Ruminations on animation, art and life in general
Winsor McCay – His Life and Art, my biography of the innovative pioneer of comic strips and animated films, has been revised twice since Abbeville Press first published it in 1987. In the 2005 Harry N. Abrams edition and, again, in the current 2018 CRC Press/A Focal Press Book edition, I updated and expanded the text to include new information about McCay that had come to my attention in the last three decades.
I am particularly pleased about one informational addition in the new CRC/Focal Press edition, concerning a gentleman I first described, in 1987, as merely “a Mr. Hunt of the [New York] Herald color department.” His name had come to my attention in the margin of an original Little Nemo in Slumberland comic strip board, on which Winsor McCay penciled an instructional message in non-photographing blue pencil:
This is a snow forest. All the trees and foliage are snow. Plenty of purple and blue tones. The only bright color will be in the costume of the figures. An orange sky. The rest all pale blues, pinks and purples. Creme colored [indecipherable] with cold blue shadows.
(The strip, which was published on January 21, 1906, had Nemo tunneling through snow while being chased by a polar bear.)
I figured Mr. Hunt was one of the so-called “artists in zinc,” a master of the Ben Day printing process which allowed shading on color pictures for reproduction in the Herald. It was an intricate, labor intensive artistic/mechanical/chemical operation that lent McCay’s Little Nemo and other Herald Sunday comic strips the most subtle, stunningly beautiful array of colors ever seen in early news print.
I later happened upon an April 20, 1914 Herald article,“Exhibit of Color Print Art Pays Tribute to Work Done by the Herald”, which describes in detail the problems of etching on plates of zinc to achieve gradations of light and shade or tone.
The etcher on copper, after great labor, is able to produce this effect with the needle . . . The Ben day process consists in placing a fine meshed, inked screen over the parts of the plate to be shaded and then making dots by passing a roller over it. That portion of the plate which is not to be printed on is protected by a gamboge solution. The screen is regulated by a delicately adjusted gauge, manipulated by a thumb screw, and the ground may be light or dark as the operator thinks best. It is in the various modifications of the process, the placing of dots and lines in greater number where deeper color is desired, and in the soft blending of tones that the artist-artisans of the Herald plant excel.
Four colorists appear in as many photographs. Unfortunately, the men pictured are not identified, though their intricate jobs are described in detail and their “high skill” praised:
[The artists in zinc] have to foresee what the effect of the various color combinations will be when the final proof is made, because often four or five different plates are used in the preparation of one color page. The harmony of colors depends much upon the ability of the makers of the plate. The slightest variation in tone may destroy the conception of the artist and produce an effect that would be harsh and coarse. The men of the Herald color department turn out plates of exceptional excellence, and yet rapidly enough to meet every requirement of newspaper speed.
I wondered if Mr. Hunt might be among these four men. Perhaps he was a foreman who collaborated with McCay on color choices for the Nemo strip. Pity, I thought, not to know something, anything, about his job, background and personal life. I feared he and his co-workers, who participated in creating such beautiful graphic imagery, would remain as anonymous to history as the artisans of ancient Egyptian monuments and craftspeople of Chartres.
But — “the gods smile on film historians,” wrote animation historian and author Donald Crafton in his seminal book, Before Mickey: The Animated Film 1898 – 1928. Or, as Tennessee Williams put it, “Sometimes – there’s God – so quickly.”
In late November, 2011, I was surprised by an email from Carmen and Jennifer Armstrong, two sisters who knew of my McCay biography. They wanted advice on the value of a collection of color proofs on tear sheets from the New York Herald newspaper’s Sunday color comics, a family legacy from their great-grandfather — Mr. Alfred B. Hunt.
“[He] was a colorist (I think they called them),” Carmen Armstrong wrote. “For the Herald in NYC. He did the coloring for the Little Nemo in Slumberland and other comics. He saved every proof that he did at that time. They are the size of a full page of the NY Times.”
Thanks to the generosity of the sisters Armstrong, I learned a great deal about the formerly mysterious Mr. Hunt when I visited their Long Island home that December, as well as the identity of two of his colleagues on the Ben Day process, depicted in the 1911 Herald story: Al Heatherington and Louis Kreamer, Sr. :
Alfred Benjamin Hunt was born in 1854 on Clarkson Street, Brooklyn, the son of Benjamin Hunt and Hannah Flower Hunt, both natives of England.
When Hunt was three, the family moved to Brookside Avenue, Freeport, Long Island, where his father operated a nearby farm. During the Civil War, the Hunt family lived in Freeport, where young Hunt attended school in Roosevelt. When he was a youth, the family moved back to Brooklyn. Hunt was a graduate of the Academy of Design at Cooper Union, New York City, and began his career working in the printing industry.
Alfred B. Hunt indeed worked directly with Winsor McCay on the magnificent Little Nemo in Slumberland series, from its beginning in October 1905 (Hunt was then age 51 and McCay age 38) until McCay joined Hearst’s papers in June 1911.
Hunt also supervised color choices and processes for Johnny Gruelle (1880 – 1938) and his Sunday comic fantasy strip, Mr. Twee Deedle, about a magical wood sprite who befriends two human children. The beautifully drawn whimsy, which dips into surrealism on occasion, was the winning entry in a 1910 New York Herald contest that sought a replacement for Little Nemo, when McCay left for Hearst.
Mr. Twee Deedle ran for four years from 1911 to 1914, until it was abruptly discontinued by a new Sunday editor. The Herald publisher, James Gordon Bennett, noticed the omission while traveling in Europe.
“What became of Twee Deedle? cabled Bennett.
“Discontinued by Sunday editor,” was cabled back.
“Discontinue Sunday editor,” was Bennett’s succinct reply.
Mr. Twee Deedle lived another four years.
In 1918, Johnny Gruelle created beloved Raggedy Ann, whose stories, and those of her brother Raggedy Andy, quickly became a publishing and merchandising bonanza for the cartoonist.
A Bonham’s catalogue, for a December 11, 2013 sale of Mr. Hunt’s collection of Herald color proofs, described Mr. Hunt’s work: “After the illustrators brought in their black and white drawings and paintings, Hunt would then apply watercolor to black and white proofs to guide the printers in the final Ben Day color scheme. Among the artists and cartoonists Hunt worked with were Harrison Fisher, Arthur I. Keller, Winsor McCay, Thomas Nast, R. F. Outcault, W. A. Rogers and Dan Smith. Included are many of the Christmas supplements and a large number of the weekly “Fluffy Ruffles” pages written by Carolyn Wells and illustrated by Wallace Morgan.”
After 28 years at the Herald, Hunt left at the time of its merger with the New York Tribune in 1924. He was 70 years old, but then worked at the Boro Engraving Company, Brooklyn, until he finally retired in 1941 at age 86.
Hunt moved back to Freeport in retirement, living at South Long Beach Avenue. His hobby was gardening, laying out and planting vegetable and flower gardens at his home, a continuation of his love of color, this time in three dimensions. Mr. Hunt was the oldest living member of the 23rd regiment of the National Guard, at the rank of sergeant. He was on active duty on many occasions, and received an honorary membership in the Veterans Association of the regiment. He was affiliated with the Williamsburgh Congregational church, Brooklyn, and the Tompkins Avenue Congregational church.
Alfred B. Hunt had only been ill a week when he died on June 23, 1947 at a Rockville Centre convalescent home at age 92.
Carmen and Jennifer Armstrong generously allowed me to copy family photographs, newspaper clippings, and their large collection of original, color-test page proofs, and I am very grateful for their kind support.
These exciting, full-size newspaper pages included over fifty mint-condition Little Nemo in Slumberland color sheets from 1905, 1908, 1909, 1910, and more than 150 full-size color sheets of Johnny Gruelle’s comic strip series Mr. Twee Deedle, among other artists of the period, including an original R. F. Outcault drawing of Buster Brown and his dog, Tige.
I was able to include some of the new biographical information about Alfred B. Hunt in the CRC Press edition of Winsor McCay: His Life and Art, but it was not possible to include photographs or extra artwork.
This post, and the illustrations in the gallery below will, I hope, rectify that omission by filling in some gaps of about the art and skill of Mr. Hunt, a man who participated in the development of a new art form and helped bring into the world enchanting beauty.
The Little Nemo in Slumberland and Mr. Twee Deedle images here are taken directly from Alfred B. Hunt’s original page proofs, which preserved the vibrant colors of the Ben Day process.
Like many cartoonists, including McCay, Gruelle often re-used ideas; here are two beautiful illustrations from his 1917 book, My Very Own Fairy Stories, telling once again the transformation tale of “The Ugly Caterpillar.”
Information courtesy of:
The Collection of Carmen and Jennifer Armstrong
Nassau Daily Review-Star, 24 June 1947: “Alfred Hunt, 92 Dies; Color Print Pioneer”
Special to the Herald Tribune, Rockville Center, L.I. 23 June 1947 “Alfred B. Hunt”
New York Herald, Mon. 20 April 20, 1914: “Exhibit of Color Print Art Pays Tribute to Work Done by the Herald.”
Bonhams – 11 Dec 2013 auction of Alfred B. Hunt collection:
Winsor Zenas McCay (1867-1934). Little Nemo in Slumberland.
59 Color Printer’s proofs Sunday “Comic Section.” The New York Herald 1905-08 sold for US$ 5,250. inc. premium.
Dream of the Rarebit Fiend, pen and ink on illustration board, final panel signed “Silas” (pseudonym for McCay).
Full-page cartoon for the “Comic Section,” The New York Herald, April 27, 1913. A pride of lions fight over a captured man.
Sold for US$ 10,000 inc. premium
Johnny Gruelle (1880-1938). Mr. Twee Deedle.
196 color printer’s proofs Sunday “Comic Section,” The New York Herald 1911-1914 sold for US$ 2,000 inc. premium.
Bonhams – 09 Aug 2016 (The Summer Sale):
Richard Felton Outcault (1863-1928).
“A Bad Cat,” pen and ink on Bristol board. Half-page cartoon for “Comic Section,” The New York Herald . Sold for US$ 62 inc. premium.
Richard Felton Outcault (1863-1928). “The girl, a dog, and her mother’s hat.” Sold for US$ 1,750 inc. premium.
Richard Felton Outcault (1863-1928). “Buster Brown,” pen and ink on Bristol board. US$ 4,750 inc. premium.
Richard Felton Outcault (1863-1928) “Buster Brown and Tige.” US$ 4,375 inc. premium.
Richard Felton Outcault (1863-1928) “Buster Brown in Mischief Again.” US$ 3,500 inc. premium.
Kathy Rose is among the world’s most original visual/performance artists. She suffered a fall last month, but is making good progress, according to her family.
A unique and beloved member of the independent animation filmmakers who began working in the 1970s, Kathy has continually developed her art through the years in startlingly beautiful ways, expanding, as she explained, “the image out of the flat screen to become an integral physical part of color and fantasy in a sculptural domain.”
In tribute to her artistry, and with high hopes for her speedy recovery, here is my article on her remarkable career published in the Jan/Feb 1995 issue of Print magazine (click on image below for link to article):
And here are two original animation drawings by Kathy Rose from her 1978 film, Pencil Booklings, a gift of the artist. (Click to enlarge)
I will be returning to The Wexner Center for the Arts, at Ohio State University in Columbus on Thursday, Nov. 7, at 7:00pm, for the world premiere of HANDS, my 17-minute, hand-drawn animated adaptation of a story from Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (1919). The film follows Wing Biddlebaum, a lonely former schoolteacher whose hands led to a scandal that drove him from his previous town and life’s calling.
Following the screening, I will discuss and demonstrate my process of animating the film. A display of original artwork used in the making of HANDS will be on display in The Wexner Center’s lower lobby from October 21–November 10.
HANDS was supported through a 2016–17 Wexner Center Artist Residency Award.
For ticket information, see https://wexarts.org/film-video/hands
Steve Brodner is an Honoré Daumier for our troubled times.
The avenging spirit of the prolific French cartoonist, who mercilessly roasted 19th century politicians and society, like pigs on a spit, lives on in Brodner’s drawing instruments. His pen and brush are razor-sharp weapons, lancing 21st century boils of fetid political animals.
Like Daumier, Brodner is a master draftsman. No matter how ugly the people being caricatured are, or how dastardly their deeds, you cannot take your eyes away from Brodner’s compelling and strangely beautiful imagery. He offers superb elegance of line, strong poses and clarity in his visual storytelling, to convey his powerful messages: empathy for innocent or hapless victims; disgust for villainous, stupid men and woman who abuse their power.
Animation plays a powerful part in showing the psychological side of the characters he depicts. Former CIA man George H. W. Bush removing his head, releasing hundreds of “bugs” escaping in a torrential spray; his son, George W. Bush as Mickey Mouse in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, attacking Saddam Hussein and giving rise to an endless army of jihadists; Jimmy Carter, in four sequential drawings, floating into a question mark; Donald Trump in mid-comb-over, revealing a Nazi swastika embedded on his bald dome; Rush Limbaugh as a cigar-smoking buttocks.
Perfect visual metaphors, all!
Brodner’s style often uses wild exaggeration, a far-out distortion, reminding me of the 16th century anamorphosis paintings, which could only be deciphered with an anamorphic mirror or lens to correct the distortion. Somehow, sans mirrors and lenses, Brodner maintains the look of the person and their personality.
Steve Brodner is being honored with a spectacular exhibition of 50 years of his amazing art — “The Master’s Series: Steve Brodner” — now through November 2, 2019 at the SVA Chelsea Gallery (601 West 26th Street, New York City).
It is a must-see celebration of a modern genius of graphic communication and a crusader for truth and justice in America’s latest Dark Age.
Run, don’t walk, to Karma Gallery (188 East 2nd Street & 172 East 2nd Street) to see ALEX DA CORTE’s exciting new show, Marigolds, now through November 3. Link here.
Alex Da Corte’s immersive art is often grand in scale and complex in concept: gorgeous color-saturated installations in large spaces, and provocative, elegant videos express the artist’s obsessive desires and interest, such as fantasy, horror films, sex, pop culture, and comic books, cartoons, and animation.
Marigolds is a walk-through puzzle, with subliminal messages to be deciphered on multiplane levels. “Decoding or seeing something that may not be readily present,” Da Corte comments. The viewer must “dig deeper. It is a call for empathy.”
Karma will publish a fully illustrated catalog of the exhibition, which will include newly commissioned texts by animator and historian John Canemaker and writer Tausif Noor, as well as the eponymous short story Marigolds by Dr. Eugenia Collier.
In continuing celebration of dancer/choreographer Marge Champion’s 100th birthday earlier this month, I am posting a video of her February 2012 visit to NYU Tisch School of the Arts, where she met with animation students and discussed her early work with Disney on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Fantasia, as well as her long career in film, television and on stage.
This was her second generous appearance at NYU, the first being in 1994. Ms. Champion, born on September 2, 1919, was a vivacious, charming and articulate 92-year old who delighted her student audience for an hour and eight minutes. We are fortunate that it has been preserved for posterity.
Click here to link to the video. (PASSWORD: nyuanimation)
“Celebrate what every decade gives to you, not what it takes away.”
On September 2, Marge Champion, the legendary and beloved dancer/ choreographer, begins a new decade in her life — this time as a centenarian.
The advice quoted above, which she often dispensed to me and other friends through the years, will undoubtedly hold firm as she enters a new life journey. Marge will also, I feel sure, be accompanied by her enormous reserves of positive energy, kindness, down-to-earth practicality, and, most important, a great sense of humor about herself and life in general.
She was born Marjorie Belcher in 1919, the daughter of Hollywood dance instructor Ernest Belcher. Her earliest experience in film was in the mid-1930s when she was a teenager. As many of her fans know, she was the live-action reference model for the princess Snow White in Walt Disney’s first feature-length cartoon, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, released in 1937.
Eventually, Marge gained international fame performing with her husband, the dancer/choreographer Gower Champion (1919-1980), in a dazzling series of MGM musical films. Their featured roles in Show Boat (1951), Lovely to Look At (1952), Give a Girl a Break (1953), among other films, led to lucrative engagements at top nightclubs and early television variety show appearances. They even had their own TV series in 1957.
Marge and Gower Champion’s performances, both on screen and in person, endeared them to audiences around the world. Critic John Crosby described them as, “Light as bubbles, wildly imaginative in choreography, and infinitely meticulous in execution. Above all, they are exuberantly young.”
One of my favorites of the couple’s screen performances is a surreal faux-ballet in the live-action 1955 musical, Three for the Show (1955).
To the classical strains of Swan Lake, Jack Cole’s sardonic choreography presents a most un-Snow White-like Marge as a distraught, jealous, elegantly gowned murderess (the number runs from 37:53 to 44:26). Both Gower and Marge are wonderful in the over-the-top piece; but Marge displays a wide range in this parody of Hollywood musical numbers: she’s sexy, athletic, funny and technically perfect.
On her own, Marge created dances for films (The Day of the Locusts), theatre (Stepping Out; Grover’s Corners) and television; her choreography for the TV special Queen of the Stardust Ballroom won her a 1975 Emmy.
I was introduced to Marge Champion on May 5, 1981 by Art Babbitt (1907-1992) at his wife Barbara Perry’s opening of her one-woman show, Passionate Ladies, on Broadway. Art, a great Disney animator, met Marge during Snow White’s production and became her first husband, briefly. “Our marriage bumped into a career,” he once said of Marge’s desire to excel as a performer. He wanted a housewife, instead of a shooting star.
Some years later, Art married Barbara Perry (1921-2019), a gifted dancer and actress, who often performed with the Champion’s in films, nightclubs and television projects. They were all show biz friends. Laughing, Marge once recalled to me the day Barbara phoned her out of the blue to say:
“You’ll never guess what I’ve gone and done.”
“What?” said Marge.
“I’ve married your old husband!”
Through the years, Marge shared with me many anecdotes about her life and career, privately, but often publicly in interviews on film and stage. She was candid in discussing the tragic death of her third husband, director Boris Sagal (1923-1981). She held on to long friendships with artists she met at Disney, such as master animator Vladimir Tytla and his wife Adrienne; and for years she sent money to help sustain the designer Ferdinand Horvath and his wife Elly.
Her memories of her varied and fascinating career were always sharp and accurate, including her earliest experiences at Disney. She recalled, for example, the small, unadorned stage at the Disney Studio, where for two or three days a month for a couple of years, teenaged Margorie Belcher improvised mime/dance movements that were shot on film. Wearing a long skirt, she moved, danced and emoted as Snow White, sometimes dancing with “gooney, really tall” musicians and animators pretending to be dwarfs.
“The animation supervisor [Ham Luske] would show me the storyboards,” she explained, “a crude set, props, and they had the [soundtrack] playback . . . It was like Mickey [Rooney] and Judy [Garland’s musical films] — let’s put on a show! They’d show me this stuff and turn me loose and I’d do it.”
The animators and Walt studied the films, noting the timing of Marge’s actions, studying her pose-to-pose movements, the way her dress and hair moved in every scene.
Preferred takes of Marge’s image were traced frame-by-frame (“rotoscoped”) as a guide to aid the animators in transferring her image to their drawing boards and ultimately the silver screen. For example, the sequence where Snow White runs through a dark forest of grasping tree branches and clinging vines. To aid the animators, Marge acted frightened and improvised a run through a forest mock-up — a clothesline hung with dangling ropes, which she pushed aside while running.
“When I finally saw the finished product,” she says, “I realized that every single movement was mine.” Her pay was “the magnificent sum of $10 a day.”
But she enjoyed the experience, comparing the studio to a high school or college campus. On camera Marjorie Belcher often mimed to the singing of Adriana Caselotti, who provided the princess’ unusual voice. One animator couldn’t resist jumbling and recombining their names into a playful burp: “Margiana Belchalotti.”
Disney and his team were so pleased with Marjorie’s performance, they next hired her as the reference model for the ethereal Blue Fairy in Pinocchio (1940). For Fantasia (1940), she became the stand-in for a huge, but dainty, tutu-clad hippo ballerina. She also directed eleven young women, from her father’s dancing school, as a chorus of Sally Rand fan-wielding ostriches and bubble-dancing pachyderms. “We did stuff with balloons,” she said.
A certain memory of Marge stands out to me: it happened at the 2007 Platform International Animation Festival, one of the best American animation festivals ever, thanks to Irene Kotlarz, the imaginative organizer. She invited me to interview Marge Champion on stage after a screening of a restored print of Snow White, honoring the film’s 70th anniversary.
Early in the day, Marge, a thorough professional, insisted that we check out the theatre and stage where we would converse that evening. “I never step foot on a stage I don’t know,” she explained.
That night, we sat together in the audience, Marge watching the movie she’d made over seven decades ago; me watching and listening to her delighted reactions and whispered comments. It was a lovely, strange feeling to sit next to Snow White, as she watched herself on the screen.
On screen, as Snow White was awakening from the Prince’s kiss, an usher summoned us backstage to prepare for our on-stage conversation. In the dark, separated by a giant screen on which animated cartoon characters played their final scenes, with music swelling loudly on the soundtrack, Marge bid me goodbye as she was guided by flashlight across the stage, behind the giant movie screen. She would make her entrance after my introduction from the opposite side of the stage, as rehearsed.
While waiting for the film to end, I had the privilege to experience a wonderful, time-tripping sight. On the huge movie screen, a gigantic Princess kissed gigantic dwarfs goodbye, and a gigantic Prince carried her to his horse,rode into a shimmering sunset toward a castle emerging from mist, while a chorus with full orchestra sang “Someday My Prince Will Come.” I could see all that on the huge screen. Then, stepping to the left I saw Marge, age 88, way across the stage exercising, stretching, getting herself ready to meet another audience, as she did at Disney’s little sound stage, or New York’s posh Persian Room at the Plaza Hotel, or the London Palladium, as she did before facing MGM’s Technicolor cameras, or audiences in Leningrad and Moscow.
Step to the right – there she was again as Snow White.
Step to the left: a little lady, a true professional, preparing herself to meet the public, to give the folks a great show.
And she did.
On Thursday, October 18, I will be speaking at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio, about one of Walt Disney’s most remarkable animated features, Pinocchio (1940).
Fresh on the success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Disney spared no expense in creating a sumptuous showcase of his studio’s capabilities in animated storytelling. And his animators set out to outdo their own previous achievements by taking on the challenge of making the animation as vivid as possible.
I’ll be focusing on the work of two of Disney’s master animators on this film, Vladimir Tytla and Milt Kahl. Through a close analysis of several of their scenes, we will see how these virtuoso artists brought to life the characters of Pinocchio, Jiminy Cricket and Stromboli.
With many behind-the scenes images of the production, you’ll get a taste of the state of the art of Disney animation, circa 1939-40. My talk will be followed by a screening of a restored print of Pinocchio, courtesy of the Walt Disney Company.
Date: Thursday, October 18, 2018
Time: 6:30pm, book signing; 7:00pm, lecture and film screening
Wexner Center for the Arts
1871 North High Street
Columbus Ohio 43210
For tickets and information, click here
I am pleased and proud to announce that my 1987 biography of Winsor McCay will be published this week in a beautiful Revised Edition by CRC Press.
New and updated information about the life and art of McCay, the great pioneer of both comic strips and animation, has been added to make his only existing biography current.
I’m happy that CRC Press — a premiere global publisher and member of Taylor & Francis Group, which publishes numerous books on hand-drawn and digital animation and art – is bringing my bio of Winsor McCay to a new generation of readers.
Available in Paperback; Hardcover, and Kindle!
Winsor McCay: His Life and Art is available for order via CRC Press here.
For press enquiries, please contact:
Tel: +1 561-430-4854
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