Thursday, March 28, 2013

Who Was Flip the Frog? (& On Ub Iwerks)

A little known series by the man who (actually) created Mickey Mouse.

Animation owes a lot to the genius of Ub Iwerks. He first began working in at Pesmen-Rubin Art Studio in Kansas city where he met Walt Disney in 1919. The two newspaper illustrators quickly became good friends. In 1922, they entered their first joint animation venture and established Laugh-O' Grams-Studio. Unfortunately, the company lasted just over one year before filling for bankruptcy. But neither Walt or Iwerks were deterred. They moved to Hollywood in 1924 and started to become quite successful. The first cartoon series created by Walt and drawn by team of animators led by Iwerks was The Alice Comedies, which was notable for integrating a live action film star with cartoon characters and hand drawn backgrounds. In 1927, Walt and Ub made a deal with Universal Studios to distribute cartoons under Charles Mintz. Thus, Ub drew up a new cartoon star for Walt, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Oswald was memorable for for his mischievous, carefree nature and tendency to (barely) avoid trouble.

Sadly, Disney and Iwerks fell into a major disagreement with Mintz. Both of them wanted to improve the animation for the Oswald series, but Mintz wanted to slash costs. Since Mintz owned Oswald, Walt and Ub were forced to leave their jobs and start fresh without any other animators. However, Walt and Ub had a secret weapon up their sleeves. In 1928, Ub drew up several funny animal character ideas, and Walt decided he liked a certain mouse best. At the suggestion of his wife, Walt named the mouse Mickey and the rest is history. Contrary to popular belief, Mickey's first cartoon was not Steamboat Willie, but a silent cartoon called Plane Crazy. (Both cartoons were animated single handedly by Ub within a couple of months!). Plane Crazy failed to appeal to test audiences, perhaps because it was too similar to other cartoons at the time. Thus, Steamboat Willie was created utilizing a new novelty in film, synchronized sound. (Although animation had experimented with sound before, the results were rather crude.) As animator Ward Kimball put it, "You have no idea the effect that sound had on film. People went crazy for it."

Before their was a mouse, there was a rabbit.

Ub's original ideas for Mickey's design.

A layout from Steamboat Willie.

Besides creating Oswald the Lucky Rabbit and Mickey Mouse, Iwerks came up with the cartoon characters Clarabelle Cow and Horace Horsecollar. He also directed several of the first Silly Symphony cartoons while at Disney including Springtime, Hell's Bells, and Arctic Antics. His animation for The Skeleton Dance (1929) was, and still is, remarkable for its realistically drawn human skeleton characters and contained many great visual gags. 

The complex animation in The Skeleton Dance holds up remarkably well.

Ub was great at creating dramatic lighting.

After 1930 however, Ub had a major falling out with Disney. Disney felt that Ub was not welling enough to allow him to retime Ub's work nor would Ub allow other artists to draw in-betweens for his animation. On the other hand, Ub felt overburdened with work and felt like he was not getting enough credit for his contributions at Disney's studio. When Pat Powers offered to distribute cartoons made by Iwerks, Iwerks left Disney to establish his own studio. Shortly afterwards, Iwerks attracted attention for creating the first fully color animated short, Fiddlesticks, two years before Disney would release the Technicolor cartoon The Flowers and the Trees (1932). For this cartoon, Iwerks created Flip the Frog. In this cartoon and his earlier cartoons, Flip was very much like a more 'realistic' looking frog living in a forest (well, for a funny animal anyway). Later on, Flip's design would become more abstract and anthropomorphic. His second cartoon, Flying Fists, was also filmed in color, although no surviving color print is known to exist today. Iwerks's remaining Flip cartoons would be filmed in black and white in order to keep down costs.

Originally, Flip was be portrayed as an adult character with happy-go-lucky nature frolicking among other woods animals. In an effort to standout from the Silly Symphony cartoons, Iwerks restructured the style of his series. He began to star Flip in cartoons more akin to the style of Mickey Mouse. He even gave Flip a girlfriend frog (sometimes a cat) similar to that of Minnie Mouse and a mule similar to Horace Horsecollar. Iwerks also moved Flip to a more urban setting, and gave his character a speaking role. While these early Flip the Frog cartoons were technically sound, they lacked in humor and in originality. The only exception to this was The Cuckoo Clock Murder Case (1930) which featured Flip as a detective inspecting a haunted house, only to nearly meet 'Death' itself.

While rather bland, Fiddlesticks is notable for being the first full color cartoon.

Flip later switched to black and white due to budget concerns.

The last half of Flip the Frog's career changed drastically and for the better. In late 1931 starting with The New Car, his design loosened up and became more abstract, his cartoons no longer resembled Disney castoffs, and quite a few of them were genuinely funny. He was shown to be frequently out of work or constantly trying at (and sometimes failing at) starting up some sort of business, in reference to the Great Depression. Other times, Flip was portrayed to be a young boy dealing with school related problems or trying to win the affection of a popular girl (which is kind of weird sense he is a frog, not a human boy!) A wide array of characters began to populate the series, most predominately a mean, old, man-hungry spinster who acted as Flip's boss and Flip's affectionate but troublesome dog. Additionally, Orace the Mull was fleshed out and given a dull-witted and somewhat short-tempered personality, acting as the perfect foil to the more optimistic and curious Flip.

It should also be noted that the cartoons became more risqué. For instance, in The Office Boy (1932), a women unknowingly walks around with a 'private' sign on her backside and in A Chinaman's Chance (1933), Flip inhales opium and becomes intoxicated. This was because Grim Natwick, who formally worked at Fleisher Studios and designed Betty Boop, and other New York animators brought their more 'gritty' style with them upon joining Iwerks's studio. The cartoon also contained a few mild swear words, such as 'damn' and 'hell', as the film censorship board had not been implanted yet.

A model sheet of Flip's newer, more boyish design.

Hey, what are you boys looking at?

Oh wow, don't expect to see this anytime soon in a Disney cartoon kids!

But despite all of the modifications Iwerks made to try and improve his cartoons, Flip was retired in 1933, after his last cartoon Soda Squirt. So what happened to Iwerks's short-lived, 38 episode series? Why did it fail? Part of the reason was, as mentioned before, Flip's earlier cartoons offered audiences nothing new and came across as 'just another unfunny Disney wannabe'. By the time Flip began to star in more innovative shorts, audiences had likely already moved on. Also, the market had become oversaturated with cartoon animal characters (such as Felix the Cat, Krazy Kat, Cubby Bear, Mickey Mouse, Bimbo, etc) by the time the Flip cartoons came into full swing. Flip was also abandoned just before 1934 when the Hays Box-Office Code was implanted. This implies that perhaps Iwerks was worried that the code would censor some of his show's more bawdy humor and, thus, he abandoned it altogether.  It should also be noted that Ub Iwerks was painfully shy, and likely lacked the skills to advertise himself as well as Walt Disney, a born salesman. Flip the Frog would not gain further recognition until playing on TV rerun programs in the 1950s-1970s and later video releases. To this day, he remains a rather obscure character, only widely known among animation enthusiasts.

Perhaps these scary dolls made people avoid the series.

Spooks (1931) is often regarded as one of Flip's best cartoons.

After canceling Flip the Frog, Ub Iwerks would have even less successful ventures at his studio. He first created a series about Willie Whopper, centering around a young boy who told outlandish tall tales about his fictionalized adventures. MGM dropped distribution of Iwerks's work and replaced him with Harman and Ising, so Willie was abandoned in 1934 after only 14 cartoons. In a last ditch effort, Iwerks switched over completely to color and got funding from Pat Powers again. Iwerks produced 25 Comicolor Cartoons between 1933 to 1936. The cartoons were typically based of off popular fairy tales or childern's stories. Whereas the series lacked good timing and gags, it was lovingly drafted. Iwerks invented the multiplane camera, built from the parts of an old Chevy automobile, to create a sense of realism and depth. This invention would become vital to creating many iconic scenes in several Disney feature films. Eventually, Iwerks lost finical support and was forced to look for work elsewhere.

The even shorter lived cartoon that replaced Flip.

A typical ComiColor cartoon.

From 1937 to 1939 Iwerks produced two Looney Tunes cartoons staring Porky Pig and Gabby Goat at Warner Brother and did contact work for Columbia Picture's Screen Gyms. He eventually made his way back to Disney. There, he came up with other advances in technology including a matte system, to allow the easy combination of live-action and animation (as seen in The Three Caballeros and Mary Poppins), and the xerox process (first utilized in One Hundred and One Dalmatians). In addition, he contributed to several of DisneyLand's theme park projects. Iwerks also did special effects works for other studios. Most famously, he provided animation and camera work for Alferd Hitchcock's The Birds (1963) for which he was nominated an Academy Award.

Despite having mixed success in his career, there is not doubt that Ub Iwerks was an extremely talented man. His influence is felt everywhere from John K to Osamu Tezuka. Many other artists acknowledge Ub's expertise including Chuck Jones and Walt Disney himself. Someday, hopefully, the greater public will acknowledge the contributions of one of animation's most important figures.