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Toons in Training

Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman discusses how animated short films have been used for educational purposes, from helping to fight WWI, WWII and the Cold War, to today's medical advancements.

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.

As soon as war broke out the Disney studio found themselves occupied by the military. As part of the war effort, Disney produced thousands of feet of film for all branches of the service (predominantly the Navy). At one point during the conflict, it was estimated that 90-95% of Disney's output was war-related. The studio that had so recently produced Pinocchio and Fantasia now turned out such riveting entertainment as Blanking and Punching and Fixed Gunnery and Fighting Tactics. Disney was also tapped by the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs to make educational films for the benefit of Latin America; it was assumed by our government that these nations were possibly prone to Nazi infiltration, and our good will was presumed through helpful films such as Cleanliness Brings Health and Water, Friend or Enemy. It is uncertain whether Disney's concern for the well being of our neighborsactually kept Hitler out of Caracas or Buenos Aires, but they did provide a government-subsidized profit for Disney through the lean war years. At Warners the mood was more jocular, and the studio took charge of providing training films that had the secondary purpose of lifting morale. Their prime creation during the war was an inept infantryman named Private Snafu (do I have to translate?). Developed by Phil Eastman and Theodore (Dr. Seuss) Geisel, the series ran from 1943-45 and gave our fighting men perfect instruction on what not to do if they were to come home alive. Warner luminaries such as Bob Clampett and Chuck Jones directed with hilarious results as this khaki-clad klutz bumbled his way through lessons that included Fighting Tools and Booby Traps. A lesser known series, Seaman Hook, was also produced for the US Navy. The greatest legacy left by the countless feet of film used to train and educate our troops was this: animators learned to work in a simple, graphic style and use highly limited animation to maximum effect. Within a few years these principles would find their way into mainstream animation, changing the face of the medium. Scientific Visualization After the war there was still a good market for training films, but fewer producers. Disney at one time had Westinghouse and General Motors as clients, but Walt was more interested in resurrecting his studio. Two of his employees, Herb Lamb and Tom Codrick, split off to form an industrial film company; Walt was more than happy to sell off his contracts to them. In fact, many of the Hollywood studios went Disney's route and returned exclusively to the production of cartoon shorts. The Golden Age of animated training films was temporarily over; when most major studios did take outside contracts, it was in the more lucrative field of commercial advertising. A notable exception was UPA, which found the time to produce educational films such as Pump Trouble for the American Heart Association and More Than Meets the Eye for CBS.

This was a temporary lull, but then several events occurred that would bring the educational film back into demand. The 1950s was dominated by the Cold War and the military soon increased their orders for training films. In a related event,the launching of Sputnik by the Soviet Union set off a national panic about the state of American education and legislation such as The National Defense Education Act provided a windfall for producers of educational films. New technologies resulted in the creationof agencies such as NASA, which was soon in the market for an animation department. Finally, the major motion picture studios began closing their animation units during this era; many animators were free (or forced) to try their luck in advertising...or in the field of training and education. Some individuals did well in this enterprise, despite the dangers.Frank Capra and UPA joined forces to produce a science film called Our Mr. Sun for the Bell Telephone System. This film was distributed to schools, after making its debut on TV, as part ofBell's mission to interest young minds in science. When UPA animator Bill Hurtz (a favorite of Capra's) left the studio to join forces with legendary animator Shamus Culhane, the Bell contract followed and so did films such as Hemo The Magnificent, The Strange Case of the Cosmic Rays and The Unchained Goddess. These films featured live actors Richard Carlson and Dr. Frank "Brother Research" Baxter bantering with animated characters as kids learned about the human body, space, and the weather. I fondly recallthese films from my own elementary school days, and many of my antiquated"boomer" buddies have warm memories of them as well.

An Important Facet

When television first became a household fixture, most networks ran black and white cartoons from the 1930s and '40s with few attempts at original productions. In the late 1950s viable made-for-TV animation series appeared, and Saturday Morning "kidvid" was established around 1960. Despite this boom, little of the animation was educational in nature. Two series, however, deserve mention in our history. Sesame Street, which made its debut in 1969, used animated sequences to illustratebasic learning such as identification of letters and numbers. These sequences, presented with the style, speed, and nuances of modern advertising, gave considerable credence to Paivio's theory. The second series, Schoolhouse Rock (1973), consisted of musical lessons in grammar, science, history, and multiplication. These brief episodes (41 in all) served as bumpers between ABC's Saturday morning offerings. Beloved by GenXers (who can sing every episode), Schoolhouse Rock must be considered one of the finest commercial offerings served up in the name of education.


As for the training film, the greatest advancements came with the advent of CGI software. This is an area of animation largely overlooked; for example, when Animation Magazine published "13 Hot Issues and Trends for 1999" in their February 1999 issue, the use of animation as a training tool was not among them. Yet, CGI animation is now being used extensively in the medical fields, where aspiring surgeons can envision multiple approaches to surgical procedures. CGI has also been of great benefit to trainees in the field of meteorology; we were given a glimpse of this last month when 3-D simulations of Hurricane Floyd were displayed on the news hour. The aerospace industry continues their tradition of using animated models and simulations, and computer imaging has been indispensable in the training of future astronauts. Finally, the military, as it has for years, continues to rely on animation for a number of purposes; this would be evident to anyone who followed the Persian Gulf conflict on television. That war was nearly ten years ago; today's computer-generated simulations, including motion capture technology, are closer to virtual reality. Animation will always be here to entertain us. It is impossible today to assess movies, television, advertising, or video games without considering the tremendous influence that this medium has had in these areas. Although animation's impact as a teaching and training tool attracts far less attention, it is equally impossible to envision a future where animation does not play a vital part in this endeavor as well. Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.