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Freeze Frame Friday 2/19/10: Animation At The Speed Of Tex

19 Feb
Swing Shift Cinderella hitting Wolf on head with frying pan

This single frame, from SWING SHIFT CINDERELLA, appears to have more movement, speed and vibrancy than an entire season of today's animated programs

by Rachel Newstead

Ah, yes–Tex Avery. There’s so much one can say, it’s easy for a humble blogger like me to think the posts will write themselves whenever he’s the subject. In reality, doing justice to Tex in writing is as difficult as trying to snare a cloud with a grappling hook. Do I write about the wild, exaggerated “takes” that were his trademark? Too obvious.  The impossible gags, the visual puns? The subversion of the cute, the safe, the Disneyesque? The repetition of themes in his cartoons (such as the “ubiquity theme,” in which a character appears to be everywhere at once with no explanation given–or possible?) Good start, but not quite there. Rather, the topic of this Freeze Frame Friday will be Avery’s mastery of speed–or rather, his portrayal of it.

It’s easy to forget that the ability to portray speed in animated drawings didn’t come about overnight. The Disney Silly Symphony The Tortoise and The Hare (1934) and Frank Tashlin’s 1937 Looney Tune Porky’s Romance are generally credited as the first cartoons to successfully portray speed, relatively late in animation’s history. Both cartoons did succeed on a technical level; it’s one thing, however, to accurately portray speed, and quite another to make it funny.

Fairy godmother crouching into a runAt their best, Avery and his animators could make characters look as if they The fairy godmother of Swing Shift Cinderella in a flurrying runwere moving at Mach 6 even when they were standing still. What Disney’s animators did with an amorphous blur of lines and Tashlin with a series of quick cuts, Avery did with the very plasticity and weightlessness of his characters.  In his book on Avery, Joe Adamson credits Avery’s loss of one eye in his early days at Lantz with the development of his later style: after the accident, Avery’s characters had a quicksilver-like quality, a total lack of solidity, as if they could disintegrate at any moment. And as we can see in the frames included here, they nearly do;  in these stills from Swing Shift Cinderella (1945), a very modern and Wolf-crazed fairy godmother yelps with joy at the sight of a Wolf in her midst, and speeds off in pursuit.  Her form is almost wispy–not quite a “smear”, as we’ve seen in past weeks, as a series of light, quick brush strokes in keeping with the lightness of the figure itself. (Clampett would use a similar technique in his

The fairy godmother's legs rotate like bicycle wheels as she starts to speed off

Even in freeze-frame, this old gal's a ball of fire. From SWING SHIFT CINDERELLA

Wabbit Twouble, when Elmer runs from tree to tree to evade a bear, dissolving into nothing more than a series of horizontal brush strokes in between. Bob apparently learned well from the master).

As soon as our oversexed fairy godmother begins to cohere, the trademark Avery rubberiness takes over as her legs appear to become literal wheels. As she and the Wolf tear through the room, their natural lack of weight and the laws of  centrifugal force combine to send them scampering around the very walls.  While Avery made his characters seem weightless, his Disney-trained animators knew

Rubbery, weightless and the fastest things on earth...

enough about the laws of motion to make the fantastic seem real.

I suppose that explains just why I could never quite warm to Avery’s later work in the 1950s, after the UPA model of flat, stylized drawing was adopted industry-wide. It’s odd, really–one would think that the flatter style would have helped rather than hurt Avery, but somehow it didn’t work that way.

According to Adamson, the UPA-like style was an abstraction of an abstraction–which is one too many. I, however, think the problem went deeper than that:  the Avery characters of the later years never had that quicksilver quality, that ability to disintegrate themselves and re-cohere in an instant–to change shape and snap back again.  They were static designs, and stayed static designs–they had lost their speed. Now, rather than appear to break the sound barrier standing still, they appeared to be at a full stop even in motion. And animated cartoons haven’t been truly “animated” since.

Meet “Les Flintstones?”

19 Feb
A still frame showing early versions of Fred Flintstone and Wilma

An image from the "Flagstones" pilot. But is that pilot the ONLY one?

by Rachel Newstead

It’s amazing what one can learn on the internet sometimes.  Case in point:

When doing research for my upcoming review of “The Swimming Pool”, I couldn’t help but think back to a mystery I encountered when researching the episode “The Hot Piano” two years ago. You might call it The Mystery Of The Missing Pilot.

In a routine Google search I ran across this page, a site called DVDVerdict.com. In its review of The Flintstones: The Complete First Season, it states:

After a moderate success with the Ruff N’ Ready [sic] Show, the duo was ready to try their hand at a prime time series. They made a deal with ABC; all they needed was a program. In 1959, a Belgian animation unit (that would later make the cult classic Pinocchio in Outer Space) tried their hand with a half-hour pilot titled The Flagstones. Hanna and Barbera did not like the end product, so a new approach was taken with the next pilot.

Wait a minute. Belgium? Next pilot??

You can understand my confusion, I’m sure. The reviewer says that Hanna-Barbera actually intended to outsource The Flintstones (or The Flagstones, as it was still known at the time) to a foreign studio, which flies in the face of everything I’ve ever read, or heard, about the origins of the show.

I unfortunately don’t have a copy of Joe Barbera’s autobiography in front of me, but I seem to recall he said he first talked to potential sponsors early in 1960, then made the well known three-minute minute-and-a-half pilot in house sometime in the spring of that year.  Something like this wouldn’t appear to fit the timeline.

Yet there was supposedly a half hour pilot done as early as 1959 by this Belgian outfit, at about the time–as far as I knew–the very first concept sketches were being done? Curiouser and curiouser.

I remember asking Mark Kausler about this, and he wondered, as I did, why H-B would go through the trouble of outsourcing when it would have been easier to do it in-house, even with their busy production schedule at the time. Therefore,  I simply dismissed the story as a flight of fancy on the part of the review’s author, and that was that.

A more recent find, however, punched a huge hole in my air of smugness. This morning I ran across an old post on Cartoon Brew which essentially says the same thing as DVDVerdict–that a Flintstones pilot, made in Belgium by a company called Belvision, existed. The word of Jerry Beck is hard to dispute.

Now that there’s confirmation it exists, the next obvious question would be “Where is it?” I for one would jump at the chance to see this studio’s take on the characters. Judging from what little I’ve seen of Belvision’s  style in Pinocchio in Outer Space, their version would have been very different from what we’ve come to know. Not bad, necessarily, but certainly different.

This pilot is likely to be an interesting curiosity, at least. Though in all honesty, I’m rather glad things turned out as they ultimately did.

Jerry, should you come around this way, please give me some more details about this if you can.  Though screen grabs would be even better.

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