I Hope You Like History Lessons

dragoncrestprod on May 15, 2012

So, a quick overview of the history of 2-D Animation, regarding the schools of Fleischer vs. Disney:

Animation as we know it (drawn animation) basically began with Winsor McCay, the artist behind Little Nemo in Slumberland. The man was a bit of a genius, and he was so good at gestures and animation that his cartoons almost looked rotoscoped (traced frame-by-frame); oh, and he did all these in ridiculously short timelines ON DARES - the main was the definition of crazy-awesome. He eventually created Gerty the Dinosaur to prove to his detracters that he wasn't just tracing films. And the Animation Revolution began.

Following this, some people in film got REALLY BIG money signs in their eyes and jumped on the bandwagon. One problem with this: pretty much everyone else sucked. Like, really, REALLY sucked. Many a newspaper cartoonist was commissioned to make animations, but the problem was that people had no concept of “squash and stretch,” so a character's arms/legs/whatever would just magically grow and completely thumb their nose at the Law of Conservation of Mass & Energy. Eventually, though, people figured out that for a cartoon to look right, it had to have a definite amount of mass, and deform like a rubber ball would.

First came Felix the Cat as the first animation superstar; he was around during silent movies, and pretty much dominated the 1920s. However, the money-man behind Felix was lovingly referred to as, by basically everyone that knew the man, “a douche,” screwed over several animators on his payroll, and eventually Felix went downhill.

All while this was happening, up popped two new animators: Max Fleischer and Walt Disney. Now, let me start by saying this: both these men were absolute geniuses, and if they had worked together, rather than apart, animation history would be a LOT different than it is.

Walt Disney was a storytelling savant, and was obsessed with creating cartoons which constantly pushed the visual envelope. After getting screwed out of his first major character, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, he broke off with his brother and a handful of other animators from their previous studio, and started Walt Disney Studios. The thing was pretty much doomed from the get-go, and if it weren't for his brother, Roy, being a business genius, I wouldn't be writing this. HOWEVER, thankfully, Disney had a leg-up on the competition, insight-wise: he wasn't happy with creating cartoons that looked like everyone else's - he wanted to know how exactly McCay made his animations look that amazing, and one-up him.

After a time, it dawned on them: the artists will all take fine-art drawing courses. By today's standards, that's a no-brainer; but back then the idea was revolutionary, and was kept a HUGE secret for many, many years. While Walt kept churning out engaging stories, his animators kept getting better and better at making well-crafted animations, finally culminating in Walt's all-or-nothing gamble the studio had been founded to do: make the first American feature-length animated motion picture - Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.

On the opposite end of the revolution, you had Disney's biggest competitor (no, not Warner Bros. - they came much later): Fleischer Studios. Don't know the name? It's not entirely unheard of for people to not - after all, he didn't “win” the Animation Revolution (Disney did, duh). BUT, I can guarantee you've heard of his cartoons. Koko the Clown. No? How about Betty Boop? Now we're starting to turn heads. Try Popeye. Alright, that's most of the audience. And the Piece de Resistance… SUPERMAN. That's right, remember those really old Superman cartoons from the 40s, where Supes fought the Bullet Car, and those giant robots, and that proto-Godzilla thing? That's Fleischer. Just for the record, these things were SO freakin' popular that they defined Superman more than the comics did: Superman changed in a phone booth in the first cartoon, and ONLY the first cartoon, and that was it - Superman and phone booths would forever be as linked as hamburgers and cheese; additionally, they hated having to animate Superman jumping everywhere, so eventually they said “Screw it, he's Superman, he can fly!” (guess what he started doing in the comics all of about a week after THAT short first premiered).

Now, besides making animations of 3 of the most iconic cartoon characters of all time, Max Fleischer was a mad scientist. That aforementioned Rotoscoping? Yeah, McCay was accused of it, but Fleischer CREATED it. Literally. The guy invented the world's first rotoscoping machine, able to project film images frame-by-frame under a sheet of animation paper in order for an animator to trace it to create photorealistic movement. He also took cel animation to a whole new level of insanity, by having the Rotoscoped Koko interact with live-action objects. Remember that old cliche of having someone jump out of an inkwell? You can thank Koko for being the first. Later on, he created a process called the Stereoptical Process - a process using a rostram whereby you laid clear animation cels over a DIORAMA. That's right - faking three dimensions is for newbs; this man wanted REAL three-dimensions with real lighting and everything. Watch Popeye the Sailor Meets Sinbad the Sailor some time - that's a full scale-model diorama you're watching in the background. Fleischer's cartoons had looser animation than Disney (but still better than most other people's), but damn did he make up for it in pulling out the tech stunts

To sum it up: Disney - storyteller and animation innovator par excelance; Fleischer - technological mastermind and still excellent animator.

Following the end of the War, Disney was the reigning King of Animation, with Warner Bros. a very, VERY close second (thanks to a major strike and subsequent exodus of Disney animators to them - thus bringing along the long-held art-courses secret to WB). Fleischer, sadly was nowhere to be seen. A new animation group, United Productions of America (aka UPA, aka “The @#$% You, Disney Club), came about right at the tale end of the war. The studio was, more or less, a group of animators who'd had it up to here with Disney's style of animation, and did everything in their power to make their cartoons scream ”WE ARE NOT DISNEY.“ From this group do we get cartoons like Mr. Magoo and Gerald McBoingBoing. Their style is by far the most notable - they pioneered the ”flat“ look which has become very popular in the last two decades (this is, several decades after the days of Rocky & Bullwinkle, George of the Jungle, et all, made it relatively prominent in the lat 1960s into the 70s), and ”limited animation“ to evoke a very odd and stylized sense of movement, which was utterly different than Fleischer's own (which used blurs during in-betweens for quick movements, etc.).

After this, The Seventh Angel sounded the Seventh Trumpet, and broke the Seventh Seal, and thus came Ralph Bakshi, who is probably the MOST Anti-Disney person you can ever name. His style is rough, uses VERY limited animation, but ups the level of visual detail, and the man had a real fixation on rotoscoping - his films include Fire & Ice, Wizards, Coonskin, Fritz the Cat, and the (ugh) FIRST attempt at a Lord of the Rings film. From his form of animation spawned John Kricfalusi, who created Ren & Stimpy, and whose visual style can be seen as a major influence on modern series such as The Mighty B, Regular Show, and Adventure Time!

Thus, either through direct influence/imitation of Disney, or via revilement to the point of trying to NOT look like Disney, good ol' Walt shaped Western animation for the next 50-some years.

So why did Disney win and Fleischer become a relative unknown outside of animation fans? Several factors - for one, Paramount (Fleischer's backers) were really conservative and didn't often want to try new things, like making a feature-length picture (Max had wanted to for as long as Walt, but Paramount didn't think it'd make money), until someone else had; then, when Fleischer DID put out a feature-length film, they weren't given NEARLY the budget Disney had for Snow White (which is funny, because they were given more money per 7-minute Superman short than Nick gave Avatar the Last Airbender per 22-minute EPISODE - how's $1.5mil in 2010s currency sound to ya?), so Gulliver's Travels wasn't as impressive as Snow White, and didn't do nearly as well (didn't help that Paramount was obviously riding the bandwagon, rather than innovating like Disney); THEN, when they WERE given a good budget, they made a second film, and released it… TWO WEEKS before Pearl Harbor (yeah, that kinda killed that box-office run); finally, the Fleischer brothers weren't on nearly as good terms as the Disney brothers, and when they had a falling out, Fleischer Studios soon fell after.

Howveer, Fleischer has been given a saving-throw by history, as it were. As I said in the comic, Fleischer's animations were HUGE in Asia; I mean so freaking huge that the Japanese asked Fleischer to make a short just for them (the result was the 1935 Betty Boop cartoon called A Language All My Own). Ever wonder why the hell it is that Anime characters tend to have stupidly big eyes but small mouths? ”Boop-Boopity-Doop! OOP!" is why. Osamu Tezuka was a big fan of Disney, but just as much a fan of Fleischer, and much more of Fleischer's influence shows through in his work - and thus 90% of all succeeding Japanese animators' and mangaka's.

Disney's style has become SO well-known that it's now looked down upon for anyone BESIDES Disney/Pixar to use the style, as it seems unoriginal/bland/cheesy (Warner Bros. tends to stick with its Tex Avery/Chuck Jones-era styles, which were influenced by Disney but largely kept their own look). Combine that with the rise of CG, the enormous popularity of shows like Gargoyles and Batman the Animated Series (and thus the entire DCAU) which featured Fleischer-inspired character designs, and the rise in popularity of Anime in the West since the late 1980s, and Fleischer's influence has come full-circle to become much more prominent than Disney. Really. Turn on your TV and watch almost any cartoon, and you'll likely notice that they have more in common visually with Popeye or Superman than they do Mickey Mouse and Goofy, ESPECIALLY action shows.