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Animation Look-A-Likes: Mobilux Lumia and Other Real-Time Technologies

Beginning in the late `50s there was an inspired flow of clever techniques that seemed like animation, but really weren't. These cartoon look-a-likes were shot in real-time and not frame-by-frame. Howard Beckerman takes a look back on a few of these fleeting methods.

The Mobilux Lumia process as drawn by Howard Beckerman.

The resurgence of theatrical animation, dating from 1988 when Roger Rabbit strode his few whiny moments on the stage, belies the reality that animators for decades bowed willingly to the demands of Madison Avenue. Beginning in the 1950s, when the Hollywood cartoon began its slow fade to extinction, the thrust of animation studios was the creation of television commercials, sponsored films and Saturday morning cartoons. Animators, accustomed to lush Technicolored, full-rounded characters, realigned their skills to move flat shapes against limbo backgrounds. The urgent call for variety, coupled with speedy production methods, inspired a flow of clever techniques that seemed like animation, but really weren't. These cartoon look-a-likes, shot in real-time and not by frame-by-frame filming, sprung to life to cash in on the vogue for stylized, and witty, limited animation. Cartoon look-a-likes took advantage of flexible materials such as rubber bands, plastics and cels. These techniques were adaptable to motion pictures, but their arrival soon after the unveiling of videotape in 1956, offered the convenience of replay necessary in getting it right.

Cartoon Wanna-Bes

I remember one technique called Mobilux Lumia which cast colorful gliding images. A simple design was drawn and then silkscreened in color onto the side of a special sheet of acetate. It was about 60 inches long and 14 inches wide; basically it was an animation cel except for one difference -- one side was mirrored. The material was available at art stores then, and is probably still used in the packaging and crafts field. To create the animation effect, an operator dressed in dark, non-reflecting clothing and gloves, held the acetate sheet bearing the mirror-painted image up to a strong light. The operator-animator, or more correctly puppeteer, positioned the acetate so that the reflection fell onto a screen on the wall or ceiling as he twisted and wiggled the cel. The imprinted image gyrated up, down and across the screen. One demonstration which I remember, was of a lucid blue-green fish made to swim, wiggle its tail and double over itself as the cel was twisted. These fluctuations were recorded onto film or videotape and the resulting images were often used as program openings, but more of that later. Another technique used plastic sponges in a highly original way. The method, called Aniforms, was created by puppeteer Maury Bunin. Bunin and his brother Lou had appeared on the stage as the Bunin Puppets in the years before television and were known for an elaborate stop-motion puppet animation that opened MGM's 1946 production, Ziegfeld Follies. They eventually went their separate ways, Lou to continue his stop-motion work for commercials and Maury to create marionettes and hand puppets for children's television. Maury Bunin was a consummate professional puppet creator. The Aniform technique was an outgrowth of his extensive knowledge and ingenuity. Imagine this: a doughnut shape fashioned from a household sponge, say a 5 inch circle with a hole in the middle. Then, draw a line around the hole on one side of the sponge. If you squeeze the sponge and contract the opening, the line will also flatten and elongate. This takes advantage of the squash and stretch properties of traditional animation, but Maury added another wrinkle. The sponges that he used were black and the lines drawn on them were white. The black sponge, bearing the white lines was shot against an equally black background. In those days of black and white television, if you reversed the polarity, the tones would shift, the white became black, the black became white and disappeared against the background. The effect, when manipulated in real-time was that the lines were squashing and stretching of their own accord, like animation. It worked, though it did have an eerie quality, much like the tedious timing of early computer animation. But it was convincing and evinced the style of popular cartoon commercials of the time.

Roscoe, the famous Aniforms character. © ACG Communications.

Personal Experience

Why do I remember Aniforms? Well, I recall seeing the artwork on a visit to story artist Eli Bauer's office adjacent to Bunin's studio, when the technique was still veiled in secrecy. Later, I played a minor role in the history of Aniforms. It was 1962 and Eli was creating characters for Bunin. Soon advertisers saw its viability and launched the production of two Aniform commercials for HO Oats. I was hired to assist the animation crew spending several days preparing the elements, with Maury dashing here and there like the skilled Gepetto he was. His studio had a hundred little drawers each containing thousands of tiny objects: bolts and buttons, bits of wire and screw eyes and all those things you threw away, but knew you shouldn't have.

When the time came to shoot the sponge rubber, bits of cardboard and flexible rubber bands, our crew of about five artists moved into the studios of the American Broadcasting System, near Lincoln Center. Our stage was an inclined tabletop facing a huge television camera and operator positioned on a platform above us. We wore dark arm length gloves and controlled the various parts with connected sticks. We each took a corner of a character. One guy moved an arm, another the eyes, someone else worked the character's hand. I was the mouthpiece, extending and contracting a thin, flexible band to create moving lips and speech. As a tape of the soundtrack was played we each worked our assigned station. The shooting went through the night, 24 hours around the clock with breaks at late night and early morning for nourishment, then back to the set. With the clients and agency personnel popping in and out and during three changes of camera operators, we created two minutes of real-time animation in 24 hours.

An Aniform Cartoon. © ACG Communications.

Ill-Fated Art Forms There were other techniques that weren't exactly real-time animation; one from a studio called Maurer, reveled in the perception of animation that resulted. They shot live footage, essentially the old Max Fleischer rotoscope process, then reformed it through optical printing arriving at the flat look of cartoon films. But, such processes are neverconvincing, even today with electronics managing the trick. But, a clever idea like Aniforms, a patented technique owned by ACG Communications(formerly Aniforms, Inc.), had another life after its commercial debut.

Aniforms evolved into an attention getting device for corporateconferences, mall advertising and street corner public relations. The flexible figures soon evolved, no longer requiring five operators wielding sticks, but became stand alone objects that one puppeteer manipulated by pressing and releasing custom tailored controls. I saw an Aniform Fred Flintstone attracting passersby in Manhattanyears ago, moving and talking on a monitor mounted on the side of a small truck. Inside, an operator created the action, tossed questionsat the crowd and elicited responses. It was an early use of interactive visuals and conversation. Maury Bunin died a few years ago, but the Aniform company that sprung from his initial invention, has created theme park shows and other diversions for the business world.

What happened to Mobilux Lumia? I guess it went the way of other interesting ideas that get steamrollered by changing tastes.But, I have one reminiscence that may indicate how good things get recognized. It was 1956, I was working at the New York office of United Productions of America (UPA). We were across from the Museum of Modern Art, overlooking the corner of 53rd. Street and Fifth Avenue. A skyscraper stands there today, but we were in an old building with windows affording an excellent view of Fifth Avenue as it trailed toward Central Park. Among the animators was Terry Tarricone, who was a fan of late-night television and the rising but not yet renowned comic talent, Ernie Kovacs. One noon hour, Terry looked out onto Fifth Avenue and saw Kovacs doing a public relations stint for thenon-profit agency The Lighthouse For The Blind. He was clowning with a kid's pop gun in one hand, a collection basket in the otherand his trademark cigar extending from his mouth, all this while being circled by a Speed Graphic toting publicity photographer. Our roomful of artists gathered at the windows. One, Edna Jacobs, young and attractive, asked, "Who's that?" Suddenly, I thought, "Edna, would you like your picture in the paper?" We passed the hat and Edna and I dashed across Fifth Avenue to hand a contribution of quarters and half-dollars to Kovacs. He thankedus, Edna was photographed with Kovacs and then he asked us where we were from. We mentioned UPA, and suddenly we became celebrities as he loved the studio's work. A hallmark of Kovacs' programs were the camera effects he pulled off and, since shows were live then, these were his own real-time animation. He asked to come up to seeus when he finished his publicity gig. We pointed to the buildingand the floor. A half hour later the hulking Kovacs, well over sixfeet, bounced off of the rickety elevator to be surrounded by the animators. We stood there not knowing how to treat this sudden celebrity visit, and with the bosses still out to lunch nobody knew how to break the ice. He was shown a storyboard that dotted the wall, then he left. We had missed a great opportunity to harness Kovacs' love of animation. About a year later, a now popular Kovacs starred in a now classic comedy special. In the opening sequence, behind the credit titles were the twirling and gliding images of the MobiluxLumia process. Howard Beckerman is an animator, story artist and director. Beginning in the animation field in 1949, Beckerman's animation credits include Mighty Mouse, Heckle and Jeckle, Popeye, Casper the Friendly Ghost and McBoing-Boing Show. Noted for his classes atthe School of Visual Arts and Parsons School of Design, he teaches students all facets of animation production. His writings on animationappeared monthly for 10 years in Filmmakers' Newsletter and then weekly for 8 years in Back Stage. He has just completeda text book, Animation: The Whole Story to be published thiswinter.

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