Commentary 28 Mar 2011 07:03 am

Lantz and me

- Like many others, reading the Roger Armstrong reminiscence on Mike Barrier‘s site really got me into the Walter Lantz mood.

I first went back to Mike’s book, The Hollywood Cartoon, and read what info he had about Lantz. After a bit of reading there, I went to look at some of the old Woody Woodpecker shows – I have that collection from Columbia House that came out years ago which includes about three half hour shows per DVD, 10 DVDs, and some beautiful prints.

Then I reread one of my all time favorite animation books, The Walter Lantz Story by Joe Adamson. This isn’t a terribly large book, but it sure is packed with a lot of first-rate information.

As an owner of my own animation company I get a real charge in reading about the ups and downs Lantz had to go through, financially, to keep his company afloat. In one chapter, Universal dropped him, and he rebuilt, financing a couple of films with the help of a few animators. Then he went back to Univeral and sold the films to them with a brand new deal. It took enormous entrepreneurial strength believing in what he did and going forward with everything on the line.

It’s a great book, and Joe Adamson should be proud of the effort. I also encourage you all to read it. (If only there were a similar book about Paul Terry.)

I got to meet Lantz a couple of times in his late years. One was at Grim Natwick’s 100th birthday. Too bad Walter didn’t sit for the group photo; it would’ve added something to the collected group of animation veterans.

The group photo with ID’s alongside this picture.
(Click to enlarge.)

Another event in LA was the Walter Lantz Conference on Animation in which a number of speakers spoke and films were screened. Lantz was everywhere in those few days. It was great.

However, my most memorable meeting came thanks to John Canemaker. John had interviewed and met with Lantz several times during a group of meetings Walter and Gracie were having in New York in the 70s. There was, if I remember correctly, a special screening of their films at which they would talk. Since I was going there, John asked if I wanted to meet up with him and ride to the event with Walter and Gracie in their limousine. It was a treat to meet them one-on-one and to have a chance to share a few words. I have to say he was one of the most kind people I’ve run across, who gave me plenty of chance to talk. It was one of those standout moments in my life.


To complete this post, I’m going to repeat an older piece about one of my favorite Lantz/Woody Woodpecker cartoons, Ace In The Hole.

- Back in the day, when I was just a teenager, there was very little in the way of media, as there is today. If you were desperate to become an animator, there weren’t many directions to turn. You had what was on the four or five tv channels that existed and there was the library.

TV offered the Walt Disney show, which two out of four Wednesdays (later Sundays) each month, they’d touch on “Fantasyland”, and you could watch some Disney cartoons – usually Donald and Chip & Dale, or there was the Woody Woodpecker show, during which Walter Lantz would talk for four or five minutes about some aspect of animation.

For all those other hours of the day when you wanted animation you had to make do with what you could create for yourself.

At the age of 11, I took a part time job for a pharmacist delivering drugs to his clientele.
I lived off the tips that were offered, and I saved my money until I had enough to buy a used movie camera. The trek into downtown Manhattan was a big one for an eleven year old child, but I loved it. I went by myself to Peerless camera store near Grand Central Station. (It later merged with Willoughby to become Peerless-Willoughby; then it went back to just being Willoughby.)

That store, I quickly learned had a large
section devoted to films for the 8mm crowd. Lots of Laurel and Hardy, Our Gang and Woody Woodpecker cartoons. Once I had the camera, I saved for a cheap projector and eventually bought some 8mm cartoons.

Independence. Now, I didn’t have to wait to see them on TV, I could project them myself whenever I wanted. Even better, I jiggered the projector to maneuver the framing device which allowed me to see one frame of the film
at a time, so that I could advance the frames one at a time. I could study animation.

I know, I know. I’m describing the stone ages. Today all you have to do is get the DVD (which is incredibly cheap compared to the cost of those old 8mm films) and watch it one frame at a time or any other way you want. And every film is available. If you don’t have it just join Netflix and rent it. Your library is always open and growing.

Yes, Peerless had an large 8mm film division, so you could buy the latest Castle film edition of some Woody Woodpecker cartoon, or you could find many of Ub Iwerks’ films. I had a collection of these. Ub Iwerks was my guy. Everything I’d read about him (in the few books available) got me excited about animation. Actually, Jack and the Beanstalk and Sinbad the Sailor were the first films I’d bought and watch endlessly over and over frame by frame.

In short time, I knew every frame of Jack and the Beanstalk backwards and forwards. I didn’t realize that it was Grim Natwick who had animated (and directed the animation) on a good part of the film. Meeting Natwick years later, I think I surprised him by saying as much. He just moved on to another subject, appropriately enough.

In some very real way, I learned animation from that film and several others that I
bought in those primative years of my career. Before I knew principles of drawing, I’d been able to figure out principles of animation. I’d had the Preston Blair book, and I had the Tips on Animation from the Disneyland Corner. I just measured what they said about basic rules and watched – frame by frame – how these rules were executed by the Iwerks’ animators. The rest was up to me to figure out, and I was able to do that.

Eventually I bought a Woody Woodpecker cartoon. I was reluctant because so many of them were the very limited films done in the early 60′s – Ma and Pa Beary etc. It took a while to figure out that Ace in the Hole was a wartime movie and the animation would be a bit better. It was also the Woody that I liked – just a bit crazy. So I sprang for it and swallowed that film’s every frame for years.

I’m not sure who George Dane is, (he seems to have spent years at Lantz before working years at H&B and Filmation) but I studied and analyzed his animation on this film closely and carefully.

The work reminded me of some of the animation done for Columbia in the early 40′s. It had that same mushiness while at the same time not breaking any of the rules. Regardless, he knew what he was doing, and I had a lot to learn from him. And I did.

Things keep changing, media keeps growing. I’m glad I had to fight to get to see any of those old 8mm shorts back in the early years. When I bought my first vhs copy of a Disney feature, it took a while to grasp the fact that I could see every frame of it whenever I wanted. In bygone years, I could only see the rejects that TV didn’t want. I wanted to study Tytla and Thomas and Natwick and Kahl. Instead, I studied George Dane. And you know what, it was pretty damn OK. I learned enough that I knew a lot when I started in the business. I just jumped in and was animating for John Hubley within days of getting that first job. (It helps that it was an open studio like Hubley’s where the individual artist could do anything, as long as he kept his head above water. In most studios there’s a rigidity that keeps you in your classified job.) In fact by then, I was more interested in Art Direction and Direction than I was in animation, but that’s another post.

If you want to learn from the masters, just pop in a DVD and watch it frame-by-frame. If you don’t get a charge out of it, you might begin to wonder if you’re really in the right business. After all these years, I still get the thrill, and I imagine I always will – even from watching Ace in the Hole AGAIN.

8 Responses to “Lantz and me”

  1. on 28 Mar 2011 at 9:06 am 1.Mark Mayerson said …

    Nothing beats examining a film frame by frame as a way of learning about animation. The interesting thing is that the more you know, the more the clips reveal. I am still learning things from clips I first looked at decades ago.

    I’m afraid that if streaming becomes the dominant way of viewing movies at home, animators will lose the ability in the future to do single frame study. VHS was worse than 8mm or Super 8 for frame by frame analysis due to the 3:2 pulldown and the fragility of videotape. DVDs were an improvement and I hope we don’t take another step backwards as technology continues to change.

  2. on 28 Mar 2011 at 9:51 am 2.Michael said …

    I couldn’t agree with you more, Mark. I’ve gotten lazy and still use the DVD player to watch the films frame by frame (having to deal with the 3:2 pulldown – but aware of it). On occasion I’ll pull out an old 16mm print and run it through a moviola watching the animation one frame at a time. The tactile sense of touching the film, really improves the experience more than I can say.

  3. on 28 Mar 2011 at 9:59 am 3.John Celestri said …

    I agree with Mark on all his points.

    I, too, learned the basics of animation by studying Super 8 films frame by frame—haunting the same 8mm and Super 8 film bins in the same store Michael describes in his post. In fact, the first Super 8 film I studied (and kept returning to the most often) was the Dwarfs’ hand washing sequence in Snow White. At the time, I did not know who Bill Tytla was, nor did I know he had animated the majority of that ground-breaking sequence. All I knew was that it was a master class of information that I HAD to soak up.

  4. on 28 Mar 2011 at 11:02 am 4.Michael Barrier said …

    Lovely post.

    George Dane’s real name was George Jorgensen; he’s mentioned in endnote 31 on page 611 of Hollywood Cartoons.

    I’m surprised you didn’t mention CAV laserdiscs and their wonderful, true-to-the-film, frame-by-frame capability (without the disabilities of CLV laserdiscs and videtotape. I remember very well what a pleasure it was to watch things like Frank Thomas’s animation of Captain Hook frame by frame on a CAV disc.

  5. on 28 Mar 2011 at 12:24 pm 5.Bill Benzon said …

    Thanks for this, Michael. I loved the Woody Woodpecker show when I was a kid. In particular, I liked Lantz’s behind-the-scenes segments. Though I never aspired to be an animator, I loved seeing how things were done, and, of course, that I could docter the corners of my tables with little flip animations.

    I’ve been satiating my Lantz jones by studying The Greatest Man in Siam, one of the Swing Symphonies. I started with a post that looks at a 20-minute dance segment that had me making frame-grab after frame-grab — 45 for the post, but it’s not really enough. There’s some superb drawing in that sequence. Then I took a look at the whole film, and I’ve just posted a third where I raise questions about ‘what does it all mean’?

  6. on 28 Mar 2011 at 1:20 pm 6.Bill Benzon said …

    I’ve just gotten back from Mayerson’s joint. His remarks on Pat Matthews, in particular that he was Lantz’s go-to guy on pretty girl animation, suggests that it’s Matthews’ work I’ve been admiring in Siam. Yes, King Size’s daughter is pretty enough. But it’s the foreshortening and the angles in some of those dance moves, and the liguidity of the shimmies, that’s what’s got me gobsmacked. Masterful conception and execution.

  7. on 28 Mar 2011 at 2:36 pm 7.Thad said …

    I wish that I had a working slide scanner so I could supplement my posts with frames from my film collection. I’ve upgraded from most of my oldest prints since, but I still have one of the first I ever bought, Fire Chief with Donald Duck. I probably never sold it because I’d never recoup anything reasonable because I absolutely mutilated the opening titles being ignorant of threading a projector.

    Joe Adamson’s book is alright overall. I appreciate having an account of Lantz’s life and career, but it plays party to regurgitating a couple of Lantz’s myths (the woodpecker on the roof during his honeymoon, hiring Gracie unknowingly) that I don’t care to see in an oral history or real biography.

    FWIW, there are many great uncredited animators in Ace in the Hole, like Les Kline and Laverne Harding.

  8. on 30 Mar 2011 at 12:02 am 8.Robert Schaad said …

    Wondering aloud how many separate segments of the animation how-to’s that Lantz produced for the WWS. The ones I’ve seen in recent yrs, courtesy of the dvd collections are great.

Trackback This Post | Subscribe to the comments through RSS Feed

Leave a Reply

eXTReMe Tracker
click for free hit counter

hit counter