This walrus didn’t get these dance moves on
his own. They came from Cab Calloway, a 1930s jazz
singer and band leader. Do you see it now? Cab was a source of endless inspiration for
early animators, who transformed his dancing into that walrus, and a ghost, and a very
moonwalky old man of the mountain. “The old man of the mountain!” The way those moves got from real life to
cartoon was a breakthrough in technology and method. It’s an idea that forever changed animation,
when an inventor took pictures that had just started to move and made them dance. As…“riveting” as that was…early animation
had a problem: the first animated shorts didn’t look right. Don’t focus on the drawing. Look at the motion. See how clunky his arm move is here? And how his shoulder doesn’t move realistically? Max Fleischer saw that problem too. This is him, the inventor, blowing bubbles
in some of the first films that revolutionized animation. And this is the clown that did it. See how naturally Koko the clown moves compared
to the umbrella guy? That’s where the invention called the rotoscope
comes in. You can understand it from the patent application. It was a way to film real movement to create
better animation. First, they filmed live action motion in the
wild — for Koko the clown, they filmed Max’s brother, Dave Fleischer, dancing around in
a clown costume on Max’s roof. He was in front of a white sheet, for contrast. The sheet actually blew around so much that
once Dave almost fell off the roof. So, don’t try this at home. That film gave them individual frames of Koko
moving around, like in the patent. They used a projector, hooked up to a car
headlamp to amp up brightness, and it showed each frame on a screen with tracing paper. Then they just played it back, frame by frame,
tracing what they needed. It had the creativity of animation, but the
precision of live action. The results were astonishingly smooth, and
lots of people noticed. The New York Times said Koko, “The Inkwell
Man,” “leaps as a human being,” and it made sense — he was one. Take Cab Calloway’s performance. Now, animators didn’t have to guess what
subtle movements came in the middle. They had a filmed guide to every frame. Later, it helped out with Superman — using
photos and film to model Lois, like here. Gulliver’s Travels also had hyperreal movement
inspired by real motion. When the patent expired, other animation studios
followed. But Fleischer’s work was more than just
one invention. Now these cartoons and other ones at the time
are filled with tons of cringey stereotypes that wouldn’t pass muster today. But the creativity? That, that is not dated at all. “Here we go!” Fleischer studios invented the bouncing ball
song, where you can follow along with the lyrics. Oh yes, there’s a patent. Max and Dave patented multiplane animation
as well. See how they could film the main character
moving and separately move the background elements, like pictures and models? This created depth and saved animators time. It enabled gorgeous motion like in this scene
from Superman. As it evolved, Fleischer animation mixed all
these technologies with skilled artistry and improvisation. And that’s why rotoscoping is a versatile
tool still, whether it’s inspiring some of the animation in early video games or in
its logical extension in motion capture, where real movements are
given over to animators’ fancy. But even that undersells their achievements
a little. That Cab Calloway Walrus cartoon — Minnie
the Moocher — is a Betty Boop cartoon. But it is a work of art filled with infinite
delights that tantali—… Scratch that. It is straight up weird, in the best way possible. Phones have lips, handkerchiefs talk, ghost
skeletons get drunk, tonsils scream — the list goes on. When Cab Calloway saw himself turned into
a dancing walrus, he fell to the floor laughing. An invention made that work, but it was a
different type of genius that made Cab Calloway fall to the floor. You can patent a device. But you can’t patent that. That’s it for this episode in this series
about big changes to movies that came from outside of Hollywood. If there are any other animation examples
you find striking, let me know in the comments. I do want to take a chance though to underscore
just how far outside of Hollywood the Fleischers were — in addition to their New York Studios,
they had one in Miami, Florida, and that is where Gulliver’s Travels was actually made.