Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Most Influential Animations You Never Heard Of (Part 1)

Animation's history spans over one hundred years. People have long been fascinated by the illusion of movement. Many film enthusiasts are aware of this history and can name several innovative breakthroughs (like the development of the zoetrope, cels, xerography, and CGI). Even the average person is aware of influential works such as Steamboat Willie (1928), Snow White (1937), Astro Boy (1963), My Neighbor Totoro (1988), and Toy Story (1995). Yet, there are many works that are just as historically important which are often sorely overlooked. Below, listed in chronological order, are just a few of such animations from various countries over the years.

1. Koko the Clown (1918-1929): Early Usage of the Rotoscope and Revolutionizing Animation 

A typical Koko cartoon.

Koko was the first cartoon star of the Fleischer Studios (famous for Popeye, Betty Boop, etc). These cartoons were among some of the first to use animated characters interacting with live action actors. Max Fleischer himself, would often appear at the start of the shorts and draw Koko and his dog sidekick, Fitz, into being. Often Koko and his dog would get into trouble, go on adventures in far away lands, or play a prank on their creator. The series was also the first to use the technique of rotoscoping, the tracing of live action footage, for more realistic human animation. Like many of the early animated shorts of the time period, the setting was often very surreal and made heavy use of sight gags.

Koko was popular enough to star in a second series, "Song Car-tunes" in 1924. This series was the first to use the famous 'follow the bouncing ball' sing-along technique. Koko would later make appearances in a few Betty Boop cartoons, most notably in "Snow White" (1933) and "Ha Ha" (1934). The cartoon above is "Koko's Earth Control" (1928).

2. The Films of Ladislas Starevich: The Father of Stop-Motion Animation

 One of the most overlooked animated films ever made.

Ladislas Starevich was a true pioneer in stop-motion animation. His style has been hugely influential on many directors such as Tim Burton and Terry Gilman. Starevich's attention to detail, social commentary, bizarre visuals, and fantastical plots inspired an entire generation of animators.

Born to Polish parents in Russia, Starevich had a passion for studying zoology. In 1910, he was named director of the Museum of Natural History in Kovno, Lithuania. Because he was unable to naturally photograph the lives of certain species of insects, Starevich began creating puppet animations using dead insects. His first film, The Beautiful Lukanida (1910) was the first ever to use puppet animation. He gradually started to make films with plots and relatable characters, such as The Cameraman's Revenge (1912) and The Insects Christmas (1913).

After WWI, Starevich moved to France. Here he began to create films utilizing sound and actual puppets (not insects). Two of his most acclaimed works were The Mascot (1934) and The Tale of the Fox (1937). The Mascot was an half an hour short starring Duffy, a small stuffed dog, who must retrieve an orange for a sick girl and winds up at a devil's ball. The short was successful enough to be followed by three films about Duffy.

The Tale of the Fox was Starevich's masterpiece. It was the sixth animated film ever made and the second to utilize puppets and sound (the first being The New Gulliver [1935]), beating out Snow White by eight months. It's sophisticated use of motion-blur techniques and heavy use of dialogue made The Fox a true landmark in film. The plot of the film involves a wily fox who must be trialled before the King for his constant pranks. Below is a small clip from The Tale of Fox featuring the Queen being wooed by a minstrel cat.

The animation is utterly amazing to this day.

3. Claude the Cat & Hubie and Bertie (1943 - 1951): The Cartoon Series That Broke the 'Disney' Mold.

Claude, the world's most neurotic cat. 

This cartoon series marked the turning point in Chuck Jones career. Most of Jones's cartoons and other Looney Tunes of the the 1930s and early 1940s were far more 'cutesy' in nature (save for the occasional wild card by Bob Clampett).  Jones shorts, in particular, would tend to come across as Disney-like. For instance, his first cartoon star, Sniffles the Mouse, was a naive and sweet character who would later fad into obscurity, in favor of more funny slapstick characters.

While Jones's early shorts were praised for their elaborate animation, audiences found them very generic. Thus, Jones created the short, "The Dover Boys" (1942), the cartoon that taught him how to be funny. While "The Dover Boys" is well remembered by animation fans today, many overlook Jones's equally important cartoon series featuring Claude the Cat and Hubie and Bertie. The series was short lasting, but very important in forming the trademark Looney Tunes style. It was one of the first series to be purposely funny, rather than cute. It was the polar opposite of typical Disney shorts. Fast paced action, physical humor, and over the top gags hence forth became associated with Looney Tunes.

The largest impact that Claude and Hubie and Bertie had on Jones was it defined his great usage of characterization. Each personality in this series is distinctively defined and believable. Claude is a cowardly and nervous, extremely sensitive to his surrounding and a pill popper. He would much rather spend most of his day sleeping without worries. However, Claude is constantly tormented by two mice, Hubie and Bertie, who try to move into his home. Hubie is the smarter of the two and comes up with schemes to fool Claude or take advantage of his fearful nature. Bertie is....not. Even though Claude is the antagonist, the audience often ends up feeling sorry for him, yet cannot help laughing at the antics of two mice. 

4. Rooty Toot Toot (1952): Pioneering Limited Animation and a Bold New Style

UPA at its best.

John Hubley was an animator who formally worked at Disney. After seeing the Russian animated feature, The Tale of Czar Durandai (1934), he became inspired by its unique art style. Hubley then left Disney during The Animator's Strike of 1941. He then helped found the studio UPA (United Productions of America), famous for pioneering limited animation and cartoons such as Mr. Magoo and Gerald McBoing-Boing.  

Hubley's "Rooty Toot Toot" best exhibits UPA's motto of 'less is more.' Each scene has a distinctive color scheme to emphasize the mood. The drawings are stylized and simple but manage to convey each character's personalities perfectly. The plot is more 'adult' than what many people think of when it comes to cartoons. (Actually, many theatrical cartoons were for more mature audiences. It wasn't until the arrival of television and parental watchdogs overacting that cartoons were deemed 'kid's stuff.') "Rooty Toot Toot" is a courtroom drama retelling the song, "Frankie and Johnny." Frankie is on trial for shooting her lover, Johnny, who was with another woman. She is defended by the lawyer 'Honest' John. With it's jazzy soundtrack, unconventional storyline, and black humor, "Rooty Toot Toot" is a truly inspired piece of cinema.  

"Frankie and Johnny were sweethearts..."

5. The King and the Mockingbird (1952 - 1980): Animation as a Moving Art   

A classic in French cinema.

Paul Grimault was to France what Walt Disney was to American animation. But unlike Walt, Grimault's films tended to be far more lyrical in style, satirical, and contained little to no dialogue, being primarily a visual experience. His unique style has influenced countless contemporary French animators (most notably Sylvain Chomet), and Japanese animators Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata. He tended to animate simplistic yet appealing drawn characters contrasted with elaborately detailed backgrounds. Grimault's works also contained social commentary and moral issues, proving that animation can be enjoyed by any person, of any age. Early on in his career, Grimault made many widely acclaimed shorts, including The Scarecrow (1943) and The Little Solider (1947).

In the 1948, Grimault began to work on his planned masterpiece, the feature length The King and the Mockingbird (Le Roi et l'osiseau). However, Grimault lost control of the film and it was shown, incomplete and against his will in 1952. It wasn't until 1967 that Grimault got his film back, and not until 1980 that it was finally released as originally intended! (Barely beating out the time The Thief and the Cobbler's production took!)

 The King and the Mockingbird is a fascinating film. Loosely based off of the fairytale The Shepherdess and The Chimney Sweep, it is the story of a very egotistic king and his rivalry with a mockingbird (who is upset with the King for shooting his wife). The King is a lonely and ugly man who finds comfort in creating large monuments of himself and is love with a painting of a shepherdess. One night, the paintings of the Shepherdess and the Chimney Sweep come to life and escape. They are then pursued by the painting version of the King (who disposed the real king) and are aided by the Mockingbird. This film is a work of art and gives insight on both sides of human nature. It is absolutely criminal that the completed version was never released in the US. All we have is a worn-out public domain copy of the 1952 version.

A Japanese trailer for the film.