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Director: Oskar Fischinger
Production Date: 1930-1931
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Like Study No. 6 Fischinger made this film with charcoal on paper. In this short the synchronization of music and movement is even better than in Study No. 6. Fischinger uses less diverse shapes than in No. 6, making the film more consistent. Some of them look like fluttering and folding pieces of paper.
According to William Moritz this particular film prompted four film makers into animation: Norman McLaren, Alexandre Alexeieff, Claire Parker and Len Lye. These four all became major players in avant-garde animation. This fact makes Study No. 7 one of the most important animation films in history.
Watch ‘Studie nr. 7’ yourself and tell me what you think:
‘Studie nr. 7′ is available on the DVD ‘Oskar Fischinger: Ten Films’
Directors: Hugh Harman & Rudolf Ising
Production Date: May 1929
Stars: Bosko, Rudolf Ising
In 1928 Charles Mintz had hired away virtually Walt Disney’s complete staff and main cartoon character, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. These animators now came to work for a studio, set up by George and Margaret Winkler to produce more Oswald cartoons. However, ca. one year later Universal, who owned Oswald, broke with the Winklers, gave Oswald to Walter Lantz, and left the former Disney animators out of work.
Hugh Harman and Rudolph Ising now tried to set up a studio of their own, and following the overnight success of ‘Steamboat Willie‘, they knew they had to come up with a character fit for sound. This new star was Bosko, a little negro, who, in his first appearance, had a remarkably low voice, provided by animator Max Maxwell. Bosko is introduced in ‘Bosko the Talk-ink Kid’, Harman and Ising’s pilot film, made to sell their new studio.
The film starts with Rudolf Ising drawing Bosko and talking with him. Then Bosko performs a little dance, imitates a stereotypical Jew, and plays the piano. He then starts to sing ‘Sonny Boy’, but unfortunately with an awful voice, which prompts Ising to put the cartoon character back into the pen and the ink pot. But Bosko returns from the inkwell to say the very first version of that famous Warner Bros. line: “So long folks!“.
Bosko is not really an endearing character and the film is a little bit slow, yet it’s easy to see why this pilot film sold: the interplay between the animator and the cartoon character, although by 1929 far from new, still looks fresh, and the dialogue adds a new dimension to the trick. This dialogue is way more sophisticated than anything made at Disney at the time. Bosko jabbers along, with a lot of lip-synchronization, which is not always perfect, but mesmerizing, nonetheless. Mickey would go lip-synch only two months later, in ‘The Karnival Kid‘, but even then his facial expressions were to be less natural than Bosko’s in this little short. Thus ‘Bosko the Talk-ink Kid’ is an absolute milestone in animation history, and a rare film in which Harman and Ising were in fact ahead of their former employer.
The animation on Bosko, on the other hand, looks very, very Disney-like and is almost an exact copy of Ub Iwerks’s animation style. This would become a Harman-Ising trademark: combining sophistication with copycatting. This unfortunately would often prevent their films from being entirely new or original.
Anyhow, ‘Bosko the Talk-ink Kid’ raised the interest of Leon Schlesinger, a newcomer in the animation field, who sold the idea of a new cartoon series to Warner Bros., with the argument that the animated shorts could be used to promote Warner Bros. songs. Thus, the famous Warner Bros. animation studio was born!
Watch ‘Bosko the Talk-ink Kid’ yourself and tell me what you think:
‘Bosko the Talk-ink Kid’ is available on the DVD set ‘Looney Tunes Golden Collection, Vol. 1’ and the Blu-Ray ‘Looney Tunes Platinum Collection: Volume 2’
Director: John Lasseter
Release Date: August 17, 1986
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Of all classics of animation, ‘Luxo Jr.’ is certainly the shortest. This little gem only lasts ninety seconds, and can feel more like a study than as a mature cartoon. That said, the short is brilliant in its concept and execution.
Being the fledgling company Pixar’s very first film, ‘Luxo Jr.’ is the first of a series of shorts, in which the ambitious team explored the boundaries of computer animation, ever pushing them further away. ‘Luxo Jr.’ is a first example. It was made in a time in which computer animation was mainly used for special effects. Of course in ‘Luxo Jr.’ there’s special attention to lighting and texture, too, but most importantly: it shows that computer animation can also be used to tell an engaging story with characters.
Even in their simplicity, the two table lamps are recognizable characters, one old and parental, the other young and enthusiastic. The effect is the more extraordinary, as animator John Lasseter didn’t use eyes or squash-and-stretch techniques: the lamps remain lamps.
Thus, the cute Luxo jr. showed the world that in principle computer animation was as much able to tell a moving story with emotional characters as any other medium. Unlike the earlier ‘The Adventures of André and Wally B‘ (1984), which remains too primitive and too uneven to be of lasting charm, ‘Luxo jr.’ is as engaging today as it was at its first screening.
After ‘Luxo, jr.’ Pixar would keep on demonstrating the story powers of computer animation with three other brilliant cartoons: ‘Red’s Dream‘ (1987), ‘Tin Toy‘ (1988) and ‘Knick Knack‘ (1989), culminating nine years later in the first computer animated feature film ‘Toy Story’ (1995).
However, it’s Luxo jr. that showed the way way back in 1986. No wonder the studio keeps the feisty little lamp still in their logo.
Watch ‘Luxo jr’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: John Lasseter
Release Date: July 25, 1984
Made for ‘The Lucasfilm Computer Graphics Project’, two years before the birth of Pixar, it is clearly made to showcase two computer animation techniques above anything else. Most impressive is the quasi-realistic, almost pointillist forest background. Much more primitive, but ultimately much more important is the animation of the two characters, for which young animator John Lasseter was brought in from the Walt Disney studios. Lasseter animates André and the bee Wally B self-consciously cartoony, as if they had walked in straight from the 1930s. They don’t blend at all with the quasi-realistic backgrounds, and they look appallingly primitive to modern eyes, but they’re the very first computer graphics to show character animation, even at its most rudimentary.
‘The Adventures of André and Wally B.’ will never become a classic, for it’s too uneven and too shallow for that, but it is one of animation’s milestone films.
Watch ‘The Adventures of André and Wally B’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: James Algar
Release Date: 1942
It was made in early 1941, thus before The United States had entered the war, for the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation, which was located nearby the Disney studio at Burbank. The film was “produced under the technical direction of the Lockheed Aircraft Cop.”, and without doubt very useful, but it was in fact a pilot film. As the title card states:
“The following film uses a simplified technique developed by the Walt Disney studio to demonstrate the quickest and cheapest method whereby the animation medium can be applied to National Defense Training”.
Both 1940 features ‘Pinocchio’ and ‘Fantasia’ had lost money, and Disney was looking for new opportunities to earn some. In World War I J.R. Bray had demonstrated that animation film could be used perfectly for training the troops, thus pioneering the educational animation film. Nevertheless, between World War I and World War II only few educational films were made.
Disney’s new technique is in fact limited animation. As such it is the mother of all animated instruction films up to the present day, but even more of limited animation as an art, which would be explored more and more during the 1950s and 1960s.
The immediate effect on the Disney studio was that it sprouted commissions for several instruction films, mostly for the army and the navy, starting with ‘Stop That Tank!‘ for the National Film Board of Canada.
During World War II the Disney studio produced no less than 200 different training films for the armed forces. Moreover, limited animation immediately entered propaganda shorts, like ‘The Thrifty Pig‘ (1941) and such, as well as features, like ‘The Three Caballeros‘ (1944).
The film itself is very dry, and as educational as it is dull. Its most interesting feature is the use of a structured blue monochrome background against which the clean, airbrushed objects read very well. The idea of using monochromes and structures in backgrounds was going to be of as much importance as limited animation to the more forward looking forces in the animation field, and the UPA studio, which sprouted from the 1941 Disney strike, in particular.
Watch ‘Four Methods of Flush Riveting’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Friz Freleng
Release Date: April 27, 1940
Stars: Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Leon Schlesinger
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
First, the idea that cartoon figures can come alive from the drawing board into the real world, an idea that hauls all the way back to Max Fleischer’s first ‘Out of the Inkwell’ cartoons (1915). The second idea is that of cartoon figures being real Hollywood stars, explored in cartoons such as ‘Felix in Hollywood’ (1923), ‘Movie Mad‘ (1931), ‘Mickey’s Gala Premier‘ (1933) and especially ‘The Autograph Hound’ (1939), with which ‘You Ought To Be In Pictures’ has most in common. ‘You Ought To Be In Pictures’ synthesizes these two ideas, making it a direct ancestor of ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit‘ (1987).
‘You Ought To Be In Pictures’ was one of the first films director Friz Freleng made after his return from an ill-fortuned move to MGM, and as Jerry Beck points out in the audio commentary track, one can see this film somehow as autobiographical.
In any case, this short marks is Freleng’s first take on Daffy Duck, and he places him firmly as Porky’s rival. In this cartoon Daffy is not necessarily zany, like in Tex Avery’s and Bob Clampett’s cartoons, but overconfident and sneaky, with a tendency to show off; character treats that would be explored more from 1950 on, especially by Chuck Jones. However, by then the relation between Porky and Daffy would be changed completely.
In ‘You Ought To Be In Pictures’ Porky is still an innocent, cute and Boyish character. In the opening scene we watch him being drawn by animator Fred Jones on the drawing board. When all animators have rushed off to lunch (reused footage from a Leon Schlesinger Christmas Party film), Daffy, framed on the wall, addresses the Porky drawing. He convinces Porky to leave Leon Schlesinger’s studio to get a real job in the business of feature films. Leon Schlesinger lets Porky go, saying into the camera “he’ll be back!”. While Porky has a hard time in the neighboring live action studio, Daffy tries to get his plays at Warner Bros. But Porky returns and beats the hell out of the double-crosser.
‘You Ougt to Be In Pictures’ is a lovely cartoon. It mixes animation and live action, partly from other Warner Bros. features, to great effects. The scene in which Porky talks to Leon Schlesinger is very convincing, and Porky’s drive back no less than breathtaking. Besides Leon Schlesinger, the film stars writer Michael Maltese as a guard, animator Gerry Chiniquy as a director, and executive producer Henry Binder as a sound man. However, as the live action footage was shot silently, all are voiced by Mel Blanc, except for Leon Schlesinger who does his own voice.
Watch ‘You Ought To Be In Pictures’ yourself and tell me what you think:
This is Porky Pig cartoon No. 71
To the previous Porky Pig cartoon: Slap Happy Pappy
To the next Porky Pig cartoon: Porky’s Poor Fish
Director: Katsuhiro Otomo
Release Date: July 16, 1988
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
In 2019, 31 years after World War III, which destroyed the old town completely, Neo-Tokyo is even bigger and more urbanized than the old one. And more violent, too. The city is constantly on the brink of anarchy.
We follow Kaneda and Tetsuo, two members of a rough motorbike gang. When Tetsuo is hospitalized and taken away from his friend, Kaneda tries to retrieve him, while getting involved with a girl, who’s a revolutionary and whose troupe is after Tetsuo, too. Tetsuo, meanwhile, discovers he’s getting immense powers. Tetsuo suffers from an inferiority complex, and he realizes it’s payback time. He sets out to seek the mystical Akira, destroying most of Neo-Tokyo along the way. But in the end his powers take control of him, and while he and Akira merge to form a new universe in a very 2001 A Space Odyssey-like ending, Kaneda and his girlfriend Kei can look to a new future in a partly destroyed Neo-Tokyo.
If this plot line may sound a little hard to follow – it is, and I left quite some subplots out of it, too. ‘Akira’ is a violent and action-loaded science fiction film. Its plot may be vague and all too complex, the violent images never cease to impress. The film’s depiction of apocalyptic destruction, its speed, its wide range of characters, and its use of extreme camera angles are unprecedented in any animation film, and sometimes the grandness of the film’s scale is staggering. Some of the scenes are very complicated, with many people animated within one frame. And the story, too, seems to aim to encompass everything within the feature’s 124 minutes. Not surprising, considering that the film is based on a manga story six fat volumes thick.
Although Anime had known earlier masterpieces, it’s ‘Akira’, which set new standards in its home country. Moreover, it’s this film, which put the Japanese animation feature film industry firmly on the map in Western countries, which thus far practically had known the country’s television series, only. Thus, for most Westerners Japanese animation was synonymous to cheap animation, and the use of ridiculously large eyes. However, ‘Akira’ showed the Western world that Japan was perfectly capable of producing films of a high quality and stunning originality. Japanese animation has only grown in popularity since Akira’s release, and has become a major inspiration for many Western films and television series, animated or not.
Watch the trailer for ‘Akira’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Te Wei
Release Date: 1960
They mistake two shrimps, a goldfish, a crab, a turtle and a catfish for their mother, before their real mother finds them.
Told by a voice-over, ‘Where is Mama’ is a genuinely Chinese film: it is based on an ancient Chinese fable, it is typically preoccupied with nature and water, its watercolor and ink style is based on classic Chinese painters (most obviously Qi Baishi), and it is set to a serene and leisurely speed.
The result is a film that is a bit slow, but strikingly beautiful. The short looks timelessly Chinese, but at the time of its release the film’s style was completely new and daring within the Chinese animation film world. However, it would take ca. twenty years before its influence became clear, because five years after the making of this cartoon the Shanghai Animation Studio was shut down as part of the Cultural Revolution, and many of its employees were sent to re-education camps in the countryside. Only in the late seventies it would be up and running again. In the following decade ‘Where is Mama’ would be an inspiration to many Chinese animators, who would reuse several of this film’s key elements. In that decade, too, Te Wei made his own masterpiece, ‘Feeling from Mountain and Water‘ (1988).
Watch ‘Where is Mama’ yourself and tell me what you think:
‘Where is Mama’ is available on the French DVD ‘Impression de montagne et d’eau’
* this film probably is best known by its French title: ‘Les têtards à la recherche de leur maman’
Directors: John Halas & Joy Batchelor
Release Date: January 31, 1954
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Based on George Orwell’s famous fable (published only nine years before), Animal Farm is the first animated feature made in England, it’s one of Europe’s first feature films, and it’s undoubtedly among the masterpieces of feature animation.
The film falls into the tradition of Disney-style semi-realistic cel animation. However, it sets itself apart from the Disney tradition in its grim and political story, its lack of sentimentality and its open depiction of cruelty and violence. Moreover, the backgrounds are bold oil paintings, with visible brush strokes and darker colors than any Disney film had ever shown.
Nevertheless, the realistic and wonderful animation of the animals pays some depths to the Disney tradition (watch the Silly Symphony ‘Farmyard Symphony‘ for example), greatly helped by the presence of ex-Disney animator John Reed. The film even contains one sweet character for comical relief in a little duckling who tries to keep up with the other animals, echoing the turtle in ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ (1937). However, when the story turns particularly grim, with the killing of the Trotsky-like pig Snowball by Napoleon’s dog henchmen, we do not see this cute character again.
The assassination of Snowball is the first of several alarming events in which the animals’ revolution is betrayed. The most disturbing of these is Boxer’s ride to a certain death. This scene is the emotional highlight of the film, and it creates strong feelings of outrage and alarm, still. The horror on the face of his friend Benjamin is very well captured, and moves to this day.
Using a voice over and evocative music by Hungarian composer Mátyás Seiber, the film retells Orwell’s story effectively, using only Orwell’s own words. Its only strong deviation from the book is its ending. Where Orwell’s novel ends with the Stalin-like pig Napoleon’s regime installed, the film ends with yet another revolution – some wishful thinking that in the real world never quite came true until the late 1980s, when encouraged by Gorbachev’s perestroika, the people all over Eastern Europe revolted against their communist oppressors.
‘Animal Farm’, which was released within a year after Stalin’s death, is still a moving portrait of the corrupting force of power. Even though its subject, the Soviet Union, has long been a state of the past, the forces depicted in this movie are still active. The world is not free of its Napoleons, yet…
Watch ‘Animal Farm’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Peter Lord & David Sproxton
Release Date: 1978
The very idea of using dialogue from real life is revolutionary enough, but to use it for clay animation with lip-synch is a masterstroke. Moreover, the animation of the plasticine figures is startling: it lacks the exaggerations of normal animation, but uses small gestures and real movements, like scratching one’s nose or belly, instead. The animation continues realistically even when not supported by the soundtrack. The result is uncannily realistic, making the drama of an old, confused man asking for food and shelter, but being turned down at an Salvation army office, extra tragic.
With this film Aardman single-handedly invented the ‘animated documentary’, a genre which would lead to fantastic films like ‘Ryan’ and ‘Waltz with Bashir’ in the 2000s.
‘Down & Out’ is available on the DVD ‘Aardman Classics’
Director: Chuck Jones
Release Date: February 2, 1952
Stars: Marc Anthony
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Among all the masterpieces of animation, this must be the most inconspicuous one: it’s a seemingly classical dog and cat story, involving quite some dull dialogue (provided by the dog’s mistress, of whom we only see her legs), and its looks are quite traditional, with unremarkable layouts and backgrounds.
Nevertheless, ‘Feed The Kitty’ is a real masterpiece, and its reputation is entirely due to the acting of its main character, the gentle bulldog Marc Anthony. His facial expressions are so wide ranging, so extreme and so heartfelt that ‘Feed the Kitty’ can almost be regarded as a study in depiction of emotion. Silent acting really reaches its peak here, and director Chuck Jones is without doubt at his all time best in this sweet little cartoon.
In ‘Feed the Kitty’ Marc Anthony adopts a sweet little kitten, but he’s not allowed to bring anything into the house. This leads to various gags with the dog trying to hide the little kitten from his mistress. However, the highlight of the cartoon is the sequence in which Marc Anthony thinks his darling pet is dead. His emotions are both hilarious and heartbreaking. Never before has the anxiety of having lost a dearly beloved been so convincingly put to the animated screen. At this point I often can’t keep my tears from running.
Indeed, this sequence is so popular among animators that it was almost exactly copied in ‘Monsters, Inc.‘ (2001) as a homage to the original. I’d say, if cartoons were shown at funerals (and why not?), ‘Feed the Kitty’ would be a perfect candidate.
Watch ‘Feed the Kitty’ yourself and tell me what you think:
‘Feed the Kitty’ is available on the DVD set ‘Looney Tunes Golden Collection, Vol. 1’
Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: September 26, 1941
Superman, of course, was based on the comic strip hero who made his debut in 1938. For his screen debut, the studio made a long introduction of the character, which lasts almost two minutes.
After this intro a very simple story develops, which contains many elements to be reused in later Superman cartoons, becoming a routine all too soon:
1) an evil scientist
2) something big to beat (in this cartoon a deadly ray, which Superman ridiculously punches away)
3) Lois getting intro trouble due to her curiosity, and
4) an ending with Lois and Clarke reading a newspaper article written by Lois Lane.
Despite elaborate shadows and special effects, this first realistic theatrical cartoon (not counting the works by Winsor McCay) hasn’t aged very well. The scientist is still half cartoony, and he has an animal sidekick, which mimics his moves.
The rest of the characters are drawn realistically, but also stiff and expressionless. They look forward to the wooden realistic cartoons of the TV era. The character was very popular, however, and inspired a couple of parodies, most notably the Bugs Bunny cartoon ‘Super Rabbit’ (1943). It’s ironic that after Popeye the Fleischer again had to rely on a character created elsewhere to achieve success. Unfortunately, this meant they couldn’t exploit Superman’s popularity as much as they could have with a character of their own.
Superman would star in seventeen cartoons, all from 1941-1943, nine by the Fleischer Studios, and eight by its successor, Famous studios. In 1943 the series was dropped because it was too costly to produce.
Watch ‘Superman’ yourself and tell me what you think:
This is Superman film No. 1
To the next Superman film: The Mechanical Monsters
Director: Chuck Jones
Release Date: September 19, 1942
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
It introduces his trademark of extreme poses, which in this cartoon are combined with ‘smear animation’, devised by Bob Clampett, to unique results.
The extreme posing leads to highly stylized animation, which in itself is hilarious in its unnatural depiction of movement. In ‘The Dover Boys’ we watch both movement through poses, especially in the animation on Dan Backslide, as well as non-movement, with Dora descending the stairs as a prime example. Both techniques are important steps away from the classic squash-and-stretch animation, and from ‘believability through full animation’. Indeed, the animation style of ‘The Dover Boys’ looks forward all the way to the fifties, the era in which stylization of design and animation would flourish and dominate the animation industry. Indeed, the short’s prime animator, Bobe Cannon, would play an important role at UPA, the most influential animation film studio of the fifties.
The subject of ‘The Dover Boys’ is a sophisticated parody on melodrama, consisting of an archetypical story of a villain (called Dan Backslide) kidnapping a damsel in distress (dear Dora), taking her to his cottage in the mountains, where she is rescued by the heroes, in this case, the three Dover Boys, Tom, Dick and Larry.
Or is she? In the final scene they knock each other out, and Dora runs off into a distance with an odd bearded character in a bathing suit, who, as a running gag, hops along rather randomly throughout the picture to the music of ‘The Good Old Summertime’. This character is a relative of the equally mysterious Minah Bird from Chuck Jones’ earlier cartoon ‘Inki and the Lion’ (1941).
‘The Dover Boys’ is both innovative and funny. Its humor is as sophisticated as it is silly. In any case, the gags come fast and plenty, with hilarious nonsense as a result. An all time classic.
Watch ‘The Dover Boys’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: David Hand
Release Date: August 13, 1942
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
‘Bambi’ had been long in the making, with initial work already starting in 1937. In fact, it was initially planned as Disney’s second feature, but soon pushed back in favor of ‘Pinocchio’.
After having made such great and diverse efforts as ‘Snow White’, ‘Pinocchio’ and ‘Fantasia’, Disney set the stakes even higher in Bambi, reaching a zenith in naturalism. But the film is way more than that: it’s a symphony of nature, utterly romantic in its depiction of forest life. It’s also a coming of age story and a depiction of the circle of life.
‘Bambi’ is full of great scenes, starting with the stunning opening scene, a long and complicated shot, which shows the vastness and depth of the forest using a multiplane camera, and which leads us straight into the story, when we come to follow friend owl in his flight.
The storytelling is very lean, it uses little dialogue and it consists of only a few distinct parts, which all concentrate on Bambi’s experiences. Most of the story is told by images and music only, and there are three pure mood pieces very reminiscent of a Silly Symphony like ‘The Old Mill‘ (1937) and parts of ‘Fantasia’: the April Shower sequence, the autumn sequence and Bambi’s love scene. In these sequences especially, it’s clear that atmosphere prevails above character development, and the studio indulges in beautiful imagery that is still impressive and enchanting today.
The film can be divided into eight sections (the titles are all mine):
1) Birth: which also introduces the lovable little rabbit Thumper;
2) Discovery of the world: including the introduction of the little skunk Flower and a rain scene, set to the beautiful song ‘April shower’;
3) The meadow: where both danger and other deer are introduced, including Bambi’s father and his later love interest, Feline;
4) Autumn: a short transitional mood piece;
5) Winter: which includes the famous skating scene, inspired by Pluto’s difficulties on ice in ‘On ice‘ (1935) and which ends with that harrowing, yet off screen death of Bambi’s mother;
6) Spring: where all our characters have become adolescents and discover the power of love;
7) Man: where man, who never is seen on screen, but whose threatening presence is so much more felt, once again brings danger into the forest, shooting animals (including Bambi) and causing a forest fire, which leads to great dramatic and apocalyptic shots of the burning forest;
8) Birth again: in which the cycle is completed.
The first five sections take almost two-thirds of the film and are responsible for Bambi’s reputation of being a childish film full of cute animals. This may be partly true, but is does no justice to the complete film, for the last three sections, starting with the death of Bambi’s mother (which essentially ends his childhood) are more artistic, more expressionistic and more dramatic. These scenes belong to the most powerful animated images ever brought to the screen.
But throughout the complete picture the artwork is stunning: the backgrounds, based on designs by Tyrus Wong, are lush and suggestive, the use of color is very clever and often amazing, and the music, which is very important to the narrative and which uses off-screen songs to evoke moods, is rich and effective. Indeed, Bambi’s soundtrack, by composers Frank Churchill and Edward Plumb, ranks among the best scores of any animation film. Backgrounds, design, color, music – all these make the film a mood piece of an astonishing quality.
The animation itself, too, is a highlight. It was supervised by four of the later so-called ‘nine old men’: Eric Larson, Milt Kahl, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, and it’s the first testimony of their legendary status. The animation is amazingly well-done both in its naturalism as in its sense of character. It ranks from pure naturalism in Bambi’s mother exploring the meadow and Bambi preparing to fight to pure character animation. A highlight of the latter is Bambi having to say hello to Feline. Bambi’s behavior in this scene is perfect that of a young bashful boy.
The only deviation from believability is during the Twitterpated sequence: Eric Larson’s animation on friend Owl is zany and cartoony, as is the animation of the lovestruck Flower. The whole sequence is a little bit ridiculous, and out of place with the rest of the film. Luckily as soon as Bambi falls in love with Feline, the last part starts, which in its drama, powerful imagery and stunning effects is the undisputed highlight of the whole movie.
Bambi never ceases to amaze: it is simply beautiful.
Watch the skating scene from ‘Bambi’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Burt Gillett
Release Date: May 23, 1930
Frolicking fish indeed. Even oysters, starfish and a lobster join in the dance routines, oh so typical of early Silly Symphonies. Nevertheless, this cartoon ends with some kind of story, when an evil octopus follows a small fish, who gets rid of the villain by dropping an anchor on him.
There’s not much to enjoy in ‘Frolicking Fish’ despite its merry premise. However, like ‘Autumn‘ this cartoon contains early and to many rivaling studios undoubtedly ‘unnecessary’ effect animation, this time loads and loads of bubbles.
It has entered animation history, however, by featuring the first example of ‘overlapping action’ in animation. Overlapping action acknowledges that different (body) parts move with different speeds. So one part can already start moving, before another comes to an end, and animation cycles can overlap each other in imperfect ways. This opposed to the then normal type of animation, which was based on poses, which led to straightforward animation cycles. This new type of animation was developed by animator Norm Ferguson, who had been hired by Disney in August 1929. It was a milestone at that time, a piece of animation marveled at by Ferguson’s colleagues, including Walt Disney himself. It led to the development of full animation, which would slowly replace the ‘rubber hose animation’ of the early thirties.
Overlapping Action can be seen in the three fish dancing at 2:07. Compare it to the stiff stop-and-go movements of the fish musicians following this scene, and the difference may become clear.
From ‘Frolicking Fish’ on Norm Ferguson would become one of Disney’s greatest and most influential animators of the 1930s, and he was responsible for another breakthrough piece of animation: ‘Playful Pluto‘ (1934), the first convincing piece of animation of a character thinking. He was a great influence on future Nine Old Man John Lounsberry, whom he trained as an assistant animator. Unfortunately, Ferguson’s star diminished in the 1940s, and by the 1950s his style had become old-fashioned…
Watch ‘Frolicking Fish’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Winsor McCay
Release Date: July 1918
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
McCay’s fourth venture into animation is even more curious than the preceding three (‘Little Nemo‘, ‘How A Mosquito Operates‘ and ‘Gertie the Dinosaur‘). It’s an almost real time report of the sinking of the passenger steamer The Lusitania by a German submarine in 1915.
The actions are explained by title cards, and the action is rather slow, but the highly realistic animation scenes contain very believable images of water, smoke, a torpedo moving through water, and people trying to get off the ship. This startling realism is hampered by the clear propagandistic message against Germany, ending with the bold sentence “And they tell us not to hate the Hun!“.
Despite its slow action, ‘The Sinking of the Lusitania’ is an astonishing film, which may be both the first animated propaganda film and the first animated documentary. It’s totally unique in its drama, and, despite its propaganda, an all time masterpiece of animation.
Watch ‘The Sinking of the Lusitania’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Winsor McCay
Release Date: September 14, 1914
Stars: Gertie the Dinosaur
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
The film follows a same story idea similar to that of ‘Little Nemo‘: during a visit to a natural history museum Winsor McCay bets the famous comic strip artist George McManus that he can make a dinosaur move. After these long nine minutes of slow live action introduction, we finally see McCay’s creation: Gertie the dinosaur.
McCay’s dinosaur appears to be a girl dinosaur. She behaves like a trained animal: she listens to what McCay is telling her, she eats a whole tree, she bows to the camera, she lifts her feet, she’s being startled by a small mammoth, which she throws into te lake, she dances, and she lifts McCay himself on to her back.
The captions in between replace dialogue, which must have been part of a vaudeville act with Winsor McCay talking to Gertie and she listening to him. This vaudeville show, with which McCay toured, has been recreated in the Disneyland special ‘The Story of Animated Drawing‘, which aired on November 30, 1955, and which is available on the DVD set ‘Behind the Scenes at the Walt Disney Studio’. At the 2014 Annie Awards Ceremony Bill Farmer also reenacted McCay’s vaudeville performance (included below). The reenactment makes the experience of the original film much more vivid, and watching this version is highly recommended.
The short is impressive because of its fine animation and command of perspective, but what it really makes a milestone of animation is that Gertie the Dinosaur is the first animated cartoon character with personality. She’s not just any dinosaur, she’s a female dinosaur, behaving half like a trained animal, half like a small spoiled child. Watching the interaction between her and (the off-screen) McCay is impressive, but it’s also delightful and fun. ‘Gertie the Dinosaur’ had a huge impact at the time, and inspired a whole generation of animation film pioneers (e.g. Paul Terry, Frank Moser, Pat Sullivan, Otto Messmer and the Fleischer Brothers). The film truly is an all time classic, and enjoyable to this very day.
‘Gertie The Dinosaur’ was followed by the unfinished and much less successful film ‘Gertie on Tour‘, of which McCay completed only two scenes.
Watch ‘Gertie The Dinosaur’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Here’s the original vaudeville show reenacted by Bill Farmer at the 41st Annie Awards Ceremony (2014):
Director: Wilfred Jackson
Release Date: November 5, 1937
From the first scene on special effects seem to be the sole raison d’être of the film. The cartoon is literally stuffed with them: dew on a cobweb, ripples in the water, light beams, fireflies, wind, rain and a thunderstorm.
Disney’s famous multiplane camera, with which the feeling of depth could be realized, makes its debut here. Together these effects create an astonishing level of realism, necessary for the upcoming first animated feature, ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’. In ‘The Old Mill’ even the animal characters are more or less realistic, a rare feat in Disney cartoons until then.
All this realism leads to awe-inspiring images, based on concept art by Danish illustrator Gustaf Tenggren, who had joined the studio in 1936. Unfortunately, the images do not lead to much of a story. The film is more of a series of moods from dusk to dawn. Despite its clever pacing, reaching a climax in the thunderstorm sequence, ‘The Old Mill’ is an overly romantic depiction of nature, and less enjoyable as a cartoon than as a showcase of Disney animation.
Watch ‘The Old Mill’ yourself and tell me what you think:
This is Silly Symphony No. 68
To the previous Silly Symphony: Little Hiawatha
To the next Silly Symphony: Moth and the Flame
Director: Burt Gillett
Release Date: July 30, 1932
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Nevertheless, it feels like a transitional film. The colors make it stunningly modern compared to the earlier Silly Symphony entries, but some of the designs still firmly belong to the black-and-white era. The designs of the flowers and the caterpillars, for instance, go all the way back to the third Silly Symphony, ‘Springtime‘ from 1929.
The birds, on the other hand, have lost their cartoony designs they still had in ‘The Bird Store‘ from six months earlier, and the villain tree is probably the most elaborate character to have hit the animated screen thus far.
For contemporary audiences, the film may seem rather silly and a bit old fashioned, but its storytelling is very economical. It contains some original visual gags (flowers brushing their teeth, a pine portrayed as a hen) and fine drama, when the rejected mean old trees sets the wood on fire. The colors are not only used as a novelty, but add to the drama, as do musical quotes from Franz Schubert’s “Erlkönig” and Gioacchino Rossini’s overture to William Tell.
Technicolor was a great advancement for the Silly Symphony series. The colors created way more atmosphere and allowed for more complex designs. Because of color, the Silly Symphonies would propel animated art forward like they never did before, making Walt Disney the undisputed leader in the field.
This leadership was greatly aided by the exclusive contract Disney concluded with the Technicolor company, giving him the exclusive rights to use the new technique for animated films for three years. So, when other studios had to stick to black and white, or were obliged to use far less convincing two-color techniques, Walt Disney made the most beautiful and literally most colorful cartoons of the 1930s.
‘Flowers and Trees’ enthralled the critics so much at the time, they installed a special Academy Award for best animated short films, with ‘Flowers and Trees’ naturally being its first winner. During the 1930s Disney would win every Oscar in this category.
Watch ‘Flowers and Trees’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Walt Disney
Release Date: November 18, 1928
Stars: Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Pete
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
In 1928 Walt Disney was at a low point in his career. He had refused to work for Charles Mintz at lower wages, he had lost most of his staff to Mintz, and he had no distributor for his new cartoon star, Mickey Mouse.
Mickey’s first two cartoons, ‘Plane Crazy‘ and ‘Gallopin’ Gaucho‘, were well-made and entertaining films, but they didn’t impress any distributor. The problem was that despite their high quality, they were not really different from other cartoons, like Disney’s former own Oswald the Lucky Rabbit series. Disney had to think of something.
And he did. Mickey’s third cartoon would have the distinction of sound. Sound was an extremely fresh cinematic feature at the time. The breakthrough feature, ‘The Jazz Singer’ had only been released in October 1927, and the first all talking picture, ‘Lights of New York’ was only released in July 1928, the month in which production on ‘Steamboat Willie’ started.
Using sound creatively
Surprisingly, ‘Steamboat Willie’ was not the first cartoon to use synchronized sound. The Fleischer studio, for example, had experimented with the technique as early as 1924, and in October 1928 Paul Terry would release ‘Dinner Time’, which also used a synchronized soundtrack. However, Fleischer’s films failed to reach complete synchronicity, and Paul Terry’s film (which can be watched here) is essentially a silent and remarkably boring cartoon, which just happens to have sound to it.
‘Steamboat Willie’ on the other hand makes perfect use of the novelty of sound. Already in the opening scene we’re treated on something no less than spectacular: we watch and hear Mickey Mouse whistling a joyful tune. After watching several silent cartoons, this sole scene still has a startling effect. But all scenes in ‘Steamboat Willie’ are there to show us the novelty of sound: we watch and hear whistles blowing, cows mooing, chickens cackling, and Minnie shouting “yoo”-hoo”. And thanks to the invention of the click track all sounds are in perfect synchronization with the moving images.
However, the real treat of ‘Steamboat Willie’ comes after 4 minutes, when a goat swallows Minnie’s sheet music and guitar. What seems a disaster turns out to be a delight, for the goat becomes musical, and Mickey and Minnie turn it into some kind of hurdy-gurdy. This gag, in fact, had already been used in the silent Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoon ‘Rival Romeos‘ (released in March), but makes much more sense with the added sound. For now the goat-hurdy gurdy provides an intoxicating soundtrack for Mickey to improvise on, incidentally mostly by torturing animals. This musical number, based on ‘Turkey in the Straw’ is a sheer delight, and entertains even today.
The impact of ‘Steamboat Willie’
Needless to say ‘Steamboat Willie’ boosted both Mickey Mouse’s and Walt Disney’s career and it gave a valuable shot to the ailing animation industry. Yet, it also caused a setback, one that can already be seen in this cartoon. In ‘Steamboat Willie’, sound is the sole raison d’être of some of the shots (chickens cackling, a cow mooing). But more important, storyline has given way to an extensive musical number. While the two Mickey Mouse shorts that were made before, ‘Plane Crazy’ and ‘Gallopin’ Gaucho’, had strong, albeit simple stories, Steamboat Willie has almost none. It wasn’t necessary: simply watching Mickey Mouse dancing and playing to the music was marvelous enough for the audiences of that time.
Therefore, in the years after the success of ‘Steamboat Willie’, Disney would favor often tiring sing and dance routines above great story lines. It took the studio almost two years to bring back strong stories to its cartoons (Mickey’s 19th film, ‘The Fire Fighters’ from 1930, is arguably the first).
Nevertheless, ‘Steamboat Willie’ is a great cartoon, and a lot of fun to watch. It is still deeply rooted in the silent era: because lip synchronization had not been developed yet, the characters’ vocabulary remains rather limited. Therefore, it still uses a comic strip-like visual language to express the characters’ feelings. Yet, the musical number is both fresh and catching.
When you’ve seen Steamboat Willie, you’ll be whistling ‘Turkey in the Straw’ for days, with a smile on your face.
Watch ‘Steamboat Willie’ yourself and tell me what you think: