Man Meets Cartoon

The following is an article from Uncle John's Fully Loaded 25th Anniversary Bathroom Reader.

Since the dawn of cinema, filmmakers have tried to combine cartoon characters with the real-life world. Here's the history of animation in live-action films.


In the early 1910s, American cartoonist Winsor McCay wanted to break into the nascent motion picture business. At the time, he was best known for Little Nemo In Slumberland, a comic strip that followed the adventures of a young boy in a magical dream world. After two unsuccessful attempts at animation, McCay created a 12-minute silent film called Gertie the Dinosaur that debuted on february 8, 1914, at Chicago's Palace Theater.

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Audiences were astounded. Gertie was as much "performance art" as it was a film. The initial screenings featured McCay dressed in a tuxedo and carrying a whip, standing in front of a movie screen pretending to interact with a cartoon brontosaurus named Gertie. Much like a lion tamer at a circus, the cartoonist instructed the dinosaur to perform various tricks such as "catching" treats and dancing on her hind legs. And for the big finale, the real McCay ducked out of sight, allowing a previously-filmed, onscreen version of himself to be picked up and carried away by Gertie.

McCay's animation was rudimentary by today's standards. Without techniques like cel animation, which allows parts of each frame -characters and backgrounds- to be reused, the production was incredibly labor-intensive. The artist himself painted thousands of frames on rice paper. But McCay invented time-saving tricks, such as registration marks and cycling (the reuse of animation in later scenes), that are still being used today. Following the success of the first shows, a revamped version of Gertie with a live-action prologue toured the country, and McCay returned to his day job.


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Gertie heavily inspired a young animator named Walt Disney. After his Kansas City-based Laugh-O-Gram studio went bust in 1923, Walt and his brother Roy pooled their resources to open a new operation in Hollywood. Once there, they shopped around Alice's Wonderland, a 10-minute short loosely based on the character created by Lewis Carroll. In the film, which was as reality-blurring as Gertie, Alice encounters a group of cartoon animals while touring an animation studio. Although it was never released theatrically, it impressed investors -so much that the Disneys were able to raise the funds to produce their next film project (unrelated to Carroll's characters), the Alice Comedies.

Starring child actress Virginia Davis as Alice, a typical installment followed her adventures with a cartoon cat named Julius as they roamed various animated backdrops that included a Wild West town and the ocean floor. In order to create the illusion that she was interacting with an animated environment, Roy filmed Virginia's performances in front of a white backdrop (often in a single take because they didn't have enough film for reshoots). Then Walt took the footage and combined it with sparse cartoon backgrounds and characters drawn on white paper.

Compared to Disney's later films, the Alice Comedies are stark and unpolished, and some have racist elements. In Alice Cans the Cannibals, for example, Alice thwarts a village of African cannibals in grass skirts (who looked like they stepped out of a minstrel show), and in Alice and the Dog Catcher, Alice is the leader of the Klix Klax Klub, a group  of kids who wear paper bags over their heads, a la the Ku Klux Klan. But the films were acceptable -and successful- in their day. Disney released 57 Alice Comedies before turning his attention to a cheaper animated series starring Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, a precursor to a certain animated rodent.


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During this same period, animator Max Fleischer, best known for bringing Popeye and Betty Boop to the big screen, also experimented with live action-animation combinations. In 1915 he invented rotoscoping, a technique in which animators painstakingly trace over filmed images, frame by frame, thereby combining the two forms. He filmed his brother Dave in a clown suit and then rotoscoped the image, transforming it into Koko the Clown for his "Out of the Inkwell" series, which ran from 1918 to 1926. In 1923 he produced two 20-minute educational films that used the rotoscope technique -Theory of Relativity and Theory of Evolution- explaining the works of Albert Einstein and Charles Darwin. (In one scene involving an X-ray machine, an actor's hand morphs into an illustration of the bones underneath his skin.)

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As the sound era emerged, Fleischer used rotoscoping to incorporate performances of jazz musicians cab Calloway and Louis Armstrong into cartoons. He used it in animated Superman shorts and feature films, and Disney used it in Snow White.


In the years that followed, studios continued to experiment with the live-animated format. Notable moments:

* 1940. Warner Bros.' You Ought to Be in Pictures, a short starring Porky Pig and Daffy Duck. At the beginning of the nine-minute film, Daffy convinces Porky to jump off a drawing board into the real world in order to look for a better-paying job at another studio. Unlike the Alice Comedies, the short featured animated characters running around a live environment, rather than vice versa. Few advanced special effects were used to combine Porky and Daffy with the live footage -for many scenes, animators simply enlarged still photographs and added animation cels over them.

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* 1945. In the feature-length comedy Anchors Aweigh, Gene Kelly performed a four-minute tap dance routine with Jerry Mouse of Tom and Jerry. (Producers wanted him to dance with Mickey Mouse, but Roy Disney reportedly said no.)

* 1964. In a scene from Disney's Mary Poppins, Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke jump into an animated chalk drawing, ride animated merry-go-round horses into an animated countryside, and dance with animated penguins.


In 1976 Futureworld, a sequel to the hit Westworld, became the first major theatrical release to utilize computer animation to create a special hand-and-face effect for actor Edward Catmull. After that, computer generated imagery (CGI) became the standard for creating special film effects that combine live action with animation, from the computerized world of Tron (1982) and the realistic dinosaur of Jurassic Park (1993), to the alien world of Pandora in Avatar (2009).


This article is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Fully Loaded Bathroom Reader.

Get ready to be thoroughly entertained while occupied on the throne. Uncle John has ruled the world of information and humor for 25 years, and the anniversary edition is the Fully Loaded Bathroom Reader.

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!

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