Sunday, January 15, 2012

Review: The World History of Animation

Last summer, I helped a friend develop a course outline for an animation history course. In looking for a textbook, I found that there wasn't a single volume that seemed appropriate. When The World History of Animation by Stephen Cavalier was later published, I wondered if this book might be the solution. Unfortunately, it isn't.

The book is a wide ranging history of animation. It starts with a short historical summary for different parts of the world before launching into a year by year history where particular films are singled out. The entries are wildly uneven, both in terms of the writing and the accompanying illustrations. One would think that the amount of space devoted to a film would be proportional to the film's importance, but there doesn't seem to be any relationship. Not all the films are represented by stills and here, too, the number or size of the stills bears no relation to the importance of the film.

I don't think I can articulate the author's point of view beyond the fact that he has personal favorites. While art, content and technology are all mentioned, none seems to be uppermost in the author's mind. Directors are the only contributors mentioned consistently. Designers and animators who aren't directors are mostly ignored.

Finally, there are many factual errors. I would not pretend to be an expert on European or Asian animation, but I am reasonably conversant in American animation history. The author is British, which might account for his errors regarding America, but there is no way for me to know if the same number of errors exist in all parts of the book.

I've listed the errors I found during my reading below, if only to document my reservations. There is no doubt that the book is an ambitious undertaking, but it seems to have defeated the author and his research team. Perhaps it isn't possible to get a single volume history of world animation that is accurate and with a defined point of view, but this book does nothing to challenge that assumption.

The errors:

A still identified as being from Gertie the Dinosaur (1914) on page 63 is obviously from one of the later Gertie films, as it has a grey scale and looks to have been done on cels. The 1914 film was just line and done entirely on a single level of paper.

On page 74, Cavalier states that Joe Oriolo was working on Felix the Cat as early as 1922. As he was born in 1913, that would make him a precocious nine year old. In fact, Oriolo didn't meet Messmer until the two were working at Famous Studios in the early '40s.

On page 97, Cavalier says that Steamboat Willie was half finished before Disney made the decision to make it a sound cartoon. This is wrong. The synchronization that is Steamboat Willie's great advance was due to planning the musical beats in advance of animation.

On page 99, sloppy writing implies that Ub Iwerks' multiplane camera was in use as early as the first Flip the Frog cartoon when it was introduced in the ComicColor series. He also says that Iwerks returned to the Disney studio in 1938, when it was 1940.

On page 115, Cavalier implies that the Fleischer 3D setbacks were the Fleischer version of the rotoscope. First of all, there is no relationship. The setbacks were purely for background elements, not character animation. Secondly, as the Fleischers invented the rotoscope, they had no need for their own version.

On page 122, Leon Schlesinger is invited to open an animation studio on the Warner Bros. lot in 1927, when his studio didn't open until 1930. Then the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies are described as being produced at the Harman-Ising studio, which is also wrong. On the same page, Chuck Jones, not Tex Avery, is credited as the director of A Wild Hare.

On page 123, Cavalier states that producer Edward Selzer imposed a 5 week production schedule on each cartoon. While a cartoon may have been forced to move through each department in 5 weeks, there is no way that an entire cartoon was created in 5 weeks.

On page 142, Tex Avery is credited as creating Porky Pig, but Avery had nothing to do with Porky's debut cartoon I Haven't Got a Hat, which was released before Avery's first cartoon at Warner Bros.

On page 198, regarding The Jungle Book, Cavalier states, "for the first time the characters' movements and acting were based on the personalities and filmed performances of the voice actors, who were encouraged to improvise as they recorded." It was hardly the first time, as it was done at least as early as the tea party sequence in Alice in Wonderland (1951).

On page 219, Cavalier states, "Crumb also claimed that Bakshi had got the agreement [to make an animated Fritz the Cat] with his ex-girlfriend more than with him, and that she had no ownership rights, which Bakshi denied." The woman in question is Dana Crumb, who was married to Crumb at the time the contract was signed.

On page 225, Jerry Beck is identified as Jeff Beck.

On page 246, Don Bluth's Banjo the Woodpile Cat is identified as a feature when it is 29 minutes long.

On page 248, MAGI Synthevision is identified as MAG.

On page 286, Cavalier claims that the cgi ballroom in Beauty and the Beast was supplied by Pixar. It was created internally at Disney. I confirmed this with Dan Philips, who was CGI Manager on the film.

On page 308, there is a commentary on Super Mario 64 that sounds more like the work of a public relations flack than a historian. "Shigeru Miyamoto and Nintendo's Super Mario 64 is not only one of the greatest computer games of all time, but also one of the greatest works of art/entertainment of the twentieth century. From the moment the player takes control of Mario and finds that through some simple controls he can run, jump, swim, slide, or even fly in any direction of the beautifully-realized world, he or she is held in a similar state of wonder and exhilaration that the first audiences must have felt when watching Winsor McCay's Gertie the Dinosaur or Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs."

On page 331, in discussing Gendy Tartakovsky's credits, there is no mention of Dexter's Laboratory, a show that he created.

On page 386, Shane Acker's feature 9 is identified as stop-motion, when it is cgi.

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