Books &Commentary 08 Nov 2011 08:12 am

Lutz’ “Animated Cartoons” – an Overdue Review

Animated Cartoons: How They Are Made, Their Origin and Development by Edwin G. Lutz is the first important book published about animation and how to do it. The book apparently had a lot of resonance with Walt Disney and his small Kansas City staff when they started out in making animated films. They borrowed a copy of the book from the library and studied it slavishly to learn how to make animated films.

I’ve owned a copy of the book for at least the last thirty years but had not read it, so this week, I set myself to the task at hand. Surprise, surprise. I found the book not only interesting but informational. Yet not totally out of date.

Lutz starts out with a history of animation – no mean task for a 1920 publication. This amounts to comparing the differences between a praxinoscope and a phenakistoscope, a zoetrope and a thaumatrope. For quite some time, no book on animation would be complete without following the example of this book and revealing the evolution of the machinery that allowed for the animation of still pictures.

Once past this, it goes into the evolution of Motion Pictures, from Muybridge to Lumiere and Edison. The author has real knowledge of the 1920 motion picture camera and how it works, and he lets us in on the secrets.

Finally, with Chapter III, 57 pages into the book, we’re into “Making Animated Cartoons.” This is when some truly practical information is relayed. Not only the shape of a lightbox and the use of two pegs for registration but the explanation of using cels (primarily, for background overlays) and limited animation.

Some examples of the practical advice he gives:

- It’s revealed that using tempera to correct stray lines on the white linen animation paper might photograph as gray, and it would be better to cut out those lines and rub down the cut edges with an eraser.
- We learn that black velvet photographs truly black. (I knew this when Richard Williams told me in 1977, however Williams added that brilliant whites are found by using white blotter paper.)
- A cut-out object, such as an airplane, can be used to cross the screen with cut-out animation rather than having to redraw the plane endless numbers of times. However you have to be careful it doesn’t change perspective, or it will not work properly.
- A platen, flattening the art at the camera shooting, should be made of glass with a wood frame. If the frame is metal it can’t breathe and the glass may break. (They later figured out a suspension device with springs to allow some give.)

In point of fact, there are dozens of such mechanical tips in the middle of the book, and they’re really entertaining to read. I can’t remember any other book combining so many such photographic tips. Usually, “how to” books are about the animation, itself, not the camera design. Or they’re focused on the camera and not the animation technique. This book offers both and with some real knowledge.

Of course, the book was written in 1920 so there’s only a limited amount we can learn about movement. They didn’t know that much until Disney had developed animation to a high craft in the 1930s. However, it’s astonishing, at least to me, to learn how much they DID know that early in the game. It’s also a surprise, given some of the illustrations in the book, how sophisticated some of the animation is. But then the very next series of drawings is crude and like something out of the Bray’s “Heeza Liar” series.

The latter part of the book goes into the construction of good gags (after all, animated films are about comedy, he tells us), and the conclusion seems to be that circuitous motions are the funniest. Lutz paraphrases Henri Bergson’s philosophy in explaining:

    In a boisterous low comedy it is always incumbent upon the victim of a blow to reel around like a top before he falls. It never fails to bring laughter. An effect like this is easy to produce in animated cartoons. There is no need to consider physiological impossibilities of the human organism, the artist can make his characters spin as much as he pleases.
    In a screen picture two boys will be seen fighting; at first they will parry a few blows, then suddenly begin to whirl around so that nothing is visible but a confused mass and an occasional detail like an arm or leg. It will be exactly like a revolving pinwheel. This is made on the film by having a drawing representing the boys as clinched and turning it around as if it were a pin-wheel.
    In a panorama screen effect it seems to be sufficiently realistic, for laughter purposes, to have the legs and arms of the individual in a hurry give a blurred impression, in some degree, like that of the spokes of a rapidly turning wheel.

Lutz continues for six pages telling us how circular movements
provide gales of laughter for the audience. He just about
convinced me. I’ll be keeping my eyes open in the future.

The book ends with a discussion of the future. This, Lutz decides, is in educational animation. He gives examples of mechanical processes, such as pistons operating or gears in motion, or he mentions a device invented to teach deaf children to read lips. Oddly enough, this belief in the future of educating via animation was the same belief that both Fleischer and Disney had in the 1920s. I wonder if they got their notion of this future from Lutz. Interesting how both broke from this type of thinking when they found that there wasn’t much money in educational films. (Bray, on the other hand, did little more than educational work starting in the 20s and going well into the 50s. That man knew how to roust a buck.)
The book, Animated Cartoons: How They Are Made, Their Origin and Development is a good read, although the writing style is a bit stiff reflecting the style of its day. It’s almost Victorian in its stodginess. Accepting that – you always have to remember the book was published in 1920, yet there’s quite a bit to be found here. Any animator with one foot in the medium’s history really should read this book. It took me a few decades, and I’m sorry I didn’t get to it sooner.
While reading this book, I became particularly interested in who E.G. Lutz actually was. My limited research didn’t turn up a hell of a lot, but I did decide to share what I could find out. I’ll do it in another post, since I’d like to quote several other books in length, and it seems to be another direction than this review wants to take.

5 Responses to “Lutz’ “Animated Cartoons” – an Overdue Review”

  1. on 08 Nov 2011 at 11:10 am 1.Brett McCoy said …

    I got one of his books last year, “Drawing Made Easy”, that artist James Gurney had reviewed. It’s quaint in that Edwardian way, but he has good ideas about construction that any artist should know.

  2. on 08 Nov 2011 at 12:45 pm 2.Tom Minton said …

    The sort of animated film Lutz describes is now so old that it’s new. In the book’s final words Lutz imagines a future incorporating sound and color and his suggested method for making color film cartoons is fascinating in its sheer labor intensity: tiny rubber stamps used to impart color dyes onto film celluloid. This isn’t exactly hand-tinting, which was already being done in the teens, that Lutz is describing. Someone with nothing but time should explore what Lutz imagined in 1920. Today it would be called DIY and might be accomplished best in a short film, to avoid the hazard of complete insanity.

  3. on 08 Nov 2011 at 1:53 pm 3.Paul Penna said …

    Hand-coloring films goes way back to the earliest days – you can see some Méliès examples online – and continued to be used into the 1920s. A stencil process was developed by the French early on – I’ve seen stills of the factory, where dozens of young women in Gibson Girl coif and garb are at work. Stencils were made by a pantograph, tracing the outlines from a projection of the film frames. Sort of a cousin of the rotoscope when you think about it. I haven’t heard whether or not a rubber-stamp method was ever employed in practice.

  4. on 09 Nov 2011 at 12:04 pm 4.Tom Minton said …


  5. on 18 Feb 2012 at 7:09 pm 5.Liim Lsan said …

    Of course circular motions are appealing, now that I think about it.

    Some of Oskar Fischinger’s work was almost entirely circular, and probably the most visibly experimental (and not coincidentally most appealing) animation in the last decade of Disney films was Sergio Pablos’ scenes of Doctor Doppler, in which he had the character expressly make constant small scatterbrained circular arcs on all body parts…legend has it that he inbetweened those himself so they would always be on the arc.

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