New York’s Vibrant Animation History – It All Started Here: Part 1

Posted by on Mar 9, 2009 in Industry Events | No Comments

Today we bring you Part One of Richard Gorey’s wonderful review of the retrospective of NY’s Animation History last month, brought to you by Howard Beckerman and J. J. Sedelmaier. Stay tuned tomorrow, for Part 2.

It All Started Here: Part 1

Review by Richard Gorey.

Howard Beckerman, co-curator of the Westchester Arts Center’s animation exhibit, recently told me, “I’ve always said the two best-kept secrets of world War II were the development of the Atom Bomb and that Animation began–and was still being produced–in New York, not just California.” Last month, Beckerman and animation producer J.J. Sedelmaier helped to spread the word about one of these “best kept secrets” in their White Plains gallery show It All Started Here, a retrospective of New York animation over the last century. The show championed the creativity, individuality, and uniquely “East Coast” personality of the work featured, but It All Started Here also served as an instructional tour through the specifics of traditional, hand-drawn animation production. A diverse sampling of commercial and independent New York films were represented, but the Westchester Arts gallery featured everything from tools, cameras, light boxes, projectors, desks, paints and even the computers instrumental in designing, storyboarding and executing these classic works of art. Much of this material came from J.J Sedelmaier, who has been collecting and restoring animation related items for many years, and the gallery offered tangible proof of the incredible amount of labor and skill required to produce animated cartoons. That glorious finished product doesn’t just appear onscreen: the process is compartmentalized, laborious and often physically difficult. It’s an odd contradiction when one considers the easy fun and humor many cartoons are famous for. Visitors to the Arts Center were offered rare glimpses of East-coast films (some not seen in five decades) and found themselves standing next to the tools and equipment that made the shorts possible.

Some years ago, I was asked to introduce a screening of the Fleischer studios’ Mr. Bug Goes to Town. As a part of the evening’s agenda I showed a short made in 1940; a “backstage look” into the workings of the animation process which was a revelation to the audience-many of whom never had been exposed to the specifics of pre-computer-era cartoon production. The images of men and women hand-painting clear plastic cels, shooting the artwork against watercolor backgrounds on an bulky camera stand, even the creation of miniature 3-D models for the Popeye shorts were all surprises to the current generation of cartoon fans. I had a similar feeling of history and education when I toured the Arts Center’s exhibit, and was reminded that these films were created one frame at a time by artists and craftspeople that had a personal relationship with every inch of what eventually wound up onscreen.

The show, which ran until February 28th, featured art and concept work from the Betty Boop and Popeye shorts of the twenties and thirties as well as clips and production materials from more recent creations, such as Blue Sky’s Ice Age. In these days of slick computer-generated imagery, audiences sometimes forget most ideas start on paper–even though they may end up as pixels in a hard drive.

“The Westchester Arts exhibit was inspired by J.J.’s collection, and I got involved because of my research of New York Animation studios. There was a slide presentation I had done over twenty years ago,” Beckerman says. “I realized all this New York history was being lost, that the studios had disappeared, the buildings that housed them were being torn down. I spent a great deal of time walking around Manhattan taking pictures of all these places. Sedelmaier has over the years collected so many incredible artifacts from the early days. He has the original Bray paper punch, for instance, and a desk from the Fleischer studios, when they were at 1600 Broadway. He’s got the moviolas, peg bars, and all kinds of promotional materials, so pulling together the things we wanted to display was relatively easy.”

Beckerman says one of the differences between the New York work and the California animation is that East Coast work was focused more on short subjects, commercial and independent films, whereas the California animators usually dedicated themselves to episodic television and feature films. “Once Disney’s Mickey Mouse became successful, Hollywood beckoned,” Beckerman says, “and well, many guys left New York for LA. But people forget there were a lot of others who stayed behind…and they forget that for years labs and processing plants were still in New York, in Rochester and upstate. In so many ways, the business never left New York, but the features, which did get a lot of attention, were mostly from California.”

Notable exceptions include Ralph Bakshi’s startup production of the successful Fritz the Cat in New York, in 1972, and the 1977 feature Raggedy Ann and Andy, produced in Manhattan Studio space. Raggedy Ann was an elaborate and sumptuously animated widescreen example of Disney-quality draftsmanship, and remains a source of pride for the young New York animators (among them Michael Sporn, Dan Haskett, Tom Sito, and Eric Goldberg) who got their start working on it. That film and others were featured in the gallery, represented by animation drawings and posters.

Stay tuned tomorrow for Part 2.