How 3-D Animation Was Made Seventy Years Ago

Dave Fleischer

In 1941, the Fleischer Studio constructed this elaborate three-dimensional distorted perspective set for the feature Mr. Bug Goes to Town:

Built of balsa wood and plastics, it required architect-artists four months to construct. The entire set rests on a steel turntable which can both revolve and move up and down. Drawings will be photographed a full six feet in front of the set and the combination of the “set-back” photography and the “distorted perspective” of the set will provide the illusion of third dimension, according to director Dave Fleischer, who is seen moving the set.

Here is how the set appeared in the finished film:

(via Ryan and Stephanie’s Fleischer art collection)


  • http://jeffisnotartsyfartsy.blogspot.com Jeff

    So cool! It’s amazing what determined and inspired filmmakers are capable of sometimes.

  • http://www.jjsedelmaier.com J.J. Sedelmaier

    I seem to recall that some people who worked at the NY production company Tele-Tactics in the 1970′s, remember seeing remnants of a set-up like this at the studio there. Could it have been shipped back to NY from Florida like so much of the other equipment ? Does this sound familiar to anyone ? John Lopez ? Yvette Kaplan ?

  • http://thisisonlya.blogspot.com robcat2075

    Whenever these things show up in a Fleischer toon I’m always impressed at how they painted and lit them so as not to appear jarringly out of the established cartoon style.

    Four months for a 40 second shot that’s covered by credits. Ouch!

    • Iritscen

      Yes, they did make the turntable models blend in very well. So much so that my jaw dropped when I first saw this technique (in the Fleischer short “Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindband the Sailor”, released five years before “Mr. Bug”). I couldn’t understand what I was seeing at the time — was it… animated matte paintings?!?!

      • http://rodtejada.wordpress.com Rod Tejada

        It still marvels me!

  • CC

    Beautiful!

  • Pedro Nakama

    These guys were true artists and true film makers. And this photo is so much better than a guy sitting in front of a computer.

  • Steven M.

    3D before CGI ever came, I like it.

  • http://Juanmanimation.blogspot.com J.m

    these guys always experimented with BGS I remember watching the SINBAD POPEYE cartoon and wondering why the Bgs looked so much like my view master films.

    On a second note I’m susprised DAVE FLEISCHER doesn’t seem to look anything like his brother BILLY ZANE.

  • http://kecky.blogspot.com kecky

    It’s so gorgeous!!! Really astounding how well it blends with the 2D animation as well. Making a CGI model that would look as organic and appealing as this might not take 4 months, but I think it would still take a good chuck of time.

  • http://www.chogrin.com Chogrin

    Most Outstanding!

  • http://www.frankpanucci.com Frank Panucci

    That Fleischer 3D stuff kills.

    A local cable-only station had about six movies it showed in an endless loop for years between weather reports. HOPPITY and GULLIVER were among them, so I saw each one approximately a million times. Too bad HOPPITY didn’t work out for the studio. It was weak, but the damn thing is BURNED into my BRAIN

  • http://www.cabongstudios.com.br Fabio

    Amazing!

  • GW

    I’d wondered how they did that scene. That’s a brilliant rig. The Fleischers really had some technical brilliance, and it’s a shame that the studio got bought out. If they’d lasted longer, the industry would have had a competitor to Disney and probably would have weathered through the later years of the 20th Century better. But I think that the actual film was awful.

    • http://thisisonlya.blogspot.com robcat2075

      They lasted for 20+ years and had a 10 year head start on Disney. I don’t think time was their problem.

      • GW

        True, it took them a long time to develop. A large part of that though, I think was the lack of centralized vision. But forget about the Fleischers in particular and think about what it would mean just to have two studios working on features for a long time. It would have countered Disney dogma and could have kept one company that wasn’t going over their heads into flat styles. If somebody else had stepped in to fill one of their shoes, the best thing that could have happened for them, the studio might have been able to keep on going. And they could have kept costs lower with a nostalgic innovator ploy, more interesting styles in depth and better stories, all in black and white.

        Is any of this the least bit realistic? Who knows? I’m talking idealistically.

      • John A

        The Fleischers’ biggest problem was Paramounts insistence that they imitate Disney. They HAD a unique and inspired vision (watch some of Max’s silent Out of the Inkwell shorts. Some are simply bizarre, and others are laugh out loud funny, while others show the genesis of Max’s later innovations.) Had they been allowed to follow their own bent, they would have been a lot more successful, but Paramount was looking at all the cash Snow White was making and they saw the Fleischer’s studio as a potential cash cow. I think Max and Dave did the best they could, but anytime you’re asked to copy someone else, the results are going to be second rate.

  • http://MrFun'sBlog Floyd Norman

    I learned this lesson years ago.

    There are many smart and talented people who work really hard. Some end up successful and some fail. The difference?

    Luck.

  • wgan

    while praising the old timers please dont ignore the true beauty of modern technology (CG) after all media should matter that much it is the end result you should care

  • http://www.cartoonresearch.com Jerry Beck

    Anyone in the L.A. area who wants to see some restored 35mm Fleischer cartoons with these 3D Stereo-Optical backgrounds can join me on Tuesday May 3rd at the Cinefamily (Silent Movie Theatre) at 8pm: http://www.cinefamily.org/calendar/jerrybeck.html#jerrybeck

  • rnigma

    Too bad they didn’t use 3D/turntable backgrounds in their Superman cartoons – that would have been awesome to behold!

  • cbat628

    Please tell me there’s a part two! I swear it feels like I’m watching a live, classic play rather than a cartoon. The build up in this short is fantastic!

    • cbat628

      *Feature, not a short. My mistake.
      And, yes, the whole feature is on youtube.

    • http://hand-drawn-animation.blogspot.com David Nethery

      cbat628 – All 8 parts of “Mr. Bug Goes to Town” (aka “Hoppity Goes to Town” ) are posted on YouTube:

      http://www.youtube.com/user/SwatandSmack

  • Joe G

    The Fleischer’s turntable technique rivals the Multiplane camera set up used by Disney during those time.

  • http://www.theAMIGOunit.com Nelson

    Fleischer is bomb – what craft – witch craft – bomb a computer!

  • Toonio

    Fleischer was a pioneer.

    This film really shows how tough it is to be a bug.

  • Brian Kidd

    I was disappointed in the film when I was finally able to see it, but certainly not for technical reasons. The Fleischers were easily as innovative as the Disney Studio at the time. Their early Betty Boop and Popeye shorts are just as mind-blowing and entertaining today as when they were released. It’s a shame they collapsed, but I’m so thankful they existed!

    (Now, if I could just get some decent DVDs of the Betty Boop shorts. Grumble grumble.)

  • Dave

    Is there a print somewhere with the original Paramount opening rather than the tv syndication National Telefilm Associates [NTA] opening?

    • http://www.cartoonresearch.com Jerry Beck

      Yes, the Museum of Modern art has such a print – and the UCLA Film and Television Archive recently restored the film from the original negatives with its original titles.

      • Chris Sobieniak

        Thank God! Though I still get this in my head everything I think of the movie…
        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lwJ2LLVlzo8

      • Martin Juneau

        Thanks for that new Jerry! Glad that this original titles is still keep safe.

  • Mike Johnson

    I saw this film many times growing up during the 60s and 70s. I absolutely loved it then. Watching it again on DVD (re-titled BUGVILLE for some stupid reason) years later I found a new level of appreciation for it. I know some don’t like it too much, but for me it remains as timeless and entertaining as when I first saw it on an old black & white set.

    The Fleischer films have always impressed me. Gulliver was the first, then Popeye, and then Mr. Bug, as well as many others. I agree with those who say that Fleischer would have been a serious competitor to Disney, and it is sad that things worked out the way they did for the studio.

    The 3D skyline is a marvel! You never notice those things as a kid, but I appreciate it SO much now. The work that went in to that short introductory segment was superb, and though I have great respect for today’s CGI artists, those folks that put the skyline together deserve a lot of respect.

    Thanks for the heads up on this…another of the many reasons I love the Brew!

  • Carolyn Bates

    Thanks for posting. That’s so beautiful. I haven’t seen Mr. Bug in years. Those guys were ingenious. I love all the Fleischer 3D sets that are found on Jerry’s ‘Somewhere in Dreamland’ dvd. Want to see the Cinefamily show!

  • Bill

    I’ve always loved Mr. Bug, but like many others it’s partially because it was drilled into my brain after repeated TV showings as a kid. Need to see the photo of the actual model!

  • dbenson

    Yes, way cooler than multiplane. But it seemed limited to establishing shots with minimal animation and backdrops for characters following a flat path across the screen. Since the animation was shot through a glass frame positioned in front of the model, the animators probably had their hands full just keeping characters’ feet on the ground.

    Wonder if they ever toyed with filming the model, then animating to the film to let a character move around within the model instead of just across it? They certainly had the expertise, having placed Koko in live action footage back in the Inkwell days.

  • Tox O’Cology

    This glorified multi-level tilt field shot stands out and does what it’s supposed to but nobody could work a pantograph quite like Fleischer’s ace camera person Charles Schettler to jazz up what might have otherwise been run of the mill continuity shots. Check out those snappy, half circle moves during the “Katy Did” number in this very feature. This energetic, signature camerawork was one of Fleischer’s finest attributes and one that Disney never copied. It helped impart a playful, anything-might-happen-here atmosphere which enlivened the proceedings and subliminally told the viewer he or she was not watching just an ordinary cartoon. Perhaps due to Fleischer studio fortunes, it is Ub Iwerks who is remembered today as the great Golden Age animation tech genius while Mr. Schettler is forgotten.

  • DB

    I dunno….as opposed to many here, I think “Mr. Bug” is a masterpiece. It is kind of a triumph of atmosphere (an enchanted dream-Manhattan of the 40′s) – the character animation doesn’t have the exquisiteness of Disney but for me, almost all Disney classic features are marred by some sort serious achilles heel (usually something tacky) whereas Mr. Bug is more successful as a whole – at achieving what it sets out to do without any mis-steps.

    I love the crazy madness of some of the Fleischer’s best earlier work, but I think Mr. Bug is a genuinely heartfelt creation. There are many cool things to appreciate (love, for example, how the changing traffic light colors are later revealed to create the atmospheric lighting for the bug nightclub, for example. It isn’t something shoved down your throat, you have to be paying attention.)

    • http://los-utopicos.blogspot.com allari

      I love it to, it has a lackadaisy charm that seems impossible to recreate nowadays. Also the Fleischer girls always seem to remind me of anime´s Moe cliche, but better drawn and animated.

  • Doug Drown

    I love this film too, and I think DB’s description of it as “a triumph of atmosphere” is right on target. That’s also an apt description of much of the Fleischer Studio’s work.

    I’ve long been curious as to why three-dimensional sets weren’t used in the Superman series. I realize the cartoons were very expensive creations to begin with, but was the bottom line the only reason?

  • http://michaelvdb.shawwebspace.ca Michael van den Bos

    I introduced a brand new restored 35mm print of MR. BUG GOES TO TOWN at Vancouver’s Pacific Cinematheque earlier this year. The print came from UCLA and I believe we were, if not the first, within the first few screenings of that actual 35mm print. This print had the original Paramount logo at the head. The opening “set back” sequence of Manhattan was stunning, especially on a big movie screen. The print we screened looked like the picture was recently made and fresh out of the lab. Let’s hope this restored negative gets a proper DVD / Blu-ray Disc release. Hell, it should get a theatrical re-release!

  • The Gee

    The studio’s innovations and inventions still impress folks and that’s cool to know.

    This might “sound” goofy but it was a NYC studio and part of the fact that the studio built so many of the types of sets and devices probably shouldn’t be surprising considering the times. There was a lot of construction back then that pushed the city skyward.

    So, maybe it isn’t surprising that they went the extra mile in their endeavors. Maybe.

    I don’t bring this up out of stupidity. They totally had innovation down pat and that has always boggled my mind because it just shows up in the cartoons, major and minor ones.

    But, it is nice to think that they pushed the boundaries not just because the studio was filled with brilliant talents and that it was a pioneering time in animation* but also because that studio was still an East Coast one. Obviously, the other NYC studio’s back then innovated (or not) in different ways. But, I’m thinking location played a role.

    *pioneers: not all pioneers survive the trip; many just end up being trailblazers, sadly enough, and don’t make it to the destination.

  • Martin Juneau

    Totally incredible! A haul of hard work was built upon that Manhattan perspective background. I notice also the great 3D backgrounds from the Popeye shorts (Mostly “I Never Change My Altitude. It’s just gorgeous.) is a true marvel for the eyes. Today when we made CGI/3D films, it turns out as a flat picture, much flatter than real 2D animation.

    At least, the Fleischer brothers knows how innovate perfectly and made the animation much better and that detailed 3D background prove that point!

  • http://outoftheinkwell.blogspot.com Mike Dobbs

    Great photo! I’ve thought Mr. Bug was more in line with many of the central themes in Flesicher cartoons, such as an urban setting, cityscapes, constuction of buildings, as well as havigng some great cartoony designs, which seem very appropriate for the insects.

    It was a much better film than Gulliver, but Paramount politics plagued its sucess