Interview with animation historian Tom Stathes

Open, general discussion of silent films, personalities and history.
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Mike Gebert

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Interview with animation historian Tom Stathes

PostTue Apr 21, 2015 9:51 am

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Interview with Animation Historian and Collector Tommy José Stathes, On His Cartoon Roots Blu-Ray Release

Tom Stathes started collecting obscure animation titles as a kid because they were available—on VHS in bargain bins. Now he has one of the largest collections of silent and early sound animation on film, primarily from small independent studios, in existence, and he's become an advocate for rediscovery of this neglected corner of film history and its leading pioneers, including John Randolph Bray, Otto Messmer and Max and Dave Fleischer, among many others. After years of screening films from his collection and releasing and contributing to home-brew compilations on DVD, he curated an assortment of these films for Turner Classic Movies on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Bray's studio last October, and (with the aid of his friends at Thunderbean, another label releasing obscure animation titles) produced a professional blu-ray release called Cartoon Roots, showing the development of early animation and making the case for paying it attention. (You can order it directly here.) I interviewed him by email about his interest in early animation.

Images courtesy of Tom Stathes.

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J.R. Bray's The Artist's Dream (1913)

You obviously think John Randolph Bray is an important, underrated figure— not least because you named one of your sites for him. What makes Bray worthy of rediscovery?

Bray’s studio (formed 1913, incorporated 1914) was simply the first successful studio dedicated to animation production, and that fact alone makes his accomplishments and history worth rediscovery. Over the last few decades, Bray has been researched and covered in history books, but there has usually been a certain level of discomfort among historians and animators surrounding the subject. Bray had figured out how to organize and monetize a new frontier, and in doing this, he often stepped on others’ toes and most likely stole ideas from others. Bray was also terribly litigious, often making it difficult or impossible to let others enter and succeed in the animation industry without paying his patent company for a license to use the cel technique.

From an artistic and creative standpoint, it’s very easy to understand this discomfort surrounding Bray. However, almost from the start, animation quickly became a very commercialized industry rather than an independent, outsider art form. Aside from being curious about the valuable histories and studio stories attached to Bray, and the more than five hundred animated films produced by him, I think it’s important to wonder what of those wonderful beloved Disney and Warner Bros. cartoons would have been produced, as the commercial products they were, without Bray initially founding the industry.

You call Col. Heeza Liar the first recurring character in animation. What makes him seem a consistent character in a way that hadn't been done before?

To be more specific, Heeza Liar was the first character created specifically for the cinema screen, and it happened to be a recurring series at that. Previously, Emil Cohl was responsible for a series of films featuring The Newlyweds, which were characters from a newspaper comic. Col. Heeza Liar was created specifically for film, and Bray produced two series of films starring the tall tale-teller, from 1913 to 1917 and 1922 to 1924.

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One of the lines about early film that I always think about is Charles Musser's, that we shouldn't look at early films as merely tentative steps toward later film— they had their own purposes, artistic intentions etc. and those might be very different from what became standard filmmaking technique and language. That's a real issue with animation, because we unconsciously assume everything is an imperfect step toward one ultimate goal, Disney-style feature perfection. So what do you think is different about early animation— how should we be looking at it to see what people wanted to do when they saw that drawings could be made to move?

This point and Musser’s sentiment you bring up is an incredibly important thing to consider when looking at early animation, and one that I feel is lacking in popular or typical treatments of animation history. Sure, there are quite a few people who love and appreciate early works as-is, purely for what they are, but this unconditional appreciation is rare. Generally speaking, the dominant thinking in animation fandom and research tends to be what you mentioned; that Disney-style perfection is the ideal. Another school of thought professes that Golden Age Warner Bros. animation is the alternate ideal, in terms of visual style but especially in terms of humor, pacing, and cleverness in gags. In both cases, the two studios’ 1930s-1940s product (especially Technicolor) can be considered the artistic height of commercial animation on many levels, and I would have to agree.

Early animation, particularly of the silent era, often exhibits wonderful artistic styles and fascinating techniques, and more importantly, it boasts a significant record of experimentation and discovery that the later popular classics only built upon. The early animated cartoons are a valuable visual record of artistic and technical accomplishments made by illustrators and early filmmaking pioneers who were learning as they went along. Save for one book in the 1920s, there were no written guides or classes for learning animation, and naturally the resulting early cartoons were often laden with crudities. It’s always fascinating to me to see the evolution (and improvement) of techniques when certain films are watched chronologically; however, later ‘polished’ productions do not detract from the earlier, simpler, and more crude product in my view. It is all very whimsical to me.

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How Animated Cartoons Are Made (1919)

In the first few years of animation, the simple fact that an inanimate object could be made to move across the frame was groundbreaking and enough of a novelty for viewers not to require complex narratives or fine-tuned art on the screen. All of this came about during the time of trick films, with animation eventually supplanting trick films, and there really was no need for Disney or Warner Bros. at this point. They came along at the right time, when audiences simply tired of pre-existing product. Aside from Winsor McCay’s efforts, there really was not even much overly artistic intention in many of the early films. The idea was more “Hey, I recorded the movement of that object and an audience can watch it later!” as opposed to “We need to regularly make mini-masterpieces that our distributor, and the audience, will consistently be happy with.” Once you begin to look at the 1920s, the more advanced artistry of Otto Messmer (Felix the Cat) and the Fleischer studio (Out of the Inkwell) begin to emerge, though they are still far different from mainstream ‘classic’ animation many of us know. I think once a person begins to look at early animation while taking all of these points into consideration, it might be easier to appreciate what these films are and why they look the way they do…even if one might not enjoy them as much or laugh as loudly as they would at a Bugs Bunny cartoon.

Do you think silent animation is a distinct art form from sound animation, which relies so heavily on synchronization to music, especially in the early years?

The answer to this is both yes and no. It’s true that early sound animation relied heavily on music, and in many cases, the animation was produced rhythmically to coincide with a musical soundtrack. Many silent cartoons were obviously not created this way, and play out in a way that makes it obvious no sound elements were kept in mind during production. However, some films and series do work particularly well with post-synched soundtracks, whether the tracks were made for reissue in the 1930s or today. This means even if a cartoon was created in the silent era, it often does contain a certain rhythm that works well with a custom score or soundtrack.

What got you interested in early animation, versus the familiar characters and frequently-shown-on-TV shorts of studio era animation?

It’s difficult to give a truly definitive answer to a ‘why’ question like this…why does John Doe like baseball or Jane Smith like acid jazz? They just do. In my case, like most children I suppose, I really enjoyed cartoons. I also had a very intense interest in history from a young age, and I think that’s why the two interests were married, and I began looking into early animation history. Again, it’s difficult to really explain why, but I always enjoyed Golden Age cartoons (whether on VHS tapes or TV) more than contemporary animation, noticing visual and humor differences (or, shall we say, superiority), and I was always very drawn to monochromatic films and photographs whenever I saw them. That said, I loved Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny as a kid. I was always asking people how old something was, and would often think “What’s the oldest example of that object I can see?” which is why I began focusing more on animation’s beginnings rather than its climaxes. Especially so once I realized research and archiving in that particular early period was lacking on a large scale.

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How do you find cartoon shorts from this era? Were they widely released to the home market?

For as much as they’ve been ignored in modern film history scholarship, and generally neglected in an archival sense all along, many of these films enjoyed lengthy shelf lives in secondary markets. Many of them were copied, sometimes illegally, for home use and eventually for television. In the late 1940s, while distributor M.J. Winkler was ordering the destruction of her archive of silent 35mm Krazy Kat cartoon negatives, Paul Terry, Max Fleischer, and even Bray were busy re-selling their remaining early films to television distribution. Scholars of dramatic or comedy films may not always like animated films, but the truth is that cartoons from all periods had more of a timeless commercial value than older live action films. While they don’t turn up constantly, 16mm prints of many silent-era titles made for home use, rental, and television were plentiful at one time, and that format makes up the bulk of my archive.

So I guess your releases and those from Thunderbean have found an audience for well-curated programs of early animation, as they keep coming and now they're on blu-ray. What's the reaction to these releases been, and what's next for you after Cartoon Roots?

The reaction has really been fantastic. Making use of the newish Blu-ray format and new HD remastering/restorations/releases helps immensely, in my opinion. Releases like this help fill in a lot of gaps where the major studios and bean counting distributors will not or cannot venture. Most of the time, the films on our releases are "orphan films," meaning that the original production studios or ensuing rights holders folded years ago, nor were intellectual property rights enforced after a certain point. That might seem like a bad thing from an archival standpoint--but keep in mind just how many of the historic major studios, some of which still exist, willfully destroyed films through the decades, which they still owned in beautiful master materials. While many orphan films may have been handled poorly over the years, if not entirely lost, their very nature gives us license to breathe new life into the films and begin sharing them again.

As for the Cartoons On Film label, I'd love to have a new collection come out sometime this year. Perhaps an introductory Bray set; a potpourri of important and fun films from the studio, much in the spirit of Cartoon Roots. With just one professional release out of the gate and no snowball effect of buyers ordering multiple Cartoons On Film releases, yet, Roots isn't bringing in quite enough to both provide me with meals and fund a second release. I'll probably have to put together a pre-order fundraiser to make this happen. In an ideal world, and based purely on the amount of material I have, I could envision having at least a couple dozen releases out there. There are just several logistical and financial hurdles to overcome first, and I'm very happy about how supportive everyone has been right off the bat.

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“I'm in favor of plagiarism. If we are to create a new Renaissance, the government should encourage plagiarism. When convinced that someone is a true plagiarist, we should immediately award them the Legion of Honor.” —Jean Renoir
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Mike Gebert

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Re: Interview with animation historian Tom Stathes

PostTue Apr 21, 2015 4:04 pm

I forgot to mention, Tom (who participates here) is happy to respond to any questions or discussion here.
“I'm in favor of plagiarism. If we are to create a new Renaissance, the government should encourage plagiarism. When convinced that someone is a true plagiarist, we should immediately award them the Legion of Honor.” —Jean Renoir
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Re: Interview with animation historian Tom Stathes

PostTue Apr 21, 2015 10:39 pm

Great interview, Mike. Thanks for posting!!
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Re: Interview with animation historian Tom Stathes

PostWed Apr 22, 2015 12:06 am

Very enjoyable interview! Looking forward to future projects!

A couple of months ago I posted about the CARTOON ROOTS Blu-ray/DVD combo set at http://nitrateville.com/viewtopic.php?f=1&t=19257&p=149365#p148521 -- preserved and scanned from a mix of 16mm and 35mm prints, so the picture quality does vary from film to film, and entertainment value also varies (more dependent on personal tastes and interests), but all fans of animation owe it to themselves to buy this set of fascinating obscurities and encourage more! Thunderbean is a very small-scale operation, but has already released several outstanding Blu-rays and quite a few DVDs of rare animation, with more Blu-rays currently in the works.

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