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More Backgrounds


We’ve plugged the blogs of both Hans Bacher and Rob Richards numerous times recently. Both are putting a spotlight on the unsung work of background painters in animated cartoons. Today, Richards posts a composite of the pan shot showing the three dimensional cave (actually an intricate miniature live action set) in Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad The Sailor. Fleischer artisans clearly put a lot of thought, hard work and artistic know how into these Stereo-Optical “set-backs”. Considering how some of these elaborate shots only appear on screen for several seconds, I encourage Rob to create more composites of these. They certainly deserve a closer look.

  • The process was “Stereoptical” not “Stereo-Optical.” The compositing of the characters was accomplished in this case in a form of double exposure similar to Arial Image Photography. While the usual procedure was to shoot the animation cels upright with the camera seeing the background behind, this was a darkly lit, or “Low Key” set. Lighting the cel in front would have washed out the interior of the cave and cast an unwanted shadow on the set.

    The clue is the appearance of some out of register mattes later in the scene, which suggest that opaque silhouettes may have been placed in front of the scene as it was photographed. Then the animation was shot “top” lit over a neural background, which explains why POPEYE and the LIONS “glow” in the dark.

    The exact execution is not clear, but it is entirely possible that this was accomplished with another of Max Fleischer’s inventions, The Rotograph. This was a form of what I referred to as “Arial Image Photography,” and was used by Fleischer as early as 1926, as evidenced in OUT OF THE INKWELL films such as “Ko-Ko Hot After It.” This was a procedure where previously photographed footage could be rephotographed and combined with animation elements through a double exposure.

    In the first phase, the background “plate” is rephotographed with the cels placed over the rear projection of the backround. Since the rear projection is “back lit,” the cels must be 100% opaque to block out the areas to be covered by the characters. This creates a self matte. Once the background is shot, the film is rewound to the start, and the cels are then shot top lit with a black card underneath. Anything black, such as POPEYE’S shirt will remain defined as a black shape.

    There are places where POPEYE passes through areas, such as the entrance to the cave, coming in, and passing behind foreground elements. These required an exact tracing to create the proper registration. To do this, The Rotoscope, Max’s iniitial invention would have been applied, and these match perfectly. This is the theory of how this would have been possible. But why the matte registrations appeared to have shifted is unknown other than to assume that there was some misalignment during the photographic process, and exaggeration due to the complications of Technicolor compositing, or an image distortion/exaggeration caused in the transfer to video.
    Seeing the reconstructed Technicolor print three eyars ago, the misaligned mattes still show, but did not seem as obvious as in the video versions.

    Similar things happend as recent as 25 years ago when STAR WARS was first shown on television. Certain mattes that were blended in for the theatrical release were suddenly visible when the film was balanced for video So this is another consideration for why we may be seeing this. Nevertheless, it’s great to be able to see this important milestone of Animation History.

  • Hi Jerry! Thanks for the words of encouragement. These miniature sets are fantastic, and the idea was brilliant. The way the pan shots “read” is incredibly realistic. And the color palettes and lighting are amazing to see.

  • The Popeye Sinbad cartoon was always one of my favorites BECAUSE of the 3d backgrounds. I was always captivated by this short in particular. In my later years, when I fully understood the process by which it was shot, I was even more amazed. Incredible stuff, but the Fleischer studios produced many amazing and technically innovative films. They deserve more creidt and attention than they usually receive.