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America's Youngest Collector of Old Cartoons Explains the Beauty of New York's First Animated Films - ANIMAL

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AMERICA’S YOUNGEST COLLECTOR OF OLD
CARTOONS EXPLAINS THE BEAUTY OF NEW
YORK’S FIRST ANIMATED FILMS

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By Prachi Gupta | April 24, 2015 - 02:00PM

Tommy Stathes only graduated from college two years ago, but he is already one the country’s
foremost experts on old school animation. The New York Daily News credits the 26-year-old
Queens native as being “by far the youngest serious collector of old cartoons in the country,” an
expertise that was cultivated long before he graduated Queens College with a degree in film.
Stathes possesses over 1,000 reels of old filmstrips from the early 1900s and screens them in
retrospectives and events across the city. Immigrants were settling in by the droves, jazz was taking
hold of the city and women were pioneering the suffragist movement making New York “a
brewing, feverish melting pot,” he says. Early cartoons, overshadowed and easily forgotten by
flashier technology, are “often wonderful time capsules containing glimpses of all these issues,”
says Stathes. He will be giving a talk about the history of the city’s early animation in May at an
event for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, and answered a few questions about
what we can learn from some of the country’s first animated cartoons.

http://animalnewyork.com/2015/americas-youngest-cartoon-collector-explains-the-beauty-of-new-yorks-first-animated-films/

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America's Youngest Collector of Old Cartoons Explains the Beauty of New York's First Animated Films - ANIMAL

4/24/15, 10:39 PM

Why did you choose to focus on New York animation from this time period?
Early animation is the main genre of film I research, archive, and exhibit in my work. One of the
charming things about the genre and its early period is that so many of animation’s roots are tied to
this city’s early 20th century history–animation as both an art form, and as a soon-established
industry. As a proud New York native and someone with a lifelong interest in local history and film
history, it happened to be very convenient for me that early animation history largely played out in
my backyard. Both J. Stuart Blackton’s and Winsor McCay’s pioneering efforts were produced in
Brooklyn; J.R. Bray’s first film was produced out of a loft in Morningside Heights and developed in
a film lab in the Bronx, and Max Fleischer’s studio in the 1920s existed for a time in Long Island
City. The dominant Hollywood film histories are all very interesting to me, but seem less organic
and groundbreaking than this industry’s budding period across the boroughs.
What was the mood of the city, and how was that reflected in the animation?
The mood of the city at this time was that of a brewing, feverish melting pot. Massive waves of
immigration were occurring and new groups of people were learning how to live and work together
under trying conditions. The Gilded Age had ended; it was a time of trust-busting, unionization and
workers’ rights in response to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1913, women’s rights
movements and eventually flappers, prohibition, and the clashing of persistent neighborhood
poverty versus Roaring 20s excesses and newfound social freedoms. Early cartoons are often
wonderful time capsules containing glimpses of all these issues. Given that cartooning is often a
parody-based medium, animators were often making light of old nostalgic sentiments, current
social issues, as well as new, progressive movements happening at the time. As illustrators and
print cartoonists put a mirror in front topical subject matter with their pens, so did those working in
animation.

http://animalnewyork.com/2015/americas-youngest-cartoon-collector-explains-the-beauty-of-new-yorks-first-animated-films/

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America's Youngest Collector of Old Cartoons Explains the Beauty of New York's First Animated Films - ANIMAL

4/24/15, 10:39 PM

Did New York’s animations have a certain trademark?
One of the fun things about dissecting an animated film, and keeping in mind where it was
produced, is looking for influences. On the whole, many New York-produced cartoons definitely
have an urban feel to them. Sometimes that refers to certain types of humor and expression, but
sometimes it’s purely visual information. For example, many New York cartoons will depict
crowded city streets, tenements, fire escapes, and other clues as to where the writing and production
occurred. Many of the animators were not New York natives, however, so often time other
influences are apparent, such as plentiful barnyard and animal cartoons. Even in those subjects,
distinctive New York-based (while not native) animators’ styles can often be observed in specific
films, though it takes a keen and well-read eye to know what to look for. In animation, geography,
landscape, and local cultures typically played a major role in the finished products, while they may
or may not have in other art hubs of the time.
Who were some of the biggest pioneers of New York’s animation scene at the time and what
did they contribute to the artform?
The earliest New York animation roots can be traced back to J. Stuart Blackton. Blackton is well
known in film history for running the Vitagraph Studios in Midwood, Brooklyn; a major early liveaction film company. Some of his earliest productions were filmed vaudeville “chalk talks” where
Blackton himself appears on screen, drawing on a sheet of paper and using in-camera and stopmotion editing techniques to manipulate the drawings, creating animation. Then there was Winsor
McCay, one of the greatest illustrators of all time, who put pen to paper in the early 1910s to
produce painstakingly detailed and whimsical animation for the period. Gertie the Dinosaur is his
best-known film, and the one most people usually know of when they think about pre-Mickey
Mouse animation. McCay was operating out of his home in Sheepshead Bay at the time. Raoul
Barré was also a notable figure in the early 1910s, founding the first dedicated animation studio in
New York City which failed within months–although Barré continued animating for other local
studios into the 1920s. J.R. Bray established the first successful animation studio, first in his
Morningside Heights apartment in 1913 and eventually moving to offices overlooking Madison
Square Park. Bray Studios was the first employer of many future animation studio moguls, such as
Max Fleischer, Paul Terry, and Walter Lantz. Bray produced over five hundred animated films and
ceased animation production in 1927. Other historians who have fine arts backgrounds (my own is
limited) might be better equipped to satisfactorily describe what all of these figures contributed to
the art form, though I can say that they all paved the way for animation as a commercial industry–
and that’s the vehicle by which most people have come to know animated films.
What do you think is the most under appreciated cartoon from this era?
This is a difficult question to answer, only because many hundreds of cartoons were produced in
this era, most are temporarily or permanently ‘lost;’ and the bulk of the surviving examples are

http://animalnewyork.com/2015/americas-youngest-cartoon-collector-explains-the-beauty-of-new-yorks-first-animated-films/

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America's Youngest Collector of Old Cartoons Explains the Beauty of New York's First Animated Films - ANIMAL

4/24/15, 10:39 PM

rarely screened. It’s always a challenge to single out individual films to make a point, and
practically impossible to do when so many in a particular genre are so elusive and unavailable for
studying–even for the most dedicated historians. However, I would say that the Bray Studios
product on the whole is under appreciated, considering that the animation industry was effectively
founded by Bray in 1913. In contrast, Disney’s high regard in animation history only reflects
building upon and perfecting groundwork that was laid much earlier by Bray.

How have cartoons (and society’s relationship with them) changed since this era?
The exchange between cartoons and society has always been far more complex and weighty than
most are willing to believe. Most importantly, the notion that cartoons are for kids was never true,
from day one. In looking at some of the earliest examples of mainstream animated cartoons, one
will find rather adult situations, political issues and telling socio-economic commentary. Violence
also goes way back to the beginning. In terms of how cartoons have evolved, there have been major
changes, mostly techniques of production (i.e. hand-drawn supplanted by CGI) and a heavy
reliance on dialogue, especially when cartoons reverted to inexpensive ‘limited animation’ product
for early television; a commercial trend which persists to this day. As for how society’s relationship
has stayed the same all these decades, it remains true that the kinds of animation out there are
actually very varied and appeal to all sorts of audiences, both children and adults. Hopefully
general awareness of animation will gradually begin to match the vastness of the medium’s art form
and echoes of “cartoons are for kids” will fade into the past.
Are there cartoons in this collection that, upon seeing them now, we’d consider them
offensive, ignorant, or even racist? As a collector who hopes to share art with the public, what
do you think we should do with art like that?
The issue of race and ethnic stereotyping was always a tricky subject in animation. I think many
people are generally aware that some “old cartoons were racist.” That’s true, and there are many
examples where the entire narrative is based on extreme ethnic stereotyping, or for no apparent
reason other than to insert an extra gag, there will be a racial joke or image that may or may not
advance the plot of the film. In this screening, such an example concerning a small black boy exists
in Cartoons On Tour (Raoul Barré, 1915). There are also examples where, even if subject to visual
or verbal stereotyping, black characters are treated fairly in comparison to other characters in a
story, and are sometimes major protagonists who save the day. As an archivist who exhibits
historical works, I do not believe in hiding or editing insensitive films; rather, I think keeping them
in public view provides us with a sort of living history lesson. These films in particular also serve
as a dual-natured reminder that we’ve both come a long way in the media arena while much more
progress still needs to be made in our civil rights landscape.
Stathes and J.J. Sedelmaier will co-present The History of New York Silent and Early Sound
Animation on Tuesday May 19 at 7 PM at the Academy Theater on 59th Street.

http://animalnewyork.com/2015/americas-youngest-cartoon-collector-explains-the-beauty-of-new-yorks-first-animated-films/

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America's Youngest Collector of Old Cartoons Explains the Beauty of New York's First Animated Films - ANIMAL

4/24/15, 10:39 PM

Tags: animation, bray studios, Cartoons, Film, new york animation, tommy stathes

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