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Toonzone Interviews Tommy Stathes and J.J. Sedelmaier on Early New York Animation

by on May 18, 2015
 

Tommy Stathes

Tommy Stathes

Many animation fans have seen and even purchased collections of public domain cartoons on home video, but Tommy José Stathes used those earliest collections (on VHS tapes in the 1990’s) as a springboard to become an early animation historian, archivist, and preservationist, with a focus on the earliest animated cartoons produced from the 1900’s to the 1930’s. 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 Live’s Ambiguously Gay Duo and The X-Presidents; and the interstitial cartoons for the USA TV series Psych. In the world of advertising, Mr. Sedelmeier’s studio resurrected the Speedy Alka-Seltzer and “Scrubbing Bubbles” characters, as well as creating the original network IDs for Nickelodeon’s 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 didn’t you?

TOMMY STATHES: I’ve 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 material’s 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 hasn’t 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 don’t seek them out much for extracurricular entertainment. I don’t really watch new productions, or even seek out much “new-old” material to watch for fun unless it’s 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 I’m much more likely to be listening to music, reading news articles, or talking with friends about social issues than watching cartoons for leisure. I’ll watch cartoons when I’m 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 it’s a shared experience.

J.J. Sedelmaier

J.J.Sedelmaier by Luigi Novi.
Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

J.J. SEDELMAIER: I guess you’d have to define “relatively recently” for me before I acknowledge that’s 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 it’s 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 1900’s to the late 1920’s 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 stuff of animated cartoons.

Dinner Time

From Paul Terry’s “Dinner Time.” Courtesy The Stathes Collection

It’s 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 didn’t exist) and instead invented the process as they went along, just makes early cartoons that much more fascinating in my eyes. Nowadays we’re used to seeing kids and amateur adult filmmakers put up all kinds of rough stuff on YouTube. Over a century ago, those same kinds of efforts were mesmerizing, because none of it had ever been done before. It’s 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”, you’re 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 1930’s animation had firmly planted its feet in the color realm, yet live action wasn’t fully there until the mid 1950’s.

The skill of the animator has grown off the charts almost since the beginning and definitely once Walt Disney entered the industry. Disney’s insistence upon quality and the schooling of his staff 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. It’s rare that a feature length motion picture or even a television program doesn’t employ SOME form of animation or special effects.

TOONZONE NEWS: Despite the success of The Simpsons and Adult Swim and the like, I think there’s 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 Cohl’s 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 1910’s involved humongous mosquitos piercing human prey, over-eating and exploding animals, political satires, WWI subjects, and other material geared toward adults. The 1920’s produced many subjects about flappers, alcohol, and international affairs. 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 effect of the Great Depression and a response to large-scale film censorship in the 1930’s.

The Artist's Dream

From “The Artist’s Dream,” a 1913 Bray cartoon. Courtesy The Stathes Collection

J.J. SEDELMAIER: There’s a lot of cultural baggage that’s inherent in animated cartoon DNA. At this point, I don’t think “cartoons are for kids” is the issue anymore. It’s about how cartoons appeal to the kid in EVERYone. Starting with the Baby-Boomers, we’ve 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 we’re 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. It’s important to remember that so much of the film cartoon’s 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 didn’t start out being just for kids, but evolved into what became an industry steered toward and marketed to children.

TOONZONE NEWS: The show you’re 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 difference in attitude between the animation made here vs. the cartoons that were coming out of Hollywood?

Steamboat Willie

Disney’s “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. It’s difficult 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 1920’s 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 Disney’s 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 I’m 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 1930’s and continuing through to the end of WWII. I’m not forgetting Felix, Koko, etc., and I’m in awe of what the Fleischers did with the “Superman” cartoon series of the early 1940’s. (Inspiration #1 for me getting into the animation industry myself!) It’s just that once the 1930’s 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.

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 it’s occasionally easier to appreciate an illustration on an objectively timeless and abstract level. With live-action films, human beings in genuine 1910’s clothing living in genuine 1910’s 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 difficulty 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 Forrester’s live music that we’ll have accompanying the first set of films will also elevate the experience for everyone!

TOONZONE NEWS: What’s 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 that’s in production now is confidential, but I can say that we’re 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! I’m also very proud of the articles I write for Print Magazine‘s online “Imprint” blog. I’ll also be doing multiple Wizard World ComicCon presentations in Chicago, Fort Lauderdale and Austin TX. Finally, I’m 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 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 Beck’s 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 Magazine‘s “Imprint” blog. Tommy Stathes’ 16mm want list is also available.

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