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kottke.org posts about Max Fleischer

The Breakthrough that Made Animation Look Natural

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 06, 2019

In the latest in a series of videos on film innovations that came from outside Hollywood, Phil Edwards highlights rotoscoping, a process of filming live action and transferring the motion to produce realistic animated movement invented by Max Fleischer.

As the above video shows, it started with Max’s brother Dave dancing on a roof in a clown costume. Footage of that was then used to model the classic Koko the Clown cartoons, which formed the basis for many Fleischer Studios films. Today, animators still use techniques like rotoscoping to turn real movement into animation.

A number of the studio’s most memorable cartoons used footage of legendary jazz singer Cab Calloway to create fluid animated sequences, like this dancing walrus from Betty Boop.

As Edwards notes, Fleischer’s studio also invented an early multiplane animation device, which allowed for the independent movement of different parts of the background to create the illusion of depth, resulting in yet more realism. Here’s Steven Johnson describing Disney’s more sophisticated multiplane camera in his book Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World:

All of these technical and procedural breakthroughs summed up to an artistic one: Snow White was the first animated film to feature both visual and emotional depth. It pulled at the heartstrings in a way that even live-action films had failed to do. This, more than anything, is why Snow White marks a milestone in the history of illusion. “No animated cartoon had ever looked like Snow White,” Disney’s biographer Neil Gabler writes, “and certainly none had packed its emotional wallop.” Before the film was shown to an audience, Disney and his team debated whether it might just be powerful enough to provoke tears — an implausible proposition given the shallow physical comedy that had governed every animated film to date. But when Snow White debuted at the Carthay Circle Theatre, near L.A.’s Hancock Park, on December 21, 1937, the celebrity audience was heard audibly sobbing during the final sequences where the dwarfs discover their poisoned princess and lay garlands of flowers on her.