Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Faster Than a Speeding Rotoscope! Or! When Max Fleischer Took a Speeding Bullet for Superman (1941-1942)

When people say they don’t like Superman because he’s too overpowered, too vanilla, or too boring I immediately tell them to stop, to shut up, and to seek out the old Fleischer brothers animated Superman shorts from the 1940s because, one, they are brilliant, and two, Bruce Timm and Paul Dini horked the entire look and aesthetic of it for Batman the Animated Series (1992-1995), which is one of thee best animated superhero cartoons of ever. Well, maybe the second best superhero cartoon series ever invented because, to me, these old serials are awfully hard to beat -- and one of my all time favorite episodes is The Mechanical Monsters (1941)

In this adventure, a mad industrialist launches an armada of robots from his secret lair, who rob and loot the city of Metropolis on a daily basis. Figuring these “mechanical monsters” will strike next at the local museum, where $50 million in priceless gems are currently on display, intrepid Daily Bugle reporters Clark Kent and Lois Lane are on hand to cover the exhibit's grand opening. So neither are all that surprised when a robot shows up and blows past the police cordon. And while Clark slips off into a phonebooth to change into his blue jammies, Lois manages to become part of the cargo hidden in the hold of the robot’s chassis just before it transforms into an ersatz prop-plane and flies away.

But Superman pursues and, using his X-Ray vision, spots Lois and moves to rescue her only to be knocked out of the sky and into some power-lines that shock him unconscious. Lois, meanwhile, almost joins him in freefall when she activates the trapdoor, sending all the pilfered jewels plummeting. So you can p'rolly imagine how horked the bad guy is when he finds his portable loot crate empty when it lands. Well, almost empty. And as punishment for screwing up his caper, Lois is bound up and placed in a precarious deathtrap that involves a timed wench and a foundry of molten steel until she reveals where the jewels went (-- which is kinda hard to do when you're gagged, amIright?!).

Luckily, Superman is able to extract himself from the downed power-lines and crashes his way into the secret lair, which triggers a most righteous slobber-knocker between him and a whole squadron of flame-throwing automata.

Will Superman be able to beat them off in time to save Lois? Of course he will. He’s Superman. Now queue up the massive vid-cap dump and behold the awesome!

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“In the silent era and well into the 1930s, animation’s technology leader was the Fleischer Studio; other studios, including Disney, struggled to keep up with Fleischer’s visual and mechanical inventiveness. And while Disney, obsessed with realism, strove to create an environment in which rigidly contained characters behave according to strict visual, narrative, and social rules, the principles at work in Fleischer-space are the exact opposite. Betty Boop and Popeye inhabit a profoundly rubbery world, in which the fourth wall is full of holes, distinctions between human, animal, vegetable and inanimate taxonomies are unstable, and the boundary between cartoonal and real space is up for grabs.” 

-- Luke Jaeger, AnimationStudies2.0 xxxx
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Max and David Fleischer were just two of six children born to Austrian immigrants, who settled in New York City around 1887. Obsessed with art, photography and advancing technology, Max Fleischer studied both at the Cooper Union of Art and The Mechanics of Tradesman’s School in midtown Manhattan. After graduating, he got a job at The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, where he advanced from errand boy, to photographer, to staff cartoonist for the newspaper, where he met fellow scribbler, John Randolph Bray, who, along with fellow serial cartoonist, Winsor McCay, was a pioneer in animated shorts. But unlike McCay, who did all the drawings for his earliest cartoons by himself, Bray was in the process of forming his own animation studio with the revolutionary idea of adding the assembly line technique to the production to help speed the painstakingly slow and tedious process up.

But along with McCay and Bray, Max Fleischer should also be considered a true pioneer and innovator when it came to animation and doesn’t get near enough credit or appreciation for his many breakthroughs in the field of moving pictures. (His name should be as recognizable as Disney and the gathered lunatics of Termite Terrace at Warner Bros. IMHO.) See, by 1914, animated shorts were being commercially produced for theatrical release. But this first wave of shorts were crude and marred by sloppy and seizure-inducing movements from the characters. To help remedy this, Fleischer started tinkering and perfecting a contraption that would come to be known as the Rotoscope, which combined a projector and a glass plate that allowed an animator to trace movement from frame to frame. Here, an actor would be filmed in character, moving how the story dictated. The film was then projected onto the transparent easel for tracing. And this new, revolutionary technique allowed for a more fluid and realistic movement. Fleischer also kinda reversed engineered this idea with the Rotograph, which allowed the filmmaker to add an animated character into a live action sequence.

After experimenting with the Rotoscope for a couple years, the Fleischers did manage to secure a patent for it by 1917 and began experimenting with a few short features with the new technique for Pathe Film Exchange, where Dave Fleischer had been a film editor since 1914, which gave them an ‘in’. But before that could produce any kind of fruit Max was drafted into the Army when America entered World War I, where he served at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, producing the first ever army training films (Contour Map Reading, Operating the Stokes Mortar). After the Armistice, Fleischer met up with Bray again, who had just signed a lucrative pact with Paramount, and began making shorts for him.

Here, along with inventing the Song Car-Tune, which encouraged theater audiences to follow the bouncing ball and sing along -- which also went a long way in synchronizing sound with moving pictures, ushering in the era of “talkes” -- Fleischer would produce his first big hit with the Out of Inkwell series of shorts that featured a then unnamed clown, inspired by his younger brother, Dave, who had worked as a clown at Coney Island, with footage of him used in the Rotoscoping and Rotographing processes.

It was Max Fleischer himself who dipped his pen into the ink from which the clown sprung on his drawing board, where he never stayed for long and went on all kinds of unique misadventures -- even destroying the world once. (These old pre-code toons are a real psychotropic head-trip without the benefit of any drugs.) And this character proved so popular the Fleischers took a chance and broke away from Bray in 1921, establishing Out of the Inkwell Films Inc. and continued producing and distributing them independently through Warner Bros., eventually coining their flagship character Ko-Ko the Clown in 1924, until financial woes found them latching onto Edwin Fadiman and Hugo Riesenfeld’s Red Seal Pictures Corporation, who were pioneers in the conversion from silent pictures to sound. Alas, Red Seal quickly over-extended themselves and fell into bankruptcy in less than two years, leaving the Fleischers adrift once more.

Enter independent producer Alfred Weiss, who also had a contract with Paramount and desperately needed some content to fulfill it. Needing the money, the Fleischers quickly signed on and kept the Ko-Ko shorts coming under the banner of The Inkwell Imps until, once again, more management woes led to another bankruptcy in 1929, which also put the Ko-Ko character in legal limbo for the foreseeable future. Undaunted, in less than a year, the two brothers had formed Fleischer Studios, surviving on industrial shorts until Max was able to secure yet another contract with Paramount with the revival of the Car-Tunes, re-branded as Screen Songs. And while Ko-Ko was eventually revived in 1931 as Koko with The Herring Murder Case, with everyone now converting to sound by then, the Fleischers changed with the times and were about to hit it big again with another breakout character spun-off from The Inkwell Imps shorts; a ditzy flapper with the helium voice, Miss Betty Boop.

Originally realized as an anthropomorphic French poodle in Dizzy Dishes (1930), by the time she appeared in Any Rags (1932) the character of Betty Boop as we remember her today was firmly established. And despite some legal hassles from Helen Kane, on whom the character was sorta based, and sorta based on enough the singer sued for damages but lost, and a crackdown by the Hayes Code, Betty Boop would have a solid seven year run. However, the Fleischer’s biggest financial success came when they got the license from King’s Feature Syndicate to produce animated shorts based on E.C. Segar’s Popeye, who debuted in Popeye the Sailor (1933), which featured a cameo by Betty Boop.

And all the while, the Fleischer’s kept experimenting, making musical cues an integral part of the shorts; adding layers of glass cells to give their product a more three-dimensional depth; and then came a successful switch to three-strip Technicolor in 1936 with Somewhere in Dreamland. At this point, things were going so well for the studio a national survey showed Popeye had eclipsed Mickey Mouse in popularity.

Firing back, Disney would produce and release the first feature length animated film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) to critical and box office success. Fleischer, meanwhile, had been trying to talk Paramount into doing their own animated feature since 1934 but they felt it wasn’t financially worth the risk until Disney proved them wrong -- and now they wanted their own and wanted it done for a Christmas 1939 release, giving the Fleischers just 18 months to complete the project. (In contrast, from development to finished film, Disney spent nearly three years on Snow White.) This new venture also coincided with a business move from New York to Florida, triggered by a promise of lower taxes, coupled with the lingering aftermath of a vicious labor dispute, with Fleischer Studios now settling into Miami; and to meet the new deadline the staff was expanded to nearly 800 employees (-- animation training classes were set up with Miami art schools as a conduit for additional workers).

As originally envisioned, Popeye was intended to “play” the main character in Gulliver's Travels (1939) in the first draft but this was quickly scotched for a more traditional retelling of the story, which focused on the over-sized protagonist’s adventures in Lilliput. And despite the short timetable and blown budget, the feature eked over the finish line just in time for its holiday release and proved a smash hit at the box-office -- so much so Paramount was soon beating down the door for another feature, penciling in Mr. Bug Goes to Town into their Christmas release schedule for 1941, which would be the first animated feature to show the names of the voice actors in the credits. However, just before Mr. Bug went into production, Paramount also approached the Fleischers with another property they had just managed to license for a possible animated adaptation -- a strange being from another planet, who was faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap a tall building in a single bound, and oft mistaken for a bird or a plane.

Even with the spectacular end results, when Paramount initially made their Superman pitch to the Fleischers neither really wanted anything to do with it. Not wanting to commit themselves, the time, and the resources, to another major adaptation, and already under a lot of pressure to deliver that second animated feature, and not really speaking to each other any more for reasons we’ll get to in a second, the brothers conspired to price their way out of the project, saying it would cost $100,000 per episode to pull the series off properly. (Four times the amount of an average Popeye short.) To their surprise, Paramount was still in a negotiating mood after these inflated demands, agreeing to spend double the usual amount ($50,000, other reports say $30,000,) per episode, and, after leveraging their way into a majority ownership of the Fleischer’s Studio the year prior, Superman was now on the docket for a September, 1941, release; a series of nine ten-minute shorts with more financial and marketing support from Paramount than anything the Fleischer’s had ever done before -- whether they liked it or not.

Based on the character created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, with heated rival Fawcett Comic’s Captain Marvel already headed to the big screen in live-action serial, National Comics (later DC Comics) was eager to get their star on the big screen, too. And despite the initial trepidation, Superman still received the Fleischer touch with great attention to details, background, and the use of Rotoscoping. (Steve Muffati would serve as the supervising director on the series.) However, to save both time and money, some scenes and scenarios relied on sketches from live reference models. “Most of the lead character animators at Fleischer were used to animating caricatured humans and animals, and the assistant animators were tasked with maintaining the figures' realistic proportions. Character shadows, elaborate special effects animation, and detailed animation layouts contributed to the attention to detail evident in Superman and its follow ups.” (Of Mice and Magic, Leonard Maltin). And as a prime example of this attention to detail, check out the multiple layers of cels for this quick establishing shot of the Mechanical Monster returning to his master's secret layer.

I mean they didn't have to animate those transparent clouds into this throwaway transition bit but they did. And please note the robot is flying THROUGH the clouds. Also, check out the fantastic rendered backgrounds for the bad-guy's secret lair, complete with furnace, foundry and machine-shop, with the eerie lighting effects from the fire and flowing molten metal. Again, not needed, but it adds so much.

Thus, circling back, in the end Rotoscoping was used rather sparingly for the Superman shorts mostly because a lot of Superman’s feats were unfilmable to trace (-- punching through doors, fighting giant dinosaurs, getting blasted by lasers, or scrumming with giant robots). Thus, the shorts made use of “inbetweeners”; artists of lesser skills used to keep the character on model and quickly move them from Point A to Point B; points of action which were then handled by more veteran animators; a technique the Fleischer’s had perfected throughout the 1930s and, again, helped speed the process along. (Chuck Jones would later adapt this blurring technique into his Loony Tunes and Merrie Melodies to great effect.)

These animation problems and hiccups were also responsible for bestowing upon Superman his signature superpower: the power of flight. At the time, Superman could only leap and bound around like a spring-heeled jack. But as the first rushes came in the Fleischers felt this jumping “looked silly” and it was a bitch to animate; and so, they asked the brass at National Comics if it was OK to just let the man fly from place to place (-- allowing for that speeding bullet blur). The publisher agreed, and when the shorts proved a big hit they wrote this ability into the comics. These shorts also coined the signature phrases, “This looks like a job for Superman” and “Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound” and “Look! Up in the sky: It's a bird. It's a plane. It's Superman!” which was later co-opted into the live-action Adventures of Superman (1952-1958) TV series.

Providing the voice of Superman / Clark Kent and Lois Lane were Bud Collyer and Joan Alexander, who also played the parts in the extremely popular Superman radio serial (-- and so popular and influential it was several of its plot devices, including his allergy to Kryptonite, also became comic canon, too). And professional wrestler Karol Krauser, one of the “Mad Russian” Kalmikoff Brothers, served as the model for the Man of Steel. One should also note the rousing, menacing and even playful score composed by Sammy Timberg, a long-time Fleischer musical collaborator, which adds even another layer of depth. And I would love to list all the directors, writers, animators, background artists and colorists who worked on this series but this kind of information is sketchy at best and nonexistent at worst. But whoever you are/were out there, I salute you all on a job well done.

The first episode of the series, simply titled Superman (-- later re-released as The Mad Scientist), debuted on September 26, 1941. And buoyed by a marketing blitz from Paramount, the shorts were a huge success, even earning an Academy Award nomination for Best Animated Short Subject. Alas, this would be the Fleischer brothers last hurrah. Seems a terrible rift had formed between Max and Dave that started with the move to Miami, grew larger during the hectic and rushed production of Gulliver’s Travels, and was then compounded further by the revelation of Dave’s adulterous affair with his personal secretary, Mae Schwartz. After, the two never spoke and communicated through office memos only. Money was also a constant problem as aside from Popeye and the new Superman serial most of the new shorts produced by the studio in the 1940s were rejected by theater chains, meaning a lot of money wasted on things that would never see the screen. They also faced hefty fines from Paramount for going over budget and blown deadlines -- over $350,000 in fines for Gulliver’s Travels alone, and another $250,000 lost to those rejected shorts, going a long way in explaining why the Fleischers kept going bankrupt.

Well aware of this beef, majority-shareholder Paramount stepped in and demanded that one or the other of them resign from the company upon completion of the Mr. Bug feature. By 1940, with the feud firmly established, Dave Fleischer had taken control of the production side of the studio, pushing Max into the business office where he worked on research and development. But as work on Mr. Bug continued, after producing that string of short-subject flops, Paramount renegotiated their deal, now demanding both brothers submit signed letters of resignation for the studio to "use at their discretion.” Seems the success of Superman came too late and everything was now riding on Mr. Bug Goes to Town, which was previewed on December 5, 1941 in advance of its scheduled Christmas release; two days later the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.

With America’s sudden entry into World War II, Paramount cancelled its Christmas release schedule. The month before, seeing the writing on the wall, Dave Fleischer had resigned from the studio. And before the end of 1941, Paramount president Barney Balaban enforced Max Fleischer’s submitted resignation. And so, Fleischer Studios no longer had any Fleischers. Mr. Bug Goes to Town finally saw wide release in February of 1942 and it quickly bombed. And the film was such a financial disaster, coupled with the disappointing box-office of Disney’s Pinocchio (1940) and Fantasia (1940) on their initial releases, Universal (Paul Terry), Warner Bros. (Leon Schlesinger), and 20th Century Fox (Walter Lantz) all pulled the plug on proposed animated features -- one of which was Bob Clampett’s aborted take on Edgar Rice Burroughs War Lord of Mars that he'd been trying to get off the ground since 1936.

With the Fleischer brothers now out of the picture, Paramount reorganized and rechristened the operation Famous Studios, appointing Seymour Kneitel, Isadore Sparber, Sam Buchwald, and Dan Gordon to run things. And under that banner, the Superman serial continued for eight more adventures. And while stylistically they looked the same, the stories were markedly different as Paramount did their part for the war effort by having Superman, Clark Kent and Lois Lane taking on Japanese saboteurs or foiling Nazi plots. Alas, in the end, maintaining the high quality of these shorts would prove too expensive and Paramount declined to renew the series, replacing it with the more cost-effective Little Lulu

The rights to these seventeen shorts eventually reverted to DC Comics, while the TV syndication rights were licensed to Flamingo Films, who distributed The Adventures of Superman TV series in the 1950s. But the cartoons fell into the public domain when DC failed to renew their copyright in the early 1970s, meaning you can find them streaming almost everywhere or available on all kinds of DVDs and VHS tapes. But most of them look like shit. However, and thankfully, Warner Home Video has stepped in and restored these old shorts to their original Technicolor glory -- and they are gorgeous.

As for the Fleischers themselves, after resigning, Dave Fleischer moved to California where he became the head of Columbia Pictures’ Screen Gems, transitioning the studio from big screen content to television syndication before winding up his career as a technical advisor at Universal, working on films like Francis the Talking Mule (1950) and The Birds (1963). He passed away in 1979. Meantime, Max Fleischer went to work for the Jam Handy Organization in Detroit, Michigan, where he once again worked on training films for the Army and Navy for the duration of the war. And with his work on reflex viewfinders Fleischer was also involved with some top secret research on a new bomber sighting system. 

After World War II ended, Fleischer bounced around a bit, and even wound up working for his old rival for awhile, working with his son, Richard, on Walt Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954). In 1958 he tried to resurrect the old Inkwell Imps with little success; and all the while he fought to regain ownership of his other flagship character, Betty Boop. In the 1960s, ill health forced Fleischer to retire and he would pass away in September, 1972, just one year shy of a national retrospective with the release of The Popeye Follies (1973) and The Betty Boop Scandals of 1974 (1974), two anthologies that featured restored prints of Fleischer cartoons made between 1928 and 1940, which triggered a Fleischer renaissance as they were championed as a subversive alternative to Walt Disney.

This write-up, like so many other write-ups, began life as a simple vid-cap look at one -- ONE -- episode of the old Superman animated serial which quickly blossomed into a full kitchen sink review on the history of Max Fleischer and Fleischer Studios. And as one digs into the fascinating history and looks back at Fleischer’s career as a maker of cartoons, it’s hard to say if he had more of an impact behind the scenes with his technical innovations or should he be judged by the product he produced onscreen. Does his place in animated history belong with what he produced or how he put it out there? Well, I say, Why can’t it be both? Either way, clearly, the man was a genius.

"Nah ... Couldn't be."

Superman (1941-1942) Fleischer Studios :: Paramount Pictures / P: Max Fleischer / D: Dave Fleischer / W: Seymour Kneitel, Izzy Sparber, Jay Morton, Joe Shuster (comic), Jerry Siegel (comic) / C: Charles Schettler / E: Frank Endres, Steve Muffati / M: Sammy Timberg, Winston Sharples / S: Bud Collyer, Joan Alexander, Jackson Beck, Jack Mercer, Julian Noa


Anonymous said...

I don't imagine there's any doubt that there was an homage to these robots with the somewhat larger devices seen in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow... or indeed that the whole first act (at least) of that film rests firmly against "The Mad Scientist"

An excellent write-up; I had no idea that Fleischer was the man behind the Rotoscope until today. Now I have to dig up my old, muddy-vision DVD entitled Superman vs. War and Nature and the episodes therein another watch.

W.B. Kelso said...

Most definitely. Have fun. But I do recommend those Warner restored discs. If you poke around YouTube the first batch is streaming for free on the Warner channel and they look INCREDIBLE.

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