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Toonzone Interviews Tommy Stathes and J.J.

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Toonzone Interviews Tommy Stathes and J.J. Sedelmaier on Early


New York Animation
by Ed Liu onMay 18, 2015

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Toonzone Interviews Tommy Stathes and J.J. Sedelmaier on Early New York Animation - Toon Zone News

5/21/15, 2:45 AM

Tommy Stathes
Many animation fans have seen and even purchased collections of public domain cartoons on home video, but Tommy Jos Stathes used those
earliest collections (on VHS tapes in the 1990s) as a springboard to become an early animation historian, archivist, and preservationist, with a focus on
the earliest animated cartoons produced from the 1900s to the 1930s. While this early period has been documented in contemporary histories of
animation, Mr. Stathes realized that very few of the cartoons themselves were available for viewing. A quest to find any surviving animated shorts from
the period and the rise of the Internet (and eBay) led to Mr. Stathes amassing a formidable collection of early cartoons, many from before the advent of
sound in film.
Animation industry veteran J.J. Sedelmaier has also been instrumental in numerous highly influential cartoons since he and his wife founded J.J.
Sedelmaier Productions in 1990. The list of works from the studio include such influential cartoons as Beavis and Butt-head; the pilot episode of
Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law; the Tek Jansen cartoons for The Colbert Report; Saturday Night Lives Ambiguously Gay Duo and The X-Presidents;
and the interstitial cartoons for the USA TV series Psych. In the world of advertising, Mr. Sedelmeiers studio resurrected the Speedy Alka-Seltzer and
Scrubbing Bubbles characters, as well as creating the original network IDs for Nickelodeons Nicktoons and Nick at Nite blocks.
Mr. Stathes and Mr. Sedelmaier will be presenting The History of Silent and Early Sound New York Animation at the Academy Theater in New York
City on May 19, 2015, showcasing over a dozen early animated shorts (almost all from Mr. Stathes collection) with live jazz accompaniment. Before the
event, we were able to talk with the two gentlemen via e-mail about this period of animation history.

TOONZONE NEWS: Up until relatively recently, people stopped watching cartoons as they grew older. Why didnt you?
TOMMY STATHES: Ive always had an interest in a combination of media and history, to an extent where if I find something fascinating, I will research
and enjoy it no matter the materials intended audience and no matter the prevailing societal opinion of a given medium. With thanks to my mother,
who was always painting, making art, or studying art history, I was always encouraged to appreciate artistic mediums of my own choice, and on my
own terms. So, the popular and shortsighted viewpoint that cartoons are for kids never resonated with me, as I was looking at the art form with the
informed and keen eye of a developing art lover and historian, realizing early on that animation is as vast an art form as live-action film is.
My appreciation for animation does not mean that my consumption hasnt changed over the years, especially upon entering adulthood. This might
come as a shock to some, but since I began working professionally with cartoons, I evolved in the sense that I dont seek them out much for
extracurricular entertainment. I dont really watch new productions, or even seek out much new-old material to watch for fun unless its something I
can add to and use in my archival collection. Since I work with the medium, I need to take breaks from it and during free time Im much more likely to
be listening to music, reading news articles, or talking with friends about social issues than watching cartoons for leisure. Ill watch cartoons when Im
acquiring them, prepping and reviewing them for projects, and the most fun of all is watching them with the audiences at my public screenings, since
its a shared experience.

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Toonzone Interviews Tommy Stathes and J.J. Sedelmaier on Early New York Animation - Toon Zone News

5/21/15, 2:45 AM

J.J.Sedelmaier by Luigi Novi.


Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via
Wikimedia Commons
J.J. SEDELMAIER: I guess youd have to define relatively recently for me before I acknowledge thats true. I think adults have certainly been TV
cartoon followers for a couple decades. For instance, we did the first season of Beavis and Butthead 22 years ago. Once programming like that and
South Park gained a foothold, there was no turning back. . .
I always watched cartoons, read comics (still have mine from when I was a kid) and dwelled in all the visual arts because its what I wanted to do when
(or even IF) I grew up. I would use animation in my school projects starting in high school.
TOONZONE NEWS: The era between the 1900s to the late 1920s was a time when filmmakers were still discovering how to best exploit the
medium of film, and those earliest animators were also learning how to exploit their specific medium. What would you say are the things that
modern animation audiences take for granted that those guys back then were still trying to figure out?
TOMMY STATHES: As time goes on, I think younger generations (especially any post-Baby Boomer generations) realize less and less that there was a
time in relatively recent modern history where human beings were not being bombarded by mass media or interactive technologies. Just a century
ago, there was no television, no radio, few telephones, and certainly no Internet or computers. We had newspapers, books, and vaudeville shows.
People who had a little bit more money maybe owned phonographs or went to the opera. We did have films, and they were obviously wildly popular
right from the start. I think people take for granted the fact that just a century ago, recording and replaying a motion picture was a groundbreaking
concept and more so that the same could be done with drawings and inanimate objects; the stu of animated cartoons.

From Paul Terrys Dinner Time. Courtesy The


Stathes Collection
Its important to understand and appreciate the fact that people thought a moving drawing was amazing, no matter how simple or detailed the
drawing looked, and no matter if the animation contained a narrative or not. This, coupled with the fact that early filmmakers did not attend animation
classes (they didnt exist) and instead invented the process as they went along, just makes early cartoons that much more fascinating in my eyes.
Nowadays were used to seeing kids and amateur adult filmmakers put up all kinds of rough stu on YouTube. Over a century ago, those same kinds
of eorts were mesmerizing, because none of it had ever been done before. Its also a miracle that we have surviving examples of these early films
after all this time, since the original prints were chemically unstable, highly flammable and often deliberately destroyed; another wow factor.
J.J. SEDELMAIER: I assume by exploit, youre referring to the craft/technique and not the marketing aspects.
Clearly, picture/sound synchronization is a given to the modern day viewer.
The use of color has always intrigued animated filmmakers. From the very early days of film, hand-tinting the frames was experimented with in both
live action and cartoons. But full-color in animation became the norm way before live-action used it regularly. By the early-mid 1930s animation had
firmly planted its feet in the color realm, yet live action wasnt fully there until the mid 1950s.
The skill of the animator has grown o the charts almost since the beginning and definitely once Walt Disney entered the industry. Disneys insistence
upon quality and the schooling of his sta had a strong influence on the entire craft. Now, with the use and dependence on digital technology and
computer generated imagery (CGI), animation has been transformed into a necessity for almost ALL filmmaking. Its rare that a feature length motion
picture or even a television program doesnt employ SOME form of animation or special eects.

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Toonzone Interviews Tommy Stathes and J.J. Sedelmaier on Early New York Animation - Toon Zone News

5/21/15, 2:45 AM

TOONZONE NEWS: Despite the success of The Simpsons and Adult Swim and the like, I think theres still a wider perception that cartoons
are for kids. Can you contextualize how true that statement was in the earliest days of animation?
TOMMY STATHES: The statement that cartoons are for kids was most untrue during the first two or three decades of animation production,
compared with later decades. The earliest cartoons were filmed vaudeville chalk talks interspersed with clever in-camera editing techniques, which
were G-rated enough, but many of the other early cartoons were completely bizarre abstract streams of consciousness, as in Emil Cohls early works.
Both of these kinds of films would have been mesmerizing to children, but they often contain references to alcohol, misogyny, hallucinations, and
other very adult subject matter. The cartoons of the 1910s involved humongous mosquitos piercing human prey, over-eating and exploding animals,
political satires, WWI subjects, and other material geared toward adults. The 1920s produced many subjects about flappers, alcohol, and international
aairs. The antics of new cartoon stars like Felix the Cat and Koko the Clown obviously amused children, but they did things on screen that clearly
only adults would understand. That was true entirely from the beginning, and smarmy cartoons expressly produced with children in mind were more a
side eect of the Great Depression and a response to large-scale film censorship in the 1930s.

From The Artists Dream, a 1913 Bray cartoon.


Courtesy The Stathes Collection
J.J. SEDELMAIER: Theres a lot of cultural baggage thats inherent in animated cartoon DNA. At this point, I dont think cartoons are for kids is the
issue anymore. Its about how cartoons appeal to the kid in EVERYone. Starting with the Baby-Boomers, weve all grown up watching cartoons on TV.
And now, conventional 2D animation has become a solid home for adult parody. It LOOKS harmless and harkens back to innocent and simpler times,
but its content is very edgy and adult.
This was obviously not the case when animation entered the entertainment realm over a century ago. My feeling is that although were conditioned to
see animation and filmed cartoons as being for kids, it was more about entertainment and technology back then. Film was new and it was about
experimentation with the art. In the early years, motion pictures were such a novelty that audiences were in some cases terrified by the magic of the
imagery. Then the filmmakers moved on from just making pictures and drawings move, to adding and developing narratives. Its important to
remember that so much of the film cartoons birth was in the New York City region and this allowed for the tapping of illustrators and comic strip
artists as designers. Their popular characters could be translated into film entertainment. This was the beginning of the marketing machine that would
be the foundation of the industry.
So cartoons didnt start out being just for kids, but evolved into what became an industry steered toward and marketed to children.

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Toonzone Interviews Tommy Stathes and J.J. Sedelmaier on Early New York Animation - Toon Zone News

5/21/15, 2:45 AM

TOONZONE NEWS: The show youre doing next Tuesday is focusing on the early animation scene in New York City, which I always
associated with the Fleischer Bros. vs. Disney in Hollywood. How would you describe the dierence in attitude between the animation made
here vs. the cartoons that were coming out of Hollywood?

Disneys Steamboat Willie


TOMMY STATHES: There are definitely exceptions, though on the whole, I would say that the New York cartoons tend to have a somewhat more
gritty, urban feel to their sensibilities and the humor conveyed by them. Its dicult to make comparisons between the two coasts prior to the sound
era, mostly because nearly the entire industry was centered in New York at the time. If speaking about the 1920s ouput, one could thus compare New
York animation in general to Disney, for example, as his studio was only major outlier of the time. The silent Disney Alice Comedies and Oswald
cartoons do have their rude gags and sinister plots, though they tend to have a more down home feel to them which harks back to Disneys
midwestern roots. Some of the New York cartoons also have some of that country warmth as well, as not all of the New York animators grew up here.
J.J. SEDELMAIER: You can safely say that New York was the animation hub from its inception until the advent of sound. But after that, as far as Im
concerned, it was all about Disney. Once Walt began transforming the existing industry with his focus on honing the talents of his crew and expanding
possibilities of the animated film on such a mainstream level, the industry and respect for animated cartoons shifted up a notch. In New York, John
Bray and the Fleischers were able craftsmen and inventors. Paul Terry and Walter Lantz were wonderful self-promoters. But it was Disney and the
California studios that had the talent, characters and prestige as of the early 1930s and continuing through to the end of WWII. Im not forgetting
Felix, Koko, etc., and Im in awe of what the Fleischers did with the Superman cartoon series of the early 1940s. (Inspiration #1 for me getting into
the animation industry myself!) Its just that once the 1930s rolled in, the majority of best cartoons came out of California. Many of the artists working
in New York dreamed of working at the Disney Studio and quite a few did leave to work on the west coast.

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Toonzone Interviews Tommy Stathes and J.J. Sedelmaier on Early New York Animation - Toon Zone News

5/21/15, 2:45 AM

TOONZONE NEWS: Sensibilities have changed since the earliest years of the 20th century. What do you think is the hardest thing for modern
audiences to wrap their brain around or adapt to in cartoons from this era?
TOMMY STATHES: I think animated cartoons have the potential for being far less dated than historic live-action films, since its occasionally easier to
appreciate an illustration on an objectively timeless and abstract level. With live-action films, human beings in genuine 1910s clothing living in genuine
1910s cities are always going to immediately suggest that the visual information is a hundred years old, and that there is a century between us and
the actors. Similarly, though, there are always going to be many topical and time period-based pieces of information within animated cartoons that
modern audiences will not recognize or understand. Assuming someone watches and enjoys these films, perhaps the only diculty they might have in
the process is not being able to decipher every reference or identify every object or product in the film. Sometimes humor and key plot points are lost
on a viewer for that reason, but I think the mere fascination of watching a century-old animated film usually outweighs such problems.
J.J. SEDELMAIER: I suppose the innocence both in technique and content can be rough on a modern audience, as well as the pace. But
fortunately, an audience watching films like these is most likely subconsciously putting the experience in an historical context. Joel Forresters live
music that well have accompanying the first set of films will also elevate the experience for everyone!

TOONZONE NEWS: Whats next for you? Anything upcoming you want to plug?
TOMMY STATHES: In the near future, I hope to build upon my recent venture of professionally re-releasing films for the home video market. At the
end of last year, I debuted the new Cartoon Roots Blu-ray/DVD combo through my Cartoons On Film label. Cartoon Roots is a collection of fifteen fun
silent and rare early sound cartoons; a great introduction to the art form for general audiences, and the collection boasts brand new HD restorations of
rare films that have been impressing longtime fans and historians. If all goes according to plan, I should have another Blu-ray out this Fall, and I might
need to rely on a crowdfunding campaign to finish up this next release. Anyone who is interested in keeping up to date with these projects, or my
screenings, should get in touch with me via the Contact page on my personal site, TommyJose.com, so they can be added to my mailing list.
J.J. SEDELMAIER: Anything thats in production now is confidential, but I can say that were embarking on a wonderful project that consists of
separate films designed by cartoonists I admire and have wanted to work with since I was a kid! Im also very proud of the articles I write for Print
Magazines online Imprint blog. Ill also be doing multiple Wizard World ComicCon presentations in Chicago, Fort Lauderdale and Austin TX. Finally,
Im programming an animation screening event in Bridgeport at the Bijou Theater in November.
Toonzone News would like to thank Tommy Stathes and J.J. Sedelmaier for taking the time to speak with us, and to Isabelle Lopez at Frank PR for
setting up the interview. Tommy Stathes and J.J. Sedelmaier will be presenting The History of Silent and Early Sound New York Animation at the

http://www.toonzone.net/2015/05/toonzone-interviews-tommy-stathes-and-j-j-sedelmaier-on-early-new-york-animation/

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Toonzone Interviews Tommy Stathes and J.J. Sedelmaier on Early New York Animation - Toon Zone News

5/21/15, 2:45 AM

Academy Theater on 111 E 59th St. in New York, NY, on May 19, 2015, at 7:00 PM; for more details and to buy tickets check out the event webpage
here.
Embedded videos are all courtesy of Tommy Stathes Cartoons on Film YouTube channel. You can keep up with Tommy Stathes at his website
TommyJose.com and on Jerry Becks Cartoon Research website in the Cartoons on Film section, and with J.J. Sedelmaier at J.J. Sedelmaier
Productions, and at the aforementioned articles on Print Magazines Imprint blog. Tommy Stathes 16mm want list is also available.

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