Max Fleischer

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Max Fleischer

A pioneer of film animation, cartoonist Max Fleischer (1883-1972) created cartoon characters Betty Boop and Popeye. He is also remembered for his more than 20 motion picture production inventions, particularly the rotoscope.

Max Fleischer was born into a family of inventors on July 17, 1883, in Vienna, Austria. His mother immigrated with him to the United States when he was four years old, and he was raised on the Lower East Side of New York City. Fleischer was one of five sons. Animator Dave Fleischer was his younger brother.

Fleischer didn't finish high school, but attended numerous trade schools and art programs in his youth. He worked for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle as a cartoonist, photographer, and photo-engraver before becoming art director for the magazine Popular Science. Fleischer's animation career began at Joseph Randolph Bray's studio, where he made instructional films during a short World War I commission.

Invented the Rotoscope

Fleischer were granted a patent in 1917 for the rotoscope, a mechanism used for transferring live action film into animated cartoon through tracing. Still used in modern animation and video game production, this process involves the projection of single frames of film onto a drawing surface for tracing. Re-photographing the sequence of drawings results in very lifelike animation. This invention was prompted by Fleischer's frustration with cel animation, which didn't allow a realistic enough product. Creating their first rotoscoped cartoon character, the Fleischer brothers shot a normal filmstrip of a body in motion. Dressed as a clown, Dave was the body. Using the rotoscope, the Fleischers then magnified each frame of the filmstrip onto a piece of glass. The next step involved tracing Dave's changing positions onto celluloid frame by frame, changing his features into those of their new character, Koko the Clown. The final stage was photographing each piece of celluloid onto a single frame of motion picture film. The finished product was the first Koko the Clown filmstrip, in which the star's body reflected all of the subtle changes made by a moving human form. Fleischer was quoted in 's Fleischer biography as calling rotoscoping "the greatest achievement in pen-and-ink production." The brothers' invention caught the attention of animator John R. Bray, who hired them to work in Paramount's New York studios.

Fleischer and his brother, Dave, founded Out of the Inkwell Films, Inc. in 1921. They renamed the business Fleischer Studios in 1928. Their "Out of the Inkwell" cartoon series, featuring Koko the Clown, was their first series of films and was produced through 1929. Fleischer continued to experiment with cartoon mechanics and soon developed the rotograph. Using this method the animators could draw characters in real-world settings. A live action film was projected to the underside of the artist's table, and Koko the Clown was drawn into each frame. This system was a trailblazer for films like Mary Poppins (1964) and Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988).

Fleischer never grew tired of experimenting, and he was always trying out new color, sound, and optical tricks in his films. His constant tinkering didn't allow him to refine these new processes, so Fleischer's films lacked consistency. His audiences were always entertained, and his rivals were always worried about his next invention. Fleischer's major rival was Walt Disney. While Fleischer clearly had the most ingenuity, Disney shone in showmanship, discipline, and vision. While Disney slowly built on each success, Fleischer was always moving forward and rarely looking back. Howard Beckerman discussed their relationship in Back Stage, "Both Fleischer and Disney had a great deal of respect for each other. The older man had pioneered many of the early innovations in the medium. The younger man, Disney, had wanted to be another Fleischer (Max had a mustache first)." Disney recognized the importance of Fleischer's discoveries and was quoted in 's Fleischer biography as saying, "Without his pioneering spirit and additions to the technology of animation, few, if any of us, would be where we are today."

Betty Boop Made Her Debut

Fleischer created a number of firsts with his brother, including the "bouncing-ball" sing along cartoons, which were silent but synchronized to the cinema orchestras. His cartoon "Song Car-Tune" was the first cartoon with a soundtrack, and was produced in 1924. Betty Boop was the first female cartoon star, making her debut in 1930. She was the girlfiend of an unpopular character named Bimbo, who starred in Dizzy Dishes, and she soon had her own series. The Fleischer brothers' creation was a sexy woman in the form of a cartoon character. Gary Morris recalled her appearance in Bright Lights Film Journal, "Betty is best remembered for her red-hot jazz baby persona. With a head like a giant peanut, vast mascara'd eyes, too-kissable lips, baby-doll voice (courtesty of singer Mae Questel), flattened marcelled hair, and mere threads of a dress exposing miles of hot flesh, she was the perfect celluloid sex toy."

A far cry from the wholesome characters being created at the Disney Studios, Betty Boop not only appeared sexy but acted the part. She was often shown undressing and kissing clowns, cats, and other creatures. While other cartoons of the time were focusing on the charming lives of adorable animals, the Fleischers had Betty running around in her slinky costumes, living the life of a provocative young woman. The general trend in movies and cartoons was more respectable, and Betty Boop was bucking this trend. Amelia S. Holberg discussed the differences between Disney and the Fleischers in American Jewish History, "By the time Pinocchio was released, Disney had redefined animation as a children's genre. The very adult Betty Boop, on the other hand, was a flapper, a flashy city party girl, not a respectable lady and definitely not an appropriate character for children's films." The Hays office Production Code was instituted in 1934, and censors transformed Betty Boop into an all-American girl, clothing her more fully and temporarily banning her garter. The series ended in 1939, but there was a Betty Boop revival in the 1970s. She starred in a touring film festival, "Betty Boop's Scandals," and was featured in Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in 1984. 1985 saw Betty Boop's network television debut, and her sixtieth birthday was celebrated in the animated special, "Betty Boop's Hollywood Mystery."

Popeye the Sailor Man

Max and Dave Fleischer followed up their Betty Boop success with another popular character's introduction in 1933. Popeye was a result of stiff competition among animation studios. A key part of the studios' business strategies was the development of cartoon characters whose popularity would guarantee bookings by major theater chains. Disney's Donald Duck and Goofy were developed from smaller roles in Mickey Mouse cartoons, and Warner Bros. created Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck after their initial success in films featuring other animated animals. E.C. Segar created a comic strip called "Thimble Theater" in 1919. He introduced Popeye into the strip as a temporary character, but when Segar attempted to write Popeye out, fans complained and he returned as Olive Oyl's love interest. Max Fleischer requested the right to use Popeye from Hearst's King Features Syndicate and was granted permission two years after Betty Boop's debut.

Due to the very satisfying quality of the first Popeye production, the agreement between Fleischer and King Features was extended to a five-year term even before the film's release. The movie, entitled Betty Boop Presents Popeye the Sailor, marked the beginning of Popeye's highly successful series. Within five years, Popeye was the most popular American cartoon character. Fleischer was so confident, he attempted to convince film distributor Paramount to back a feature-length Popeye movie, but the shorts they created were the most profitable Popeye productions.

Disney moved into feature films in 1937 with the success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, forcing the Fleischers into entering this new arena. They produced the feature-length cartoons Gulliver's Travels and Mr. Bug Goes To Town in 1938 and 1941, both of which bombed. Their expansion, which involved enlarging their staff to produce the features, proved unsuccessful. In 1942 Paramount forced the brothers out of their own studio. Amidst this disappointment, the Fleischers premiered the first Superman short in 1941.

Max Fleischer went on to direct films, which include 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Dr. Doolittle, Compulsion, Tora Tora Tora, and The Jazz Singer. After Paramount bought his studio, Fleischer worked for that company as production chief of cartooning until he retired in the 1960s. Fleischer died of heart failure on September 11, 1972, in Woodland Hills, California. He was survived by his wife, Essie, and two children.


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