The magic lantern and other inventions
When we watch a cartoon or an animated film we do not realize how much this kind of films which, apparently, could seem recently invented, instead have a distant origin. The first examples of cartoons are in fact much older than those of traditional cinema and date back to the end of the 1600s. The first optical experiments that prepared for the birth of animated films date back to 1675 when the German Jesuit and philosopher Athanasius Kircher, according to the common tradition, invented the "magic lantern", the first example of a still image projector. Thanks to his invention, it was possible to project enlarged paintings and drawings onto transparent glass using a light source such as oil lanterns or simple candles. The "magic lantern" conquered everyone and spread all over the world in a very short time, since then many tools were invented that will lead to the official birth of animation cinema in 1892, with what is considered the first "animator" in history : Émile Reynaud with the “optical theater”.
Before we got to this, however, there were other inventions. The first dates back to 1824 and was called thaumatrope which was made from a cartoon with a design on both sides which, when spun quickly, gave the impression of the movement of the figures as in cartoons, due to the overlapping of the drawings.
In 1831, the phenachistiscope was invented which, in reality, was the result of the union of 2 prototypes: the phantascope of Joseph Plateau and the stroboscope of Simon von Stampler. The phenachistiscope consisted of 2 joined discs, on one side there was a circle of similar figures, while on the other there were slits, it was enough to rotate it in front of a mirror with the help of a stick, to see a small cartoon sequence.
The road, however, is still long even if in 1834 a significant step forward is made with the invention of the zoetrope by William Horner, it is a cylinder-shaped machine inside which there was a strip of paper with of small drawings. The cylinder had small slits each of which corresponds to one of the drawings and, thus, looking into the slots and turning the cylinder, it was possible to observe a short animated scene. Horner's invention had some flaws, because the images appeared thinner than they actually were, so we had to wait for Émile Reynaud's invention of the praxinoscope (1877) to solve this problem.
Émile Reynaud's optical theater
Reynaud's invention had inside a prism of mirrors positioned at different angles which, by replacing the slots, reflected the images and allowed a clearer view.
Before the praxinoscope, however, in 1868 the cineographer was invented, a kind of small book with all the pages drawn and it was enough to leaf through it very quickly to see an animated sequence. Finally, in 1892, Reynaud's Optical Theater arrived and, after many experiments, he improved his latest invention by adding longer drawn strips and a projector for walls. In reality this device was invented 3 years earlier but the brilliant Reynaud showed it for the first time in 1892 in Paris where there was a moving image show. This happens 3 years before the Lumière screenings, making Reynaud the forerunner of animation cinema.
The invention of the cinema
Those who, however, are considered the true inventors of the cinema are the French brothers, entrepreneurs by profession but aspiring directors by passion. Auguste and Louis Lumière patented the first film projector in 1894, which acted as both a camera and a projector, overshadowing the inventions of all their predecessors. The machine no longer worked with drawn strips of paper, but with a real photographic film. The following year, in March 1895, the first documentary film made with this machine was shot and was entitled “La sortie des usines Lumière”; while the first show with a paying audience took place in Paris the following December. They toured various cities with their invention and their projections: from "Le Repas de bébé" to "L'arrivée d'un train en gare de la Ciotat, passing to the first example of" comic film "with the farce" L'arroseur arrosé ". They traveled from London to New York greatly and rapidly influencing the culture and society of the time and conquering everyone.
The special effects of Georges Jean Méliès
Animation cinema, however, has 3 fathers, in fact in addition to the Lumiere brothers, another Frenchman made a great contribution: Georges Jean Méliès. The director and illusionist can be considered as the first inventor of special effects and also of many narrative and technical innovations, such as editing which, according to his biography (perhaps a bit too fictional) he discovered by chance. The artistic creations of Méliès differed from the previous ones, because they told through the visible and realistic means of the photographic movement, reality and fantastic worlds that before then had only been told in literature. His main objective was not so much to tell stories with an underlying plot, but it was to amaze the audience with the creation of special effects, which told incredible and impossible stories. In the space of twenty years he shot many films of this genre, the best known is certainly "Le Voyage dans la Lune", from 1902, which, like his other films, is considered the ancestor of science fiction films; while "Le Voyage dans la Lune" manoir du diable "from 1896 seems to have given birth to the horror genre. Until the eve of the First World War, the success of the French director was enormous enough to influence all the others.
Emile Cohl's first cartoon
For the first real modern cartoon in history, however, we have to wait until 1908 when the French Emile Cohl gave life to the character of Fantôche, the little clown protagonist of “Fantasmagorie”. This first example of a complete cartoon had a short duration, only a couple of minutes, but the work he had requested was long and elaborate: about 3 months of work. It consisted of 700 drawings made on white sheet with black ink that were developed in negative to create the blackboard effect, according to a technique that had already been used 2 years earlier. Cohl, however, never filed the patent for his invention, but he always worked alone and this, of course, meant that he was overtaken by the American technology that was inspired by his creations during his stay in that country. Despite his important invention, he died in misery and without due recognition, although in recent years he has been remembered several times: in 1988, the year of the 50th anniversary of his death, with an exhibition in his honor in Montreal; and on some occasions at the Annecy Animation Film Festival. Emile Cohl made 300 films in total.
Felix cat by Pat Sullivan
Obviously the history of cartoon and animation cinema, as we can imagine, does not only develop in Europe but also overseas, also thanks to the periods that the “new European directors” spent in America. And when it comes to the United States and cartoons, the name that immediately comes to mind is Walt Disney but, in reality, there were also other characters who made an important contribution to this magical world. In the American production we must remember 2 important protagonists and their works (20s): Pat Sullivan with the series "Felix the Cat”And the brothers Max and Dave Fleischer with the series“ Popeye the Sailor ”,“ Betty Boop ”,“ Ko-Ko ”.
Characteristic of the productions of these directors was the lack of sound. Pat Sullivan had a rather troubled life and career, he did not miss anything: a controversy for the attribution of the cartoon "Felix the Cat", 9 months in prison and finally, death at only 46 years of pneumonia and alcoholism . From Australia he arrived at a very young age in America and started working as an assistant to another animator. After some creative experiences (he made two comic strips "Willing Waldo" and "Old Pop Perkins") and working in other studios, in 1916 he opened his own studio and created a cartoon, entitled "Sammy Johnsin", which he had already started to work years before.
In 1919, finally, the animated series “Felix the Cat” arrived, which told the surreal and funny story of a black kitten struggling with everything that can happen in everyday life. The cat appeared in "Feline Follies" which started the Felix series and the public success was enormous, both thanks to the story but also thanks to the technical quality used and Felix became a true star of the cartoon world in the years of silent cinema Even the Italian public got to know him thanks to the “Corriere dei Piccoli” which published his adventures, giving him, however, the name of Mio Mao.
While Sullivan did not have to worry because his creation was successful, on the other hand he had several problems since the animator of the series, Otto Messmer, after his death claimed the paternity of the cat. There was also an appeal and even today the truth could not be established, in fact some argue that Sullivan's 1917 film, entitled "The Tail of Thomas Kat", would be a prototype of Felix and this supports the thesis that he is the real father, as it has been shown that the handwriting in "Feline Follies" was his and not Messmer's. If there is still any doubt about who really invented the series, there is no doubt who, instead, did caused the decline, certainly the Australian cartoonist when, in the late 20s and with the success of Mickey Mouse ever increasing, he refused to add sound and even interrupted the series. Perhaps regretting, in 1930, he announced that he would convert to sound his character within 3 years but it was already too late and Felix had been forgotten by the audience.
Arm wrestling and Betty Boop by Max Fleisher
A more peaceful life was, however, Max Fleisher who, together with his brother Dave, in 1914, invented the rotoscope technique. The invention was patented only the following year and guaranteed a superior rendering of the appearance of the characters and the effect of the movement. The images of the cartoon were first photographed and then projected on a transparent panel, at this point the frames were traced giving a comic-style but highly realistic vision. With this technique the 2 brothers, of Polish origin, but arrived in the United States of America very young, animated many characters who became very popular and who still are today, such as Betty Boop and Popeye (1930-1933). The series in which the rotoscope was mainly used with amazing results for that period was "Out of the Inkwell", produced from 1918 to 1929. The cartoon used the so-called "mixed technique", the technique according to which real actors and animated characters could interact and "act" together.
In the case of the series produced by Max Fleisher, the main protagonist is Koko the Clown, who came out of an inkwell or came to life after being drawn on a sheet of paper and interacted not only with his designer, but also with objects and animals. The origin of Koko the Clown is quite particular because the prototype used to make it was Dave Fleischer, whom his brother had photographed dressed as a clown just to try out his invention. The cartoon was a great success and underwent several changes over the years, often changing the name of the protagonist (at first it was called "The Clown" then Fleischer's Clown "and in 1923 Ko-Ko and took its final appearance) up up to 1924 when its inventor introduced a new series but, above all, the use of sound.
If "Out of the Inkwel" was a great success among the American public, the true masterpieces of the Fleischer brothers were "human" characters: the seductive Betty Boop, created in 1930, and the strong Popeye (Popeye) who made his first appeared 3 years later, in 1933 in a short by Betty Boop. The latter was a real novelty for the public with its highly erotic charge even if mixed and partly tempered by a great self-irony. The cinematic life of the trendy girl of the jazz period with short hats and skimpy dresses lasted only 9 years, from 1930 to 1939. Her seductive and irreverent charge, but also the fact that she clearly made us think of a popular singer of those years, Helen Kane, for the childish voice she had (so much so that in 1932 Kane sued Fleischer for exploiting her image and personality, but losing it), they did not allow her to continue following this style of representation. So in 1934, due to protests from the conservative public and the application of a code of laws that regulated film production in America, Betty Boop was forced to wear more chastened clothes and to take care of household and animal chores, thus losing, of course. , its appeal and the interest it aroused, so much so that in 1939 the series was interrupted.
The most commercially significant success for Max Fleischer came, however, from the royalties on the character of Arm wrestling, a success that was huge and sudden enough to immediately compete with it Mickey Mouse. The character of the sailor who eats spinach was born from the pencil of cartoonist Elzie Crisler Segar and was a simple character in the series originally called “The Thimble Theater”, but he liked it so much that he immediately became the absolute protagonist. And the success of Popeye was obviously also the success of Fleischer who did not stop anyway but transposed the comic by Superman in cartoons and, despite the high costs, even here he had great satisfaction. Some wrong job choices, such as the lack of success of the film "Gulliver's Travels", the outbreak of the Second World War and the disagreements with his brother made him lose control of the studios he had created and from the Paramount production company he passed to Columbia. After other experiences, such as participation in the production of educational films for the United States Army and Navy and the supervision of 2 films, Max in 1958, in partnership with his former animator Hal Seeger, produced 100 new episodes of “Out of the Inkwell ”in color and intended for TV. At the same time as Pat Sullivan and the brothers Max and Dave Fleischer, other American animators and directors worked who also made animated series of good quality.
Al Falfa by Paul Terry
In 1916, for example, the cartoonist and director Paul Terry invented the character of Al Falfa, an old farmer who was the protagonist of a series of silent short films entitled "Farmer Al Falfa". The character was taken up several times by Terry who until 1936 made several films that told the stories. Al Falfa, with a grumpy and solitary character, was successful among American audiences until the arrival of Sullivan's “Felix the Cat”. Also in those years Universal Studios, one of the largest film production houses in America, produced 2 animated series that conquered the viewers. Beginning in 1940 he produced a very successful cartoon: "Woody Woodpecker" and "Oswald the Lucky Rabbit". The stories of this cute woodpecker, the illustrator's greatest achievement Italian-American Walter Lantz, so much so that he obtained 2 Oscar nominations, the first in 1944 as the author of the best animated short and the second in 1949 for the best song, continued until 1972 with almost 200 episodes.
The first cartoons of Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks
Previously in September 1927, Universal had also produced “Oswald the Lucky Rabbit” (“Oswald the Lucky Rabbit”), a cartoon character created by Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks. The rabbit with its adventures was produced until 1943 while the comics until the 60s. The couple Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks were very important for the history of animation cinema, they not only worked together but were great friends and this friendship went on for life, interrupted only for a few years in which, due to disagreements, Iwerks he left his friend's studies to start his own, the “Iwerks Studio”. This happened in 1930 when, together with Walt, he had already created the most famous Mickey Mouse in the world and many other characters of the first Disney production period. Only 6 years later, however, the “Iwerks Studio” had to close because Disney and the characters of Fleischer Studios, had the better of Ub's productions. The talent of Iwerks in drawing the characters was probably not enough to decree their success, without the support of Walt's creative and entrepreneurial mind. So in 1940 they returned to work together and Uub in the 60s received 2 Oscars for his innovative inventions in the animation industry (1960 and 1965) and a nomination for best special effects for Hitchcock's film "The Birds" (1964 ). His most successful creation when he worked alone was "Flip the Frog", a cartoon series whose protagonist resembled other characters Iwerks had already worked on, such as Mickey Mouse and Oswald, and which came distributed by MGM from 1930 to 1933.
MGM cartoons (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)
MGM (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer), a historic private American film production company, dealt with the distribution of many animated series, perhaps the most famous all over the world is that of "Tom & Jerry". The adventures of the cat and the mouse, born from the fervent imagination of 2 talented animators, William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, debuted in 1940 and continued for more than 20 years, telling the hilarious stories of this rivalry between the cat Tom and the mouse Jerry and having fun generations of children but also many adults. US director and animator Tex Avery also worked for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's studios and invented the character of "Screwball" Screwy "Squirrel" which appeared in a series of short films between 1944 and 1946. . Tex Avery's style of animation was very different from Walt Disney's, in fact his directing style, which inspired many US production houses in the 40s and 50s, did not stick to realism like Disney's but Ted enjoyed creating situations and scenes that were impossible to achieve in real movies. Among the other characters invented by Avery are "Daffy Duck"and "Bugs Bunny”, Protagonists of the highly successful cartoon series distributed by Warner Brothers. Characters who have traveled the world and whose stories are known to everyone. And also, in the 40s, the character of the hound, apparently not very awake but who, in reality, has a very developed and refined intelligence, called Droopy. Droopy had great success throughout the 50s and was then bought and relaunched by the pair of authors Hanna and Barbera. Tex Avery at MGM also created two goofy bears named George and Junior. Like Screwy Squirrel, they were abandoned after appearing in only four cartoons: Henpecked Hoboes (1946), Hound Hunters (1947), Red Hot Rangers (1947) and Half-Pint Pygmy (1948). The cartoons usually follow the misadventures of two bears George and Junior inspired by John Steinbeck's Men and Mice: George is the short-tempered little bear (voiced by Dick Nelson), while Junior the tall bear is a shrewd one (voiced by Avery himself. ).
The cartoons of the UPA
These, however, are not the only American cartoonists who have worked in this period of great ferment of animation cinema, they are certainly the best known and their creations the most popular, but there are many others who have given their contribution by inventing characters we still know. We are talking about all the animators and technicians who, leaving Disney following a strike, founded the animation studio United Productions of America, better known as UPA, in the 40s. The best known animated shorts, among the many products, are "Mr. Magoo”, The grumpy short-sighted character, and Dìck Tracy, the incorruptible cop from 30s Chicago. The first was the creation of the most successful United Productions of America. Mr. Magoo was created in 1949 by John Hubley and a total of 53 shorts were made between 1949 and 1959. The second, however, made its first appearance in October 1931 and was drawn by cartoonist Chester Gold, quickly becoming a example to which all other crime comics drew. The animation style of the UPA was very far from that of Disney, which, like many other studios of those years, tried as much as possible to recreate cinematic realism in animated films. Instead, they used much less realistic backgrounds and flat, two-dimensional figures. The techniques and innovations of these artists were used by many other production companies and, above all, by many independent directors and the limited animation technique was used a lot in the 60s and 70s. United Productions of America closed its doors permanently in 1964 and sold its cartoon library although it retained the licenses and copyrights on some characters such as the likeable Mr. Magoo. His characters and cartoon series have been filmed by various studios, such as Columbia Pictures for which he had already produced many animated shorts before.
The first cartoons in Italy
Meanwhile, the first European animated feature film arrives from our country, even if previously in 1926 another film considered the first ever was released, "The Adventures of Prince Achmed" by Lotte Reiniger, German director and animator. The Italian film instead came out in 1949 and was titled "The Rose of Baghdad", directed and produced by Anton Gino Domeneghini and, in reality, even in Italy the film is competing for this record with another released the same year, "The Dinamite brothers ”Produced by Nino Pagot. “La rosa di Bagdad” was the first Italian film in Technicolor, it lasted 76 minutes and told the story of the opposed love between Zelia, the sultan's daughter, and the young court flutist, Amin. Love thwarted by the perfidious and ambitious vizier Jafar who wants to marry the sultan's daughter at all costs to take over the kingdom and for this he tries to eliminate his rival. Like any self-respecting love story, however, good feelings prevail and thanks to the magic there is a happy ending and Zelia and Amin will be able to join in marriage. Although the story ends well and the story has a happy ending "The Rose of Baghdad" was not very successful at the time and was more appreciated outside the Italian borders. However, it was subsequently re-evaluated and restored with great care.
The first cartoons in France
As we have previously seen, France was the land of origin and in which various animators have worked since the early 900s such as Emile Cohl and his character Fantôche. And it is thanks to the meeting with Cohl that the creative genius of another important personality begins to develop, considered the pioneer of the French cartoon, Robert Lortac, who in 1919 opened his production house. He was an eclectic character: writer, painter, art critic, animator and in his studio many young people with this same passion and ability met. Robert Lortac is a few science fiction novels and between the 50s and 60s he wrote several comics for the Artima publishing house. Also in France operated Ales and Jean Giaume, Benjamin Rabier, tax agent with a passion for drawing, and Omer Boucquey, the inventor of Choupinet. Rabier works for several publishers and his interest was mainly aimed at representing animals almost as if they were human, characteristics of his style were humor and the precise and clean line of the drawing. Hergè was inspired by his album "Tintin Lutin" for the name of his character, the famous Tintin. All his artistic production turned to represent animals and to illustrate books for children and in 1923 he invented the character of the duck Gédéon, the protagonist of a successful series of adventures (from "Gédéon sportsman" to "Gédéon en Afrique" and "Gédéon traverse l'Atlantique "). Boucquey, on the other hand, achieved success with the character of Choupinet, born in 1938 during an English lesson. He is a child with a captivating smile, dressed in the same colors as the French flag and the protagonist of 2 cartoons, several albums and comics. Choupinet, after the Second World War, also came to the cinema, in 1954 it was even translated into Arabic and 3 years later it also became a toy with which children could play.
The films and Walt Disney characters
Inevitably, however, when it comes to animated films, Walt Dìsney immediately comes to mind, who at the age of 20 proved to be the best producer of those years and already in 1922 produced animated short films inspired by children's stories. The following year, together with his friend Ub Iwerks, he produced "Alice's Wonderland" and in this short there are already many of the features of the future series that will end in 1927 and which was quite successful, such as mixed media and worlds created in dream. In 1927, then, is the new animation series "Oswald the Lucky Rabbit", of which however Disney lost the rights until 2006. Also in those years came the character, perhaps, the symbol Mickey Mouse, always created by the Disney - Iwerks couple. , which made its debut in a silent short film which, however, did not get a good response and so in 1928 it was screened to the public, having great success, "Steamboat Willie", also starring him, and was the first cartoon with unrecorded sound. by Walt Disney. Thanks to the collaboration with Carl Stalling, creator of sound for silent films, a new series was born called "Silly Simphonies" which in 1932 presented a further innovation: an episode made entirely in color. Disney signed a contract with Technicolor to use their system for other episodes as well Mickey mouse
it remained black and white for a few more years. In 1934, however, the tireless Walt had the idea of making the first feature film and decided that it was the story of Snow White, inspired by a silent film he had seen as a child. The study to realize this new adventure was a lot and, finally, in spite of all mistrust, in December 1937 he arrived at the cinema "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”And the success was enormous. They did not, however, have the same success, economically speaking, "Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio"And" Fantasia ", both from 1940, and" Dumbo "and"Bambi", Respectively of 1941 and 1942, while at the end of the 40s the studios recovered economically and prepared the feature films"Alice in Wonderland","The adventures of Peter Pan"And" Cinderella ".
The TV cartoons of Hanna & Barbera
Fans of cartoons, then, cannot forget the prolific couple Hanna-Barbera who, since 1956, the year in which he founded the production company Hanna-Barbera Productions Inc., have created many animated series. William Hanna and Joseph Barbera met for the first time in 1938 at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer where for many years they made the series Tom & Jerry but when MGM closed the animation sector in 1956, the 2 started their own business. The period at MGM, however, artistically remained their best period, in fact their creations were distinguished by the perfection of the design, the originality of the stories and the high quality, however, with the passing of the years the quantity of production was always more preferred to the quality to the detriment of the new series that became unoriginal, both in the plots and in the realization of the characters that sometimes appeared very similar in the design, static and poorly defined. Hanna-Barbera Productions Inc. produced many cartoons for television: the Yogi Bear, Braccobaldo, Gli Antenati just to remember a few.
The arrival of Japanese cartoons
Finally, a separate chapter deserves Japan with its manga and anime. By manga the Japanese mean any type of comic of any genre and which tells a complete story where the protagonist has its own development. The manga prefers movement to dialogue between the characters and, thus, there is a stronger visual impact than in Western cartoons and, moreover, the characters are very similar in physical appearance (big eyes, lots of hair, etc.) and figures are very stylized, while the backdrops are always rich in details. Among the many manga made we mention "Astro Boy", the work of Osamu Tezuka, mangaka so famous as to be called the "god of manga." It was published in Japan from 1952 to 1968, divided into 23 volumes, it told the story of Atom (Astro Boy is the western name), the robot child with human feelings created by Dr. Temma after the death of his son. Atom has a life like all his peers but fights the evil to save the earth. From 1963 an animated series was made which had the characteristics of anime and arrived in Italy in the 80s. Astro Boy can be considered the first serial television anime and was also the first of a genre that was very successful in Japan, especially in the 70s and 80s, that dedicated to robots. Anime can be considered the television or cinematographic evolution of manga, in fact if a manga has a great success it is natural that it has a transposition into an animated television or film series.the vein of “robottoni”, the series of cartoons that told the stories of robots fighting against bad guys. Anyone who was a child in the 80s cannot forget the adventures of Grendizer, Great Mazinger, Mazinger Z or Jeeg Steel Robot which, still today, are unforgettable and cult series for fans of the genre.