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Freeze Frame Friday 4/9/10: Ripples Of Tiles, Waves of Wheat

9 Apr

Grandpa Mouse "swimming" in a flood of grain

Fantastic effects: A cantankerous old mouse swims desperately against literal "amber waves" of grain, the highlight of the occasionally confusing THE FIELD MOUSE (above); meanwhile, the Wallace Beery-inspired Papa Bear holds his own against a similar "tide" in A RAINY DAY ( below, right)

by Rachel NewsteadPapa Bear fights a "tide" of roofing shingles

If ever there were an argument for the full restoration of the Harman-Ising MGM cartoons, it can be found not only in that favorite of  Kevin and mine, Circus Daze, but in the two cartoons we’ll be discussing this week: The Field Mouse (1941) and A Rainy Day (1940). The grainy images I’ve included here hardly  do them justice; I can’t begin to image how they must have appeared on movie-theater screens. Continue reading

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How “Embarrasskin'”….Correction On Tyer Post

26 Mar

Though these particular frame grabs are Abner Kneitel’s work, the gag was Tyer’s: the first instance of a Tyer “shrink take.” (Thanks to Bob Jaques for the information). Click to enlarge.

by Rachel Newstead

Well, I learned two things today. One, my powers of observation are not quite as sharp as I thought they were, and two, when I’m wrong, I’m spectacularly wrong.

After reading this post on animator Bob Jaques’ blog last night, I began to worry about the accuracy of my “Freeze Frame Friday” post from last week on Jim Tyer. After writing Jaques for confirmation, it seems my fears were justified:

Hi Rachel,

The frame grabs you posted from Anvil Chorus Girl and Service With A Guile are not Tyer’s work. The examples from Service With A Guile are the work of Ben Solomon. Tyer’s work doesn’t show up until later in the cartoon.

He followed that up with another note adding:

BTW, Tyer did not have Clampett-like nervous energy–it was his own style, completely different and as far as I can tell pre-dated Scribner’s energetic work at WB.

I’ve always prided myself on being as accurate as I can–if at all possible, I back up my statements with a quote from a well-respected animation author/blogger. I could not find any definitive information on which scenes Tyer did in which cartoons, and therefore had to rely on my best guess.

Unfortunately, I didn’t say it was my best guess. Jaques is rightly critical of such people, those who make an outright statement of fact without checking, thereby spreading misinformation like a virus.

I’m shocked and embarrassed to find that I, in this case, was actually part of the problem. I can assure you such incidents will not be repeated.

The stills I posted will remain, as they are indeed an example of why I love the Popeye cartoons of that period, the early Famous period. The poses and expressions, misattributed though they were, are priceless.

That said, a true example of Tyer’s work–or at least, work under his direction–can be seen above. Bluto reacts to the sight of Popeye in drag with a trademark Tyer “shrink take”–the first use of such a gag, according to  (appropriately enough) Bob Jaques, in his commentary track for the cartoon Too Weak To Work. (It can be found on the DVD set Popeye The Sailor, Vol. 3, 1941-43).

The misinformation ends here and now, at least on this blog.

(Information added attributing frames to Abner Kneitel, 3/26/10)

Freeze Frame Friday 3/19/10: Tyer The Popeye Man

19 Mar

Olive fends off Bluto's advancesSecond in the series

by Rachel Newstead

(Update 3/26/10): I’ve discovered, to my humiliation, that the information in this post is actually incorrect, according to animator Bob Jaques.  More details in the correction here. )

Famous Studios never quite reached the same level of artistry and innovation as its predecessor Fleischer, but it did achieve a sort of “mini-Golden Age” in the period between 1942 and 1947.

I’ve always had a particular liking for the Famous cartoons of this period, the Popeyes especially, without understanding why. But I understand now.

Those years–from You’re a Sap, Mr. Jap in 1942 to The Royal Four Flusher in 1947–correspond to one Jim Tyer’s tenure at Famous Studios. Though often criticized for his “off-model” animation poses, Popeye and company never looked handsomer than in the years Tyer was animating them. There was a certain solidity, a dimension in Popeye, Bluto and Olive then than in any cartoon made after Tyer’s departure.

Continue reading

Freeze Frame Friday 3/12/10: You Can’t Keep A Good Animator Down….

12 Mar
Bugs Bunny registers extreme fear while standing at edge of cliff in Gorilla My Dreams

Wild poses like this one show that however much Robert McKimson may have wanted to calm down his animators, in the early years he didn't (or perhaps couldn't) restrain them that much. From Gorilla My Dreams (1948)

by Rachel Newstead

Fans and historians alike usually classify Robert McKimson–unfairly, I Gorilla landing on top of Bugs Bunny--frame 1 think–as a superb animator, but a poor director. Granted, his cartoons don’t appear to contain even a fraction of the insanity of those of the man for whom he once animated, Bob Clampett;  still, the cartoons of his earliest years as a director (1946-1950) rank as some of the funniest to ever come out of the studio.  Easter Yeggs, Daffy Doodles, Boobs In The WoodsHillbilly Hare–theseImage 2 in the sequence made me hold my sides with laughter when I first saw them, something even the funniest Bob Clampett cartoons never quite managed to do. Continue reading

Freeze Frame Friday 2/26/10: A Flintstones “Missing Link,” and A Scooby Mystery

26 Feb
Picture of unnamed caveman character playing wooden "bass"

Is this unnamed fellow playing the Stone Age bass a Fred Flintstone that didn't make the cut?

by Rachel Newstead

Researching cartoons can sometimes raise as many questions as answers, and on this edition of Freeze Frame Friday, we have a mystery worthy of Scooby-Doo and the gang. Fitting, really, as part of this week’s entry concerns them–sort of.

If there’s one book that can be considered the authority on all things Flintstone, it’s the one by T.R. Adams–if only for lack of competition. I truly regret getting rid of my copy so many years ago, as a vague memory of something in that book has both intrigued and nagged at me for years.

It states, as I did in my recent review of “The Swimming Pool”, that one can see early, discarded designs of the main characters (Fred especially) in certain scenes. That much is obvious, but I’m almost certain they went further, by mentioning a specific scene: the “pool warming”/birthday party that gets Fred run in for “dunking an officer”.  I couldn’t for the life of me imagine at first which anonymous character in the scene they might have been referring to (as the known characters don’t look all that different) until–after about the third or fourth viewing on VHS–I happened across our bass player above.  And promptly did a double-take.

He looks for all the world like Fred–granted, a pointier-nosed, relatively chinless version of him, but enough to be a close “relative.” We know that isn’t actually Fred in that scene, but there’s  good reason to suspect the design of this character could have been taken from a rejected concept drawing of Fred,  fished from the wastebasket and re-purposed as an “extra.” Continue reading

Freeze Frame Friday 2/19/10: Animation At The Speed Of Tex

19 Feb
Swing Shift Cinderella hitting Wolf on head with frying pan

This single frame, from SWING SHIFT CINDERELLA, appears to have more movement, speed and vibrancy than an entire season of today's animated programs

by Rachel Newstead

Ah, yes–Tex Avery. There’s so much one can say, it’s easy for a humble blogger like me to think the posts will write themselves whenever he’s the subject. In reality, doing justice to Tex in writing is as difficult as trying to snare a cloud with a grappling hook. Do I write about the wild, exaggerated “takes” that were his trademark? Too obvious.  The impossible gags, the visual puns? The subversion of the cute, the safe, the Disneyesque? The repetition of themes in his cartoons (such as the “ubiquity theme,” in which a character appears to be everywhere at once with no explanation given–or possible?) Good start, but not quite there. Rather, the topic of this Freeze Frame Friday will be Avery’s mastery of speed–or rather, his portrayal of it.

It’s easy to forget that the ability to portray speed in animated drawings didn’t come about overnight. The Disney Silly Symphony The Tortoise and The Hare (1934) and Frank Tashlin’s 1937 Looney Tune Porky’s Romance are generally credited as the first cartoons to successfully portray speed, relatively late in animation’s history. Both cartoons did succeed on a technical level; it’s one thing, however, to accurately portray speed, and quite another to make it funny.

Fairy godmother crouching into a runAt their best, Avery and his animators could make characters look as if they The fairy godmother of Swing Shift Cinderella in a flurrying runwere moving at Mach 6 even when they were standing still. What Disney’s animators did with an amorphous blur of lines and Tashlin with a series of quick cuts, Avery did with the very plasticity and weightlessness of his characters.  In his book on Avery, Joe Adamson credits Avery’s loss of one eye in his early days at Lantz with the development of his later style: after the accident, Avery’s characters had a quicksilver-like quality, a total lack of solidity, as if they could disintegrate at any moment. And as we can see in the frames included here, they nearly do;  in these stills from Swing Shift Cinderella (1945), a very modern and Wolf-crazed fairy godmother yelps with joy at the sight of a Wolf in her midst, and speeds off in pursuit.  Her form is almost wispy–not quite a “smear”, as we’ve seen in past weeks, as a series of light, quick brush strokes in keeping with the lightness of the figure itself. (Clampett would use a similar technique in his

The fairy godmother's legs rotate like bicycle wheels as she starts to speed off

Even in freeze-frame, this old gal's a ball of fire. From SWING SHIFT CINDERELLA

Wabbit Twouble, when Elmer runs from tree to tree to evade a bear, dissolving into nothing more than a series of horizontal brush strokes in between. Bob apparently learned well from the master).

As soon as our oversexed fairy godmother begins to cohere, the trademark Avery rubberiness takes over as her legs appear to become literal wheels. As she and the Wolf tear through the room, their natural lack of weight and the laws of  centrifugal force combine to send them scampering around the very walls.  While Avery made his characters seem weightless, his Disney-trained animators knew

Rubbery, weightless and the fastest things on earth...

enough about the laws of motion to make the fantastic seem real.

I suppose that explains just why I could never quite warm to Avery’s later work in the 1950s, after the UPA model of flat, stylized drawing was adopted industry-wide. It’s odd, really–one would think that the flatter style would have helped rather than hurt Avery, but somehow it didn’t work that way.

According to Adamson, the UPA-like style was an abstraction of an abstraction–which is one too many. I, however, think the problem went deeper than that:  the Avery characters of the later years never had that quicksilver quality, that ability to disintegrate themselves and re-cohere in an instant–to change shape and snap back again.  They were static designs, and stayed static designs–they had lost their speed. Now, rather than appear to break the sound barrier standing still, they appeared to be at a full stop even in motion. And animated cartoons haven’t been truly “animated” since.

Freeze Frame Friday 2/12/10: Smear Animation–in 1937?

12 Feb

Still from Fella With A Fiddle

Is this the first instance of "smear" animation? From THE FELLA WITH A FIDDLE (1937)

by Rachel Newstead

Unless they’re truly serious in their devotion to animation, fans seldom take notice of the single frame:  even the more serious-minded sometimes complain that single images in a blog don’t do an animation sequence justice. Perhaps, but they can reveal things about a cartoon we never realized were there, Another still from FELLA WITH A FIDDLEand can sometimes change our presuppositions about the cartoons of a certain period.

When Kevin and I discussed possibilities for future Freeze Frame Fridays recently, one cartoon kept coming up: The Fella With A Fiddle. I’d always considered it a pleasant enough cartoon, from the era of upbeat little musical numbers and goggle-eyed mice, and an average one for Friz Freleng. It never occurred to me that it might make suitable material for this column, until Kevin reminded me of one scene in particular. A scene I’d always liked–but now, I realize why.

A parable of greed told by a wisened grandpa mouse to his grandkids, The Fella With A Fiddle features a blind “beggar” mouse–in fact quite rich and quite able to see–who sings the title song on the street corner as he plays a fiddle, naturally. (In this transitional era, the Merrie Melodies directors had to at least pay lip service to the directive that a Warner song be featured).

The mouse’s scam is never actually exposed in this cartoon, but he does spend a considerable portion of it trying to confuse a skeptical sourpuss of a tax assessor (voiced, of course, by all-purpose villain Billy Bletcher.) It’s these scenes that elevate the cartoon above the typical mid-thirties cartoon, and earn it a place in our gallery of stills.

The mouse, whose home appears to the outside world as a tumbledown little shack, actually lives in impossible splendor inside. Through a series of levers and revolving trick walls, he can hide his opulent furnishings once the mean old tax assessor comes by.

In the stills shown here, the trick walls and furniture appear to be possessed, changing back and forth faster than the poor tax assessor can blink. The confused official whips his head back and forth at the goings-on, not quite sure what to make of the situation.

A funny scene, and a rather fast one for 1937, but something else caught my eye when I saw it in freeze frame. As the tax assessor mouse’s head goes back and forth, he smears from pose to pose. Just as in Dover Boys, or any of the other Chuck Jones cartoons of the decade to come. This didn’t make any sense, until I found there was a common factor between this cartoon and those later ones.

Ken Harris.

I don’t take much stock in information I glean from YouTube, usually, but the person who uploaded the copy I used for today’s post referred to this as the “first screen credit of Ken Harris.” I have to admit I was skeptical, as I don’t remember reading anything about Harris having worked for Freleng, but seeing the frames above convinced me. They’re too similar to what he would later do for Jones not to be his, and if they are, he in those few frames took animation a giant step forward. And far sooner than most of us might have imagined.

(Added more images to better illustrate scene.)