Animation History 3 – The Animation Studio
Animation had a short adolescence, and had to grow up quickly. A lot of headway was made in the twenties, with many of the greats of animation putting their own stamp on the industry. The biggest notable step forward in Animation History was the consolidation of talent into dedicated animation studios. Some faded, and some remain with us today.
Animation History 3
Bray Pictures Corporation
Founded in December of 1914 by J. R. Bray, Bray Productions was an important early pioneer in cartoon production. The first studio to specialize in animated films, J. R. Bray gave many animators their start in the business, including Walter Lantz, Paul Terry, James “Shamus” Culhane, Clyde Geronimi and David Hand. Even Dave and Max Fleischer joined the studios ranks in 1916.
December of 1914 – 1929
El Apóstol (The Apostle) from 1917 is generally accepted as the first fully-animated feature film. It was written, directed and animated by Quirino Cristiani, and ran 70 minutes. Well-known caricaturist Diógenes Taborda headed a team of five animators which produced 58,000 drawings for the film over 12 months. Unfortunately, the film no longer exists (although no one disputes that it did exist). All known copies disappeared in a 1926 fire in producer Federico Valle’s vaults.
November 09, 1917
Out of the Inkwell Films
Max Fleischer and Dave Fleischer moved on from Bray Studios to form their own company in 1921. Here they found moderate success with their first character Koko the Clown. Inkwell Studios (or Out of the Inkwell Films) made some of the earliest sound films, using Dr. Lee De Forest’s Phonofilm sound-on-film system. Nineteen cartoons were made using this process.
Originally Inkwell Studios contracted with M. J. Winkler Productions to distribute their films. Wanting more freedom (and certainly more profits!), the Fleischer brothers partnered with Lee DeForest, as well as businessmen Edwin Miles Fadiman and Hugo Riesenfeld to form Red Seal Pictures Corporation to take over distribution their films. Red Seal owned 36 theaters on the East Coast, extending as far west as Cleveland, Ohio. The company filed for bankruptcy in 1928.
The studio was renamed Fleischer Studios in early 1929.
1921 – 1927
M. J. Winkler Productions
Founded by Margaret J. Winkler in 1921 when her boss Harry Warner encouraged her to take on a states-rights distribution deal with the fledgeling Fleischer Studios Out of the Inkwell series. She soon became one of the key figures in silent animation history, and stood alone as the only woman in a field completely dominated by men.
In 1922, she signed on Pat Sullivan and his Felix the Cat series, making her the biggest distributor of animated films at the time. Later that same year, the Fleischer Brothers fell away to begin distributing their own films with their company Red Seal Pictures. By 1925 she had a falling out with Sullivan, but had picked up a new hot property in the Alice Comedies of Walt Disney the prior year. Winkler herself insisted on editing all of the “Alice Comedies” episodes.
Winkler married Charles B. Mintz in 1924. Soon after she had her first child and slowly ceded her company to Mintz as she fell into retirement. By 1927, the Alice Comedies had run their course, and Mintz suggested that Disney develop an all animated series. Oswald the Lucky Rabbit was born, and was soon sold to Universal (who desperately wanted an animation component to their studio).
Walt Disney’s earliest cartoon series, the Laugh-O-gram series began in Kansas City, Missouri. Pulling together fiends (many of whom went on to illustrious careers in animation), Disney produced six cartoons for Pictorial Clubs, Inc. before they folded. Disney went on to produce one final cartoon for Thomas McCrum, a Kansas City dentist. The studio declared bankruptcy in July 1923 and Disney left for Hollywood.
Walt Disney Studios
Walt Disney- and many other animation pioneers such as Isadore Freleng, Carl Stalling and Ub Iwerks- learned their skills making commercial cartoons and a handful of Laugh-O-gram shorts in Kansas City. But KC was not where an creative talent wanted to be, and by 1924, Walt, his wife Lillian and his older brother Roy headed west to Hollywood to make their fortunes. The brothers founded Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio in the San Fernando Valley that same year. Working for M. J. Winkler Productions, the pair (and friends who followed them out from Missouri) began work on the Alice Comedies series.
Founded by four brothers- Polish immigrants originally named Hirsz (Harry), Aaron (Albert), Szmul (Sam), and Itzhak (Jack) Wonskolaser- the theatrical dynasty began with the three older brothers playing films to miners in New Castle, Pennsylvania in 1903. By 1904, the brothers were distributing films in Pittsburgh, and later the East coast.
By 1918, two brothers (Sam and Jack) had moved west and begun producing their own films, opening the first Warner Bros. studio on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. Warner Brothers Pictures was officially incorporated on April 4, 1923.
April 4, 1923 –
Come Take A Trip In My Airship
The 1925 sound version of Come Take A Trip In My Airship was a remake of the earlier, 1924 short of the same name, both produced by Max Flesicher. This short used an early DeForest sound system for sound. It opened with a 25-second animated sequence in which a woman talks as the lead-in to the song. Thus, according to The Guinness Book of Movie Facts and Feats, this was “the first cartoon talkie for theatrical release.”
January 15, 1925
My Old Kentucky Home
My Old Kentucky Home (1926) appears to be the first cartoon with sound synchronization. The short features a dog mouthing, “Follow the ball, and join in, everybody” in sync. This short used an early DeForest sound system for sound. Animation Historian Ray Pointer further comments:
My Old Kentucky Home appears to be the first attempt at animated dialogue, as the dog mouths, “Follow the ball, and join in, everybody” in remarkable synchronization. This comes two years before Disney’s Steamboat Willie where the parrot squawks, and Mickey Mouse did not even speak until two years after that.
March 13, 1926
Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed (The Adventures of Prince Achmed)
The first color feature-length animated film was Lotte Reinigers’ Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed (The Adventures of Prince Achmed) from 1926. This film was also one of the first to use a multiplane camera. This silent film was produced using puppet and paper cut-out / silhouette animation. Prinzen Achmed is the oldest surviving animated feature, too.
September 03, 1926
Fleischer Studios was unique among the early animation studios in it’s focus on human lead characters. Most other studios of the day featured anthropomorphic animals in their lead roles (Mickey Mouse, Krazy Kat, and Felix The Cat, for instance). Fleischer was also the only studio of it’s day to take Disney on, head to head, with their daring production of a feature animated film or two. Unfortunately for the Fleischers, Disney won at the box office. Costs forced Max and Dave Fleischer had to take loans from Paramount, and Paramount required the bothers to sign undated letters of resignation as a condition of the loan.
The Christmas release of Fleischer’s first feature Gulliver’s Travels was praised for its quality, but did not make as much money as hoped. The studio began production on its highly regarded Superman series, produced at 6 times the normal budget for a typical short of the period. The first film was nominated for an Academy Award. Popeye shorts of the period were also very popular, and sold well. But Fleischer was also putting out some major flops… Stone Age Cartoons and Gulliver’s Gabby did nothing but such money from the studios bottom line.
With the box office failure of their second feature Mr. Bug Goes To Town, the brothers were destitute… and working relationships between the brothers was non-existent. The studio was falling apart from above. Parent company Paramount Pictures called in their loan to the Fleischer brothers. This effectively bankrupted Max and Dave Fleischer, who remained at the studio as neutered figureheads until they where finally bounced from their studio by January 1942. Paramount reorganized the studio, moved it back to New York, and reopened it as Famous Studios by the end of the year. Many series- including Superman and Popeye– survived the transition to Famous Studios.
1928 – 1941
First Mickey Mouse Cartoon
Plane Crazy was first shown as a silent film in May of 1928 in a Hollywood theater, so it was, in fact, the first released Mickey Mouse cartoon, albeit in a silent version. Soon after the silent film was finished, Walt and crew decided to debut Mickey in a sound film, and work began on turning Steamboat Willie into that vehicle while this film was temporarily shelved. The final, sound version was released in early 1929, probably May 17, 1929.
Notice the appearance of both Mickey and Minnie, particularly how they have no gloves or shoes. Also, Ub Iwerks had established a record while working on this short; the most animation drawings done in one day (around 700).
May 17, 1928
The first cartoon produced and released as a sound cartoon. (Note: “Steamboat Willie” was originally conceived and produced as a silent cartoon, with sound added just before release.)
Premiered at the Mark Strand Theater in New York. This cartoon used the RCA Photophone sound system. Walt Disney called the cartoon “a lot of racket and nothing else.”
This cartoon was produced before (though released after) Disney’s Steamboat Willie. It played a small but pivotal part in Walt Disney’s creation of his first Mickey Mouse sound cartoon. It was this film, shown to Walt in New York on the cusp of recording his track for Steamboat Willie, that gave him the confidence to press on with his plans.
Neither the first Mickey Mouse cartoon nor the first sound cartoon, Steamboat Willie was the film that popularized both. This was the third Mickey Mouse cartoon produced, and the second Mickey Mouse cartoon released- Plane Crazy (as a silent cartoon) had a very limited release earlier in the year- and the third Mickey cartoon produced. But when Walt heard Warner Bros. “The Jazz Singer” and its matched, synchronized soundtrack, he decided to rework all three cartoons for sound. Steamboat Willie was the first of the three to which sound was added, though not the first originally produced.
November 28, 1928
Silly Symphonies theatrical cartoons are more than simply cartoons synchronized to music. From the beginning, this series was looked at as the place to try new things. And try they did- the first color cartoon, the first realistic human form, the multi-plane camera- the “Silly Symphonies” shorts were no platform for the company’s famous recurring characters, but instead was all about experimenting with new techniques and styles of animation.
Despite this experimentation, this series proved to be very popular with audiences of the time, and soon most of the other animation studios produced a similar series… such as Warner Bros’ “Merrie Melodies“, MGMs’ “Happy Harmonies” and Fleischers’ “Screen Songs.”
1929 – 1939
Warner Bros. first big star – Bosko – appears. Created by animators Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising, Bosko was just a cartoony adaption of Al Jolson’s character in the The Jazz Singer, intially neither a human or an animal.
April 19, 1930