Good ‘ole Innovation

The other day I saw a random post inviting me to follow a link and check out the way that Disney made cartoons “Back in the Day”.  I love animation, and more specify, I love Disney.  I grew up watching the live action and animated features as well as the Wonderful World of Disney TV show.  I loved drawing and decided that I would someday work for the Disney Animation Studios.  I went to art school at Arizona State University, got a degree, and interviewed at Disney… and I didn’t get in.  I came back to Phoenix and interviewed at Fox Animation Studios… and didn’t get in.  There’s quite a bit of competition in the animation and film industry and (I can admit now) that I just wasn’t good enough.  In fact, there are LOTS of people that are better at this stuff than me, but when I saw that link, and I watched Walt at the studio, I remembered what it felt like growing up on Disney animation, and it makes me happy.  It makes me want to go out and fulfill that dream of being an artist and storyteller.

That link started me on a bit of a quest.  I’m working on a project right now that has its roots in traditional animation techniques (more to come on that later).   So I started to look into what I found and I’ve decided that I would use this post to catalog my findings.  It’s going to be long and drawn out, so if you’re interested you can check it out after the break.

Animation is a trick.  The word comes from the Latin anima, meaning the “animating principle” or the vital force inside every living creature… JUST LIKE THE STAR WARS!  (you all knew there would be a Star Wars reference in here).  It takes a flat drawing, places it in sequence with other drawings, and provides the vital spark to bring them to life.  Early endeavors to improve upon the process of bringing flat drawings to life resulted in the invention of the Multi-Plane camera.  This technique made it’s splash onto the big screen with the 1933 release of King Kong.  The movie combined live action elements rear projected onto a miniature screen with stop motion animation puppets.  This innovative and exhaustive process of combining multiple film elements is now completely taken for granted.  It should be noted that Lotte Reiniger’s animated feature “The Adventures of Prince Achmed” (1926) and Berthold Bartosch’s film “The Idea” (1930) paved the way for this process. (via)

It seemed that Walt Disney was in a race with Max Fleischer and his Stereoptical Camera called the Setback (not the best name for an innovative device!).  The coined word “stereoptical” is derived from Stereoscopy (also called stereoscopic or 3-D imaging) and refers to a technique for creating an illusion of depth in an image by presenting two offset images separately to the left and right eye of the viewer.  It was first invented by Sir Charles Wheatstone in 1838, and requires special glasses to keep the images separated from the eyes.  (SURPRISE!  3D is NOT a new technology)  Fleischer Studios attempted to recreate this 3D environment in their cartoons as you can see in the diagram below.

It worked pretty good too.  Here’s a Popeye cartoon titled “Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba’s Forty Thieves” made in 1937.  Watch as Popeye leaves the building and gets on the camel to ride out of town.  The buildings in the background rotate slightly as he passes them.  The depth in this process is so well done, that I’m not sure if those are images on a curved background or if they are actually 3D miniatures placed background.  You can see a tour of Fleischer Studios and the good old Setback camera here.

And on a quick side note, the wonderfully fabulous Todd Kauffman of Neptune Studios created a show called “The Ninth Life of Sherman Phelps”.  They created a whole set to film their backgrounds in and then added some animated details to the scene along with their characters.  You can see some of the behind the scenes photos at this old blog post and check out the show on YouTube.

 So now we move on to Walt.  He may not have been the first, but he OWNED this technology. “Walt’s multiplane camera was invented by William Garity for the to be used in the production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The camera was completed in early 1937 and tested in a Silly Symphony called The Old Mill, which won the 1937 Academy Award for Animated Short Film. Disney’s multiplane camera, which used up to seven layers of artwork (painted in oils on glass) shot under a vertical and moveable camera, allowed for more sophisticated uses than the Iwerks or Fleischer versions, and was used prominently in Disney films such as Pinocchio, Fantasia, Bambi, and Peter Pan. Its final use was in 1989’s The Little Mermaid, as the process was made obsolete by the implementation of a multiplane feature in the computerized CAPS process used for subsequent Disney films.” (via)

 All this excitement after watching the initial video.  The work created by these innovators continues influence us.  Early in 2008 I was asked by Lucasfilm to contribute an art print to the first official Star Wars Celebration in Japan in honor of the 30th Anniversary of A New Hope.  There I was feeling like I had to give up on my dream of being an animator and yet I had the opportunity to create something for Star Wars.  What would I make for my print?  Well I would go back to my earliest influences and re-create a scene from the movie as if it were an animated movie.  And what did I do to add that little something special?  I created my illustration on layers and the added a blurring effect to create a cinematic depth of field and make it appear as though it were shot with a real camera.

While reading through the paper work from Lucasfilm I realized that they wanted to have the first shot a purchasing the original art.  Well, with my animation style work I had original pencil drawings, but the inks and colors and composting was all done in the computer, so I didn’t feel like I HAD a completed original.  That’s when it hit me.  The depth of field that I was creating was done traditionally with the multi-plane camera.  I could recreate that in a 13″ tall by 25″ long by 6″ deep shadow box!  I would put each layer on a sheet of acrylic plastic and hand craft a grooved frame to hold them and make pay my respects to the master of innovation.

 In closing, I’d like to point out that Walt Disney is my third Uncle’s seventh cousin, so I’d like to claim that some of that talent has trickled down to me.  Now you can watch the man himself talk all about the fantastic multi-plane camera.

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