Tuesday, May 08, 2007

WILLARD BOWSKY, Popeye, A Date To Skate

I used to notice a really unique drawing and animation style in the early Betty Boop cartoons. The way they drew ogres and tree monsters didn't look like typical "animation-style" cartoon drawings. They looked more like a comic strip artist who learned to animate. Think of the close ups of The Old Man Of The Mountain.

I think I've figured out who the artist is and it's Willard Bowsky. I see his name in the credits of almost all the cartoons that have this style in it. It's more detailed than the other animators. He would do those gruesome close ups of Bluto with all the wrinkles and crazy expressions-like in "Sinbad The Sailor".

I'm pretty sure this scene of Olive and Popeye in "A Date To Skate" 1938, is him too.
Look how cool these drawings are! They have a whole bunch of drawing skills happening at the same time.

Construction: All the features of the face wrap around the bigger forms of the faces and are in perspective.

Design: This is a really unique stylistic look. If you look at the other animators' Popeye cartoons from 1938, they are less stylish. Almost every 30s Popeye has great animation, but this style is like a throwback to an earlier more designy look. By the late 30s even the Fleischers were being influenced by the "west coast" animation style that Disney was doing. That style was more fluid, more organic but also more generic. When the Fleischers started doing this style, they lost their own more graphic gritty manly look.

The New York animators never quite understood the west coast style and when they tried to copy it, the couldn't figure out how to combine construction with organic timing and drawing, and their animation became kind of mushy-especially into the late 1940s.

They also were influenced by the cutesy look of Disney but couldn't draw cute themselves, because they were more manly street type guys.

Bowsky though seems to have retained a " cute-ugly" style.Tightness: Nothing wobbles or melts in the animation. All the details and finish are really tightly controlled. Some of the other animation in cartoons of the same period have a sloppier finish, even if the animation itself is very good.

Some of these screen grabs are inbetweens and they are just as tight as the keys. I don't know how the animator was able to control every drawing so well.

Thick and Thin inking: Other Popeyes at this time had abandoned the earlier Fleischer style of thick and thin inking. Here it is looking great.

Note that the less important lines are thinner. Wrinkles are thinner than the more important shapes they help describe. That's hierarchy of lines.

Hierarchy of forms, lines and shapes and animation:

In the animation, the main motion of walking to the beat of the music never falters. Within that basic motion the characters also have to act and talk.

Within each character's construction all the details have to follow where the forms are going and wrap around them.

No elements just go off in their own direction. Everything follows some higher authority.

Cartooniness: Hard to define but here it is, undiluted by cutesy-pie Disney influence.

Cute-Ugly: This is a really cute scene without being "cutesy". It's a cartoonist drawing characters that are supposed to be ugly, but his drawing style is so appealing and well balanced that it comes off as cute. Sincere-cute, rather than pandering-to-moms cute.

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Control: Bowsky controls all these different artistic elements and makes it all work together. The more creative skills you have to balance at one time, the harder it is to control any one of them.

This is a marvel of control and skill, but is really fun on top of it. It doesn't lose any spontaneity.



David Germain said...

You're going to tell us about Willard Bowsky on Bob Clampett's birthday????

Josh Lieberman said...

I'm a huge Fleischer fan, glad to see you discussing his studios work.

Kali Fontecchio said...

We must find more information on this guy! He stands out like a sore thumb in the cartoons- such slick appealing lines and drawings.

Ryan G. said...

Wow what a coincedental post..I just bought a classic cartoons dvd from Walgreens a couple days ago for 5 bucks. Its got about 20 popeye shorts along with Felix the Cat and Woody Woodpecker. Ill see if its got this particular episode on it..

Thomas said...

"A Date to Skate" is one of the few instances where a modern day digital intervention is warranted, to fix that annoying paint flash on the cycled crowd in the background. It damned near ruins the middle section of the cartoon. There probably wasn't time to fix it originally -- too many scenes would have had to be reshot. Aside from that, it's an amazingly tight cartoon, one of the best Popeyes.

Shawn said...

Wow! I can't wait to get ahold of the Fleischer/Popeye DVD set! Didn't you do some commentaries for that?

Hey, today is Bob Clampett's Birthday!

Kent B said...

Bowsky's cartoons are much more cinematic than the ones Kneitel animated - One of my favorites, "Window Cleaners" had really cool extreme camera angles that the other animators would never use. Even in the later Fleischer stuff like "Gulliver" and "Hoppity" his stuff stands out. Yeah - and those cool highly detailed close-ups are amazing. I wish I knew more about him. Apparently he was killed in WW2.

Stephen Worth said...

The thing I notice about Bowsky's animation is how integrated all the parts of the characters are. Other Fleischer animators, in particular Doc Crandall, seemed to animate one part of the body at a time- working over a scene in several passes. Bowsky nails all of the parts working together as one unit. His fight scenes are always the best.

See ya

Randy said...

Great stuff! But cartoon characters with 5 fingers weird me out. It simply isn't natural.

Josh Lieberman said...

Nice disection of the work John. What are your thoughts on his "Stereoptics" technique?

Craig D said...

Yay! More about Fleischer Popeyes. PLEEZE!

Peter Welsiack said...

Hi John!

Great post, but that is not Bowsky's animation. That's George Germanetti's style and animation. Germanetti did a ton of footage on the Popeye cartoons, especially in the Bowsky unit.

Your #1 Fan,
Peter Welsiack

JohnK said...

Hi Peter,

>>That's George Germanetti's style and animation.<<

Is there some way you know for sure? I wish there was more info on Fleischers.

Anonymous said...

Absolutely astounding. I cannot believe this isn't on TV ALL the time. At least I have the amazing Popeye DVD Thunderbean did

max said...

Wow, the frame grabs don't do the clip justice; you have to see it moving. And that animation really sticks out from the rest.

Charlie J. said...

I was raised on those weird fleischer close-ups, and I love them. They always seem to envoke the spirit of yiddish guys I saw on the subway.

Adam G said...

I remeber reading that Jack Kirby use to do inbetweens for Popeye at Fleicher's. I think it was one of his first jobs.

Peter Welsiack said...

Hi John!

Other knowledgeable Fleischer fans told me of Germanetti's style of animation. It's all over "Wotta Nightmare".

For the record the director, Bowsky in this case, did little or no animation on their cartoons. Most likely it would be a close-up acting shot.

Your #1 Fan,
Peter Welsiack

Charles said...

by the way the whole cartoon is here in crappy youtube quality. It will at least wet your appetite for the Popeye DVD. I'm amazed at how well they were able to control all of this animation, like Olive Oyl on the skates. The character designs are so much more interesting and fun to watch than typical fat Disney-type characters too.

amir avni said...

A Date to Skate is high up there in my Popeye favorites. Did Willard Bowsky animate the later scenes where Olive's skating runs out of control? I love the scenes in the department store-- how the table she's under is so rubbery, and the chase on the streets.

Tibby said...

Hmmmm - very interesting.

So, a cartoonist can have roots in more detailed illustration? And someone who can force more detail into an animation naturaly makes a better quality cartoon.

Cool - I was worried that my style was too complex. Cause I like to make comicbook cartoons. And I like to include all the wrinkles and folds on a character.

Todays animation is so simplistic because it does take extra effort to animate a more detailed toon. It is a sad plague on today's cartoons - I cannot stand that simplistic, simplified, flat, no-detail, geometric style of todays cartoons. GAWD I hate the style of Kim Possible, all those flat Batman series, the geometric Flash based toons, ICK!! Bad, bad, bad!

What attracts me to the classics is all the fine details. Like Elmer Fudd's head wrinkles when Bugs plays barber.(I love that one!) Part of the problem with lack of details in todays toons comes from some of the technology. Working in Lasers I had to really simplify my animations because only a small maximum # of points could be used on the screen. And a projector could only display a limited number of details before the image got bogged down and flickery. Vector/Laser terms .... I'd have to explain animated Laser Light Shows ...

It's simply the lazy, easy way of designing cartoons for Flash or similar programs. Animators have gotten lazy with the tweening and getting used to limited animation. Come on ppl, Animation is nothing but work! Break the lead out!! Don't be affraid to go the extra mile and put in those face wrinkles!

Hammerson said...

Fantastic screenshots! These are really beautiful and original expressions. Also, the drawings have great solidity and construction.

Interesting remark about Germanetti. I haven't really heard much about him, beside the fact that he was a longtime Fleischer and Famous Studios animator. Germanetti had lot of credits together with Bowsky, and it could be his animation after all, though I always thought of Bowsky being responsible for these particular stylistic traits you pointed out.

One cartoon that might be an indicator of Bowsky's own animation style is "Betty Boop's Penthouse". Willard Bowsky has the sole animation credit on it, much like Doc Crandall on "Snow White", and both cartoons were released within the same month. "Snow White" was completely animated by Crandall, so "Betty's Penthouse" could be Bowsky's solo cartoon. It would be worth comparing this cartoon with "A Date To Skate" to find out are there any similarities in animation style.

[William] said...

Dear John K,

I grew up with both Looney Tunes and Ren and Stimpy. I aspired to be an artist. I have lost my will to create art. What is wrong with me? From one artist to another

William McCann

Ahahnah said...

I can see the first two pictures but the rest aren't showing up :/

I see [______________]
then I click it and get


Andy Norton said...

You have some interesting comments to say about this Fleischer animator... shame I can only see one and half pictures to illustrate this.