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Max Fleischer

 

 

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Thursday Evening
February 28th. 2002
7:40 pm pst

Cartoons are a vital part of the mixture inside the Cultural Blender.

This is an essay about cartoons.
Animated shorts, and features.
Drawn, inked, and shot 24 frames per second,
or computer assisted.

The genesis of the words on this page (both those which you are currently reading, and those in paragraphs below which will spell out theme, and purpose) came in one of my frequent epiphanies when designing the site structure, some six or eight months back, for the Cultural Blender. At that time, merely the skeleton of an idea and the "vision" of the popular icons swirling around like on the "Puree" section is what I carried in my head.
Sometimes I will begin writing an essay immediately after thinking about it, and sometimes I will chew it over and digest the idea ever so slowly before even attempting to start hitting the keyboard. This essay is part of the latter, and the reason why I chose tonight to write the piece stems pretty much from two recent pieces of information. First, that in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences new category for animation, the three features nominated are all completely computer animated, and second, hearing the sad news last Friday that Chuck Jones had passed into Toon Heaven.
The theme of this part of the Cultural Blender would be this. As the last of the great "animators" pass out of this existence, the skill that it once took to create "cartoons" will pass away as well, because as computer graphics advance to the state where they can precisely replicate life and the world around us, they will be able to replicate anything we can dream up as well. Computer animation will at some point in the recent future morph (and that's as fine a word as any) into a new kind of artform. Instead of "computer animation" (i.e. "Toy Story", or "Monsters Inc." and "CGI" (computer generated imaging, like T-2 in "Terminator 2" or the flyover shot of "Titanic") occupying two separate realms, there will be a "cultural blending" together, where audiences will not know or care where one stops and the other begins.
The early stirrings of this new artform which could eventually take the place of both animated and conventionally "lensed" motion pictures can be seen in the recent "live=action/computer animated" "cartoon character" movies. "Rocky and Bullwinkle" and "Scooby Doo" incorporate "realistic" looking cartoon characters along with live action actors.
This was started back in the early nineties with the release of Disney's "Roger Rabbit". Already, though it failed miserably because of lack of plot, "Final Fantasy" imagined a world with CGI "humans" who looked almost like real people.
Animation in the movies started almost immediately after the movies started themselves. So, too, did what we know know now as computer generated effects. The movies themselves are only 100 years old (slightly longer if you count Thomas Edison's Kinetoscopes which begin appearing about 1894, and most people do.) Everybody who's ever been to Disneyland can tell you that MIckey Mouse debuted in 1928, during the height of the art of the silent film. But consider this. The films of Windsor McKay (Little Nemo 1909, Gertie the Dinosaur 1913), while not being the first animated cartoons, came within a decade of the birth of the movies. I recently viewed "Little Nemo" on the DVD from Kino on Video called "The Movies Begin". The live action section detailing McKay's "backstory" of how he received and carried out the job of drawing 4000 frames of animation cels for the "movie version" of his "hit" comic strip, "Little Nemo" which, when it debuted in newspapers in 1905, signalled the beginning of the comics page as we now know it, seques to the animation itself, which, judging by the date, not only looks fantastic, but amazes with it's pre-psychedelic overtones.
An essay about animation, and especially one which portends to predict that all cinema will eventually be "animated" thanks to computer imaging, certainly has to give lip service to a French gentleman named Georges Méliès. If you think about it (and you don't have to very long after watching any of his "trick" reels from the aforementioned "Movies Begin" DVD, Georges Melies could be called the "George Lucas" of his day. In 1896 he produced the first of his fabulous "trick films", the most famous being "A Trip to the Moon" in 1902. Méliès imagined the cultural blending afforded a nascent medium which incorporated photography, drawing, and the ability to phisically cut and edit film.
The phrase copy/paste, which I use at length throughout the Cultural Blender to explain how popular culture has always borrowed from it's past, and is at such a saturation point, that given the flood of information available with computers and the internet, that little "original" and lots of "sampled" iconography will morph into other forms and pass for the cultural history of the future, is a phrase that could probably have been first used by Méliès. His "trick films" exist because he experimented with exposing the film multiple times to "copy" images, and used editing of the frames of the nitrate prints to "paste" his trick films together.
All this existed in history merely five years after the industry of movie production and exhibition began. Max Fleischer, whose studio rivalled Disney in the early days, and whose stable included Betty Boop and Popeye, made his first Koko cartoon in 1915.

I'm predicting that the same technology which wowed em early last century, will, aided by computers, wow em early in this century.
But my generation doesn't first think about computers when we think about cartoons. We think about our exposure to early television in the fifties, and what was shown to children then were cartoons. Not anything remotely resembling Hanna Barbera made for TV product but the classic short films of the Fleischer Brothers and the Warners Looney Toons. Also a lot of Disney product, both Silly Symphonies, and Mickey Mouse cartoons.
They richly animated style of Fleischer cartoons (which employed cultual blenderizing with the invention of rotoscoping and the use of circular "sets" against which the Popeye cartoon characters interacted) and Disney endeared the concept of animation to a very large generation, those of us aging baby boomers who fell in love with animation. Also as children, we were taken to the movie theaters to see Disney features, which by Cinderella (1950) bore the "manufacturing stamp" of the Disney studio. I, and most everyone in my generation, grew up with cartoons, and some of us admire the art form tremendously. While searching the web in preparation for the Cartoons Pages in the Cultural Blender, I was amazed at how many people from a couple of generations behind me (who similarly grew up, but with the anemic television fodder produced in the eighties for Saturday morning tv) remembered and wistfully remembered the cartoons of their youth.
It is a well documented fact that children respond to animation, and enjoy watching cartoons over and over and over again. My siblings and I continually "directed" the action as we watched. There were three of us, and we each tried to top the other with our predictions/recollections of the schtick and sight gags. ("Now he's going to run off the cliff and the bomb will go off" or "Felix will turn his bag into an automobile and escape.") Knowing that earlier generations (judging by the proliferation of websites dedicated to them, anyway) savor their memories of somewhat forgettable fare like Scooby Doo and the Smurfs) I would daresay predict that "today's kids" , the "computer generation", will wholeheartedly embrace computer animation as on video games, and in the output of the Pixar studio just as lovingly as we did our Popeye's and Bugs Bunny's.
Animation is an avowed art form, which historically changes in appearance as talented visionaries realize anything imagined can be animated, and anything in the imagination can be visualized by cartoons.
Cartoons, throughout history, have documented our fears and dreams, and this is what endears them to us.
I predict that computer imagery,and it's near perfect "cloning" capabilities, will change animation in look and form, but not in substance and theme. For as long as man has been able to project images which move, he has been "drawing" on animation to supply the images which are only in his imagination.
Disney's first movies were the "Alice" series dating from 1923, but the Fleischer brothers were incorporating films of drawings a full ten years earlier, when Koko the Clown came out of the inkwell and onto the screen. (Disney is probably the first name which comes to mind when popular culture thinks of the history of animation, but this was nearly 10 years after Max and Dave Fleischer began their studio with the Koko series.)

The first three essays detailing the influence of the art of cartooning with regards to the copy/paste milieu of the cultural blender will deal with a short history of the medium, pointing out that both the history of animation and the history of movies are concurrent histories, outlining the major contributions of all the individual cartoonists and cartoon studios.

The second essay will dispel the notion that cartoons are "for kids". The great cartoons of my youth, the "classics" of the 20's, 30's and 40's, were not intended for children alone. They were a part of the American moviegoing experience, and were part and parcel of the short films shown on every theater bill between features. That children embrace and are awestruck when sitting in front of animation is cause for celebration and concern.

Finally, I will talk about the future of the filmed medium, where animation, as practiced in the computer, will morph with conventional photography, so that anything in the imagination will be able to be experienced. Couple the advances in CGI (computer generated imagery) with an immersive experience, and you have "virtual reality." The future of the medium is very exciting.

Michael F. Nyiri

 

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The Cartoon section of Cultural Blender uses images and references to Popular American animated cartoons and American Popular Culture. So even though, in the interest of science, images and references are used, full credit will always be given, or at least attempted, within the context of this document. On the “Channels” page, where links to these sites will be posted, there constitutes a bibliography , of sorts. If you see a photo., part of a composite, mention of a trend or a feature of American Popular Culture which you do not believe I have documented correctly,please email the webmaster.

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