On the 50th anniversary of the film Mary Poppins, we flew back 100 years to celebrate how simple techniques evolved into modern animation.
It didn’t take long for early filmmakers to bring fantasy to life by combining live action and animation into a single frame. In the early 20th century, animation was usually produced with cels, which are transparent sheets you can draw and paint upon, or by animating copies of stills from live action and combining those with original stills.
Here’s an animated cel from Mary Poppins during the Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious scene:
See those guys in the back (14 seconds into this video)? That’s them:
You Ought To Be In Pictures (1940) is credited as being the inspiration for what is, arguably, the most popular film of the genre, Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) (note: the Out of the Inkwell series is credited as the “first” live action film, in 1918).
Porky Pig wants to get out of his animation contract and make it big in Hollywood…
…but Porky doesn’t have much luck. There’s even a car chase scene in Hollywood that may remind you of the 1940s-genre settings in Roger Rabbit:
Films with Hollywood stars began to regularly incorporate live action and animation into scenes in the 1940s, until it became an entire film-length production style in and of itself. Cel animation eventually fell out of popularity, giving way to newer techniques of 3D animation such as CGI. But the fantasy of the imaginary interacting with reality still lives on in popular films like Avatar.
Here are three other classic American live action and animation films we’ll never forget:
Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971)
Bedknobs and Broomsticks takes place during the Second World War in England. Angela Lansbury plays Eglantine Price, an apprentice witch who takes in three children during the Blitz. Along with a conman played by David Tomlinson, the four use an enchanted bedknob (and bed) to travel.
They go to underwater worlds and imaginary islands, inhabited by talking, amazing animals we want to meet in real life:
Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)
Bob Hoskins plays detective Eddie Valiant, in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, which contains all the tropes of the noir genre. For instance, Valliant hates toons because his brother was killed by one, but he agrees investigates the murder of a toon named Acme.
The film was made using cels and optical compositing, to spectacular effect:
Roger Rabbit is suspected of killing Acme, who was supposedly having an affair with his wife, the impossibly-proportioned Jessica Rabbit (who has inspired at least one human copycat):
The film’s villain, Judge Doom, wants to murder the toons using a lethal dip comprised of turpentine, benzene and acetone, chemicals that are used to erase animation from cels. Art imitating life, indeed.
Soon after, the use of cel animation almost entirely disappeared from feature filmmaking. Did Judge Doom accomplish his evil goal of destroying the toons after all? Not exactly.
Space Jam, 1996
Then came the huge shift in how live action/animation films were made, as Janet Maslin noted in the New York Times, due to the rise of 3D animation.
Space Jam stars Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny, among others, and is a classic sports story:
The Looney Tunes challenged their alien captors to a basketball game to win their freedom. They enter the game as the underdog, and emerge as victors. And lovers?
The one conclusion we can draw from a century of combining fantasy and reality on the big screen? Live action animation makes our world seem so much bigger, and new possibilities more possible.
You’re welcome to Earth anytime, toons.
Written and edited by Margarita Noriega and Danielle Wiener-Bronner. Image credits: stills of aforementioned films.