The animated cartoon was once, frankly, a catch-penny device. It was thrown in, so to speak, with the rest of a picture program. If you found the awkward, jumping pen-and-ink figures amusing, you stayed to watch. If not, you walked out of the theatre, feeling you hadn’t missed a thing.
But there were those who were dedicated to the life’s work of making the animated cartoon a thing of beauty, artistically to be reckoned with, as well as entertaining. They knew it could be done. And they kept it all, until they believe they have proved champions of the right cause.
One of these is Walter Lantz, independent producer of Oswald Rabbit cartoons for Universal Studios. In 1916, Lantz, with Gregory La Cava, then a comic strip cartoonist (who directing William Powell and Carol Lombard in “My Man Godfrey” for Universal) was one of the originators of an animated cartoon taken from a comic strip then running in the New York America, where both were employed. Lantz admits now that only those possessed of a great and abiding faith could have seen in that crude and irregular bit of film anything like a brilliant future, which lay in store for animated cartoons.
Oswald Rabbit was born in Universal Studios in 1927. He is now 9 years old. Created by Walt Disney, he remained for two years just a blank ink daub with long ears. He might have been anything with long ears, but one day P.D. Cochrane christened him Oswald Rabbit, and definitely assigned him his place in the animal kingdom. In 1929 took Oswald Rabbit in hand and dressed him up. He put a collar, tie, and trousers on him. As the occasion demanded, he further added to Oswald’s wardrobe. Last November, he lifted his face, and now he’s a rejuvenated rabbit, a distinctive screen comedian, and as real as any human comedy performer. So improved is he over the old Oswald Rabbit, so much more does he stand out as a definite character, that manufacturers have deluged Universal with request for permission to use him in various merchandising and advertising promotions.
From 40 to 200 people actually work on the making of a single cartoon feature, which is usually from 600 to 800 feet in length, and costs from $8,000 to $75,000, for the same length of footage. A cartoon screen strip contains from 12,000 to 15,000 individual drawing, and an animator averages about 50 of these drawings a day.
Animators can not be pressed into any other service. They work only on the drawings. Musicians, vocalists and actors form a separate crew. They are the specialists chosen exclusively for the character sound effects required in the picture.
The business of making animated cartoons with sound is a much more difficult and complicated process then in the silent picture days. In those days, the cartoonist producer never worried about a story. He just said “We will make 600 feet of Oswald Rabbit going to the North Pole,” and then permitted the story to take care of itself, ambling on the growing in relation to the gags inserted. Now a scenario must be planned, written and set to music. And the action must exactly fit the music. Four hundred bars of music mean 800 feet of action, counting two feet of action to every bar of music. If in the story, for example, the character is required to run to a certain place in the picture, the music must be speeded up to be there at the same instant he arrives. The scenario is perfectly timed and the tempo of the music in relation to it is tested until they fit exactly.
Where there are voices and talking, first a sound recording is made of the voice and the words to be used. The film is then placed under a magnifying glass, and each syllable of each word is then picket out and measured for length. The animator then makes his action fit the length of each syllable, long or short. Before a single drawing is made, however, everything in the way of story, gags and music is completely set. When once the actual animating of the drawings begins, with the result that not one foot of film is wasted.
In the old silent days of animated cartoons, a few lines were considered sufficient background. Now artists are employed who specialize on proper and complete backgrounds to fit the story. Only black and white were then used, drawn on paper. Now celluloid is placed over the black and white drawings, which permits the use of any color on the celluloid and the blotting out of the line drawings. Different pieces of action are studied for use in animation. For instance, if one of the characters does a dance in the picture, this dance, by a human dancer, is first photographed so that every move of this dance may be studied by the artist, and he then makes exact, authentic drawings of that type of action.
Walter Lantz is of the opinion that despite the fine advance made by animated cartoons, only the surface has been scratched as far as their creation and entertainment value is concerned. He feels its artistic possibilities are limitless, and with mature artistic technique, the animated cartoon will take its place in the first rank of screen entertainment. And very soon, too.
Lantz firmly believes that an animator himself must have dramatic ability in order to properly draw action pictures. He says that an artist must visualize action or he can not draw it. In some instances dramatic instructors are employed to analyze for the artist, the atmosphere, background and quality of the characters portrayed before they begin to draw the pictures.
There is no single branch of animating cartoons with which Mr. Lantz is not thoroughly conversant, except that of music. And so that he may be proficient too, in that angle of his chosen work, Lantz took up the study of the piano about eight months ago. He is now quite an acceptable performer of some of the better known classics.