Tiny Action On The Big Screen
It was Duane Crowther again, in 1954, who found a book I was unlikely to have come across in my self-absorbed routines. It was a thin book with all the text hand-written, right down to the publishing and copyright notices; tiny hand lettering – not a single typeface to be seen. All the words seemed to be an extension of the equally tiny and squiggly drawings.
I had never seen anything published with this wispy drawing style, the little figures more suggested than drawn. The title gave the impression that it was a hand-made religious tract, “THE JUGGLER OF OUR LADY.” I’d heard of the Anatole France tale, Le Jongleur de Notre Dame, but this was clearly a picture book, written by someone named R. O. Blechman. Hmmm……..
A Catholic religious tale retold by a Jew? Must be more to it!
And there was. Though the text was absolutely straightforward, the gentle but obvious satire was all in the pictures. It was a subtle and brilliant gem, but seemed too visually insubstantial for an animated film, especially for the television screens of that time. With its delicate thin pen lines and no color, the images would have been barely seen on the home screens of the 1960s. There was no chance to finance a production at UPA/NY. But when I got to CBS-Terrytoons, and was handed those enormous CinemaScope screens of 20th Century-Fox to fill, an audacious idea struck me: “imagine these tiny, squiggly Blechman figures spread out on those huge wide screens!” No one had done anything like that yet!
I expected fierce opposition to my idea from Bill Weiss, and I got it, with his bug eyes fixed on the bottom line – or perhaps even from CBS – fearing religious backlash – but in fact, the main reluctance came from Bob Blechman himself! I had contacted him via his publisher, and we met. He was a thin, dark-haired fellow with a modest but determined voice. He knew that Terrytoons made the most gross and grotesque cartoons in the galaxy. He gagged at the thought of his work being Terrytooned. Thus began a near-year of near-nightly telephone calls to Bob, with my assurances of total fidelity falling on deaf ears, even my gushing verbal images of how I imagined the big screen presentation with rich narration, music and color. It was only when I arranged a meeting with Al Kouzel and screened for Bob some of the things Al and I had done together, adapting the work of other great artists, that Bob began to waver. After all, he did need the money and surely the fame that a big-time and faithful film production of his work might bring to him.
But Bob Blechman simply did not believe that his type of loosely drawn, fragile-looking figures could be faithfully animated. I’m proud to have been the person who proved to him that they could. Years later, based on the artistic if not financial success of our JUGGLER film, Bob formed his own animation studio, The Ink Tank, and gained great success! But at our time. The mid 1950s, it was a continuous process of hand-holding and demonstrations of what we were doing at our “New Terrytoons,”, that gradually convinced him. I assigned Al Kouzel to direct the project, and he and Bob got along famously. Al was a specialist in absorbing any graphic or drawing style, and Bob visited the studio often during the layout stage. He was invited to redraw anything he didn’t like, and he also voluntarily brought in drawings as he got the idea of how we had to re-format his work to fit the CinemaScope screen shape. We did have to live with less than I imagined, due to the TV safety field restrictions. And a little known fact is that what you actually see on the screen is the precise tracing of all the animated images by the young inker, Doug Crane.
I concentrated on mothering (or fathering) the work, and especially on the conception of the soundtrack, which I always consider to be half of any film. Just as I was delighted with the idea of playing Bob’s wispy minimalism against the usual bombastic visuals associated with the huge CinemaScope epics, I also wanted to play the voice against type. I happened to see a reading of Shakespeare by one William Henry Pratt, AKA Boris Karloff. Here was a cultured British gentleman actor continuously cast as a movie monster; he had exactly the voice I imagined for THE JUGGLER!
Right inside the Terrytoons studios we had the staff music composer, Phillip Scheib, whom Paul Terry had mercilessly whipped into endless hack work. Phil had composed a few sonatas in his spare time, but was unable to get anything other than derivative junk music onto the Terrytoons screen. I liked Phil as a person, and respected his great skill as a musician. I’m proud of an important achievement, during my short tenure at Terrytoons; that I had urged and allowed Phil Scheib, already in his later years, to open up and do his best work on my films there. For JUGGLER, he created a lovely medieval woodwind quintet, one of the finest scores in any of my animation productions.
The finished film pleased Bob, and led him to pursue a filmmaking career on his own. It also pleased the animation critics, and brought Al Kouzel and me much pride & satisfaction. But of course it was a failure at movie box-offices as a Terrytoon. It caused Bill Weiss to hate me more than ever. But what did I care? For me it was a three-year creative mission accomplished!
And this particular mission also brought into focus the whole misguided idea of the “widescreen” format as applied to animation.
The easiest way to sell the movie experience after the threat of TV, was to widen the screen. It would have been much more difficult and expensive to make the screens also higher, and CinemaScope could fill a wide screen using the same little 35mm film. With an anamorphic lens, a tiny 35mm frame was stretched to fill a very wide screen, gifting us with magnified film grain, scratches, and other artifacts, made less noticeable by ever louder stereophonic sound. The perfectly suitable classic 4X5 screen shape was now on its way out. TV itself had to cope with its original round cathode ray picture tubes: the picture forced into an awkward and unnamable shape, until finally a square cornered rectangular flat screen tube was developed. But now, that ideal picture shape has succumbed to the newly mandated wide format.
What has that meant for us animators? I was dazzled, when I got the biggest job of my career in 1956: Creative Director of CBS-Terrytoons, which came complete with a 20th Century-Fox release of 18 theater cartoons a year, all in glorious CinemaScope, a 20th-Fox gimmick, and the format they wanted for their cartoons. WOW! I thought. What I can do with that vast screen real estate! I soon awakened to the reality. The rotating field zoom, a useful animation device, was almost completely ruled out. I could barely rotate a scene, without the corners of the screen moving out of camera range, or lose image quality, moving in to a small format.
I was restricted by the need for our shorts to also be able to be shown on TVs of the time, still in classic format! That meant that all important action had to be confined to the central “TV Safety Field” area. The result? All visual benefit of the ultra wide CinemaScope size was zapped!
I had managed to get Blechman’s JUGGLER OF OUR LADY into production, hoping to dramatize the contrast of Bob’s tiny scraggly little figures with the vast wide screen. But the compromises I had to live with diminished the effect I had hoped to achieve. So what has the wide screen brought to animation? Only limits; only difficulty in creating good graphic composition. The original shape of the classic movie screen was inspired by the typical shape of most oil paintings we see in museums. CinemaScope-shaped paintings with human figures, natural views or events, are rare!
The original IMAX system creators at least understood that the height of the screen is every bit as important as it’s width!
Motion Capture has already muddled the question of what is animation, and so-called 3D has made production more difficult and awkward, adding little to storytelling. It’s mainly a circus act.
All of this continuing mad rush to dazzle, masks over the true point of what movies are about: storytelling. “What’s it about?’ That’s the question John Hubley taught me to ask.
With all the gimmickry, where does animation fit in? What is animation, and what isn’t? My feeling is coming to the notion that we are now approaching a new truth: There is only one category, cinema itself. All movies nowadays contain one or more elements of animation and special effects. All films have one goal: to tell stories in compelling ways. Let them all be judged on their success in that one “Master Category” rather than focusing on the technology of their production!
All of these thoughts came into focus for me during the engrossing process of animating the quivery drawings of R.O.Blechman!
Below, how we had to reformat the images for the CinemaScope-shaped movie screen.