Show contents, with start times:
- Top 6: Movie Moms (1:59)
- Trivia Question: Frequency-Hopped Spread Spectrum (16:56)
- Industry Trend: 3D (18:11)
- Series Spotlight: Looney Tunes, Part 3 (31:38)
- Film Buff’s Dictionary: Deep Focus, Forced Perspective (47:45)
- Closing: Trivia Answer, Preview of Next Week (55:49)
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Top 6: Movie Moms
Trivia Question: Frequency-Hopped Spread Spectrum
Frequency-hopped spread spectrum, a tongue twister of a term that’s still used in modern wireless technology, was co-invented by this famous leading lady from Hollywood’s Golden Age. Read more about it on Wikipedia.
Industry Trend: 3D
The oft-mocked cousin of widescreen, the 3D movie was a sort of gimmick that came to real prominence in the early 1950s when Hollywood tried to lure viewers away from their newfangled television sets and back into the picture shows.
A 3D movie is of course still a flat image, but it uses something called the stereoscopic effect to simulate a three-dimensional image. The left and right eyes both see slightly different images in everyday life, and the brain uses the difference between the two images to determine distance. 3D movies, through a variety of methods, present slightly different images to both the left and right eyes, fooling the brain into thinking that objects have depth when they do not.
And though the 1950s represent the real rise of the 3D film, the earliest systems began in the late 1890s. That system projected two separate images and had viewers look at them through a stereoscope. In 1900 a camera was invented that used two lenses, a small distance apart, to capture two images simultaneously.
The first commercial exhibition of a 3D film came in 1922, using something called red-green anaglyph. In this process, the projected film consists of two overlapping images, one red and one green. Viewers wear special glasses, with a lens on one eye that filters green and another lens on the other eye that filters red. This allows each eye to effectively see a different image. This is one of the most common formats for 3D, as it is a cheap and easy process.
In the 1930s, Polaroid filters were employed for 3D. Polarization allows filmmakers to control the “direction” that waves of light travel (this is obviously a very simplified explanation). By using special polarized glasses that filter out waves of light with various polarities — you may have worn polarized sunglasses, which use the same principle — viewers could see different images in each eye without the strange colors of anaglyphic formats. However, Polaroid 3D processes require special reflective screens.
Bwana Devil (1952) is the first color, full-length feature and kicks off a real 3D craze. Most of them tend to be B movies, stuff like Cat-Women of the Moon (1953), though there were some A-list movies like the musical Kiss Me Kate (1953).
Before too long, however, the fad dies down. In part this is because of some considerable technical difficulties with 3D, as any synchronization issue completely destroys the experience. Experimentation continued, and in the 1970s a stereo system was invented that allows a 3D image to be squeezed onto a single strip of film.
Since then, 3D has become a trend that falls in and out of fashion. The 1980s gave us 3D horror sequels, such as Jaws 3-D (1983). Recently, 3D has become popular again, in part because of a new IMAX 3D process that The Polar Express (2004) helped popularize.
Series Spotlight: Looney Tunes, Part 3
In the previous episode, we discussed four of the seven major directors of the Looney Tunes cartoons. This week, we discuss the remaining three, who defined the cartoons throughout the 50s until the studio closed in the 1960s, although all three had been directing Looney Tunes cartoons and refining their craft well before this time period.
- Chuck Jones
Chuck Jones started out in the Warner Bros. cartoon studio as an animator and was later promoted to director in the late 1930s. While many of this 1940s cartoons are masterful works, the 1950s is really when he hits his artistic stride. With cartoons like Duck Amuck (where Daffy Duck battles his unseen animator), What’s Opera, Doc?, One Froggy Evening, and the entire Road Runner series, so many of Jones’ Looney Tunes are among the most famous and treasured the studio ever produced.
Jones was probably the most cerebral of the Looney Tunes directors. His cartoons are steadfastly focused on the characters and tend to have the most rigid adherence to rules devised to stay true to the characters and evoke humor from the characters being themselves. It is interesting to contrast this technique with Bob Clampett’s style of going to any and every length necessary to pull off a gag. Both Jones and Clampett were brilliant directors, but it’s interesting to see how these two — both of whom started out as animators for Tex Avery — wound up with such different directorial styles.
A typical point of contrast would be, what happens when Daffy Duck is shot? Clampett would have Daffy react in some kind of zany, hyperactive kind of way. Something unexpected would happen to provoke a laugh, and the animation and movement would be fast and kinetic. Jones, on the other hand, would have the smoke clear to a still frame of Daffy Duck with his beak wrapped around the side of his head or something, and a comic beat later, Daffy would turn his eyes toward the camera for a second comic beat. With Clampett, it’s all about the gag. With Jones, it’s all about the character. Either way, you end up with an entertaining cartoon, but the contrast highlights how internally diverse the Looney Tunes cartoons were at times.
A great example of how Jones adhered to rules to provide the structure and character of the cartoons is with his Bugs Bunny cartoons. The primary rule was, Bugs never initiates the hostilities. He’s always minding his own business when somebody else picks the fight. Then comes the classic line, “Of course, you know, this means war,” or some equivalent, and then Bugs is allowed to fight back and prevail. The other directors were not as strict about following this rule.
The Road Runner series, which was entirely Chuck Jones’, also had its own set of rules. There is some question, upon hearing accounts of Jones himself and his primary writer Michael Maltese, as to just how formalized those rules were, but spoken or unspoken, the Road Runner cartoons all tend to follow the same set of ground rules: The Road Runner may not leave the road. Wile E. Coyote may not harm the Road Runner. The coyote, in turn, is only harmed by his own mistakes, and he’s always more humiliated than damaged. And so on.
The other major cartoon series Jones was responsible for was the Pepe le Pew cartoons. Like a many other Looney Tunes characters (see Foghorn Leghorn, below), Pepe le Pew was based on a contemporary celebrity (Charles Boyer) but, almost inexplicably, the cartoons work just as well today, long after the reference has become dated.
The artwork in Jones’ cartoons is distinctive. Certain types of facial expressions were all his, and it doesn’t take an overly trained eye to distinguish between them. This is especially the case in the later days of the studio, when some say that Jones, as a director, became too possessive of his key frames and permitted his animators less and less freedom to manipulate them. Again, this is a sharp contrast with Clampett, who kept his animators on a looser reign.
One of the works Jones is most remembered for, though, wasn’t a Warner Bros. cartoon at all — rather, it was How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966), the best of the Christmas specials that show up on network television every year.
- Friz Freleng
Friz Freleng, also a great among greats, started out at the Looney Tunes studio at the very beginning, 1930, and animated the very first Looney Tune, Sinkin’ In the Bathtub (1930). (He did not direct it, as erroneously stated in the podcast.) Except for a few years in the 1930s, he was with the cartoon studio for its entire lifetime, and even after it closed, he continued to make Looney Tunes at his own company, DePatie-Freleng.
Freleng was the most musical of the directors, so musically-minded in fact that he wrote his cartoons out on bar sheets. As a result, the action in his cartoons have a wonderful musical rhythm to them, even when music is not at the forefront. As with Jones, his style develops throughout the 1930s and 1940s and ultimately hits its stride in the 1950s. His great sense of comic timing ultimately earned four Academy Awards for his work, more than any other Looney Tunes director.
Several of the now iconic Looney Tunes characters are his: Yosemite Sam, for example, created out of his dislike for Elmer Fudd. Whereas Elmer could primarily only be used in hunting cartoons, Yosemite Sam could be a gunfighter, a pirate, a Hessian, a knight, a legionnaire, or anybody. This freedom inspired a wonderful diversity of settings for the Bugs Bunny/Yosemite Sam cartoons, many of which are enduring favorites. Freleng also created Sylvester the Cat and paired him up with Bob Clampett’s old character, Tweety, and started a whole new series. Finally, he created Speedy Gonzalez jointly with Robert McKimson, and these two directors would share that series between them.
After the Warner Bros. cartoon studio closed, he teamed up with producer Dave DePatie and created DePatie-Freleng cartoons. There, he created The Pink Panther, originally conceived just for the title sequence of The Pink Panther (1963). The character was such a hit with audiences, that Freleng built a whole cartoon series out of him.
- Robert McKimson
Robert McKimson also started out as an animator, this time under Bob Clampett, and became a full-fledged director in 1945. Stylistically, his cartoons straddle the line between Clampett’s exaggerated movements and Jones’ cool structure. He was a wonderful artist, creating Bugs Bunny’s definitive pose — him leaning against a tree as he’s munching on a carrot — and also drew the character sheet that would wound up being used by everyone as the reference for how Bugs should look.
Some say he was a better animator than director. Others say McKimson’s directorial work is unfairly overlooked. It is true that McKimson’s cartoons don’t feel as tightly structured or innovative as those of Jones and Freleng; on the other hand, they are interesting at being able to capture the zany violence of Clampett’s cartoons in a grounded, character-centered way. Think of the Tasmanian Devil, a creation of McKimson’s that epitomizes his style: a fast, violent, slobbery, energetic foil for Bugs Bunny. The Tasmanian Devil only ever appeared in five cartoons, not counting later appearances after the cartoon studio closed, but so great was his popularity that we think of him as being one of the major Looney Tunes characters.
Foghorn Leghorn was also McKimson’s own series. Foghorn Leghorn was conceived as a parody of “Senator Claghorn,” a fictional character on Fred Allen’s comedy show on the radio. As with Pepe le Pew, the cartoon character has outlived the real life inspiration. Although it was Claghorn whose trademark line was “That’s a joke, son! I say, that’s a joke, son!” we associate the line with Foghorn Leghorn today.
Today, the Looney Tunes are being wonderfully taken care of by Warner Bros., which has been releasing them in a DVD series for the last four years now, called The Looney Tunes Golden Collections. Each volume contains four DVDs, each loaded with genuinely interesting special features and commentaries, and there are four volumes so far. The cartoons are restored and uncut (unlike television airings of them, which edit out moments of violence or political incorrectness), and the DVDs are exceptionally well put together. Volumes 1, 2, 3, and 4 are available from amazon.com, Netflix, and elsewhere.
Film Buff’s Dictionary: Deep Focus, Forced Perspective
Cinematographers have a number of tricks they can use that exploit the way we normally determine distance. Deep focus is the term for when all elements of the shot are in focus — both the foreground and background are clearly visible. One of the ways humans normally judge distance is by whether something is in focus. When an object is close, we cannot focus on both it and objects at a distance. Using camera lenses, however, it is possible to do just this.
One use for deep focus is called forced perspective, which exploits the fact that we normally also rely on the relative size of objects to help us determine distance. We know that objects diminish in apparent size the further they get from us (the sun in the sky appears no larger than a coin despite that it’s many times the size of the earth), and likewise they appear very large as they get close.
By keeping an entire shot in focus, a director can put a miniature object close to the camera to make it look large. As it is in focus at the same time the background is, we assume that it is the same distance from us as the background, and thus we believe it to be very large. This was commonly used by monster movies to simulate dinosaurs, monsters, giant rabbits, etc.
But deep focus also has a lot of more artistic uses, most famously Gregg Toland’s cinematography on Citizen Kane (1941). It allowed Toland to add to the surrealism, as the sizes of objects appear to shift as we determine the true distance between them. In one classic example, Kane is standing in front of a set of normal-sized curtains. As he walks toward them we realize suddenly that he was actually a distance away from them and that they are quite gigantic as he gets closer to them. In a single shot, our entire perspective of the room has changed.