Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Direction 6: Dave Fleischer Willard Bowsky - Wild Elephinks

Dave Fleischer with man in Popeye suit and another man in a lifelike man suit.

One of the things that made classic cartoons so well directed and fun is that the directors and animators timed everything with musical structure and pacing.

I think cartoons lost a lot a couple decades later when people started timing them straight ahead. That's when cartoons started to feel awkward, random and unplanned.

Having to make all your gags and action fit a rhythm and melody takes talent, skill and cleverness. It forces you to write with structure and gives the cartoons an automatic stylized creative license. When a cartoon has fun music underlying everything, you don't expect anything to be "realistic". It forces creativity and makes the audience expect it.

The structure in 30s cartoons was generally:

1) Open with a song- intro the characters and situation and put the audience in a good mood.

2) Develop the situation and build the tempos so that they get faster at the climax.

3) End fast and with a musical button.

Even through the 1940s when some directors became less obvious than this exact formula, they still had an innate underlying musical structure and feeling to their timing, actions, gags and story structure. Later animators and directors (and writers) not trained in the 1930s never learned this fundamental structure and I think that it led to disaster for the medium.

Cartoons are a visual equivalent to music.


Peter Bernard said...

I have seen that Popeye before, I thought it was a mannequin, not a man in a suit. I NEVER saw the Gulliver before, though! Awesome photo.

Luis María Benítez said...

Maybe some people think that when cartoons fit their actions with music rythm, then it looks "old fashioned". So, it's easier to make them like the ones we watch today. But anyway, I remembered watching The Ripping Friends, and I always heard music in the background. That was perfect.

Geoff Wheeler said...

Hey John,

Thanks for these posts, they're great.

Why do you think people seem to avoid animating to a musical beat anymore?

I see it in the odd CG animated short film, but off the top of my head, can't recall it ever being used throughout a CG feature.

I know it's a huge challenge to fit the action in a pre-set timing, but at the same time you have a structure to work within which can make some things a bit easier.

I'm assuming the producers of CG films view it as an expensive, time-consuming unnecessary step that doesn't fit into 'modern day' story telling?

I was watching Peter Pan the other day , it's hard to imagine that movie being as playful and fun without the great intertwining of animation and music they have throughout that film.


Nick A said...

That Popeye cartoon was great. Loved the timing :)

Juz Capes said...


JohnK said...

Hi Geoff

"Why do you think people seem to avoid animating to a musical beat anymore?:

Maybe because there is no such thing as melody anymore?

kurtwil said...

Very interesting post, JK. Thanks.

Did the 1930's directors have magtrack or other music sources at/near their desks (moviolas, etc) they could listen to as they developed their layouts and/or exposure sheets? Or did they reference beat charts and/or musical scores?

How much of that was done during MMTheNewAdventures, or RenAndStimpy?

For our decently budgeted CROCADOO or poverty row Burbank productions in Australia, we had no music references during animation or FX (we did have voice tracks for animating dialog). Music/Snd FX were composed and played to more or less match finished animation. It would have been nice to "redo" some sequences for better hookup, but the back-forth costs were simply too high.

Ironically, a number of digital FX tools are now available that react to music during composition. However, they take skilled hands for best results.

mike f. said...

Undeniably true; I wonder why more people haven't grasped this fact? Cartoon characters need to move to a beat. It keeps them vivid and fun; it makes them come alive. Even cheap TV animation of long ago like Yogi Bear and The Flintstones didn't abandon pacing and rhythm; their walk cycles are expertly timed to the music.

That's one reason why boomers brought up on classics like Popeye and Looney Tunes find Family Guy and South Park so dreary and lifeless.

I'm not so interested in dirty jokes (the only original thing these shows have to offer, really) that I'm willing to abandon animation as an art. These modern shows aren't worth the time of someone who was brought up on something better.

Rusty said...

We owe a lot to the 1930's it set the stage for the virtuosos in the forties who developed their skill in the thirties studio system.

I think that the reason the forties artists were so good was because in the thirties they build their skills on an industry that was making artistic and technical progress. Disney was especially doing this.,In 1930 every studio was doing rubber hose animals in 1939 most studios could by then make believable human characters.

The Fleischers were pioneers of fun cartoon narratives building off of what Otto Messmer pioneered and making it into their own with surreal images and creative musical numbers. The Termite Terrace boys were without question inspired by the Fleischers and Messmer.

Because much of what you see in a Clampett, Jones, or Avery cartoon can be traced back to the wild antics of Talkartoons, Betty Boop, and Popeye.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Music and muscical timing justify style and cartoony animation. Sounds right to me. The Popeye cartoon you put up was a perfect example.

RooniMan said...

Cartoons and music got together like bread and butter.

Sven Hoek said...

Cartoons were visual music when they were good. But people keep going to these awful animated features these days.

I was shocked to read people praising these shitty looking cartoons on a cartoon blog. And drooling with anticipation for the next piece of garbage that plops out of Disney's ass.

I think its no accident that all media is so involved with "realism" in everything now. Reality shows, realistic looking animation and the like. It's an assault on creativity and creative people in general.

How much time and money have been wasted on making realistic looking hair and fur, and what is creative about that? Nothing.

It's not about the money if you know how much they are spending on these crappy features and TV cartoons. Its all about mediocre people making mediocre products and mediocre people eating it up.

Zartok-35 said...

I always get a kick out of musical timing and musically times things. Thats probably why I like Friz Freleng cartoons so much. We need more!

Scrawnypumpkinseed said...

Cartoon and music go together like bread and butter.

Unfortunately most studios today seem to think children will be entertained by characters standing hands down, feet out-turned with a generic expression, no music and the only real movement going on is the mouths moving as they deliver a cliched punchline.

Elana Pritchard said...

I love the music of Fleischer Studios- especially the Betty Boop cartoons

Geneva said...

Haha! What a great cartoon. Leave it to you to brighten my afternoon with such a gem (I've been nuts for the Fleischers, lately!) Even the first few seconds of this cartoon illustrate your point beautifully. Great stuff.

Anyway, you're right. I think there are lots of problems... one of them being that new compositions like the ones in this cartoon aren't being made, really (if they are, I'm not aware of them). Another is that I don't know if most people really have access to music like this, because it costs a boatload of money to use anything anymore.

C said...

I love it when characters kick stuff, or scenery moves just to match the music. Nobody understands rhythm these days. Dancers, even talented ones, just flail randomly around without matching the music at all.

The best music cartoon I've seen was Pigs in a Polka.

John A said...

John: The Popeye and Gulliver dolls were posable mannequins, not costumed people.(see how thin Popeye's neck is?)The Popeye doll was used for a lot of publicity photos around Paramount Studios. Gulliver, on the other hand, was an oversized mannequin, which was used to display in theatre lobbys playing Gulliver's Travels. There were also two hand sized figures of Gabby and Princess Glory that stood in each of Gulliver's open palms.

I don't if there was only one that was on display in the Paramount movie theatres in the Hollywood area, or if there were duplicates that were sent out to the main Paramount theatres in some of their major cities around the country. I know Paramount gave it as much publicity as they would any of their other big films released at that time. Many people today seem to think Gulliver was a flop,this wasn't true at all-- while not anywhere as successful as Snow White, is was one of the Studio's biggest moneymakers that year.

Geoff- if you want to imagine how horrible Peter Pan would be without the great music perfectly meshed with the animation, all you need to do is watch that horrible cheapquel, 'Return to Neverland', although I don't reccomend it.

mike f: couldn't agree with you more, even those economy grade H and B shorts of the early '60s were elevated to a higher level by the amazing musical contributions of Hoyt Curtain.

Calvin said...

That is some great information to absorb.

The ocean moves so fluidly and the music is amazing! Cartoons and great melodies have to become part of popular culture again.

Martin Juneau said...

I feel guilty to have bit cares to the Fleischer cartoons.

I remember one of my uncles like Betty Boop and one Holiday, we watched a Betty Boop tape and i was amazed in one of this cartoons. Every scenes, actions and movements was pure magic, creativity and fun! And the beautiful music helped to make the action much in contrast!

We need real cartoons yes, but also real music! These days and i agree with everyone, is just floating for a wider and annoying fanbase.

kurtwil said...

Sven, we may be seeing the cycle of animation repeat itself.

JK commentaries refer to 30's to 60's animation birth and decline, 60's to 80's stagnation, brief reflowerings in the 80's and 90's (R.Bakshi and Spumco).

Since the 90's we've seen big increases in "realistic" video games, internet animation, and anime. None of these appear to have a foundation in classic animation.

My hope's Gen Z or whoever the main viewing crowd is these days will expand their horizons and demand better quality, __new__ classic animation, starting the cycle anew.

JK, I've known composers who would love to write for animation. Trouble is, they never get the chance.

Lampshade said...

Gen Z is going to get it worse.

Tony W. said...

Music is great and all, but a good helping of senseless violence always helps. I'd watch Popeye beat the crap out of endangered animals any day!

Craig Something said...

John, I'd really like to hear your opinion on this new Scooby Doo cartoon. I personally can't stand it, but everyone else seems to be eating it up.

Oliver_A said...

Hey John,

did you guys try to apply the same principle on Ren and Stimpy using the APM library music? Was it part of your production system?

The most obvious episode that springs to my mind where the action is timed to music would be Stimpy's Invention, though in this case, well, it's not really subtle.

seckscab said...

I noticed in the latest Super Mario Brothers Wii game, Shigeru Miyamoto tried to return a bit of the musical comedy animation in, as the enemies would often pause briefly, do a sidestep or tap dance, and resume their activities, all to the beat of the music.

Ashelnaut said...

Back then I didn't really understand how much senseless violence is amusing, but my 3 year old brother enjoyed watching that clip! He hasn't really laughed at those silly brain-dead preschool shows, but Popeye is just amazing.

Now I want more senseless violence for children!
And for me too!

Paul Penna said...

"Maybe because there is no such thing as melody anymore?"

Amazon user comment on an album of classical music, after rating it one star: "Nobody would be interested in this music. It's old fashioned and corny." I think that's pretty typical of attitudes about a lot of stuff these days. You know, interesting stuff.

Jeff Overturf said...

That's a great shot of Dave Fleischer with the guys in suits.

SoleilSmile said...

I have a hard time timing animation and stories WITHOUT music. I guess MTV/Soundies and the vintage cartoon influence is the reason why all of my films are music based. The same goes for my comic. I make a playlist and write according the flow of songs. I flop back and forth with the arrangement of music and story.
Music also helps ensure that I FINISH my projects as well. There's nothing like a great piece of music for motivation!

Diana said...


I agree but you can't have this both ways. Disney did fabulous work to music, yet you bash them all the time. Hypocrite much?

JohnK said...

I forget when I ever bashed Disney for animating to music.

Anonymous said...

Even though it was stock music and thus didn't always follow a scene movement for movement like the classic cartoons, I always thought Ren & Stimpy (yes, even the Games episodes) did a good job with timing the music to what was happening on-screen: Enhancing a mood for whatever the setting required or what emotion was displayed by the characters, not hanging in the background like some cartoons do.

There's a particular scene in "Superstitious Stimpy" that I love: Ren is basically calling Stimpy's superstitions foolish, and Stimpy gravely warns him not to blaspheme or bad things will happen. Throughout all this, an ominous-sounding orchestral track called "Day of Wrath" gradually builds to its double forte climax: When Ren smites the gods and is struck by lightning in retaliation. Good stuff.