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Follow the Bouncing Ball:
The Technical Innovation of Max Fleischer

Fleischer Patent(by Noell Wolfgram Evans) Max Fleischer is unarguably one of the pioneers of animation. His responsibilities in bringing Betty Boop and Popeye to the silver screen would alone warrant him a place in the history books, but perhaps Fleischer's greatest achievements were not what he put on the screen but how he put it there. The story of Max Fleischer is one of technical innovation, full of exploration in the production process of the animated film.

Max Fleischer was born in 1883 in Vienna. His family immigrating to this country soon after. From an early age he had an interest in mechanics, not just for what they were but for what, in combination, they could be. He also had a talent for drawing and felt the strong pull of the movies. All three of these interests came together in 1917 when he put together a short animated film and began to shop it around to various distributors. Fleischer didn't have just anything though as he had put an animation together using a process he and his brother Dave had invented in 1915 called the Rotoscope.

The Rotoscope is an amazing device that helps to produce realistic animation. The process works like this: An actor is shot acting out (in costume) the scene which will be animated. This film is then played back frame-by-frame on the underside of a piece of glass. On the topside of the glass is an animator who (for lack of a better word) traces that frame of film. These drawings are then cleaned up and added to with a final result of a very life like (from the movements of the cartoon character down to the creases on their clothing) animation.

Many of Max Fleischer's shorts are being released to DVDThe Rotoscope was used to great effect by the Fleischer crew, in particular on several of the early 'Out of the Inkwell' films and in the later Superman series. It was in the Superman series (which started in 1941 with 'Superman' and included 1942's 'The Bulleteers', 'The Magnetic Telescope' and 'Volcano' among others) that Rotoscoping really received a 'second revival'. Its use in these pictures, particularly in the non-action scenes, helped to ground the films in a certain reality and which in turn gave the action sequences a greater impact. Why this process never caught on could be distributed amongst a variety of reasons including the amount of time it took to produce a film in this manner, the cost factor and the trends of the times, mainly the marks set by Disney. The Rotoscope is not completely forgotten, though, as director Richard Linklater is using a version of it for his 2001 film 'Waking Life'.

The Rotoscope should not be confused with Max's other 'roto' invention: the Rotograph. The Rotograph was born out of the desire to place animated characters into realistic settings. With this device, the backgrounds for a cartoon would be filmed as live action. This film would then be projected, frame-by-frame on the underside of a piece of glass. A cel of the animated character(s) would then be place on the front side of the glass and this would then be photographed. The film would then be advanced a frame and a new cel would be added. The end result would be the illusion that this animated character was inhabiting our 'real' world.

Betty BoopLike the Rotoscope, the Rotograph was used to enhance the early films of Fleischer, particularly in the 'Out of the Inkwell' series which featured the first Fleischer star, Koko the Clown. The 'Out of the Inkwell ' series set the trend for Fleischer cartoons to come; they had a certain self-awareness about them, it was as if all participating (Koko included) knew that they were part of a cartoon and in turn they worked the medium accordingly. Fleischer was certainly not the first animator to mix the real world with the cartoon one, but he certainly did it like no other.

Fleischer was never one to rest on his accomplishments, he was constantly attempting to push the limits further (partly out of personal drive and partly to 'out-do' Disney, a goal of most animators of the time). And so it was, that in 1934 he devised a new filming method which would place cartoon characters in their most realistic settings yet. 'Set Backs' as they were called around Fleischer's studio were miniature sets which resided on a miniature turntable on a stage. An animated cel would be placed between two pieces of glass (which acted simply as a 'holder') Max Fleischerand then this glass was placed on the set. A camera photographed the scene and then a new cel was placed in. In addition the set could rotate slightly as needed. This all helped to give the effect of an animated character living not just in the real world but in a fully fleshed out 3-D environment. For added effect, objects (a chair, some trees etc) would also be placed in front of the cel to flesh the depth of the scene out even fuller. This process was first used in 'Poor Cinderella', a 1934 Betty Boop cartoon but perhaps it can be seen most effectively in the 1936 two reel 'Popeye the Sailor Meets Sinbad the Sailor,' which also happened to be Popeye's first color cartoon, the first Fleischer cartoon to receive an Academy Award nomination and, at two reels, the longest cartoon (at that point in time) ever created as Snow White was still a year away.

Although all these inventions were important and in many ways furthered the growth of the animated film and our appreciation for it, Fleischer might just well be famous for something far simpler. A popular attraction of early motion picture exhibition were the Sing Alongs. In between pictures, the house organist would play a popular song of the day and the audience would be invited to sing along. If they didn't know the words it was ok because they would be shown on screen through the use of slides. Between 1924 and 1925, the idea came up within the Fleischer Studios to place these words on to film. That was a fair idea in it's self, but it was decided to take this thought a step further and also provided some guidance (as to what to sing and when) for the audience. They eventually came to the idea of bouncing a 'ball' over the word that was to be sung in its proper place in the song.

And with that, the 'Song Car-Tune' was born.

It's interesting to note that originally this series wasn't animated at all. Instead the words were painted onto a large drum. Standing above the drum with a white ball on a long black stick would be a man who would move the ball over the appropriate word in time with the song. The film would then be processed and reprocessed as a negative image until it appeared as if this ball was bouncing from word to word. It arrived on screen as an instant success, even today, nearly some eighty years after the fact, people (most of whom who have never even seen a 'Car-Tune') continue to use the phrase 'Follow the Bouncing Ball'. Producing the series in this state could have carried the Fleischers for a while, but Max was never happy to keep things as they were and so it wasn't long before the words and the ball were animated and then soon after that, the words themselves began to act out the song. Either a Fleischer character (such as Koko or Bimbo) would appear with the words and 'act out' the song or the words themselves would act out their meanings. As an example if the word was 'race' it might zoom off the screen. These were just another example of the 'knowingness' of the Fleischer cartoons, the realization of the cartoon that it was in fact an animation and it's acting in accordance of the laws (or absence of them) in animation.

During these early days, Disney was Fleischer's primary rival. Max Fleischer continually strove to meet the high marks that Disney set although the two men were fundamentally different. As Disney was innovating what was on the film, Fleischer was busy coming up with new ways to get the images to the film. His mechanics and the results of them helped to forward the production and appreciation of the animated film.

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