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com View topic - Interview with animation historian Tom Stathes

4/21/15, 3:31 PM

Interview with Animation Historian and Collector Tommy

Jos Stathes, On His Cartoon Roots Blu-Ray Release
Tom Stathes started collecting obscure animation titles as a kid because they were available
on VHS in bargain bins. Now he has one of the largest collections of silent and early sound
animation on film, primarily from small independent studios, in existence, and he's become
an advocate for rediscovery of this neglected corner of film history and its leading pioneers,
including John Randolph Bray, Otto Messmer and Max and Dave Fleischer, among many
others. After years of screening films from his collection
( and releasing and contributing to home-brew
compilations on DVD, he curated an assortment of these films for Turner Classic Movies on
the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Bray's studio last October, and (with the aid of his
friends at Thunderbean ( , another label releasing obscure
animation titles) produced a professional blu-ray release called Cartoon Roots, showing the
development of early animation and making the case for paying it attention. (You can order
it directly here ( .) I
interviewed him by email about his interest in early animation.

Images courtesy of Tom Stathes.

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J.R. Bray's The Artist's Dream (1913)

You obviously think John Randolph Bray is an important, underrated figure not least
because you named one of your sites for him. What makes Bray worthy of rediscovery?
Brays studio (formed 1913, incorporated 1914) was simply the first successful studio
dedicated to animation production, and that fact alone makes his accomplishments and
history worth rediscovery. Over the last few decades, Bray has been researched and covered
in history books, but there has usually been a certain level of discomfort among historians
and animators surrounding the subject. Bray had figured out how to organize and monetize
a new frontier, and in doing this, he often stepped on others toes and most likely stole
ideas from others. Bray was also terribly litigious, often making it difficult or impossible to
let others enter and succeed in the animation industry without paying his patent company
for a license to use the cel technique.
From an artistic and creative standpoint, its very easy to understand this discomfort
surrounding Bray. However, almost from the start, animation quickly became a very
commercialized industry rather than an independent, outsider art form. Aside from being
curious about the valuable histories and studio stories attached to Bray, and the more than
five hundred animated films produced by him, I think its important to wonder what of those

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wonderful beloved Disney and Warner Bros. cartoons would have been produced, as the
commercial products they were, without Bray initially founding the industry.
You call Col. Heeza Liar the first recurring character in animation. What makes him
seem a consistent character in a way that hadn't been done before?
To be more specific, Heeza Liar was the first character created specifically for the cinema
screen, and it happened to be a recurring series at that. Previously, Emil Cohl was
responsible for a series of films featuring The Newlyweds, which were characters from a
newspaper comic. Col. Heeza Liar was created specifically for film, and Bray produced two
series of films starring the tall tale-teller, from 1913 to 1917 and 1922 to 1924.

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4/21/15, 3:31 PM

One of the lines about early film that I always think about is Charles Musser's, that we
shouldn't look at early films as merely tentative steps toward later film they had their
own purposes, artistic intentions etc. and those might be very different from what
became standard filmmaking technique and language. That's a real issue with
animation, because we unconsciously assume everything is an imperfect step toward
one ultimate goal, Disney-style feature perfection. So what do you think is different
about early animation how should we be looking at it to see what people wanted to
do when they saw that drawings could be made to move?
This point and Mussers sentiment you bring up is an incredibly important thing to consider
when looking at early animation, and one that I feel is lacking in popular or typical
treatments of animation history. Sure, there are quite a few people who love and appreciate
early works as-is, purely for what they are, but this unconditional appreciation is rare.
Generally speaking, the dominant thinking in animation fandom and research tends to be
what you mentioned; that Disney-style perfection is the ideal. Another school of thought
professes that Golden Age Warner Bros. animation is the alternate ideal, in terms of visual
style but especially in terms of humor, pacing, and cleverness in gags. In both cases, the two
studios 1930s-1940s product (especially Technicolor) can be considered the artistic height
of commercial animation on many levels, and I would have to agree.
Early animation, particularly of the silent era, often exhibits wonderful artistic styles and
fascinating techniques, and more importantly, it boasts a significant record of
experimentation and discovery that the later popular classics only built upon. The early
animated cartoons are a valuable visual record of artistic and technical accomplishments
made by illustrators and early filmmaking pioneers who were learning as they went along.
Save for one book in the 1920s, there were no written guides or classes for learning
animation, and naturally the resulting early cartoons were often laden with crudities. Its
always fascinating to me to see the evolution (and improvement) of techniques when certain
films are watched chronologically; however, later polished productions do not detract from
the earlier, simpler, and more crude product in my view. It is all very whimsical to me.

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4/21/15, 3:31 PM

How Animated Cartoons Are Made (1919)

In the first few years of animation, the simple fact that an inanimate object could be made to
move across the frame was groundbreaking and enough of a novelty for viewers not to
require complex narratives or fine-tuned art on the screen. All of this came about during the
time of trick films, with animation eventually supplanting trick films, and there really was no
need for Disney or Warner Bros. at this point. They came along at the right time, when
audiences simply tired of pre-existing product. Aside from Winsor McCays efforts, there
really was not even much overly artistic intention in many of the early films. The idea was
more Hey, I recorded the movement of that object and an audience can watch it later! as
opposed to We need to regularly make mini-masterpieces that our distributor, and the
audience, will consistently be happy with. Once you begin to look at the 1920s, the more
advanced artistry of Otto Messmer (Felix the Cat) and the Fleischer studio (Out of the
Inkwell) begin to emerge, though they are still far different from mainstream classic
animation many of us know. I think once a person begins to look at early animation while
taking all of these points into consideration, it might be easier to appreciate what these films
are and why they look the way they doeven if one might not enjoy them as much or laugh
as loudly as they would at a Bugs Bunny cartoon.
Do you think silent animation is a distinct art form from sound animation, which relies

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so heavily on synchronization to music, especially in the early years?

The answer to this is both yes and no. Its true that early sound animation relied heavily on
music, and in many cases, the animation was produced rhythmically to coincide with a
musical soundtrack. Many silent cartoons were obviously not created this way, and play out
in a way that makes it obvious no sound elements were kept in mind during production.
However, some films and series do work particularly well with post-synched soundtracks,
whether the tracks were made for reissue in the 1930s or today. This means even if a
cartoon was created in the silent era, it often does contain a certain rhythm that works well
with a custom score or soundtrack.
What got you interested in early animation, versus the familiar characters and
frequently-shown-on-TV shorts of studio era animation?
Its difficult to give a truly definitive answer to a why question like thiswhy does John Doe
like baseball or Jane Smith like acid jazz? They just do. In my case, like most children I
suppose, I really enjoyed cartoons. I also had a very intense interest in history from a young
age, and I think thats why the two interests were married, and I began looking into early
animation history. Again, its difficult to really explain why, but I always enjoyed Golden Age
cartoons (whether on VHS tapes or TV) more than contemporary animation, noticing visual
and humor differences (or, shall we say, superiority), and I was always very drawn to
monochromatic films and photographs whenever I saw them. That said, I loved Mickey
Mouse and Bugs Bunny as a kid. I was always asking people how old something was, and
would often think Whats the oldest example of that object I can see? which is why I began
focusing more on animations beginnings rather than its climaxes. Especially so once I
realized research and archiving in that particular early period was lacking on a large scale.

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How do you find cartoon shorts from this era? Were they widely released to the home
For as much as theyve been ignored in modern film history scholarship, and generally
neglected in an archival sense all along, many of these films enjoyed lengthy shelf lives in
secondary markets. Many of them were copied, sometimes illegally, for home use and
eventually for television. In the late 1940s, while distributor M.J. Winkler was ordering the
destruction of her archive of silent 35mm Krazy Kat cartoon negatives, Paul Terry, Max
Fleischer, and even Bray were busy re-selling their remaining early films to television
distribution. Scholars of dramatic or comedy films may not always like animated films, but

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the truth is that cartoons from all periods had more of a timeless commercial value than
older live action films. While they dont turn up constantly, 16mm prints of many silent-era
titles made for home use, rental, and television were plentiful at one time, and that format
makes up the bulk of my archive.
So I guess your releases and those from Thunderbean have found an audience for
well-curated programs of early animation, as they keep coming and now they're on
blu-ray. What's the reaction to these releases been, and what's next for you after
Cartoon Roots?
The reaction has really been fantastic. Making use of the newish Blu-ray format and new HD
remastering/restorations/releases helps immensely, in my opinion. Releases like this help fill
in a lot of gaps where the major studios and bean counting distributors will not or cannot
venture. Most of the time, the films on our releases are "orphan films," meaning that the
original production studios or ensuing rights holders folded years ago, nor were intellectual
property rights enforced after a certain point. That might seem like a bad thing from an
archival standpoint--but keep in mind just how many of the historic major studios, some of
which still exist, willfully destroyed films through the decades, which they still owned in
beautiful master materials. While many orphan films may have been handled poorly over the
years, if not entirely lost, their very nature gives us license to breathe new life into the films
and begin sharing them again.
As for the Cartoons On Film label, I'd love to have a new collection come out sometime this
year. Perhaps an introductory Bray set; a potpourri of important and fun films from the
studio, much in the spirit of Cartoon Roots. With just one professional release out of the
gate and no snowball effect of buyers ordering multiple Cartoons On Film releases, yet,
Roots isn't bringing in quite enough to both provide me with meals and fund a second
release. I'll probably have to put together a pre-order fundraiser to make this happen. In an
ideal world, and based purely on the amount of material I have, I could envision having at
least a couple dozen releases out there. There are just several logistical and financial hurdles
to overcome first, and I'm very happy about how supportive everyone has been right off the

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