Toons in Training

by Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman

For one hundred years, animation has been synonymous with "entertainment" or "art." Most people, when asked, automatically think of the classic (or modern) Disney films, the trickery of Bugs Bunny, the melodramatics of Mighty Mouse, or perhaps the wry commentary of Rocky and Bullwinkle. For those who prefer a broader view, there is a universe of independent and international animation to enjoy, and those more artistically inclined will invoke the name of UPA or the experimental films of Oskar Fischinger or Jordan Belson. We seem to be conditioned to accept animation as a form of entertainment or as an alternative arm of the cinematic arts when in fact animation has had a long and rich history serving another purpose entirely. This month's column explores animation's historical role in teaching, training, and education.

A Visual Tool
If one of the most influential pioneers of animation held sway, the medium would have been used for education above any other purpose. John Randolph Bray was a great believer in the power of animation as an instructive tool, and maintained an educational slide film division called Brayco in addition to his animated cartoon studio. During 1921 he contemplated a production of H.G. Wells' The Outline of History. Another Bray project, Chronicles of America, was researched in 1924, but never came to fruition. Other education films intended for the public school system were produced at Brayco under the direction of J.F. Rosenthal, an exceptional technical draftsman. Dr. Rowland Rogers assisted the division as educational director. Bray was no novice in the field of training films, either -- in 1917 Bray produced animated work for the US War College at West Point and was soon making films detailing the use and maintenance of artillery pieces, military map reading, and various related subjects.

One of Bray's erstwhile employees was particularly impressed with the use of animation as an instructional tool. There is considerable evidence that Max Fleischer might have spent his career making educational films had his early efforts proven more profitable. Fleischer spent much of World War I at Fort Sill where under the title of "visual aid specialist" he turned out training films for the Army (How to Fire a Machine Gun was one verifiable title). This experience led Fleischer to attempt an incredible project in 1923; a four-reel exposition of Einstein's theory of relativity, apparently for use by schools. 1925 saw a similar effort detailing Darwin's theory of evolution. These films were very well received, but failed to generate much income and Fleischer turned his full attention to more standard animated fare. Interestingly enough, Max ended his career with the Jam Handy studio of Detroit...making training films for the Army.

World War I, for better or worse, brought many advances to the science of warfare. The tank, poison gas, modern artillery, and the airplane as a weapon of war all made their grim debuts during this conflict. A more benign discovery was the fact that animated films cut down on military training time, were better absorbed, and more clearly recalled than other didactic forms of instruction. Animation was obviously a superior teaching tool; what was not clearly understood was why. Well, before we return to our history, let's jump ahead to the early 1970s and some of the more advanced research being done on the subject of memory. One psychologist by the name of Allan Paivio proposed that information is committed to memory in "verbal" and "imaginal" form. The nature of the information appears to determine which form will be used; for example, "Mickey Mouse" would most likely be encoded in imaginal form, as he is a highly visual concept. "Motion Capture," being an informational concept, would be encoded verbally. Some items can be represented both ways, and it was Paivio's contention that it is easier to recall an item if there is more than one form of representation. According to his theory, we tend to label images with words, so memory for pictures tends to be better. The more novel and unusual the images are, the stronger the connection with the words. This is why salespeople sometimes use the trick of picturing clients naked or in outlandish situations in order to remember their names. When an imaginative medium like animation visually reinforces verbal information, attention is more actively engaged and memory is better encoded and retrieved.

The War Effort
What the Armed Forces did realize was that animation was relatively cheap, easy to produce, and facilitated performance by troops and other personnel. When the proverbial winds of war swept over the United States again, the military was quick to remember the lessons of World War I. 1942 saw the establishment of the 18th Air Force Base Unit (also known as the First Motion Picture Unit, or FMPU) in Culver City, home of the old Hal Roach Studio. Under the command of Major Rudy Ising, the animation unit produced hundreds of training films on a continuous schedule. This yeoman work was performed by animators from Warners, Fleischers, Disney, and MGM, as well as animators unaffiliated with major studios. The FMPU sometimes used humor to put their lessons across, but for the most part films were little more than moving illustrations. Often they were narrated by a charismatic Hollywood star named Ronald Reagan.

1 | 2 | 3

Note: Readers may contact any Animation World Magazine contributor by sending an e-mail to

Table of Contents
Past Issues

Animation World Magazine
Career Connections | School Database | Student Corner
Animation World Store | Animation Village | Calendar of Events
The AWN Gallery | The AWN Vault | Forums & Chats

About | Help | Home | | Mail | Register

©1999 Animation World Network