Tuesday, June 2, 2009

From Sita to the Fleischers

In my opinion, Sita sings the Blues owes more to the shorts of the Fleischer Studios than to any West Coast animated feature. Not that I think that Nina Paley is more interested in technical innovation than characters - God forbid, no! – but she uses the medium in visually playful ways rather than to present a closed classical narrative. Like the Fleischer Brothers many decades ago, she’s part of the New York animation scene that still seems to be rather different from the one in California.

Of course, when you see Sita sing for the first time, Betty Boop comes to mind immediately. Therefore it’s interesting to compare the two singing ladies in regard to construction.

Thanks to Grim Natwick’s drawing abilities – at least that’s what most people believe – Betty was already breaking out of the 1920s convention of characters built of mere circles and hoses. While the Fleischer animators struggled to give Betty more organic curves, Paley isn’t trying to hide the rigid Flash aesthetics. In fact, she goes in the opposite direction and exposes all the unnaturally perfect circles and ellipses, so that we never feel cheated. She sure knows how to handle cut-out animation.

It’s funny that Betty’s chest is not accentuated by the heavy black lines like all the other basic shapes. Well, times have changed and Sita is allowed to have a chest about as wide as her hips.
I particularly like the stylized eye lashes that correspond to her earrings and look both like miniature suns and cogwheels.

[Regrettably, I don’t have a more accurate Betty model sheet, so if someone has one, please let me know]

There is also a bouncing ball song towards the end of the movie. Although the bouncing ball has become the equivalent of sing along and karaoke videos, it was invented by Max Fleischer for his Song Car-Tunes series (1924-27).

One of my favorite Sita sequences also contains a rotoscoped dance. Both of these widely used devices are dissociated from their standard practice. They are not used for pure parody but help putting story points across.

It may sound a little farfetched to see Sita in the tradition of Max Fleischer only because he invented rotoscoping and the bouncing ball, but for me the whole setting of the Annette Hanshaw scenes makes me think of the Fleischers’ early jazz cartoons, where every now and then cartoon characters mouth the words sung by famous singers (off- or onscreen). There’s also an abundant buoyancy to these scenes where everything and everybody is dancing in rhythm from the palmtrees to the stars above and we often see characters multiplying and playing instruments in the middle of an action. This type of cartooning has been all but erased in the wake of Disney’s success with their rigid illusion-of-life dogma. There’s not too much possibility for morphing and the likes in cut-out, but the spirit of 1920s/30s animation is coming through all the same.


Nina Paley said...

Thanks for writing that cool article! My film's even more Fleisher-y than I realized. I didn't know that rotoscope originated with the Fleischers.

I must confess that I used multiplying musicians and bouncing stars and trees partly because they're so very easy to do in Flash. You just make one bouncing tree and then copy it to get a whole bouncing forest. We animators have it so easy today; not long ago people had to paint each and every moving prop anew.

Oswald Iten said...

To Nina Paley: What always intrigues me is how openly you use all the simplifications the computer allows and how well they work. I mean, everybody is able to use those tools nowadays, but most of us don't know how to make such clever use of them.