‘Toons. Cartoons. Animated films. Bah! Kids’ stuff!
And perhaps you may be right. These days, cartoons have a distinct, childish look and feel to them. When someone mentions cartoons, we think of the kids sitting in front of the television on Saturday mornings watching “Cartoon Network”, “Nickelodeon” or the “Disney Channel”. But cartoons have had a longer and more colourful history than most of us are probably aware of. Characters such as Betty Boop, Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Popeye the Sailor Man, Goofy, Pete, Koko the Clown, Pluto, Tweety-bird, Daffy Duck and dozens of others, have histories stretching back well over fifty, sixty, seventy and in rare cases, eighty years! When and where did cartoons come from? How were they created? Who did what, when and how?
For the purposes of clarification, this article will cover the history of cartoons in the context of animated film, not as the funny pages in your local paper. So grab some popcorn, your best ACME-brand director’s chair, sit down and relax…
The First Animated Cartoons
Ever since the dawn of photography, people learned that pictures taken in quick sucession, of a moving object, could be flipped through, sequentially, to create the illusion of a ‘moving picture’. This became the basis of moving pictures of all kinds for over a hundred years, from the 1870s until the late 1990s, when it was gradually made obsolete by computer and filmmaking-technology that was more up-to-date.
People reasoned that, if dozens of photographs taken in quick sucession could be ‘played back’ as a ‘moving picture’, then there was no reason why a series of carefully-drawn illustrations couldn’t do the same thing. The first experiments with this took place in the late 19th century and the results were short animated cartoons created through ‘flip-books’. A flip-book worked by holding a small book (with the illustrations inside) spine upwards and then letting the pages fall downwards in front of you. As the pages fell and revealed the next frame in the animation, the pictures appeared to ‘move’.
The Development of Animated Film
Animated cartoon-films as we know and love them today, were born in the early 20th century, with companies and film-studios such as Inkwell Studios, the later Fleischer Studios, Warner Bros. Studios and most famously, the Walt Disney Studios and the less well-known Van Beuren Studios, all founded in the first few decades of the 20th century.
Since cartoons exist outside the world of conventional physics, science, medicine and technology and are created in a world entirely of their own, animators, illustrators, directors, producers and voice-actors of animated films soon realised that they could bend reality to extraordinary levels and thereby create amazingly vivid, surrealist and imaginative films which, in turn, allowed for a great deal of liberty and creativity in making comedy cartoon-shorts, something which the early animation studios produced a great deal of.
Cartoons started off looking very crude as animators originally struggled to draw such detailed drawings in great number. The cartoon tradition of having characters drawn with only four fingers and four toes was supposedly a time-saving measure. By having only four digits on the hands and feet, animators could draw more quickly, but at the same time, not appear to have greatly mutilated the limbs of the characters being used. This tradition of four-fingered characters has continued into the modern day with cartoons such as “The Simpsons” and “Family Guy”.
In the late 1920s, with the invention of films with synchronised audio (the “talkies”), animation studios began to explore with sound-effects, vocal-talents and music for their cartoons, to liven them up and add to the comedy in an audiable as well as visual way. Famous voice-actors of the “Golden Age of Animated Cartoons” included Walt Disney (Mickey Mouse), Mae Questal (Betty Boop, Olive Oyl) and Clarence Nash (who did Donald Duck’s famous raspy duck-voice). The famous Disney cartoon-short, “Steamboat Willie”, starring Mickey Mouse, Pete and Minnie Mouse was famous for being the first animated cartoon with complete post-production audio (music, dialogue and sound-effects) to be screened to the public.
With the creation and perfection of synchronised audio for animated films, animation-studios began experimenting with other additions to their cartoon-shorts to make them as humorous as possible. The next logical step after dialogue was the inclusion of music. From the earliest cartoons with sound, animators started including popular songs from the day or popular folk-songs. In “Steamboat Willie”, Mickey and Minnie Mouse play a goat as a phonograph which plays the song “Turkey in the Straw”. The 1930s Van Beuren ‘Tom and Jerry’ short “Piano Tooners” included notable songs such as “Margie” (in the opening credits), “Daisy Bell” (at the 1:50 mark) and later on, “Doin’ the New Low Down”, which was a popular jazz-song published in 1928, which would’ve been a very contemporary piece of music to include in a cartoon released in 1932.
Other popular songs used in cartoons included “Happy Days Are Here Again”, “Kitten on the Keys”, “Manhattan Serenade” (in the MGM short “Mouse in Manhattan”) and a selection of turn-of-the-century Vaudeville songs, such as those used in the Disney short “The Nifty Ninties” (that’s the 1890s, folks).
The most famous piece of cartoon music is probably the Warner Bros. Studio’s adaptation of Raymond Scott’s famous composition: “Powerhouse”, published in 1937, whose slow, rhythmic melody was used in several “production-line” sequences in numerous cartoons.
For curious minds, the theme tune for the Warner Bros. cartoon-shorts series “Looney Toons” was “The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down”, the theme-tune for “Merrie Melodies” was “Merrily We Roll Along”.
Colour still-photograhy became a reality in the 1860s, believe it or not and probably equally unbelievable was the fact that colour film technology was born as equally early in the motion-picture industry as it was in the photography industry. Using the famous ‘Technicolor’ film system, cartoons (and live-action films) were, for the first time, shot in full colour.
Technicolour had been available from the early 1920s, but due to the expensive nature of shooting a film in colour, before the development of synchronised sound to make the expense worthwhile, most film-studios (animated or otherwise), never bothered with it and through the 1920s and the first half of the 1930s (mostly due to the Depression), popular cartoons such as Betty Boop, Popeye the Sailor, Tom and Jerry and the earliest Mickey Mouse cartoons, remained black and white as a cost-cutting measure.
Starting in the second half of the 1930s, though, with the Depression slowly beginning to ease up, animation studios began experimenting with colourised, audio-synced cartoons, to great effect. The Disney “Silly Symphonies” cartoons of the late 1930s showed the quality of early Technicolor technology which was a great change from the greyscale black-and-white cartoons of only a couple of years previously. Technicolor, famous for its saturated tones, gave cartoons new life and provided animators with even greater comedic clay to craft into something even funnier and more memorable than before.
Before the rise of television in the 1950s, cartoon-shorts and obviously, full-length feature-animations, were screened in cinemas. If you’ve ever wondered why old cartoons from the 30s, 40s and 50s looked like they were treated as miniature films, with credits telling folks who was the director, producer, composer of the music and who did all the voice-acting, it’s because they were films which were showed in cinemas, along with conventional live-action films. This trend stopped in the 60s, though, with the rise of television, and with cartoons being delegated to the slot of Saturday-morning entertainment for the kids. But before then, making cartoons to be shown in cinemas was big business and the people who made them took a lot of pride and care in their work and craft. Naturally, they wanted to be properly credited for their part in their final masterpiece!
“Yeah but cartoons are computer-generated. You have the software and the graphics and the motion-capture and the…pfft”.
Making cartoons wasn’t always as easy as fiddling around with a mouse to create graphics on a computer-screen. In fact, it wasn’t until very recently that the first entirely CGI (Computer-Generated-Imagery) animated film was created…Disney-Pixar’s “Toy Story” in 1995. Before then, cartoons were still done the old-fashioned way and while CGI had been around since the early 1970s and had helped animators take a few shortcuts…before then, things were a lot different.
Walt Disney sketching out Mickey Mouse as he appeared in “Steamboat Willie” in 1928
In the days before computer graphics, before photoshop, before CGI, before computer-editing and all the rest of it, cartoon-films were made an entirely different way to how they are now. To begin with…they were all made by hand. Literally.
Today it’s impossible to imagine the level of skill, patience, dexterity, patience, care, patience, talent, patience, perseverence, patience, attention-to-detail, patience and time (did I mention ‘patience’?) that it took to create an animated film. It was an incredible artform where screwing up literally sent you back to the drawing-board. To work in an animation studio, you needed incredible patience. As Mel Blanc said, in an interview with David Letterman:
- “…To make a six-and-a-half minute cartoon in full animation, took a hundred and twenty-five people nine months; to make one fully-animated cartoon. And even then, it cost around $50,000…”
– Voice-actor Mel Blanc (“The Man of A Thousand Voices”)
So, just how hard was it to make a cartoon the old-fashioned way? How was it done? Who did what? When? Why?
The first step in animation was drawing a storyboard. A storyboard is a rough series of sequential drawings, set out a bit like a comic-strip. The storyboard tells people what’s happening in the cartoon in a basic, easy-to-understand manner. It’s like a visual representation of a film-script. Anyone who’s seen storyboards of animated films will know just how quickly and crudely they’re drawn, often just with pencil or ink in a simple, sketchy, black-and-white way without any colours, with little captions under each picture to explain what’s happening in each frame.
With the basics of the cartoon illustrated on the storyboard, it’s time to put sound to pictures. Believe it or not, but in animated films, the soundtrack (the music, the sound-effects and the dialogue) is all done first, before the actual animation. The reason for this is so that the animators can draw and custom-fit their animation-cells AROUND the soundtrack and better synchronise the sounds with the pictures, actions and the lip-movements depicted on-screen. Doing it the other way would have the soundtrack fighting to keep up with the actions on-screen instead of having the animators “tailor-make” the pictures to go with the sound.
It’s during the recording process that the voices for the characters, the sound-effects for the actions and the music for the film are created. Voice-actors such as Nancy Cartwright (Bart Simpson, Nelson Muntz, Ralph Wiggum) and Mel Blanc (Yosemite Sam, Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig) have often said that creating a voice for a character in a cartoon was not about making up a voice and then trying to figure out a character from the voice, but rather being given a picture of the cartoon-character and then deciding what kind of voice the character should have, based on the picture and a short description.
Reeling it In
With the storyboard drawn up, the voices, sounds and music recorded and spaced out and the characters created, it’s time to string the whole thing together. Obviously, perfectly synchronising movement with sound is an amazingly tricky process (which is why the first ‘talkie’ didn’t come out until 1927!), and to help them do this, animators create what is known as a story-reel.
The story-reel plays the cartoon, frame by frame along with the soundtrack, with all the frames drawn roughly as a draft for the final product. It’s during this process that any problems with synchronisation, lip-movements and timing between the movements on-screen and the audio, are fixed up. Getting the initial ‘meshing’ of the sound and movement perfect at this stage of the filmmaking process is important because, as animation is obviously a very expensive business (don’t forget, $50,000 for a six minute cartoon!), the animators and the studio cannot afford mistakes in the audio-synchronisation later on in the production process, when the film is almost complete. Doing it now when the drawings are still crude saves a lot of money in buying aspirin-tablets for folks later on.
Timing it Out
The next stage in traditional animation was design and timing. ‘Design’ was taking the storyboard and the story-reel and the pictures of all the things that would be in the cartoon, and drawing them out professionally, removing the rough edges and making it appear like a real cartoon. ‘Timing’ is making sure that all the problems with audio-synchronisation are removed and that the film runs and sounds flawlessly. Small details such as lip-synchronisation and music-synchronisation are touched up at this point.
With the pictures being finalised and the audio properly synchronised, it’s time to organise the layout of the film. This includes camera-angles (how the camera is positioned) the camera-paths (how the cameras move) and the lighting…whether a scene will be bright, dark, done in half-light, shadow and so-on.
With the sound synced to the story-reel, it’s time for the animation. Animation is the process of making the characters and objects in the cartoon…move! It’s not as easy as you might think. It takes animators a very long time to do this professionally, since animation is done by hand. At the drawing-board, the animator starts drawing out the frames, one by one, illustrating them, colouring them in and making sure that they’re perfect. Traditional animation of this sort is called “cel animation” or “hand-drawn animation”. What’s ‘cel’?
‘Cel’ is short for ‘Celluloid’. Traditionally, the animation-frames were drawn out on clear, transparent sheets of celluloid plastic, from which this process gets its name. Cels are illustrated with the scene and the characters and objects and the cel is then coloured in using acrylic paints. Cel animation is no-longer used in big-budget cartoon movies (the Walt Disney Company stopped that in 1990) and original, framed animation-cels of famous characters or cartoons from the Golden Age of Animated Film, are big, big, BIG collectables, often fetching thousands of dollars at auctions. However, at this stage in the animation-process, cels don’t come into the picture yet. It’s still all done on paper.
Animation takes a considerable time. Apart from the characters moving and running around, apart from the drawing and the colouring and drawing the backgrounds to match movements and making sure it all matches PERFECTLY with the soundtrack, you also have to think of other aspects of the film. What about effects such as…fire? Wind? Rain? Weather? These are separate parts of the animation process which are handled by folks called…appropriately: “Effects animators”, whose job it is to fill in and animate all the parts of the film which are not either objects (vehicles, machinery, etc) or characters moving around. Once this is all done, can it be considered complete…after repeated touch-ups, examinations and careful screening, probing and analysis by the big bosses.
With the hand-drawn animations finally completed, it’s time to turn the paper sheets and sketches and drawings into something which you can actually watch on a screen! Now of course…If you shined a projector-light onto a piece of paper, it wouldn’t work. The paper would block the image drawn on it and it wouldn’t appear on a screen because paper isn’t transparent. To overcome this problem, the final stage of the animation-process is the inking and painting.
In this step of the filmmaking process, the animated drawings are traced, copied and painted onto cels (remember those? The plastic sheets?). Since the cels are…celluloid, and are smooth and made of plastic, pencil-graphite and fountain-pen ink won’t stick to it. Instead, thicker inks and acrylic paints are used to draw and colour in each frame of the film.
With the transfer-process done, the film is now ready for photography, where it is filmed by special animation-cameras and lights are used to determine how bright or dark each frame of the film should be. Once all the cels have been photographed by the animation-camera, it’s transformed into film, where it can be mass-produced, ready for release to the public and screening in cinemas around the world!
This is where traditional, hand-drawn animation ends. These days, cels are no-longer used. The inking and painting of the drawings is done electronically after the sketches are scanned onto a computer, and are coloured in using the appropriate animation software. But, from the dawn of animated films in the 1920s, until computers started taking over in the 1970s…every single cartoon you watched, whether it was a ten-minute short or a two-hour feature-film extravaganza, was painstakingly sketched, recorded, transferred, inked, painted and photographed entirely by hand…exactly as described above.
Cartoons and the Modern World
A lot of things have changed since the first cartoons hit the screens of movie-theatres back in the 1920s, with all their flickering, black-and-white animated glory. One of the main things that has changed is the content and acceptability of what’s shown or not shown on cartoons and what is, and isn’t, what can and cannot, be shown to children.
Censorship and Political Correctness
Due to their free-reign of creativity and imagination, cartoons have long been attacked by political-correctness gurus and censorship hounds. Cartoons filmed in the 20s, 30s and 40s are altered, cut, censored or otherwise changed from their original state to something “suitable for the kiddies to watch”. Scenes depicting violence, sexual references (Yes! Even in cartoons!), racism, animal cruelty and warfare are often edited, changed or removed altogether.
“Mammy Two Shoes”, the obese, African-American housekeeper who looked after the house where Tom the Cat and Jerry the Mouse live, is one famous victim of modern cartoon-censorship, with her appearance, voice and mannerisms being changed to reflect a more politically correct view, by having a slim, white teenage girl replace her in some scenes.
Scenes in Betty Boop cartoons which depict legs, arms, breasts, which hint at rape, sexual-assault and racism were also heavily censored in later years and some cartoons were even banned from being shown at all!
Warner Bros’ famous cartoon character, “Speedy Gonzales”, the fastest mouse in Mexico, was also subjected to heavy censorship…until Mexican-Americans had to stand up and state flatly that they didn’t find the cartoons offensive and that they remembered them fondly from their childhoods.
These, and other countless examples of censorship and political correctness affecting classic cartoons have been dominating much of peoples’ enjoyment of these entertainment classics in the late 20th and early 21st century. Many people feel that the censorship is uncalled for and unecessary and that the political correctness is overboard. The cartoons should be viewed with the context in which they were produced, 60, 70 or even 80 years ago, and should not be measured by modern standards of society and acceptability.
Famous Cartoon Characters
Cartoons aren’t just about the whacky sounds, the funny things you see, the music or the great illustrations…it’s about…the characters! And what characters! Some of them have remained famous to this day, even though they’re up to eighty years old! So who are they?
Mickey Mouse looking very smart in his white tie and tails, from the 1947 short “Mickey’s Delayed Date”
Created by Walt Disney in 1928, Mickey Mouse is King of Animated Characters! Funny, charming, witty, amazingly sweet and adorable to look at in any context! Mickey Mouse was born out of Disney’s desire to create a different kind of cartoon character. Instead of cats or dogs or people, Disney wanted to draw something really unique. He took his inspiration for Mickey from the bog-standard cartoon mouse of the period, with large, black ears, big eyes, a round body and large feet.
Disney fleshed out the character from a simple, nondescript mouse into a screen legend. Mickey was famous for a lot of things, such as appearing in the first cartoon with complete sound, for popularising white gloves and for his catchphrase “Ooooh boy!”.
Mickey’s voice was deliberately high-pitched to match his size and species, but still distinctly male in tone. So far, Mickey has been voiced by four people over the years:
– Walt Disney himself (1928-1947).
– Jimmy MacDonald (1947-1977).
– Wayne Allwine (1977-2009)…Allwine died from diabetes in 2009, and was replaced by…
– Bret Iwan, who is the current voice of Mickey Mouse, and who has been voicing him since Allwine’s death in 2009.
Mickey’s use of white gloves on his paws (which has since become a rather common sight in animated animal cartoons) was so that audiences could distinguish between Mickey’s paws and the rest of his body (since both were black), so that viewers could tell where his hands were when they were placed against dark backgrounds.
Created in 1928, Minnie was originally an unnamed Disney cartoon mouse, but as the months progressed, she was eventually established as Mickey’s girlfriend by mid 1929. Minnie has been voiced by no less than seven voice-actors over the past eighty-odd years, ranging from Walt Disney himself, to Mae Questal (more famous for voicing Betty Boop) and currently, Russi Taylor, who has provided her voice since 1986, and continues to do so.
As Mickey’s girlfriend, Minnie made several appearances on-screen, either as Mickey’s girlfriend, or as an unnamed female mouse as a partner for Mickey. In early cartoon shorts from the 1920s and 30s, it was a common joke that Minnie’s skirt would flap up or be blown up, showing off her undergarments, just one of the several things that was changed in the mid 1930s with increasingly tight censorship standards, enforced by the Hays Code of 1934.
Famous for his raspy voice, clumbsiness and incredibly short temper, Donald Duck has been one of Disney’s greatest creations, since he first appeared in 1934. Donald’s distinct, raspy duck-voice was skillfully provided by Clarence Nash from 1934, right up until 1985, when he died of lukemia, aged 80. Since 1985, Donald Duck has been voiced by the equally-talented Tony Anselmo.
In the 1940s, Donald Duck starred in several WWII propaganda films, most famous of these was probably “Der Fuhrer’s Face”.
Donald Duck’s biggest claim to fame is probably his incredibly large extended family, something which not many other cartoon characters had. Apart from Donald, Disney also created…
Scrooge McDuck (named after Ebeneezer Scrooge), who is voiced by Alan Young, who is Donald’s exceedingly wealthy Scottish uncle.
Huey, Dewey and Louie, Donald’s three, mischievious nephews, who first appeared on film in “Donald’s Nephews” in 1938.
Grandma Duck, Donald’s grandmother, and…
Gus Goose, Donald’s cousin Gus…a goose…with an enormous appetite who causes him all kinds of strife in the short film “Donald’s Cousin Gus” (1939).
Daisy Duck, created in 1940, although not part of the Duck family, nonetheless made several appearances in cartoons of the 1940s and 50s as Donald’s longsuffering girlfriend.
Goofy Goof was created in 1932 and he, Mickey and Donald appeared in several successful and highly humorous cartoons during the 1930s and 40s. Goofy is famous for being rather dim, making mistakes and several blunders and also for his distinctive chuckle (“Aaah-hyuk!”) and his catchphrase “Gawrsh!” (“Gosh!).
In later, TV cartoons, Goofy has a son, Max, although Goofy’s wife is never identified. Television cartoons of the 1990s often had comedy coming from Goofy struggling to raise his troublesome son, who was often portrayed as a difficult teenager. Max Goof has the distinction of being one of the few Disney cartoon characters who has actually aged in real-time.
In some cartoons from the 40s and 50s, Goof was often used as an ‘everyman character’, to be a representative of the common working man. In these shorts, his name was often given as “George Geef”.
Created by an animator working for Fleischer Studios in 1930, Betty Boop has remained one of the most famous and popular cartoon characters of all time. I won’t mention her in this article, since she already has her own article.
“Eeeeeeeh…what’s up, dawc?”
Bugs looking smart in his white-tie tux
Created in 1937, Bugs Bunny is Warner Bros’. most famous cartoon character ever. He made his official screen debut as Bugs in 1940 and was voiced, originally, by the highly talented Mel Blanc. Bugs’ cartoons often depicted him being a source of trouble for either Daffy Duck or the hunter, Elmer Fudd. When voicing Bugs, Blanc blended the Brooklyn and Bronx accents of the American Eastern Seaboard to try and come up with the ultimate, tough-guy, wise-cracking voice for this new cartoon character, which had been described to him as such, by the Warner Bros. studio executives.
One big challenge for Blanc was recording Bugs’s catchphrase: “Eeeeh…what’s up, doc?”. The words weren’t the hard part. What Blanc found difficult was having to crunch on an actual carrot and to chew it to produce the proper sound-effect for just before Bugs speaks. The problem was that Blanc hated carrots! In the end, he reached a compromise with the recording-crew, whereby he crunched on the carrot, stopped the recording, spat the carrot out and then continued with the rest of the catchphrase!
Bugs’s fame skyrocketed during WWII. His easygoing nature and casual speech made him popular as a screen-star and several propaganda films were created with him as the main character between 1942-1945.
Tom and Jerry
Tom Cat and Jerry Mouse were two famous cartoon characters who originally starred in a series of highly successful shorts from 1940-1958 created by the animation department of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Like several cartoon characters of the period, they used exaggerated cartoon violence to incredible and hilarious effect and the original series of cartoons was only stopped because MGM closed its animation department in 1958.
Tom and Jerry returned in 1962 in even more series of cartoon-shorts, which were shown on television, and there continue to be revisions of the comic duo right up to the 21st century.
Less well-known Characters
Not all characters were amazingly famous, though. How many of these can you remember?
Clarabelle Cow? Horace Horsecollar? How about Private Snafu?
Clarabelle and Horace were both Disney cartoon characters, although not as well known as some of the others. A full cast of classic Disney characters can be seen in the immensely funny cartoon-short “Symphony Hour” (1942).
Private Snafu was created in the 1940s to star in a series of educational cartoons for the US. Army. Given the intended audience of the Snafu shorts would be young men going into armed services, Snafu cartoon-shorts were a bit more raunchy and politically incorrect than other cartoons of the period. Snafu’s name comes from the army acronym: “Situation Normal: All Fucked Up”, although this was changed to ‘Fouled Up’ in the cartoons. In the later war years, of 1944 and 1945, SNAFU was supposed to be teamed up with his brothers, ‘Tarfu’ (Things Are Really Fucked Up) and ‘Fubar’ (Fucked Up Beyond All Repair), in additional series of educational cartoons for the Air-Force, Marines and Navy, however, the war ended before these series could begin (save for one lone Tarfu cartoon)…which was probably just as well for the censorship department!
That’s All, Folks!
Well, this concludes my little writeup on the history of classic, animated cartoons. So, as Porky Pig says:
“Th-th-that’s a…that’s…that’s all, folks!”
If you want to see classic Disney, MGM or Warner Bros. cartoons (such as Tom & Jerry, Betty Boop, Snafu or Mickey Mouse), dozens of them are available for viewing on YouTube.com.