look at the Art of Animation Its History, Techniques and Artist (1977,) I often thought about Nat Falk’s sincere, direct writing style, and how he managed to organize and share so much information succinctly about various areas of animation.   I have long wanted to know more about him and his background.

 In August 2022, nearly sixty-three years after first receiving Falk’s book, I had the good fortune to meet and talk with his son and his granddaughter.  Karen Falk is a historian who serves as the head archivist for The Jim Henson Company.  She authored Imagination Illustrated: The Jim Henson Journal and has contributed to numerous non-fiction books, and collaborated on many Henson exhibits, including the spectacular, permanent The Jim Henson Exhibition at New York’s Museum of the Moving Image.  Stanley L. Falk is former chief historian of the Air Force and a military historian specializing in World War II in the Pacific, the author of five books on the war in the Pacific arena, several textbooks on national security affairs, and numerous essays, articles, and reviews. 1

With their generous participation and help, I offer you the following appreciation of Nat Falk, multi-talented illustrator, researcher and author;  a polymath interested in traditional and modern arts, including film animation; a man who took joy in word play and playful imagery (he loved reciting for his children the 1895 poem “The Purple Cow” and teaching them lyrics to the 1918 pop song “Can You Tame Wild Wimmen?” 2  A warm, gregarious soul interested in people and learning about their lives.  As his granddaughter recalls, “Grandpa collected people.”

Nat Falk, circa 1920.

Nathan Isaac Falk (1898-1989) was born in Baltimore, Maryland to Lithuanian Jewish parents, Alexander Aaron Falk and Sarah Naomi Block.  Nat had nine siblings – four brothers and five sisters, all living comfortably in a large house.  His father, Alexander Falk, made men’s trousers, cutting the fabric on-site, having them manufactured and then selling wholesale up and down the easter seaboard.  It was called Stylecraft Trousers.  Nat’s sisters worked in the office. Nat, when he was a teen, made advertisements.  “It was a good business,” Stan Falk states.3

As a child, Nat drew constantly and created “chalk talks” to entertain his family and neighbors, inspired by performances he saw in Baltimore’s vaudeville theatres.   Falk would draw an image, quickly erase it, then add new chalk strokes, an “act” accompanied by slight-of-hand magic tricks and a glib patter of jokes.

Before America entered World War I, young Falk entertained troops at a Maryland military camp.  His quick-sketch/magic performance impressed Emerson Harrington, the Maryland governor, who offered him a scholarship to the Maryland Institute of Art in 1916.

The next year, when he was 19, he became art editor of The Club magazine of the Alliance Athletic and Literary Club of the Jewish Educational Alliance in Baltimore.4  During this period he was also commuting from Baltimore to Washington delivering ads he drew for Hecht’s department store.

At age 21, Falk attended the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) in Philadelphia, America’s first museum and art school founded in 1805.  His classes, during the school seasons of 1919-1920 and 1920-1921, included classical life drawing and commercial training.  The latter class “prepared students for careers as book and magazine illustrators,” a path Falk soon followed.

Nat Falk, seated, leaning center, at Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts in Henry McCarter’s class. Click image to enlarge.

His teacher, Henry Bainbridge McCarter (1846-1942], promoted modernist art movements to his students.5  Before McCarter became the first teacher of illustration at PAFA, remaining there for forty years until his death, he was a PAFA student of Thomas Eakins.  In the late 1880s, he studied in France at Beaux-Art de Paris and was an apprentice in lithography to Toulouse Lautrec.  Upon returning to America, McCarter drew illustrations in New York for magazines (e.g., Harpers, Scribners. McClure’s, Colliers) before focusing on prize-winning ethereal landscapes in oil and watercolor.

McCarter surely encouraged his students, including Falk, to learn the craft of art-making, and appreciate modernist art as an enrichment of their lives.  In the spring of 1920, 25,000 visitors viewed PAFA’s “Representative Modern Masters,” the first of three landmark exhibitions in the history of American modernism that included works by Cezanne, Gauguin, Picasso and Matisse).   Philadelphia Orchestra director Leopold Stokowski wrote the catalog’s introduction, encouraging acceptance of modern artists by comparing them to Debussy and Stravinsky.  In 1921, PAFA presented “Later Tendencies in Art” featuring nearly 100 modernists (Stella, Hartley, Marin and others).6

Falk’s progressive art education at PAFA was important but brief, as he needed to help with his family’s finances.  He worked as an art director for Gimbels in Philadelphia, but also freelanced drawing illustrations, advertisements and book covers.  At the end of two years in Philly, Nat decided he’d “had enough and went back to Baltimore.”

“He got very sick,” Karen Falk said. “I remember Grandma telling me he was working all hours.”  Grandma was Katherine Sagal (1901-1993), who was born in Kharkov, Russia.  In the 1920s, she worked in the personnel department at the Baltimore Gas & Electric Company.  Nat moved to New York in about 1923, and Katherine joined him when they got married in 1925.  The couple had two children:  Stanley L. Falk (b.1927), who became a military historian/author and David S. Falk (1932-2020), who became a physicist/author.

David, Nat, Katherine, Stanley Falk, circa 1941.

Shortly before their second child was born in 1932, they moved from the Bronx to a small two-story row house in Sunnyside Gardens on 46th Street in Long Island City.  “It was one of these special places they started up, with a big garden area out in back,” recalled their son Stan.  “There was plenty of room then, and we played in the streets because there wasn’t much traffic, if at all.  That was good.  And we could get the subway and get to town in 32 minutes. Two blocks from the subway.  We lived on the second floor, and there was a finished attic, and that was his studio.  Dad worked there.”

Nat Falk, a slight-of-hand magician, reads The Sphinx: An Independent Magazine for Magicians, at home in Sunnyside Gardens, N.Y.

Dad was a busy freelance artist, seeking and juggling illustration and advertisement jobs, writing assignments, making contacts and becoming friends with many of them, keeping up with what was happening in the popular and fine arts, and managing to keep his family afloat.  “I always admired how he kept us reasonably well-fed,” his son noted.  “We always thought he was a slow man with the buck, but he had reason to be.  How he did it with freelancing.  When you freelance you never turn down a job!  He’d be working all the time at home.”

“Heads” promo pieces by Nat Falk.

Occasionally, Nat took his family to Broadway shows.  “He wanted to show off what a fine actor Paul Muni was,” Stan recalled. “He would take me to see a magician, such as Blackstone.  Or Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson doing his famous tap dance.  My father was a link to theatre, my mother was my link to opera.”8  

In the 1930s, Falk illustrated a steady stream of book covers (click link to view selection) and interior illustration jobs, including two popular long-running juvenile hardback series:  Tom Swift, and Don Sturdy.  (The wild mechanical inventions of the Swift books, such as Tom Swift and the Electric Magnet (1932), had a wide audience, attracting even the admiration of Dada artist Marcel Duchamp.)7

In a 1932 exhibition at the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, Falk’s art was shown alongside book jackets by Rockwell Kent, Wanda Gag, and Diego Rivera, among others.  “The museum had hundreds of jackets submitted to it,” reported the San Francisco News, “and picked the most unusual.”Click here to view news story

Two Falk book covers for the juvenile audience market.

Falk’s book covers display great versatility and imagination in the styles he conjures in layout compositions, typography, unusual color choices and draftsmanship.  The subject matter ran the gamut from crime biographies (Red Hell, 1934) to western novels (Tenderfoot Trail, 1936); racy pulp novels (Twilight Men, 1931), Lady Chatterley’s Husbands (1931) to how-to manuals (Taking Trout with the Dry Fly, 1930), Charles’ Book of Punches and Cocktails, 1934).

“Russian Folk Tales,” illustrated by Nat Falk.

In 1933, Falk charmingly illustrated Magic Mother Goose; in 1934 he used a woodblock style for Russian Folk Tales, written by his friend Yock Schwab.  In 1938, he drew a syndicated informational strip, “What Do You Know About Health?”10

At one point he took on advertising jobs for MGM Studios and the Roxy Theatre, where he sometimes worked in a small downstairs office.  “I’d go down to see him,” said Stan, “and get to see free movies.”

How he came to write a book on animation history and production processes is not known.  He wasn’t an animator nor a storyboard artist, though his draftsmanship and writing skills indicate he could have succeeded in both of those paths.  Family members suggest that his openness toward meeting and becoming interested in people, particularly artists and their work, explains his friendship with early animation producer Paul Terry: “My grandpa said he used to go up to Terry’s studio in New Rochelle and hang out,” Karen Falk said.

“Jr’s Fun to Draw” contains a section on animation by Nat Falk.

Two years after How To Make Animated Cartoons was published, Falk compiled and wrote an animation section for a “companion” booklet by Alan Dale Bogorad:

Jr’s Fun to Draw – The Boys and Girls Book of Drawing Fun and Magic With a Pencil (1943).

Again, Falk obtained permission to use famed cartoon characters for illustrations from Terry, Leon Schlesinger and Paramount Studios.   In 2009, Jerry Beck, the estimable animation/comics historian, posted the Falk section of this rare paperback on CartoonBrew.com 11

Falk continued freelancing as an illustrator, and then, as publishing work dried up, he moved into art direction at ad agencies.  Came a day in 1953, however, when he found himself out of work at age 55.   Katherine, his wife, quickly took up the financial slack by getting a job in an employment agency.  “Pretty soon,” Stan said, “she figured out the way to make money was not to work for somebody else, but to set up your own.  So, she started her own business, Falk Personnel.  Became a management consultant in the temp employment area and did very well.  A lot of big companies used her services.”

Karen Falk remembers it became a family business: “Grandpa would do all the layouts for the job advertisements. He would work them up and she’d submit them to the newspapers for the jobs.  So, he supported her business when it started.”  Katherine, who loved working, finally sold the business and retired twenty-five years later (“kicking and screaming,” her son Stan recalled) when she was 77 and Nat was 80.

A thank you card with self-portrait for his 80th birthday party, June 1978

By that time, Nat and Katherine were living on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, doting on their grandchildren, Karen, her sister Lisa, and their cousins Birgit and Sam.  In retirement, Nat Falk continued his keen interest in all areas of art and passed it on to his granddaughters and their children, clipping Lord and Taylor ads and Al Hirschfeld caricatures to interest them in graphic design.

An avid museum-goer, Falk became fascinated by a 1982 exhibition of Nam June Paik’s video art at the Whitney Museum.  At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, admiring a painting by Robert Henri, author of The Art Spirit, Nat casually referred to the artist as “old Bob Henri,” one of his lecturers at PAFA.

Nat Falk, 1941.

Nat Falk was the epitome of a freelancer who survived by never turning down a job, a situation that many artists and animators today can relate to.  Though his primary goal was to support his family, Nat Falk inadvertently became an educator as well.  He “taught” a variety of topics through many of his commercial art jobs, and with How to Make Animated Cartoons, he found at least one avid student in me.

An autograph to his son on his copy of “How to Make Animated Cartoons.”

NOTES

  1. Karen Falk and Stanley (Stan) Falk. Zoom interview with John Canemaker, 01 Sept. 2022.  Quotes are from this interview unless otherwise noted.
  2. 1918 pop song “Can You Tame Wild Women?” by Andrew B. Sterling, music: Harry Von Tilzer https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IuHloG8xx_w
  3. Karen Falk and Stan Falk email to author, 11 September 2022.
  4. The American Jewish Chronicle, Aug. 24, 1917, p. 437.
  5. PAFA archivist Hoang Tran to Karen Falk, eMail to author, 29 August 22; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Bainbridge_McCarter
  1. https://pafaarchives.org/page/timeline?utm_source=PAFA&utm_medium=referral
  2. Marcel Duchamp interest in TOM SWIFT books. https://www.toutfait.com/a-very-normal-guy-an-interview-with-robert-barnes-on-marcel-duchamp-and-atant-donnas/
  3. Paul Muni appeared often on Broadway, e.g., in 1940 he starred in Key Largo; in 1939, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson appeared in The Hot Mikado on Broadway briefly and then for two years at the New York World’s Fair.
  4. “The Jacket Makes the Book.” The San Francisco News (April 16, 1932)
  5. 4, 1938 Andover News (NY), p. 7: What Do You Know About Health? by Fisher Brown and Nat Falk.
  6. Jr’s How to Draw – The Boys and Girls Book of Drawing Fun and Magic With a Pencil by Alan Dale Bogorad. <https://www.cartoonbrew.com/books/jrs-fun-to-draw-11257.html>

Copyright © John Canemaker, 2022. All rights reserved.

 

 

Hits: 677

Charley Bowers: A Genuine
Animated Character

Charles R. (Charley) Bowers (1889-1946) was a brilliantly talented editorial cartoonist and early film animator who, around 1912, began animating shorts featuring comic strip characters created by other artists, such as Happy Hooligan, the Katzenjammer Kids, Bring Up Father, among others.  In 1916, he produced the successful Mutt and Jeff animated cartoon series in association with newspaper cartoonist Bud Fisher and pioneer animator/studio owner Raoul Barre.

Energetic, flamboyant, and a bold self-promotor, Bowers was dodgy in his business dealings.  Barre was “squeezed out “of the studio he founded, according to historian Donald Crafton.  Dick Huemer (1898-1979), who worked at the Barre-Bowers studio as a teenager and years later joined the Disney studio, recalled Bowers “cheated” Barre “and bled the company.[i]

Huemer also noted, “I don’t think anyone ever abhorred the truth as much as [Bowers] did.”[ii]    However, he praised him as “colorful” and “one of the cleverest cartoonists that ever stooped to enter our then rather looked-down-upon animation profession,” an artist whose contribution to the animation scene of the period was “outstanding.”

By the mid-1920s, restless, ambitious, multi-talented Bowers was the director and star of short live-action films.  His comedic persona was Keaton-esque, often miming a zany amateur inventor of outlandish contraptions and mechanical objects.  He incorporated live-action with stop-motion/puppet animation techniques.  His character’s movements are exquisitely subtle, his special effects astonishing and weird.  It’s a Bird (1930), Bowers’ only sound film, stars a metal-munching sorta-pterosaur, and was surreal enough to have impressed André Breton.

“In these surrealistic Bowers Comedies,” writes Anthony Scibelli, “eggs hatch Ford automobiles, a Christmas tree grows out of a farmer, a mouse shoots a cat with a revolver, Charley grows a bush which in turn sprouts cats. . . ‘Bowers can conceive the most glorious idiocy,” noted a contemporary review.  ‘He is a master of camera wizardry. Every short feature bearing his name proves the camera is a monumental liar.’”

A marginal figure at the end of the silent era, Bowers and his films were forgotten for decades.  But they continue to be rediscovered every few years.  In the late 1960s, archivist Raymond Borde of the Toulouse Cinémathèque in France found many of Bowers’ “lost films;” additional materials were located by The Library of Congress, Národní filmový archiv, EYE Film Institute, Cinémathèque française, MoMA, and many other archives and collectors throughout the world, including Louise Beaudet, film curator and head of the Animation Department at the Cinematheque Quebecoise.  On Nov, 22, 1983, she discussed the odd life and career of this “notorious figure of animation’s early days, considered one of the cleverest cartoonists and animators of his time,” and presented six rare Bowers films at BAMPFA (U of C, Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive).

One of the most passionate and intrepid archivists of Charley Bowers films and their preservation is historian Serge Bromberg. Through his company Lobster Films/Blackhawk Films, he has many times, over the years, literally rescued Bowers films from being destroyed.

The superb results of his efforts can be seen in Bromberg’s Blu-ray/DVD compilation and scholarly accompanying booklet, THE EXTRAORDINARY WORLD OF CHARLEY BOWERS, as written about in a July 22, 2019 blog posting by Leonard Maltin (“The Amazing Charley Bowers is Discovered – Again!”).

Click image for Leonard’s review:

(Click image to view.)

A showcase of Bowers’ draftsmanship and animation prowess is a 1923 book he wrote and illustrated:   Charles Bowers Movie Book, published by Harcourt, Brace & Company.  “Mother Goose” was the first of a proposed series of four so-called “Toy-Flip” books.

Alongside the chatty text and profuse illustrations of familiar “Mother Goose” stories are nine folding, colored plates, each containing two sequential drawings.  When flipped back and forth quickly, an optical illusion of moving images occurs.  For example, the eponymous storybook old lady rides a large white gander with wings down in the top picture; and wings up in the bottom picture.

A simple change, but the imagery works.  Bowers’ draftsmanship and animation skills, apparent in his character’s strong poses, are excellent examples of visual storytelling.  His inventive artistry is also showcased in detailed, highly amusing line drawings of the nursery rhymes.

(Click image to open file.)

A second book “Aesop’s Fables,” is apparently the only other one of the proposed series to be published.  Here is an image of the cover:

For more eyewitness information on Charles Bowers, see below a three-part essay by I. Klein (1897- 1986), former Disney animator and New Yorker magazine cartoonist, who at age 21, animated at the Barre-Bowers studio.

(Click on image to view full article.)

 

 

[i]  Before Mickey, The Animated Film 1898-1928, p.199.

[ii]  AFI Report, Summer 1974, p.17

Hits: 219

Il Paese Della Ninna-Nanna

From 1933 to 1988, the noted Italian publishing house of Arnoldo Mondadori (1889-1971) published a children’s book series based on Walt Disney cartoon characters and films.

Below please find a complete version of a 1949 book based on the 1933 Silly Symphony short, Lullaby Land (Il Paese Della Ninna-Nanna).

I bought the book in an outdoor booksellers market in Lucca, Italy, during a 1986 comic book/animation conference I was invited to participate in.

A dreaming infant and his toy dog enter a surreal world of quilted landscapes and dangerous anthropomorphic objects babies mustn’t touch, such as scissors and knives, pins and needles and burning matches.

The fraught narrative recalls Little Nemo’s scariest Slumberland adventures; the wildly imaginative Disney character designs anticipate and rival the cast of incidental oddities — pencil and umbrella birds, playing cards, Momeraths, et al. — in Disney’s 1953 feature, Alice in Wonderland.

Click on the book cover to open the full .pdf file.

 

 

 

 

 

Hits: 54

In Search of John Parr Miller

A dashing John Parr Miller, left, joins fellow Disney artists Webb Smith, Mary Blair and Herbert Ryman for a glamorous night on the town in Rio de Janeiro in 1941 (photo from a Brazilian news article). Click image to enlarge.

John Parr Miller (1913-2004) was an extraordinary artist — a master of eye-appealing fluid lines and designs.  Witty, subtle pastel or pencil drawings tumbled forth, suffused with an ineffable charm.

Miller’s early mark was made at the Walt Disney Studio, as a stand-out character designer in the influential Character Model Department.  He was one of the artists in “El Grupo,” the creative team that accompanied Walt Disney on his 1941 goodwill tour of South America.

Films such as Pinocchio (1940), Fantasia (1940), The Reluctant Dragon (1941), Saludos Amigos (1943), The Three Caballeros (1945) benefitted greatly from his graphic abilities.  Starting in 1948, his talents were showcased in a new career as a beloved illustrator of many children’s books.

Here are two consecutive articles I wrote on the life and career of John Parr Miller for Cartoons, the International Journal of Animation, Volume 2, issue 2, Winter 2006 and Volume 3, issue 1, Spring 2007.

Click on image to open .pdf file of articles

To whet your appetite, here is a selection of J.P. Miller’s Disney drawings

For Saludos Amigos:

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and Fantasia:

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Here Miller is seen with James Bodrero, a colleague in Disney’s Character Model Dept., examining a ceramic figure on the South American tour.

Click image to enlarge.

Enjoy!

 

 

 

Hits: 123

A Visit with Halas and Batchelor,
and a Look at Indie British Animation,
from 1979

In 1979 I made a research trip to the UK at the invitation of Halas and Batchelor, to learn more about the British animation scene.

John Halas (1912-1995) and Joy Batchelor (1914-1991) were a remarkable husband and wife team who, for more than 40 years, produced more than 2000 films at their prestigious London studio, including Britain’s first animated feature film, Animal Farm (1954), a decidedly adult-oriented cartoon based on George Orwell’s dark allegory.

I first “met” John and Joy, and their films, in Halas’ 1959 informative book, The Technique of Film Animation, a showcase of international animation, with styles and content different from American cartoons of the period. The book opened a new world to me, a 16-year old who basically knew only Disney and Warner Bros. cartoon fare.

Exactly twenty years later, John and Joy invited me to London to research and write about British animation, past and present. And again, they introduced to me a new world of animation, this time in person. I also gained a close and valued friendship with the two artist/producers, whose passion for the art of animation inspired generations of animation filmmakers, many of whom found their first animated film employment at H&B’s large and busy studio.

My research trip generated three magazine articles in the years that followed.  Michael Barrier’s sorely-missed cartoon journal Funnyworld (#23, Spring 1983), published my  profile of Joy and John:

Click on image for link to article.

Some years later I wrote a second article related to Halas and Batchelor, “Farm Subsidy” which appeared in the May/June 2005 of Print, the graphic design magazine. It describes the CIA’s involvement, at the height of the Cold War, in the production of H&B’s Animal Farm:

Click on image for link to article.

And for the September 1980 issue of Print, I wrote a survey of independent animation in Britain:

Click on image for link to article.

I hope you’ll enjoy these.

 

 

Hits: 91

Vladimir Tytla – Master Animator

1994 Exhibition Catalog
Katonah Museum of Art

In 1994, I curated an exhibition of original animation art and other works by Vladimir Tytla (1904-1968), one of the greatest of character animators. During his tenure at the Walt Disney Studio from 1934 to 1943, his animated characters display an extraordinary emotional range in classic Disney films, including Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Pinocchio (1940), Fantasia (1940) and Dumbo (1941).

The exhibition, which ran from September 18 – December 31, 1994, consisted of drawings, photos and film clips from a number of lenders, including the Tytla family, Ollie Johnston, and the Walt Disney Archives and Animation Research Library.

At the opening reception of the Vladimir Tytla exhibition, from left, son Peter Tytla, widow Adrienne Tytla, Hind Culhane, John Culhane, Seamus Culhane (seated), John Canemaker and Marge Champion

The Museum created a handsome illustrated catalogue for the exhibition that has, over the years, become a collectible.  I still get inquiries about it, so I have uploaded a .pdf copy  of the complete catalogue, to make it available to everyone.

Click HERE to open it, and enjoy!

Hits: 441

J. Gordon Legg’s Tree Nymphs for FANTASIA, Finally in Color!

In 1942, a beautiful conceptual artwork for Disney’s Fantasia (1940) occupied a full black-and-white page in Robert D. Feild’s The Art of Walt Disney, the first book to seriously examine the Disney studio creative processes.

Former Harvard professor Feild used the illustration to praise the Layout and Background Departments, whose artists “must possess a unique sense of design, a pictorial imagination allowing them to build up compositions that can be broken down into any number of separate pictures, each having an integral unity of its own.”

No artists were credited to any of the book’s illustrations, and the original color version of this concept has never been published until now. It was painted and signed, in August 1938, by J. Gordon Legg (1909 – 2003), one of Fantasia’s art directors, during the exploratory stage of the so-called “concert feature.” The Disney artists were exploring various Greek and Roman mythological characters and stories for possible use with music from Pierne’s ballet, Cydalise, which ultimately was replaced by Beethoven’s Symphony #6, the “Pastoral.”

Click image to enlarge.

Legg’s imagery depicts a grove of hamadryads, or tree nymphs,  free spirits who, in Greek mythology, lived inside trees.

Click Image to enlarge.

There is mystery in the painting. It has a strange mood, at once peaceful and disturbing, its calm colors contrasted with the naked writhing  forms of nymphs visible within the tree trunks.

Click image to enlarge.  Note Artist’s signature and date, lower right corner.

Robin Allan, author of Walt Disney and Europe, quotes a 1976 Legg interview by Milton Gray regarding the design and color used in Fantasia’s “Pastoral” sequence:

“They wanted Classical backgrounds … and they didn’t care too much how accurate it was.  I kind of followed Grant Wood and Rockwell Kent — you know, cleaned up the trees, so that everything was neat and clean and precise. It was like Forest Lawn. I wanted to keep the colors rich and subtle — olive greens and maroons — played down colors like you see in the Italian School … I worked with Ken Anderson; he was the final layout director [for the “Pastoral” sequence], and a very talented artist. But I guess Disney got in there someplace and said, ‘Let’s brighten this thing up.” That’s where we got into the peppermint candy. It bothered me; I didn’t want it that way. It was too sticky, too sweet.”

One of the final “Pastoral” production backgrounds, shown below, illustrates Legg’s criticism of  the sequence’s color palette.  The circular pavilion featured in the painting  was likely inspired by the Temple of Love at the Palace of Versailles.

Click image to enlarge.

Allan concludes, “Throughout this section there is reverence for and misunderstanding of sources,” or what film reviewer Helmut Farber called “Kunst und kitsch.”

John Gordon Legg joined the Disney studio on April 13, 1936 after a period as a student at Chouinard School of Art in Los Angeles and work as a commercial artist. His airbrush expertise led to designing many of Disney’s short film title cards, such as Woodland Cafe (1937),

Click image to enlarge.

and the pages of the large tome that opens Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937).

Click Image to enlarge.

Legg’s other art deco/Rockwell Kent-inspired “Pastoral’ concepts include:

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Apollo riding a chariot pulled by fiery horses;

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contemplative Pegasus resting;

Diana, the personification of night, shooting a star into a dark sky with her silver hunting bow.

Click Image to enlarge.

Legg’s original hamadryad painting is now part of the Walt Disney Family Museum animation art collection.  For help with background information on J.W. Legg, I am grateful to Joe Campana, Michael Labrie, and the late Robin Allan.

 

Hits: 1325

Remembering Tissa David
(1921 -2012) Part 1

Tissa David, self-portrait, 1975. Click image to enlarge.

“Animation is the most creative art of all, because you are creating life. You are making a drawing come to life. You can’t be more creative than that!”

–Tissa David

This past January 5th marked the centennial year of the birth of Tissa David, one of the world’s great animators.

Tissa David in her New York Apartment. Click image to enlarge.

She was born in 1921 in Transylvania, in the city of Kolozsvár, Hungary.  When she died at age 91, on Aug. 21, 2012, in New York City, she was recognized within the international animation community as a film artist of inimitable sensitivity and wit, and a brave woman with an iron will and singular passion for her chosen art form.

Raggedy Ann by Tissa David, 1976
Raggedy Ann by Tissa David, 1976. Click image to enlarge.
Raggedy-Ann-Andy-dance-model-sheet
Model Sheet by Tissa David for Raggedy Ann and Andy’s dance. Click image to enlarge.

In motion, David’s sensual hand-drawn lines display superb timing, enormous charm, and a master actor’s sure instinct for performance.  She truly brought cartoon characters to sparkling life on the screen as distinctive personalities.   In addition to her creativity, her formidable survival skills and dedication to her work are a vital inspiration for women.  Speaking of her pioneering efforts and success in the traditionally male-dominated animation industry, she once said, “I do consider myself somebody who walked the road for the first time.”

Tissa David was also a tough-love mentor who generously shared her vast knowledge and experience with many a novice animator, including me.  During our nearly forty years of friendship, I was privileged to interview her in print and onstage numerous times.

As a tribute to this extraordinary woman, artist and teacher, I plan this year to post my personal reflections about the life and career of Tissa David on John Canemaker’s Animated Eye, augmented with rare drawings, photographs, and interview transcripts.

Click on the image to link to a video of Tissa’s Master Class for animation students as NYU Tisch School of the Arts, April 24, 2006. Running time 1hr 46min.

Although her name is not familiar to the general public, several generations of audiences grew up seeing and responding emotionally to Tissa David’s work.  Among her most famous assignments were the eponymous ragdolls in the feature “Raggedy Ann and Andy: A Musical Adventure” (1977), whom she endowed with enormous warmth and heart.  “I project a lot of myself into Raggedy Ann,” she once admitted.

Children viewing “Sesame Street” learned the alphabet from David; a ravenous letter M, for example, was hers. They learned spelling rules, too, from her work for “The Electric Company” and its “Letterman” segments.

Tissa David animating at her drawing board . Photo by John Canemaker. Click image to enlarge.

Adults enjoyed her versatility in scores of television commercials throughout the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. The brothers Bert and Harry (voiced by the comedy team of Bob and Ray) were her memorable work for Piel’s Beer.  She animated commercials for numerous products, including Perrier, the New York radio station WQXR, the clothing retailer Barney’s, Esso and Shell gasoline, Excedrin, Vlasic Pickles, Cheerios and IBM.

A 1950s storyboard from a Piel’s Beer commercial, used as an invitation to a party at UPA’s New York Studio. Click image to enlarge.
Death and Mother Nature, from EGGS, 1970, by the Hubley Studio. Click image to enlarge.
Two sisters, from the Hubleys’ COCKABOODY, 1973. Click image to enlarge.
EVERYBODY RIDES THE CAROUSEL, 1976. Click image to enlarge.

Tissa explored serious subject matter and deep emotions in award-winning Hubley Studio films: overpopulation in “Eggs” (1970); child development in “Cockaboody” (1973); love, in both parental and romantic forms, in “Everybody Rides the Carousel” (1976). In the last, David animated with extraordinary sensitivity a young man and a woman (voiced by Meryl Streep) negotiating boundaries of trust by literally masking their feelings.

David’s performance range was vast because she became her characters.  “Sometimes,” she explained in her soft Hungarian accent in an interview with me for my 1977 book, “The Animated Raggedy Ann & Andy,” “my characters succeed to imitate me.”

Speaking in 2006 to a group of NYU animation students, she noted, “All my characters are alive . . . they are my friends. I never feel alone.”

The skating princess Sasha in “The Great Frost,” adapted from Virginia Woolf’s “Orlando” for the 1977 PBS special “Simple Gifts,” is suffused with feminine mystery.  Contrast that with the macho swagger and sharp moves of the violin-playing devil in PBS’s “The Soldier’s Tale” (1984).

ORLANDO_Simple-Gifts_1977
The skating princess Sasha, from ‘The Great Frost’ segment of SIMPLE GIFTS, a 1977 PBS special. Click image to enlarge.
Devil with violin, from A SOLDIER’S TALE ,1984. Click image to enlarge.
Titania
Titania, from A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM, 1987, finished cel and animation drawing. Click image to enlarge.

Her Rubenesque Titania in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (1986) for Dutch public television and Channel Four London exudes languid, sleep-infused sexuality.  The film combined live-action with animation by Tissa and a small crew of friends.  “Three people did the whole thing,” under her supervision, she admitted proudly.  It was not the first time she directed a full-length film.

Tissa David’s director’s notebook matching Mendelsohn’s A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM music to the animated action of the cartoons. Click image to enlarge.

In Paris in 1953, she became the animation director and principal animator for “Bonjour Paris!,” produced by Jean Image Studio, becoming the second woman, after Lotte Reiniger, to direct a feature-length animated film.

Bonjour Paris 1
Above and below, magazine layouts for the premiere of BONJOUR PARIS!, 1952. Click images to enlarge.

How Tissa David got from Hungary to France, and then to America, is an inspiring story of personal courage, grit and dedication to her art.

The David family in Szeged, late 1920s. Tissa is at the center of the photo, with a bow in her hair. Click image to enlarge.
Tissa, at right, with four of her siblings, Szeged, Hungary. Click image to enlarge.

Thérèse “Tissa” David was born in 1921 in Kolozsvár, the capital of Transylvanian Hungary (now Cluj-Napoca, Romania). She was the second-eldest of 10 children.  The family soon relocated to Szeged, in southern Hungary, where her father became a professor at the University of Szeged.  He expected his children to succeed in whatever they did. Tissa was bitten by the animation bug in 1938 when she saw Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” “This is what I want to do,” she decided.

A 1942 portrait of Tissa David by her fellow art student Judit Reigl, made in Budapest during World War II. Click image to enlarge.

After earning a teaching degree, her draftsmanship was strengthened at the Academy of Beaux Arts in Budapest, but she dropped out to join a local animation studio. When she first saw a character she animated move on the screen, she recalled in an interview with me in 2002, “It was the most exciting moment in my life.”

Tissa in Hungarian Studio 1
Above and below, Tissa David at work in a Hungarian puppet animation studio, late 1940s. Click images to enlarge.

During the 1944 siege of Budapest she survived daily bombings, ate horse meat and boiled beans (“We were starving!”), and learned “how small and how great people can be.” After the war, she co-owned an animation studio until the Communists took over.

A map of the Allied Zones of Occupation in Austria, May 1949. The Hungarian border is at the right. Click image to enlarge.

In March 1950, David and an art-school friend (the now-renowned painter Judit Reigl) escaped their oppressed homeland, settling in Paris. “After you go through the Hungarian border,” she claimed, “nothing can scare you.”

Tissa David and producer Jean Image during production of the 1953 feature cartoon BONJOUR PARIS! Click image to enlarge.
A cel and background from Bonjour Paris! Click image to enlarge.

She learned French and worked as a maid, cook and house-cleaner. Within a year, she became animation director and principal animator for “Bonjour Paris!” and gave jaunty life to the Eiffel Tower itself, in the 1953 Jean Image Studio feature “Bonjour Paris!”

Tissa David at a New York City art gallery, circa late 1960s. Photo by Ray Favata. Click to enlarge image.
Grim Natwick and Tissa at a Christmas party, late 1950s. Click image to enlarge.
Grim Natwick and Tissa David working at a New York animation studio. Click image to enlarge.
Ed-Morrow-early-concept-TERROR-FACES-MAGOO-UPA-1959
An early concept sketch for TERROR FACES MAGOO, UPA, 1959, featuring a caricature of journalist Edward R. Murrow. Click image to enlarge.
Tissa and Grim as Raggedy Ann and Andy, 1976. Caricature by Dick Williams. Click to enlarge image.

In 1955 she immigrated to America (and learned English). The next year, at UPA Studio in New York, she became assistant to Grim Natwick (1890-1990), one of Disney’s lead animators on “Snow White.” As freelance professional partners, she and Natwick worked on hundreds of TV commercials and the last Mr. Magoo theatrical short (“Terror Faces Magoo” – 1959). David always claimed she learned “absolutely everything” about animation from Natwick. Publicly he took bows for the team, while privately acknowledging that because of David’s skills he was “able to work another 10 years.”

When Natwick retired in 1967, David, then in her 40s, could not find work. “In America, animation was a jealously guarded men’s field,” she said. “So girls should be assistants, inkers, painters—not animators.” Eventually, the Hubley studio, Michael Sporn Animation, R.O. Blechman’s Ink Tank and Richard Williams (director of the feature “Raggedy Ann & Andy”), among others, hired her as a solo animator; and she continued to work steadily in America and abroad well into her 80s.  She developed an admirable economy in her animation, limiting it to essential storytelling drawings. “You don’t do many drawings,” she noted, “but you know how to use them.” Often she completed the storyboard and all the animation for half-hour productions, such as Michael Sporn’s superb “The Marzipan Pig” (1990).

Tissa’s storyboard for THE MARZIPAN PIG 1990, produced and directed by Michael Sporn. Click image to enlarge.
THE MARZIPAN PIG, Tissa’s animation of a talking hibiscus. Click image to enlarge.

Since 1956, she lived and worked alone on East 83rd Street in a cozy one-bedroom apartment filled with plants, books and paintings (including Ms. Reigl’s), a place smelling of baked apples and spices, for David was an excellent cook specializing in Szeged cuisine. Over the years a parade of animation novices (myself included) went there for her advice on our projects.  She combined bracing, honest assessments — “this is a lousy drawing” or “this is a very bad film” — with golden nuggets of information: “Animation is all caricature”; “Don’t show what is not absolutely necessary to the story”; “Always think of how your character feels”; and “The greatest animation is the simplest. Search for what is essential in an action or a scene.” She gave truth to us straight and we loved her for it.

Celebrating Tissa’s 90th birthday on a snowy January night. From left, John Canemaker, Tissa David, Mike Sporn and Heidi Stallings. Click image to enlarge.

Tissa’s strength and dedication to her art were rare, inspiring qualities. “Animation is such a long, hard work,” she said, “you have to keep doing, doing, doing to learn. You can only have one love if you want to be an animator: animation.  You can’t devote yourself to it part-time.”

On the evening of January 18, 2003, the Museum of Modern Art in New York honored Tissa David with a film retrospective of her career in animation, co-curated by Josh Siegel and me.   In my introduction to a full-house of her admirers, I noted that “Dizzy Gillespie once called Louis Armstrong ‘Jazz in person.’  To those privileged to have known her personally, and those who know her only through her extraordinary art, Tissa David is ‘Animation in person.’”

Tissa David MoMA retrospective, Jan. 18, 2003, interviewed on stage by John Canemaker. Click image to enlarge.
Tissa David after her 2003 MoMA retrospective talking with animator/designer Dan Haskett, one of her colleagues on the 1977 RAGGEDY ANN & ANDY feature. Click image to enlarge.
John and Tissa in Bridgehampton, 2003. Click image to enlarge.

Click here to access the full illustrated transcript (.pdf) of my interview with Tissa David on September, 18, 2002, in which she candidly speaks at length, publicly, about her harrowing escape from communist Hungary in 1950, her life and work in animation in Paris, and her first experiences working in animation in New York with, and without, her mentor Grim Natwick.


Tissa David in 1976 at her animation desk with Raggedy Ann drawing. Photo by Riad Traboulsi. Click image to enlarge.

COMING SOON: TISSA DAVID ANIMATES THE EPONYMOUS STARS OF RICHARD WILLIAMS’ FEATURE, RAGGEDY ANN & & ANDY: A MUSICAL ADVENTURE (1977).

Dick Williams flipping RAGGEDY ANN & ANDY animation drawings with Tissa David, 1976. Caricature by Jim Logan. Click image to enlarge.

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