FOREVER FISCHINGER!

A  film frame from Oskar Fischinger’s masterwork, Motion Painting No.1 (1947), which he painted frame-by-frame on successive plexiglas panels. Oskar in 1947, and his widow Elfriede in 1978, holding the same panel shown above.

On June 22, an elegant, imaginative, interactive Google Doodle celebrated the 117th birthday of Oskar Fischinger (1900 – 1967), the great visual music/abstract animation film pioneer.  Visitors to the Doodle homepage were invited to create both music and accompany it with non-objective imagery — a visceral, tactile homage to Fischinger, “the Kandinsky of cinema.”   You can try it here:

It was very gratifying to me, to see a new generation discovering Fischinger and his enchanting, hand-drawn, pre-digital moving art.  I was a close friend, over the course of three decades, of his widow, Elfriede Fischinger (1910-1999) and her associate, Dr. William Moritz (1941-2004), film historian and Fischinger’s biographer.

William Moritz, Elfriede Fischinger and John Canemaker, at Canemaker’s Manhattan studio in May, 1977. On the wall in the background are story sketches for Canemaker’s short film Confessions of a Stardreamer (1978).

For years, Elfriede and Bill traveled the world screening Oskar’s films and curating exhibitions of his paintings, keeping his name and reputation alive.  I met Elfriede and Bill at the 1976 Ottawa Animation Festival and wrote a candid and affectionate article about them, their adventures and our friendship in the Summer 1978 issue of Funnyworld, Michael Barrier’s brilliant and long-lamented magazine.

In 1977, I was the on-camera host of a CBS Camera Three program, “The Art of Oskar Fischinger,” the first national exploration of his life and work.  On the show, I interviewed Mrs. Fischinger and Dr. Moritz.

Canemaker,  Moritz and Fischinger, on the set at CBS for Camera Three, “The Art of Oskar Fischinger”, May 16, 1977, a half-hour program of Fischinger’s career. Producer Stephan Chodorov stands at left. (Photo by Linda Hood-Gille.)

How thrilled Elfriede and Bill would be to see the Google Doodle; Angie Fischinger, youngest of Oskar and Elfriede’s five children, wrote a touching tribute to her father, noting “It’s impossible to deny true talent, and so it stands the test of time and will continue to do so.”

A Fischinger animation drawing in charcoal, left, from Study No.8 (1931), and the inverse image as it appears on screen. Fischinger’s precise draftsmanship creates an extraordinary illusion of depth and space.

Oskar Fischinger was a fiercely independent, freethinking filmmaker, who began making exquisite film art in the 1920s in Germany.  By the 1930s, his fame had grown due to his series of “studies”:  geometric shapes and patterns synchronized tightly to classical music and jazz, first in black and white, later in glorious color.

Fischinger’ s last German film, Composition in Blue (1935), was a dazzling tour-de-force of color and choreography that incurred the wrath of Nazi leader Josef Goebbels, and hastened Fischinger’s departure for America early the following year. Image © Center for Visual Music.

In America in 1936, he and his family sought refuge from the Nazis, who vilified his prize-winning abstract films as Entartete Kunst,or “degenerate art”.

Fischinger found little support for his non-commercial films in this country, and there was virtually no market for the theatrical advertising films that had sustained him in Europe.  To survive, he sought employment at commercial Hollywood studios, and worked, always briefly and always unhappily, at Paramount, MGM, and Disney, where his films inspired Fantasia’s semi-abstract “Toccata and Fugue” section.

Above and below, Fischinger pastel concept drawings for Fantasia (1940).

Fischinger was frustrated by the American studio system, where his distinctive personal vision was subject to modification and adaptation by production teams.

In this beautiful pastel for Fantasia’s Toccata and Fugue sequence, the motion of Fischinger’s abstract forms subtly suggests violin bows. Apparently wary of the American public’s tolerance for pure abstraction, Disney decided instead to go with literal violin bows and strings, as seen in the animation drawings below, by Disney special effects animator Cy Young.

These extremely rare (and unfortunately black-and-white) images of the preliminary storyboards for Fantasia, above and below, captured by photographer Herman Schultheis for his personal scrapbook, give a tantalizing sense of how Oskar Fischinger’s aesthetic was influencing the production in its early stages.  The Schultheis scrapbook has been preserved by the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco, where a digital version is on interactive public display.

This abandoned concept for the soundtrack segment bears an unmistakable visual resemblance to Fischinger’s Allegretto, below, which he created at Paramount in 1936 and released as a personal film in 1941.

With the help of small grants from the Solomon R. Guggenheim foundation, Fischinger continued creating short non-objective films, completing his last in 1947: the mesmerizing Motion Painting No. 1.  His final twenty years were spent painting stunning abstract canvases.

This untitled 1962 oil-on-board abstraction displays painter Oskar Fischinger’s absolute mastery of form, color and technique. Click on image to enlarge.

Fischinger’s artworks, both filmed and painted, have inspired generations of artists, including John Cage, Norman McLaren, Orson Welles, Len Lye, Hy Hirsh, Jules Engel, Sara Petty, Larry Cuba, John and James Whitney, Steven Woloshen, Vibeke Sorensen, Harry Smith, Jordan Belson, Edgard Varese, Alexander Alexeieff, Jeff Scher, Mary Ellen Bute, among others.

As I wrote in a New York Times article about “A Fischinger Centennial Celebration” at MoMA in 2000, Fischinger’s films and paintings “easily and joyfully communicate with all sorts of audiences around the world.  Far from dry intellectual exercises, his symbols and colors in motion are witty, whimsical, and beautiful as well as profound.”

CVM and EYE Filmmuseum co-published this 2013 Fischinger monograph by Cindy Keefer and Jaap Guldemond.

In addition to the Google Doodle project Fischinger’s film work continues to amaze contemporary audiences around the world, thanks to the diligent efforts of the Center for Visual Music (CVM), under the direction of Cindy Keefer, in Los Angeles. http://www.centerforvisualmusic.org/

The non-profit archive is dedicated to visual music, experimental animation, and abstract media.  The CVM online store sells Fischinger DVDs, books, objects and ephemera, and curates Fischinger exhibitions and screenings around the world.

You can view excerpts from Fischinger’s films (and see complete films on demand) here.

Last fall, for instance, CVM loaned its 2012 reconstruction of Raumlichtkunst (1926/2012), Fischinger’s 1920s multiple-projector work, to the Whitney Museum of American Art’s vast exhibition, Dreamlands:  Immersive Cinema and Art, 1905-2016.  The huge triptych was presented as an HD three-channel installation; elsewhere in the exhibition, CVM also showcased five Fantasia concept drawings by Fischinger from the CVM collection.

William Moritz was a co-founder of CVM, and his archives form an important part of the Center’s research collection. Bill died in 2005, at age 63, after a long battle with cancer. His last years were spent completing his long-awaited biography of Oskar Fischinger, Optical Poetry: The Life and Work of Oskar Fiachinger, which was published just weeks before his death.

Until her own peaceful death in May 1999, a few months shy of her 89th birthday, Elfriede Fischinger continued to restore her husband’s films, promote them, and present them at international screenings. She remained a vital link and witness to the European film avant-garde of the 1920s and 30s. It was my pleasure to know her and work with her, and just to be with her on numerous occasions through the years.

Joseph Kennedy, Elfriede Fischinger and John Canemaker, at the Fischinger “compound” in Long Beach, CA, July 1995. In the early 1990s, Elfriede moved from Hollywood and spent her last years living next door to her daughter Barbara.

She never changed, I am pleased to say. Her enthusiasms, passion, sense of fun, vibrant personality, and overwhelming childlike energy remained the same, even as her frizzy hair turned from wren brown to snow white.

The last time we were together was in New York in November 1998, a few months before she died. She and Bill Moritz appeared as the star attractions of Anthology Film Archives’ First Light festival of abstract films. Because of Anthology’s ever-precarious finances, Elfriede and Bill agreed to third-rate hotel accommodations, a second-rate airline, and a tiny honorarium, offering it all up for the greater glory of Oskar.

That final visit left me with a memorable image of Elfriede. I can still see her standing joyfully smiling in Times Square as electric neon lights flashed on and off, whirled, zigzagged, twisted in space, exploded and burned with colors that would embarrass a rainbow; and as rows of blurred human forms crossed streets, dashed dynamically through the concrete corridors, twisted, turned and nearly colliding with each other and Elfriede. She beamed through it all, standing solidly at the center of a real-life three-dimensional Fischinger canvas: a gigantic Kreise, a cosmic Optical Poem, an Allegretto without limits, an eternal Motion Painting.

It was a beautiful and unforgettable sight. As she used to say when referring to the ultimate of any and every thing: “It vas IT!”

 

 

 

Giotto at the Movies

Interior of the Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, Italy. © José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro

Since the year 1305, visitors to the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, Italy, are also entering a 14th century movie palace.  On the chapel’s walls and ceiling a favorite Biblical epic, The Story of Mary and Christ, unfolds its narrative in a sequential series of compelling, innovative frescoes, which are among the most important breakthroughs in western art.  They were created by the great Florentine master designer, painter — and, yes, director/animator –Giotto di Bondone (1266/67 – 1337).

Giotto had an intuitive genius for visual storytelling and connecting emotionally with his mostly illiterate audience.  In his hands, the story’s characters look and act like real humans.  They live in familiar-looking Italian hills, houses and meadows; they communicate directly with viewers, make them participant’s in the story.  Viewing the paintings becomes a shared, immersive experience.

This was a profound change from Byzantine symbolism.  Those remote, expressionless, cord-of-wood figures floating on gold backgrounds are beautiful, but cold and distant imagery compared to Giotto’s work.   By contrast, his paintings are mirrors of the human condition.  A farmer’s son, he plowed the field, as it were, of modern representational art for key figures of the High Renaissance, such as Michelangelo, Raphael, and Leonardo da Vinci; the latter artist, born over 100 years after Giotto died, once remarked that post-Giotto “art declined.”

Always impressive is Giotto’s staging of scenes containing multiple figures.  Unerringly, with great clarity, he focuses our eyes like a movie director.  His “actors” express a wide palette of emotions, among them love, hate, horror, anger, fear, pity and sorrow.  It’s all there, expressed with subtle economy and understatement in the poses and staging. Giotto’s art is truthful and, therefore, believable.  Or “sincere,” the word older Disney animators used to describe sensitive character animation.

A superb example of Giotto’s gifts is the “Kiss of Judas” fresco depicting the moment just after Christ is betrayed to the arresting soldiers by an identifying kiss from Judas Iscariot, one of Christ’s apostles.  The scene takes place in the midst of a swirling, unruly mob whose spears, halberds and torches serve as directional arrows pointing toward the two men at the center.  The embracing folds of Judas’ yellow cloak — the color a psychological tell for his cowardly act — lead our eyes toward an affecting “close-up” of Jesus and Judas.

Jesus’ expression is calm, compassionate, forgiving, as he gazes directly into Judas’ eyes.  His betrayer, by contrast, shorter or lower in position, appears to be frozen with guilt.  His eyes sink into his furrowed, simian-like brow; his lips are still puckered. He is locked in fear and self-loathing.  Amidst noisy turmoil, the stare between the two men is quiet; a surreal, slo-mo, time-stopping moment of private thoughts.

The Scrovegni fresco “cinema” also offers romance and a full-on, physical expression of love.  When Joachim and Ann (parents of the Blessed Mary) embrace each other after months of absence, their eyes and lips lock as their hands tenderly and passionately pull each other close.

For on-screen horror, few blood-and-guts film scenes can compete with Giotto’s shocking fresco of the Slaughter of the Innocents:  babies torn from their agonized mother’s arms are slaughtered by King Herod’s goons, amid a pile of massacred children.

Giotto also possessed a sense of humor and wasn’t shy of displaying comic relief in otherwise serious contexts.  Observe the scene-stealing, braying camel that startles its handler in the “Adoration of the Magi” fresco.

The artist’s personal humor endeared him to his friends.  He was said to be a homely man, and legend has it that Dante (who apparently had no filter) once asked Giotto how he could create such beautiful paintings and such ugly children.  The artist allegedly replied: “I make my pictures by day and my babies at night!”

Can today’s animators and filmmakers still learn from an artist who lived more than 700 years ago?  Of course!  One can always profit from analyzing Giotto’s visual communication techniques.  I contend that Albert Hurter did precisely that in Walt Disney’s first feature, SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS (1937).

An excellent draftsman, Hurter (1883-1942) arrived at the Disney studio in 1931 at age 48 with an extensive background in fine arts training and study in Europe.  With his encyclopedic knowledge of art history, he often regaled his cartoonist colleagues with descriptions of the art of Vincent Van Gogh, Herman Vogel, Honoré Daumier, Gustave Doré, Franz Stuck, and Heinrich Kley, among others.

Hurter became the Disney studio’s first “inspirational sketch” artist:  he created hundreds of imaginative conceptual drawings, ideas for personality gags and visualizations that would inspire the studio’s directors, writers, storyboard artists and animators.  In SNOW WHITE, his visual influence is all-pervasive.  Of particular interest is a sequence that is a breakthrough in the art of character animation: the seven dwarfs grieving over the inert body of Snow White.

For Walt Disney, it was a daring gamble.  For he hoped audiences would suspend their disbelief to find believable the emotions expressed by cartoon characters mourning the “death” of another toon.  In dozens of sketches, Hurter relentlessly searched for the right body language and facial expressions for the dwarfs as well as suggestions for positioning the characters around the bier within a cottage setting, ideas for lighting, mood and so on.

His creative search, to my mind and animated eye, was similar to Giotto’s process in creating the Lamentation fresco in Scrovegni Chapel.  It is reasonable to assume that Hurter, art history maven, knew of and may have found useful, the composition and gestures of the 14th century master’s painting.  Giotto’s brilliant placement of individualized mourners, each grieving in their own way — quietly mournful to hysterical disbelief — as guideposts, leading our eye to the prostrate Christ embraced in his mother’s arms.  Above, ten angels mirror the scene, and they behave in distinctively individual mourning poses and expressions, too.

Similarly, Hurter’s dwarfs each display sorrow in seven distinct ways: staring in disbelief, weeping openly, some so distraught they avoid looking at the radiant princess’ body, whose glow rivals the light emanating from the candles behind her.

When master animator Frank Thomas (1912 – 2004), with great subtlety, transformed Hurter’s idea sketches into animation drawings (see below), audiences wept at the final result.

As my friend, animation historian John Culhane, once said regarding Snow White’s lamentation sequence: “Moving drawings became . . . moving drawings.”

Revisiting 1981: “Disney Animations and Animators” at the Whitney Museum

Today, I’d like to set our Time Machine back nearly four decades, for a visit New York City’s Whitney Museum of American Art from June 24 through September 6, 1981, and its grand, large-scale exhibition titled “Disney Animations and Animators.”

But first, a little context.
Disney animation exhibitions had been occurring in art museums and galleries well before 1981.

Click to enlarge.

In 1938, Guthrie Courvoisier, a fine art dealer in San Francisco, signed an agreement with Walt and Roy Disney granting him exclusive rights to market their original animation art. Original Disney Studio art sold through the Courvoisier Gallery came with a certificate that emphasized the authenticity and the select nature of the works being sold.

 

 

This cover from a 1939 Salvador Dali exhibition at the Julien Levy Gallery offers a Surrealist perspective on the New York World’s Fair. Click to enlarge.

Through the efforts of Courvoisier, the prestigious Julien Levy, who presented the first exhibition of Surrealism in New York, was one of the first to exhibit Disney’s work in a commercial gallery.  He offered the “First National Showing of Original Watercolors from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” from September 15 through October 4, 1938.

From March 21 – April 17, 1939, Levy presented “Original Watercolors on Celluloid Used in the Filming of Walt Disney’s Ferdinand the Bull.”  On April 8 – 23, 1940, modernist Levy, who also exhibited films including Disney’s in conjunction with exhibits, presented “Original Watercolors for Walt Disney’s Pinocchio.”

Herman Schultheis photographed these panels from the Los Angeles County Museum exhibit for his Special Effects notebook, now at the Walt Disney Family Museum.

Also in 1940, the Los Angeles County Museum’s director, Roland J. McKinna, arranged the first overview of Disney’s contributions to animation, “a new art form” from Steamboat Willie (1928) to Fantasia (1940).  This early retrospective exhibition, a merging of high and popular art in a museum setting, revealed the artistic processes of animation through preliminary concepts sketches, story drawings, cels, backgrounds, model sheets, and maquettes.  “In twelve years,” McKinney wrote in the exhibition catalog, “Walt Disney has elevated animated pictures from a crude form of entertainment to the dignity of a true art.”  After Los Angeles, the exhibit traveled to seven museums across the country ending in Worcester, Massachusetts.

The Galerie St. Etienne in New York.

Back in New York, the Galerie St. Etienne, which specializes in Expressionism and Self-Taught Art (the Galerie gave Grandma Moses her first one-woman show in 1940) exhibited “Walt Disney Originals” starting on September 23, 1942.

On December 9, 1943, they presented a “Walt Disney Cavalcade”; and, on October 28, 1949, an exhibit simply called “Walt Disney.”

In 1958, I was a 15-year old Disney film fan, and I remember (with great nostalgia) visiting “The Art of Animation! A Walt Disney Retrospective,” a traveling exhibition that was basically a promotion for the upcoming animated feature Sleeping Beauty (1959).

I begged my parents to drive me from Elmira, New York to Rochester. They indulged me, and I remain grateful.  For what I saw — original cels and backgrounds, animation drawings, concepts from Sleeping Beauty and a slew of other films, including, as I fondly recall, the Disneyland TV program Mars and Beyond (1957) — continued to inspire me years later when I curated animation art exhibitions at the Katonah Museum (Winsor McCay; Vladimir Tytla) and the Walt Disney Family Museum (Mary Blair; Herman Schultheis; the art of Pinocchio).

Common to all of the above mentioned animation art exhibitions held during Walt Disney’s lifetime (he died in 1966) was that he received exclusive credit for what got onto the screen.  The army of artists he employed were, for the most part, anonymous. The 1981 Whitney Museum of American Art’s “Disney Animations and Animators” exhibition changed all that.

Whitney second floor plan
This floor plan of the Whitney Museum shows how how the exhibition was organized, from the origins of Disney animation through feature films.

In this high art venue, individual animators were named alongside drawings that they created.  Specific animators were cited (e.g. Ham Luske, Vladimir Tytla, Fred Moore, Art Babbitt, and each of the so-called Nine Old Men, among others) for their special (nay, extraordinary) contributions to iconic Disney scenes; including crediting their participation in codifying essential animation principles, which certain animators either pioneered or developed to sublime expressive heights.

The exhibition also offered artwork from every phase of production – concept sketches, layout drawings, storyboards, background paintings — and their artists (where known) also received credit.

Greg Ford, the highly respected animation historian, film producer and director, was Guest Curator of this spectacular show of the Disney studio’s creative process.

Ford’s selective connoisseurship focused on animation drawings — their wild, single-frame exaggerations necessary to make visual points read loud and clear to the audience; the use of space as a compositional element; the choreography involved in working out a gag or a dance; razor-sharp storytelling clarity seen in a flurry of sequential main pose drawings, a.k.a. “extremes.”  And he specified who did what.

“Disney character animation represents the most successful and sustained realization of a world within the film frame,” wrote John G. Hanhardt, Whitney Museum’s Curator of Film and Video at the time.

Greg Ford’s selection of works highlights the drawings as discrete items and as part of a process. The process concludes in the film projected onto the screen, and many of the most important Disney short films and features are being shown as part of this exhibition. In addition, throughout the galleries videotape monitors present individual sequences, which illustrate the animation process. From this exhibition we can look again at the films and recognize familiar faces and actions — and appreciate what a rich and provocative body of drawings and film art Disney animations are.

To give you a flavor of the show, and how it was mounted, are black and white photographs that I shot on assignment as a contributing editor for Print magazine.  (Print eventually published an article I wrote on “Disney Backgrounds” in the March/April 1982 issue, based on artworks in the Whitney exhibit.)  I’ve also included a handful of color images of some of the art exhibited, with apologies for the poor quality of the black and white shots, which were taken in available light for reference purposes only.

Unfortunately, no illustrated catalog accompanied the exhibition; but in a concise, informative six-page handout John Hanhardt discusses the exhibit, and it contains all the films screened during the show’s run.  Click the image at left to read a full-size copy and turn the pages.

 

 

In 1982, a goodly number of the artworks from the Whitney exhibition found their way into Treasures of Disney Animation Art, publisher Robert Abrams’ giant (16” X 13”) Abbeville Press tome.  I wrote the book’s Introduction, concluding:

Herein is contained a small but delicious sample of the huge amount of research, analysis, and preparation that contributed over the years to Disney’s film accomplishments. The body of work, remarkable in its own right, is a tribute to the visionary power and leadership abilities of Walt Disney, and to the individual talents of his staff of artists and craftspeople [emphasis added], whose cumulative efforts made the visions real.

SITE, the architecture and environmental art studio, designed the exhibition as if one were entering and moving through a darkened movie theatre. Above, an illuminated screen composed of 35mm Disney film strips.
Above and below:  Two watercolor backgrounds (artist(s) unknown) for the 1935 Silly Symphony Musicland: a regal palace interior for the Queen of classical music and a pre-Oldenburg pop art exterior for the King of jazz.

A cel set-up and background from The Pied Piper (1933).
A layout drawing for Woodland Cafe (1937).
A wall of various Pinocchio artworks. The entire exhibition revealed the process of animation production by exposing not only the imagery, but also peg holes on paper drawings and instructions written outside the area to be photographed. Each sequential animation drawing was individually and delicately pinned behind protective glass. Here, two drawings are tipped sideways to mirror Pinocchio’s fall down a staircase.
A display of maquettes for “Pinocchio” and “Fantasia.”
Fred Moore’s Mickey Mouse in The Brave Little Tailor (1938).

 

Ward Kimball’s animation for Three Caballeros (1945) gave the characters a manic energy.
Vladimir Tytla specialized in animating strong characters, such as Stromboli in Pinocchio (1940), above, and the Devil in the “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence in Fantasia (1940), below.

 

Art Babbitt created masterful and subtle perspective animation of the Chinese mushrooms in the “Nutcracker Suite,” from Fantasia (1940).  The peg holes on each drawing indicate the scene used a vertical camera pan.
Wolfgang Reitherman’s battling dinosaurs from Fantasia’s “Rite of Spring” section.

 

The dinosaur drawings as originally displayed at the Whitney.
Mickey Mouse as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, animated by Ugo D’Orsi, a water effects specialist.
A “Bambi” pastel drawing.

 

A Tribute to Robert N. Brotherton

On April 19, this blog posted “A Tale of Two Gerties,” illustrated by two never-before-seen photographs of Walt Disney and Broadway star Gertrude Lawrence (nicknamed “Gertie” by her close friends). The photos were taken on February 7, 1942 backstage at the Alvin Theatre during the run of Lady in the Dark, the hit musical play in which Ms. Lawrence starred.

In one of the photos, grinning joyfully between Walt and Gertie, is a 17-year old self-taught, would-be animator named Robert N. Brotherton. In the late 1940s, Bob Brotherton rescued from destruction original negatives and prints of several films created by the great comic strip and animation pioneer, Winsor McCay.

Bob also played an important role in the life of another star performer named Gertie. This was McCay’s celebrated 1914 animated cartoon dinosaur, who possessed the personality of a petulant child. The naturalistic design and motion of McCay’s cartoon dinosaur predict Disney’s “illusion of life” personality animation by twenty years; also, McCay’s live interaction on stage with the film of his “trained dinosaur” is a superb example of early multi-platform, immersive entertainment.

Not only did Bob Brotherton save Gertie film prints and negative from oblivion, but he rescued and preserved a goodly number of McCay’s original Gertie animation drawings. Of McCay’s known ten films, only the Gertie drawings on rice paper and a few cels (drawings on celluloid acetate) from his 1918 masterpiece, The Sinking of the Lusitania, are known to survive.

In my 1987 biography, Winsor McCay – His Life and Art, I wrote briefly about Bob and his heroic efforts. But he has never received enough credit for his extraordinary salvaging and protection McCay’s animation legacy. Practically nothing been written about the life of this man who, in his own way, had the passion for film preservation and tenacity of Henri Langlois.

I hope to rectify the oversight here:

Bob Brotherton at home in New York in the mid-1970s, with original Gertie the Dinosaur drawings.

Robert (Bob) N. Brotherton (1925 – 1989) was born in Philadelphia, the son of Thomas J.R. Brotherton. Bob described his father as “a well-known theatrical man who was associated with the legendary showman Florenz Ziegfeld for many years” as his box office manager. In 1933, Thomas produced a play titled Our Wife, featuring a young Humphrey Bogart; later, he became box office manager at the aforementioned Alvin Theatre on 52nd Street (now the Neil Simon Theatre)

Although Bob Brotherton grew up around theatre people, his talent for drawing led him at age 14 to make his own animated movies using a 16mm stop-motion Bolex camera. In 1943, at age 18, he left college to join the Armed Forces. In June 1944, he fought in the invasion of France at Utah Beach; in July, he was wounded during a critical battle at St. Lô.

After hospitalization in England, an Army agency placed him in a special GI program “Training with Civilian Agencies,” which prepared soldiers for a return to civilian life in the USA in a chosen field. In 1945, through Max Milder, a family friend who headed Warner Bros. International, Bob became the only GI in the United Kingdom Theatre of Operations to study and train for a film career with Associated British Pictures. For nearly a year, Bob was trained by English director Harold French, and learned cinematography techniques from Freddie Francis of the B.S.C. (British Society of Cinematographers). He also observed the production of five features in British studios before his 1946 discharge from the Army.

Back in New York, Bob studied at the Art Students’ League, and in 1947 worked briefly as a staff artist at Timely Comics (later Marvel Comics Group) on comic book art for Patsy Walker and Comedy Comics. In late 1947, 22-year old Brotherton and Arthur L. Goldman formed Television Cartoons, Inc., which produced hundreds of animated and live-action advertisements for Vaseline Hair Tonics, Hudson Autos, Sylvania Electric, Blatz Beer, US Bureau of Aeronautics, Four-Way Cold Tablets, among other products and services.

The firm started in a downtown (SoHo) loft, later moving to larger quarters on West 46th Street. The corporation closed in 1953, according to Brotherton, “due to the actors/agency strike that closed many film companies during the period.” By that time, he was a member of the Screen Directors International Guild and the Director’s Guild of America. Also, in 1953, Brotherton joined CBS News as a staff film editor, making an eventual switch to editing on videotape. In 1970, he took a leave of absence from CBS for nearly eight months to become involved, like his father, in the production of a Broadway show.  The ill-fated musical played nine previews and closed opening night.  He returned to CBS and was employed there until his death in 1989 at age 64.

Winsor McCay in his later years, circa 1930.

Winsor McCay’s film legacy had already passed through a number of hands before Bob Brotherton became involved.  In July, 1934, McCay died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage at his home in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. He was 68 years old and still working full-time as an editorial cartoonist for William Randolph Hearst.

The McCay house was filled with hundreds of artworks from his long career, including original panels from his comic strips Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend and Little Nemo in Slumberland; many of his editorial drawings and advertising illustrations; original animation drawings from the dozen or so short films he created between 1911 and 1922, and 35mm nitrate negatives and prints of these films.

These objects remained in the house until the late 1930s, when a fire in the living room damaged some of the drawings and films.  McCay’s widow, Maude, decided to give up the house and move to an apartment, and their son, Robert, agreed to take the entire collection to his house for storage.  But he did not have space for everything, so he culled the contents of some film cans and burned them in the Brooklyn city dump.

Eventually, Robert transferred the collection to a trusted McCay family friend, Irving Mendelsohn.  Mendelsohn was a fabric salesman and longtime admirer of McCay’s work.  He befriended McCay in the later years of the artist’s life, probably in the late 1920s.

“I was just an admirer of his. Just one of the public,” Mendelsohn told me in an interview on August 8, 1974 in his fabric loft on West 38th Street in New York City.  Throughout his career, McCay had always earned top dollar, but spent lavishly on a very comfortable lifestyle for his wife, children and grandchildren.  New sources of income would always be welcome, and Mendelsohn agreed to help McCay find additional work.

“I did have a letter from Mr. McCay permitting me to represent him,” he said, “even with a commission on it, so to speak.  And I did go around to people, I tried.”

Regarding McCay’s working relationship with Hearst and his chief editor, Arthur Brisbane, Mendelsohn recalled, “There was a little friction there.” Mendelsohn attempted to find McCay work at a rival newspaper, The World Telegram:

We had a paper competitive to Hearst’s Evening Journal.  When Mr. McCay was very unhappy, I figured I would go to them since I had the right to represent him. So I went over to Park Row, that’s downtown in the City Hall area …and I met one of the men to talk.  He said, “Why we’d love to have Winsor McCay. Love to.  [But] Mr. Hearst would put us out of business if we took him…away.

After McCay’s death, Mendelsohn continued his friendship with the family.  In the mid-1940s, he and Robert McCay formed the McCay Feature Syndicate, Inc. and attempted to interest the Richardson Feature Syndicate in a revival of McCay’s famous strip, Little Nemo in Slumberland.  The attempt was mercifully brief, but not before Robert cut and trimmed panels from several of his father’s original large-size Nemo strips to fit a modern smaller format, a ghastly mutilation of art difficult to contemplate.

Above, and below right, two of Winsor McCay’s original Gertie the Dinosaur animation drawings that have been preserved at the Billy Ireland Library & Museum in Columbus, Ohio.  Photos by Mark Osborne. Click images to enlarge.

Robert McCay subsequently relocated his family to California.  Having failed to find any way to exploit his father’s original art, he left the bulk of it in Mendelsohn’s care, along with the film materials and animation drawings, which had essentially no commercial value.  

 

 

Mendelsohn carted the artwork and films from Brooklyn to his fabric loft (then on White Street) in Manhattan, and finally to his home on Long Island.

In 1947, Mendelsohn’s son Jack (1926 – 2017) — then a 21-year old writer-artist who later worked on TV comedy series and was a screenwriter on Yellow Submarine (1968) — brought to the Long Island house a young friend named Robert Brotherton.

“Jack said, ‘My old man has got stacks and stacks of film out at Great Neck,” Brotherton remembered. “They’re rotting. Did you ever hear of Winsor McCay?’”

Knowledgeable about the history of animation, Brotherton was “eager to take a look at them.” During my first interview with Brotherton in 1974, he excitedly told me how Mendelsohn took the two young men out to his garage, and there, from floor to ceiling in a corner, were about 100 rusting film cans. “I opened one,” Brotherton said, “and saw it was turning to powder.”

These were old 35mm nitrate films. [The earliest was thirty-six years old.] When that stuff deteriorates, it first turns to jelly, then to powder, and then watch out — it explodes! It’s highly flammable, so I asked Irving to fill a barrel with water. All afternoon and part of the next morning I looked through every can. Most were rotten and I threw those immediately into the waterbarrel. I managed to save around sixty cans. Most were prints of Gertie, but there were examples of all of McCay’s animations represented, including the hand colored Little Nemo.  Some films, like the second Gertie [Gertie on Tour], I could only save a small amount of footage and a few representative frames.

One discarded film was “an original negative to a film entitled Performing Animals. Hand-examination showed that the animals were playing musical instruments,” recalled Brotherton of a film that may have been a test of a planned cartoon for McCay’s vaudeville act. “In connection with this negative, there was an incomplete positive reel in a very early stage of decomposition.” Both were destroyed. A hand-colored version of Little Nemo, McCay’s first film made in 1911, based on his epic Little Nemo in Slumberland comic strip, was mercifully saved.

Brotherton realized, and convinced Irving Mendelsohn, that “something had to be done” to preserve these seminal works from disappearing. “We needed editing rooms to air the footage, inspect it and remove the deteriorating parts. And we needed storage rooms at controlled temperatures to keep the films. Irving agreed to put up his own money for this.”

Before that happened, Robert McCay had 16mm reduction prints and negatives made at his own expense in 1947. Duplicate negatives and positives of Little Nemo, Gertie, and some of the Rarebit Fiend series were made in a Long Island laboratory and taken by Robert to the West Coast. “It was understood,” said Brotherton, “by Mendelsohn and myself that MGM was to look into the idea of doing a Passing Parade short for that John Nesbitt series about famous people and incidents. This never came to pass. Those 16’s are most likely lying in the basement of the [MGM] studio at the present time, overlooked and forgotten about.”

Thus began a twenty-year tragicomic odyssey in which Mendelsohn and Brotherton were thrown out of editing rooms and storage houses when it was learned the film treasures they were tending were made of nitrate. In the middle of the amateur conservators’ misadventures, a tribute was paid to Winsor McCay on national television.

On November 30, 1955, on the Disneyland television series, Walt Disney included a dramatization of McCay’s vaudeville act with Gertie the Dinosaur, on a program called “The Story of the Animated Drawing.”

A 1955 the Disneyland television show recreated McCay’s vaudeville act, where he “performed” onstage with his animated creation, Gertie the Dinosaur.

Writer/animator Richard Huemer had witnessed McCay’s act years before in New York, and, with Robert McCay acting as the segment’s consultant, he was able to reproduce for the actor who played McCay the exact dialogue and movements of the artist (cracking a whip, tossing a fruit, and so forth). This historic overview of the history of character animation was the first time a new generation had ever heard of Winsor McCay and Gertie the Dinosaur.

During Robert McCay’s visit to the Disney Studio when the program was in preparation, Walt Disney acknowledged his debt, and that of all other character animators, to the experiments and films of Winsor McCay. He gestured out the window toward his bustling studio complex and said, “Bob, all this should be your father’s.”

Meanwhile, back in New York, some McCay nitrate films caught fire in a couple of storage vaults, destroying more of the material and again getting Mendelsohn and Brotherton into trouble. Finally help arrived, but not from an American museum or a grant from the United States government. These rare film masterpieces, the beginnings of the art of American character/personality animation, were rescued by Canada. (As Maurice Sendak has ruefully observed, America “still doesn’t take its great fantasists all that seriously.”)

The 1967 World Animation Film Exposition in Montreal and La Cinémathèque Québéçoise tracked down the McCay films and offered Mendelsohn and Brotherton the chance to have the troublesome nitrates preserved on safety film and stored properly. This the two men gratefully allowed. And so the existent 35mm filmography of Winsor McCay resides today in Montreal at La Cinémathèque Québéçoise. They are distribtuted on DVD by Milestone Film & Video.

In the early 1960s, Mendelsohn returned the original McCay comic strips and related paper drawings to Winsor McCay’s daughter Marion.  Her brother Robert died of cancer in 1962.

Robert Brotherton was also responsible for the preservation of the largest amount of animation drawings by McCay known to survive: approximately four hundred of the original Gertie the Dinosaur drawings.  By 1947, McCay was an artist from a bygone era, whose accomplishments in comic strips and animation had been largely forgotten by the general public. Brotherton explained how he found the drawings:

Irving wanted to give me a gift for helping him with the films. So he told me to go up to the loft of his fabric shop on White Street. There on the floor — I’ll never forget it — strewn from one end of the loft to the other among bolts of fabric, were all these Gertie drawings. Irving said to take whatever I wanted, so I spent the entire afternoon picking up every one.

John Canemaker and Lucy Shelton Caswell, Founding Curator of the Billy Ireland Library & Museum in Columbus, Ohio, examine the Museum’s collection of “Gertie” animation drawings. Photo by Mark Osborne, taken Oct. 14, 2016.

Bob carefully preserved the delicate drawings for nearly three decades, selling some to private collectors, and also donating some to museums, such as La Cinematheque Quebecoise, MoMA, and the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum, among other venues.

I met Bob Brotherton through Louise Beaudet, then head of the animation division at La Cinematheque Quebecoise in Montreal. At the time, I was beginning to research Winsor McCay and people who knew him, which eventually led to my writing the cartoonist’s biography in 1987. My first interview with Bob took place on July 29, 1974 at his editing room at WCBS studios on West 57th Street on the night shift. I later conducted interviews with him at his mother’s apartment on West End Avenue and 76th Street. He was divorced at the time with a young daughter who lived with her mother in the midwest.  Bob later married Heneriette (Betty) Adam, a vivacious French woman who brought great joy to his life.

Dear Basketball Scores Big
at Tribeca Film Festival

This past weekend I was delighted to attend the sold-out premiere of Dear Basketball at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival.  The short film is directed by master animator Glen Keane, based on sports legend Kobe Bryant’s retirement poem about the game he loves, and played brilliantly, for twenty years.

Kobe Bryant, Glen Keane and John Williams

Narrated by Bryant, with a subdued yet majestic music score by five-time Oscar-winning composer John Williams, this deeply personal film is six minutes of captivating, whirling, non-stop motion and emotion. To put it in the vernacular: Dear Basketball is a power dunk by three super players.

The hand-drawn film smoothly alternates between the child Kobe dreaming of playing for the Los Angeles Lakers, his achievement of that goal as an adult, and the inevitable process of moving on to a new life challenge.  Sounds like a lot to pack into a short, but Keane’s elegant production combines clarity and lyricism.

Significant moments in Kobe’s life morph from a boy’s point-of-view shooting hoops in his bedroom with a “ball” of tube socks, and practicing “foot mechanics” by setting up chairs as obstacles, to the sports giant he became during a career of glorious triumphs and physical pain.

The film opens with a scoreboard countdown, a roaring crowd and we, the audience, running on the court with Kobe.  Tearing through the competition toward the basket, we soar with the ball through the hoop, its netting an abstract splash dissolving dreamlike into a transition of time and space.

There is an experimental expressive freedom in Keane’s direction and animation, which he rarely had the opportunity to venture into as a Disney animator.   The films immersive quality is achieved primarily through sequential drawings on single sheets of paper.

You are always aware that the visuals are drawings — some beautifully rendered with detail and fully animated, even to the sweat trickling down Kobe’s brow;  some drawings are wild scribbles, lines that coalesce into, and out of, recognizable shapes.  The action and “camera” point-of-view takes place within drawings of moving backgrounds that quickly, freely, fluidly change locale and time periods, as storyteller Keane desires.

As with other great animated cartoons, no matter the style, audiences become deeply involved with the story through the characters.  Keane mastered “illusion of life” animation’s power and charm at Disney, and brings it with joy to his free-form storytelling here.

Expressive sequential graphite-penciled story sketches are essential to Keane’s creative process; for example, his dramatically expressive thumbnail storyboards for The Rescuers Down Under and Pocahontas, among other films.  Rough story and animation drawings are rarely seen in their nascent form in his Disney oeuvre, but their raw vitality pulses in this film.   Dear Basketball is a “pencil test” writ large and beautiful, reminiscent of John and Faith Hubley’s experimental films.

In an on-stage interview conducted by Michael Strahan on Sunday, April 23, Bryant and Keane talked about their collaboration on the project. ( A video of the complete Tribeca Talk conversation can be seen at Cartoon Brew.)

Bryant said he insisted that animation of his poem be hand-drawn, “not CG,” and “in one with the game;” that is, a tactile match for his tangible sense of touch and the smell, sound and feel of “a basketball in the game.”  He also noted certain abstract things can be best expressed through animation, such as “emotion, conscious and sub-conscious thought, ideas.”

“A drawing with a pencil is an expression of your soul,” Keane said. “A seismograph of your soul. You put a line down – it’s a feeling and emotion.”

Both men discussed recent profound changes in their lives and how they dealt with it:  Kobe leaving basketball as one of the best athletes in NBA history; Glen leaving the Disney Studio after an illustrious 38 years as one of its greatest animators. (Ariel in The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Pocahontas, the Beast in Beauty and the Beast, and Tarzan.)

Bryant formed Kobe Inc. a multi-media content creation company to help athletes learn the process of excellence and maximizing potential.  He asked of himself and the Tribeca audience, “What can you control” in seeking your goals.  Cited as an “inspiration” was his friend Michael Jackson, who advised Bryant, when he was with the Lakers, to up his game by seriously “studying the game,” as deeply as Jackson studied entertainers he admired; for example, Jackson pored over sheet music and recordings of The Beatles, and analyzed the dancing of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire.

In addition to persistence, Bryant noted that his career was “built piece by piece,” not by focusing on the top of a personal Mount Everest he wanted to reach, but instead on “each step, one foot after the other, and perfecting those steps” to reach the mountaintop.

Members of the Dear Basketball creative team at the 2017 Annie Awards in Los Angeles. From left, producer Gennie Rim, Kobe Bryant, Glen Keane, animation assistant Aidan Terry and designer/compositor Scott Uyeshima.

When Glen Keane left Disney, he no longer had an army of “clean-up” or ink and paint artists to transform his drawings into a uniform Disney style.  Now, the independent Glen Keane Productions has a small crew in Hollywood helping the master animator/storyboard artist retain the aliveness of his personal “signature” on the screen.

“This Kobe project certainly has me feeling like a new animation student trying to figure out what end is up,” Keane wrote to me last summer.  “I told Kobe that he has the worst basketball player on earth animating him. But fortunately, observation and imagination are not limited by my athleticism.”

The crew on the nine-month production of Dear Basketball includes producer Gennie Rim; production designer Max Keane; animators Minkyu Lee and Bolhem Bouchiba; effects animator Phillip Vigil; and animation assistant Aidan Terry.

On a personal note, Glen Keane, master animator, story artist and major mensch of great integrity, honor, and humility, has been a friend for many years.  I first got to know him as an essential, articulate and witty interviewee for my periodical articles and my 2001 book on Disney’s Nine Old Men.  We corresponded via email for years.

When we were both honored with the Winsor McCay Award at the 2007 Annie Awards ceremony, I boldly asked Glen if he might sign and send a sketch of the Beast to me.

 

 

 

In 2013, a splendid drawing arrived and, as you can see, it was a treasure worth waiting for:

A 2013 drawing of The Beast by Glen Keane for John Canemaker. Click to enlarge.

In 2015, Glen was in New York screening Duet at the Museum of Modern Art, and he generously found time to visit NYU Tisch, meet our animation students, and to give a spellbinding  lecture (with spontaneous drawings).

Last June, Gennie Rim, Glen’s producer on Duet and other projects, contacted me, seeking “any stand-out students or alumni” for a new 2-D project.  I saw it as an opportunity to reciprocate Glen’s generosity, and suggested young Aidan Terry, a brilliant 2016 graduate and mainstay of our NYU Tisch School of the Arts/Kanbar Film and Television’s animation program. Equally adept at hand-drawn character animation and the digital realm (including VR), Aidan joined Glen’s team last summer on Dear Basketball.

Aidan Terry at work on Dear Basketball.

“I am already impressed with this young man,” Glen wrote to me in July.

We at NYU are very proud of Aidan!

 

 

 

A Tale of Two Gerties

Actress Gertrude Lawrence and Walt Disney, 1942. Click image to enlarge.

On Saturday, February 7, 1942, Walt Disney attended a performance of the hit Broadway musical Lady in the Dark at the Alvin Theatre, now the Neil Simon Theatre, on West 52nd Street, and went backstage to meet the show’s radiant star, Gertrude Lawrence.

As I noted in my earlier post on The Square World, Disney was facing a difficult period in his career.  The attack on Pearl Harbor exactly two months earlier had plunged America into the Second World War and deprived Disney of much-needed revenues from the European and Asian markets.  His fifth animated feature, the long-delayed Bambi, had been in pre-production since 1937, at a cost of nearly $2 million, and would not be released until August of 1942.

I asked Michael Barrier, esteemed animation historian and Disney biographer (The Animated Man), why Walt was in New York at that time.  “I think the principal reason for Walt’s visit to the East that month,” he replied, “was government business in Washington.”  Barrier also noted

[My records] show him arriving in New York from Washington on Thursday, February 5 [1942], and leaving New York for L.A. with a stopover in Kansas City on Wednesday, February 11.  He seems to have tacked on visits to New York on a number of occasions when he visited D.C. — no doubt to confer with RKO [his film distributor] people and Kay Kamen [Disney’s merchandising executive], among others . . .

Disney had already cut back significantly on studio staff in early 1941, after the initial box-office disappointments of Pinocchio and Fantasia. Now facing an even greater financial crisis, he wasted no time in seeking war-related projects. Indeed, during the years 1942-1945, the Disney studio would be engaged extensively in making training and propaganda films for the Armed Forces and the home front, and this stream of government work was essential to the studio’s survival.

On this particular day, then, Walt must have looked forward to escaping his mounting worries for a couple of hours with Lady in the Dark, which had been playing to turn-away business for more than a year.

Lady in the Dark made the cover of TIME Magazine on Feb. 3, 1941. Photo: Richard Tucker

Lady in the Dark opened on Broadway January 23, 1941, and Broadway, frankly, had never seen anything like it — a lavish, innovative musical play about psychoanalysis, written and directed by Moss Hart, with music by Kurt Weill and lyrics by Ira Gershwin, and starring the legendary Gertrude Lawrence.

It was an early concept musical, which abandoned the then-standard Broadway format of chorus lines, love ballads and comic turns.  Instead, the narrative integrated a series of dazzling musical “dream” tableaux, each of which revealed a different aspect of the heroine’s psychological state.  In abandoning a linear plot for musical vignettes connected by a theme, Lady in the Dark anticipated what would be realized more fully and brilliantly three decades later in the Hal Prince/Stephen Sondheim musicals Company (1970) and Follies (1971).

Lady in the Dark, with a company of 101, massive sets and elaborate costumes, has never been fully revived on Broadway.  However, in a 1981 PBS television special, the late Lynn Redgrave accurately recreated Ms. Lawrence’s show-stopping number, “The Saga of Jenny,” with the original staging, and with Danny Kaye, who played The Ringmaster in the 1941 production.

Caricature by Al Frueh of Gertrude Lawrence and Lady in the Dark cast members Victor Mature and Danny Kaye.

Lady in the Dark opened to superlative reviews.  It was the “greatest triumph” of Lawrence’s career, writes Bruce D. McClung, author of a marvelously detailed 2007 book about the show, Lady in the Dark: Biography of a Musical.   The New York Herald Tribune called Lawrence “the greatest feminine performer in the theatre.”  The New York Times proclaimed her a “goddess.”  Another critic hailed her performance as “incredible in its virtuosity.”

A huge hit, the musical often played to standing room only, sometimes 100 standees for each performance.  After a summer hiatus (most Broadway shows closed for the summer in those pre-air conditioned days), Lady in the Dark closed on May 30, 1942 after a run of fifty-eight nonconsecutive weeks.

Ms. Lawrence then headlined the show on an eight-city tour, which returned to Broadway for a limited engagement (February thru May 1943), then toured the west coast, finally closing in Los Angeles in July 1943, racking up a grand total of 777 performances.

Gertrude Lawrence, 1934, in the London play Nymph Errant.

Gertrude Lawrence (1898-1952), British actress and musical comedy performer, was a legendary star of the West End and Broadway.  She is little known today, but earlier generations, who saw her on stage, never forgot her.  Though not a conventional beauty, Lawrence possessed, according to her biographer Sheridan Morley, “a radiance which could hold theatre audiences spellbound.”

1930 Ralph Barton caricature of Noel Coward and Gertrude Lawrence in Private Lives.

Her professional relationship with longtime friend Noel Coward, the great playwright/actor, was often tempestuous.  But he wrote starring roles for her and himself in Private Lives and Tonight at 8:30.

1936 Al Frueh caricature of Noel and Gertie in Tonight at 8:30.

“Sometimes, in Private Lives,” Coward wrote of his co-star “Gertie,” “I would look at her across the stage and she would simply take my breath away.”

Two photographs taken of Walt meeting Gertie — celebrity to celebrity — are offered here for the first time.  In the image at the top of this page, Lawrence is in full stage make-up and dressed in a dark brocaded wrapper.  She holds a small eye make-up brush in her right hand and has looped her other hand through Disney’s arm, drawing herself close to him.  She smiles warmly, looking up at him, and Walt is literally open-mouthed at his proximity to this glamorous actress.

Click image to enlarge.

In the photo directly above, Gertie and Walt toast each other.  She, grinning widely, still clutching her make-up brush, hoists an empty water glass; he, a bit more composed, holds a glass of bubble-less “champagne” (probably water), gazes directly into Gertie’s eyes and strikes a dashing Noel Coward-ish pose.

In the middle of that photo, grinning joyfully, is a 17-year old self-taught, would-be animator named Robert N. Brotherton (1925 – 1989).  Bob loved Disney films, and it was obviously a great thrill to be so close to his idol, Walt Disney.  Brotherton’s father, manager of the Alvin’s box office, arranged for his son to meet Walt.

Bob Brotherton was a sweet, generous man with an innate sense of history and a love for the art of animation.  It was Bob who gave me the two original prints of the above photos.  And it is appropriate that he shared a photo frame with Walt Disney, since Bob Brotherton also made a very significant contribution, albeit indirectly, to animation history.

Five years after this photo with Disney and Ms. Lawrence was taken, Bob had a fateful encounter with another star performer named Gertie, namely pioneering animator Winsor McCay’s celebrated 1914 animated cartoon dinosaur.  For it was Bob who, in 1947, rescued the original 35mm negatives and prints of the films of Winsor McCay, which otherwise would have been lost forever.   Not only did he save McCay’s Gertie film, and others, from destruction and oblivion, he also rescued and preserved a goodly number of McCay’s original Gertie animation drawings.

This iconic image of Winsor McCay and Gertie the Dinosaur was one of McCay’s original production drawings, saved by Bob Brotherton. Click image to enlarge.

I wrote briefly about Bob and his heroic salvaging efforts in my 1987 biography, Winsor McCay – His Life and Art.  But he has never received enough recognition for his extraordinary salvaging and protection of the film legacy of Winsor McCay.  Practically nothing has been written about the life of this man who, in his own way, had the passion for film preservation and tenacity of Henri Langlois.

I will rectify that oversight soon, in a future blog posting of John Canemaker’s Animated Eye.

 

It’s THE SQUARE WORLD, After All !

 

A story sketch for The Square World

In 1944, the Walt Disney Studio was struggling to survive.  World War II, with no end in sight, cut off essential income from Disney’s European film markets.

Substantial debt lingered from lavishly produced, pre-war box office failures, Pinocchio and Fantasia (both released in 1940), the construction of an expensive new studio in Burbank, and a 1941 labor strike.  The huge financial problems of Walt Disney and his business partner and brother, Roy, necessitated that they produce, almost exclusively, Armed Forces training films and home front propaganda shorts for the duration of the war.

During this difficult period, Walt also optimistically planned numerous post-war film productions.  To whet the public’s appetite for his future filmic dreams, he previewed them in, of all places, a children’s book titled Walt Disney’s Surprise Package, published by Simon & Schuster in July 1944.

Surprise Package is a historical document of sorts — a fascinating glimpse into the Disney Studio’s creative process at a crucial time in its history.  Uncle Remus Stories; Happy Valley (later titled Fun and Fancy Free); The Wind in the Willows (later The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad; Alice in Wonderland; Peter Pan, were priorities among the hoped-for future projects, and all eventually reached movie screens in 1946, 1947, 1949, 1951 and 1953, respectively.

Adapting classic stories, such as above, for a children’s book was the formidable and thankless task of H. Marion Palmer, wife of Ted (Dr. Seuss) Geisel. The text is predictably bland and succinct.

Much more interesting is Surprise Package’s  illustrations.  They show designs for now-familiar characters, settings and actions in their earliest conceptual stages of development, far removed from their finalized appearance in films.

The original concept for Lady

For example, the dog story titled “Lady,” which was finally produced in 1955 as Lady and the Tramp.  In Surprise Package, she appears in appealing sketches, perhaps by J. P. Miller (all the artists are unidentified), as a generic pooch  —   a mottled Springer Spaniel, not the honey-colored, glam version seen on the screen.  Though there are two mischievous Siamese cats, she is a Lady without her Tramp, the charming mutt with whom, eleven years later, she shared main-title billing and a spaghetti dinner.

Equally fascinating in Surprise Package are the illustrated stories that the studio never produced, including three by Hans Christian Andersen, for a feature comprising a collection of tales explored in sketches as early as 1937: The Little Fir Tree; The Emperor’s New Clothes; and seventeen pages devoted to Through the Picture Frame, adapted from Ole Lukoie.

Through the Picture Frame

The latter story’s free-form pastel drawings, filled with gentle, inventive whimsy, are by Bianca Majolie, who, in 1935, was the first woman story artist Disney hired.  In a 1987 correspondence with me, Ms. Majolie said she drew the illustrations, plus a couple more included in a September 1944 book, also titled Through the Picture Frame, one of the first titles in the Walt Disney Little Library series.

The most unusual entry in Surprise Package is The Square World, an original story by Disney Studio’s star writer/artists at the time: the prolific Joe Grant and Richard (Dick) Huemer, who produced Fantasia and developed Dumbo.  During the war, the team wrote/produced numerous film stories for the home front, such as the Oscar-winning Der Fuehrer’s Face (1943).  See my 2010 book, Two Guys Named Joe, for more about the extraordinary life and careers of Joe Grant.

The Square World was Grant/Huemer’s protest against totalitarianism, racism, and loss of personal freedom.  In the text, adapted by Palmer from Huemer’s original pun-filled rhymes, the allegory concerns people in the land of What’s-It’s Name (“Wotzitsname” in Huemer’s version), who, like everyone, have many shapes.

One of the original storyboards for The Square World – click to view

 

Mighty-Highty-Tighty (“Hi-Mucki-Muck”), the megalomaniacal ruler, is squat and square.  He declares, “I do not like so many shapes. My shape is the right shape!”  His soldiers set forth to remake the entire world into square shapes, including people, buildings, cars, trees, even chickens and their eggs. When babies continue to be born in a diversity of shapes, Mighty-Highty-Tighty commits suicide.

Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge

Six color drawings on two pages accompanying the story, drawn for Surprise Package by Joe Grant, are in a modernist stylization unusual for Disney. They resemble European poster graphics, which United Productions of America (UPA) later adopted for their short cartoon films, such as Gerald McBoing Boing (1951).

Children could relate to the small, soft and round creatures of the story put upon by aggressive, sharp-cornered bullies.  But the real target of the two writer/artists were adults who’d understand the story is, in Richard Huemer’s words, “bitterly satirizing totalitarianism, á la Hitler or Mussolini, or any other aspiring dictator.”

Why was the film not produced?  “It was in the waning days of the war that the storyboards were ready for presentation to Walt for okay to go ahead on production,”Huemer explained in a Foreword to a 16-page rhyme he wrote “based loosely” on the cartoon story.

Walt was not there. Instead (which was most unusual) Roy Disney, who very seldom had any connection with the creative mechanics of the studio, was in charge. After the storyboards had been read and explained to the group, Roy lost no time in stating that we ought not to make this picture. Not that it lacked merit.  Far from it.  But that now, that the end of hostilities was definitely in sight (at least in Europe) we perhaps ought to soft-pedal any slaps at our erstwhile enemy. We are going to have to do business with whatever government takes over in Germany, so we oughtn’t create any  further ill will,” said he.  And that was that, and an opinion that was reasonable enough.

The boards were put away . . .

Another reason why The Square World disappeared was offered by Joe Grant.  Interviewed by animation historian Michael Barrier on October 14, 1988, when asked who did the Surprise Package drawings, Grant said:

Those are my drawings. I have quite a few of them that I did that weren’t published. I wish we had made that picture. I told you I have the letters from the legal department that they thought it was too communistic.

The prescient Mr. Grant and Mr. Huemer

Thanks to Jim Hollifield, Richard Huemer, Jr., Didier Ghez, Michael Barrier.

All Disney Images are ©Disney and are shown here for educational and inspirational purposes only.

 

Floyd Norman at NYU

 

On a tour of the Animation area at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts/Kanbar Department of Film and Television, on March 31, 2017, Floyd Norman poses in an empty classroom as a “stern ol’ professor”!

Last night at NYU Tisch School of the Arts, Disney Legend Floyd Norman, age 81, the first African-American animator at the Walt Disney Studio, and his wife Adrienne, screened their wonderful 2016 documentary, Floyd Norman: An Animated Life.  Afterward, they and the film’s co-directors, Michael Fiore and Erik Sharkey, participated in a Q&A that I moderated.

Floyd Norman, circa 1958, working on Disney’s Sleeping Beauty (1959).

Norman’s extensive career in animation began in 1956 at Disney, where he worked on classic features, such as Sleeping Beauty, The Sword and the Stone, Mary Poppins, The Jungle Book —  sometimes as an animator or layout or story artist, and sometimes in Disney Publishing as a book illustrator and comic strip writer.  During his sixty-plus years in the animation industry, he has also worked at Hanna-Barbera, (Josie and the Pussycats, Scooby-Doo, and The Smurfs, among other series) and Pixar (Toy Story 2).  In the mid-1960s, he was co-owner of his own animation studio, Vignette Films, focusing on educational shorts about Black history.

The 94-minute film is, by turns, funny, deeply moving and inspirational, and candid about Norman’s personal life, and his professional encounters with racism and, especially, ageism.

Floyd is a prolific blogger (MrFun’s Journal), whose hilarious gag-filled illustrated books on animation industry politics and business policies –available on Amazon.com – not only bite the hand that feeds him, but chomps it off at the shoulder.

Floyd and Adrienne, a gifted Disney publications artist in her own right, held forth for a Q&A that lasted nearly an hour.  Both are articulate raconteurs, and the audience of students and faculty were held by their charm, candor and ready humor.  They spoke truthfully about their lives, and the audience responded with respectful attention and many questions.

The Normans obviously love what they do.  Adrienne and Floyd’s positive, upbeat attitude was catnip to students starting on the road of their own careers in film.

The gist of their message can be found in this passage from one of Floyd’s blog posts:

Here’s the good news. Beginnings don’t have to end. If you’re smart, resilient and resourceful you can create your own beginnings. Reinvent yourself. Redesign yourself and screw the corporation you worked for. Walk away and move forward on your own. If you’ve been booted out take this as a cue to get started. Begin a new task.

Begin a new journey. Begin!

Floyd and Adrienne Norman tour the NYU Tisch/Kanbar Animation program with Executive Director/Professor John Canemaker.

1988: The Second Walter Lantz/AFI
Animation Seminar

In this photo are some of the participants on June 11, 1988: from left, top row, Vivian Procopio; Bill Peet; Bob Kurtz; Donald Crafton; Jim Lindner; Leo Salkin; John Canemaker; Rick Reinert; Harvey Deneroff. Middle row, June Foray; Sody Clampett; Faith Frenz-Heckman; Walter Lantz; Frank Paiker.
Bottom row, Terry Thoren; unknown; Jerry Beck; Charles Solomon; Will Ryan. Click here to enlarge.

In 1988, I was the Guest Curator of an animation symposium held at Universal Studios in Los Angeles, the second in a series of three annual conferences on “The Art of the Animated Image.”  Each was financed through the generosity of cartoon producer Walter Lantz (1899-1994) and the American Film Institute.

For “Storytelling in Animation,” the topic selected for the one-day conference held on Saturday, June 11, 1988, I wanted to offer attendees a wide-ranging overview of the subject.  Looking back, after nearly thirty years, it was a never-to-be-repeated moment, when animation stood on the cusp of radical change.

The conference drew together, on stage and in the audience, veterans of the silent film era and the golden age of the Hollywood cartoon; experimental animators; animation historians and authors; and newcomers finding their way at the dawn of CGI and what would be the final burst of Disney hand-drawn animation.  Film clips illustrated the discussions.

Donald Crafton, left, leads a discussion panel consisting of veteran animators Ollie Johnston, Walter Lantz, Dave Tendlar and Frank Thomas.

Still photos illustrating this post show some of the event’s participants and audience members.  Though the symposium was not videotaped or filmed, an anthology that I edited (Storytelling in Animation: The Art of the Animated Image, Vol. 2) was published in conjunction with the conference. It contains articles on aspects of animation storytelling, as well as selected transcripts of speeches, panel discussions and interviews.

 

Available through out-of-print online dealers, here are the book’s chapters:

  • Introduction – John Canemaker
  • Disney’s Pigs Is Pigs: Notes from a Journal, 1949-1953 – Leo Salkin
  • Some Observations on Non-Objective and Non-linear Animation – William Moritz
  • In the Matter of Writers and Animation Story Persons – Harvey Deneroff
  • Frustration – Shamus Culhane
  • Storytelling as Remembering: Picturing the Past in Caroline Leaf’s THE STREET – Thelma Schenkel
  • A Conversation with Caroline Leaf – Moderated by John Canemaker
  • Computers, New Technology and Animation – Moderated by James Lindner, with John Lasseter, Tina Price and Carl Rosendahl
  • Studio Approaches to Story – Moderated by John Canemaker, with Bill Peet, Joe Ranft, Jerry Rees and Peter Schneider
  • Still is the Story Told: Disney and Story – Robin Allan
  • Animation is a Visual Medium – Charles Solomon
  • Who Framed Roger Rabbit: The Presence of the Past – Susan Ohmer
  • The Little Girl/Little Mother Transformation: The American Evolution of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs – Karen Merritt
  • Walt Disney’s Peter Pan: Woman Trouble on the Island – Donald Crafton

It was an exhilarating, informative, fun day.   I recall, with great fondness, Hicks Lokey (1904-1990) showing Don Crafton and me some of his animation sketches for Dumbo’s Pink Elephants and Fantasia’s Dance of the Hours; and meeting Frank Paiker (1909-1989), cameraman at J.R. Bray’s studio in the 1920s  — where he met Walter Lantz — and later became a technical supervisor at Hanna-Barbera Studios.

Bill Peet

It was a thrill to meet Bill Peet (1915-2002), one of Walt Disney’s greatest story artists.  On his panel (“Studio Approaches To Story”), he spoke in a raspy whisper, due to throat cancer, but everything he said was pure gold.

For example:

The first thing you have to have is a set of characters that can carry you through the story once they’re established. That’s the most important part.  It’s like a train leaving the station without passengers: if you don’t have characters from the word go, you don’t have the story really started . . .

. . . for animation, you need strong, definite personalities, so that you can have broad and explicit action, and they’ll be no doubts what your characters are thinking.  In animation, we’re not trying to duplicate live-action or realism. We’re trying to make it larger than life. We want exaggerated actions and attitudes.

A Bill Peet story sketch from Dumbo. Copyright © Disney

Peet often disagreed with Disney when they worked together, and he did so again on the Lantz/AFI panel:

One thing I want to say here today:  after Walt Disney had made a big success with Snow White, his next thought was to make films more realistic,more impressive, and more pretentious.  And I think he was going in the wrong direction. What makes Snow White is the marvelous personalities, and not its attempts at getting more conventional.

I remember he tried multi-plane camera work, and all the technology available at the time, but I still say the charm of animation is the obvious appearance of it. It always has been, no matter how elaborate you can make it.  Animation stands alone.

Also on that panel, and in awe of Peet’s creativity, was Joe Ranft (1960-2005), then age 28, who became my close friend.  Joe would join Pixar and Toy Story four years later, but he was already considered one of his generation’s finest story artists.

The “Studio Approaches to Story” panel members, from left: moderator John Canemaker, Bill Peet, Joe Ranft, Jerry Rees and Peter Schneider.

When I asked him “how sacred” should the original story material for a film be, Joe responded:

I see it as a jumping-off point, and I try to maintain fidelity to the original material in spirit while . . . exploring the possibilities of entertainment. We really see that as a storyman’s job;  to get as much entertainment as possible. You can veer away from the material, but sometimes you’ll break the essence of what this story is if you go too far away.  So you have to go to the edge, and come back. 

John Canemaker and Caroline Leaf

The storytelling power of Caroline Leaf and her award-winning films were honored in a special film tribute.  On-stage, she discussed with me The Street (1976), her extraordinary, dark, emotional animated short, which was painted with her fingers frame-by-frame on underlit glass.  The story, she recalled, based on a Mordecai Richler book,

was maybe twenty pages, and at first I thought that to be respectful to the writer I should put everything onto film. And I found as I was working, the more I could pare away the words and just work with the imagery and be true to the feeling I was getting in the story, the better it worked on film.

The Street, by Caroline Leaf. Photo © National Film Board of Canada

For The Metamorphosis of Mr. Samsa (1977), Caroline focused on one area of the complicated Kafka story:

(H)ow horrible it would be to have a body, or the external part of one’s self that’s seen by the world be different from what’s inside one’s self, and not be able to communicate that.

John Lasseter’s comments on the “Computers, New Technology and Animation” panel are fascinating to read today. Here’s a sample:

With computer animation you can do anything if you have the time and the money, but, to me, there are some very strong limitations when you’re dealing with a character.  Luxo Jr. (1986) came about when we were learning the system, and I modeled this character of a Luxo lamp . . .

The success of Luxo Jr. was a real surprise to us, to be honest . . . When we premiered it at SIGGRAPH, the computer graphics conference, it got a tremendous reaction, and it was scary in a way.

Jim Blinn, who’s one of the premiere scientists in computer graphics, came running up to me after the screening, and he goes, “John, John, I have a question for you.” And I thought, “Oh boy, umm – I don’t know much about the shadow algorithm or something like that.”  And he said, “John was the parent lamp a mother or a father?”

That excited me more than anything else in the world because the film had achieved what I wanted it to:  let the story and the characters be the important aspect, not the technology.

Luxo Jr. © 1986 – 2017 Pixar.  All Rights Reserved

During the conference, a couple of aesthetic gauntlets were figuratively thrown.  Good grist for discussion, I say.

Dr. William Mortiz (1941-2004), esteemed scholar, teacher, champion of experimental film, and Oskar Fischinger biographer, noted in his sly essay that “No animation film that is not non-objective and/or non-linear can really qualify as true animation.”

. . . watching a drawn coyote crash through walls, fall down stairs, be crushed by falling objects or burned to a crisp by the explosives he holds is certainly not as amazing or funny as seeing Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin or Harold Lloyd of the Keystone Kops do those same stunts live right before our “camera-never-lies” eyes.

Shamus Culhane (1908–1996), animator (he marched the seven dwarfs “Heigh-Ho” in Snow White), successful TV commercial director/producer, could not attend.  But he insisted that his brief essay be read aloud before the panel he was invited to participate on.  Based on an epiphany Culhane experienced after watching the free-form techniques used in animated films produced at the National Film Board of Canada (sand, clay, pin screen, paint-on-film stock, etc.) his essay attacked what he called the “mind-shackling cel system,” and concluded “it will be a great day for the art form when the last film using cel animation is finished.”
Ka-boom!

Culhane’s confession/diatribe was read in front of and tolerated with icy silence by panelists Lantz, Tendlar, Johnson and Thomas, all traditional hand-drawn, cel technique animators, like Culhane.

But the feisty Irish-American native of Manhattan’s Yorkville proved prescient — two years after the 1988 conference, Disney replaced cels with the Computer Animation Production System (CAPS), and three years after that, John Lasseter started production at Pixar on the CGI feature Toy Story.

 

I want a president.

Walking fast on New York’s magnificent linear High Line Park on a recent brisk February day. A giant 20-by-30 foot poster, installed on a pillar of the Standard Hotel, stops and holds me mid-stride.

The typewritten text, words crossed out on a single page torn and tattered by exposure to the elements since October 2016, rivets me and other visitors passing by.

Written a quarter century ago by queer feminist activist/artist Zoe Leonard, I want a president is, at once, a poem and a political manifesto — direct, blunt, heartfelt and angry.

It remains urgent and relevant today, as our country may be circling the drain, thanks to government-induced and sanctioned exclusion, racism, homophobia, misogyny, narrow-minded ignorance, incompetence, and a distressing lack of empathy for nature, humanity and the human condition.

In a statement, Leonard explained: “I am interested in the space this text opens up for us to imagine and voice what we want in our leaders, and even beyond that, what we can envision for the future of our society. I still think that speaking up is a vital and powerful political act.”

Here is Leonard’s poem:

I want a dyke for president. I want a person with aids for president and I want a fag for president and I want someone with no health insurance and I want someone who grew up in a place where the earth is so saturated with toxic waste that they didn’t have a choice about getting leukemia.  I want a president that had an abortion at sixteen and I want a candidate who isn’t the lesser of two evils and I want a president who lost their last lover to AIDS, who still sees that in their eyes every time they lay down to rest, who held their lover in their arms and knew they were dying.  I want a president with no air-conditioning, a president who has stood in line at the clinic, at the DMV, at the welfare office, and has been unemployed and laid off and sexually harassed and gaybashed and deported. I want someone who has spent the night in the tombs and had a cross burned on their lawn and survived rape. I want someone who has been in love and been hurt, who respects sex, who has made mistakes and learned from them. I want a Black woman for president. I want someone with bad teeth and an attitude, someone who has eaten that nasty hospital food, someone who crossdresses and has done drugs and been in therapy. I want someone who has committed civil disobedience. And I want to know why this isn’t possible. I want to know why we started learning somewhere down the line that a president is always a clown. Always a john and never a hooker. Always a boss and never a worker. Always a liar, always a thief, and never caught.

–Zoe Leonard, 1992