Thursday, October 27, 2011

Bill Plympton's rendition of The Flying House (Winsor McCay, 1921)

Originally composed in the Summer of this year:

Contemporary treatment and recognition of silent animation is of great interest and importance to the savvy film historian. Understandably, there have not been many subjects in today's industry headlines relevant for comment on this blog. Silent film enthusiasts are mostly aware that very little attention has been given to the roots of the animated film, both in the animation "fandom" realm as well as actual archival preservation undertakings. Of course, rare major endeavors, such as the launching of the Bray Animation Project at the beginning of this month, are exceptions.

Another such exception is a project being spearheaded by independent animator Bill Plympton. Recently, Plympton announced that he has been spending considerable time and money to remake Winsor McCay's 1921 film The Flying House. Plympton is not remaking the film in his own personal style of animation; rather, he is executing a process in which each frame of the film is being digitally retouched and colored. In keeping with the fact that Plympton is indeed an independent producer with little or no initial underwriting from large studios or distributors, he has started a Kickstarter project to solicit production funding from the public. Before reading ahead, it is recommended that you read the Kickstarter project page and watch the video, which is also embedded here for your convenience.

Watching the video and learning a few basic facts about the project brings forth aesthetic and ethical questions on the topic of early film appreciation, or more appropriately in this case, reconstituting. True, adding color and sound to silent animated cartoons is by no means a new idea. In the early 1930s, Screen Attractions Corporation took silent, black and white Mutt and Jeff cartoons from 1925 and 1926 and added color to them by physically redrawing each frame of the films as well as orchestrating musical soundtracks for the films, sometimes with dialogue. A sample poster (right) demonstrates the amount of interest a firm would try to solicit based on the fact that their product was not silent nor monochromatic. In the early 1970s, Radio and Television Packagers did the exact same thing to a few dozen silent and early sound cartoons. Fred Ladd, known for his involvement in bringing Japanese animation to the states a decade prior, was a consultant on this and several similar projects. In short, Plympton is not exactly doing something new--of more importance is the manner, aesthetically and technologically, in which he is doing it.

Visually, there is an obvious disparity between McCay's original image and Plympton's composite. As you can see in the strip of comparative frames on the left, the metamorphosis between the two versions occurs by via digital reconstructing of a physical, analog frame. As you study the frames, it becomes quite clear that the new version of the film has been adapted for a widescreen aspect ratio which is not true to McCay's original production. The resulting aspect ratio alone leads one to ponder several ideas. Is a widescreen product the chosen output method in order to conform to now widespread digital playback methods? Or, is a widescreen product chosen as a filmmaking technique simply because most contemporary viewers, and one could arguably claim young animators, are accustomed to and expect this format? In reality, both reasons are probably viable explanations of why Plympton's version of the film is not being produced with the original aspect ratio in mind.

While digital manipulation of historical films is a now common practice in the archival and preservation fields, one important detail has not been addressed, at least in the Kickstarter project and its introductory video. Plympton is audibly concerned about the film's deterioration. It should be noted, however, that Plympton's team appears to be working from one or more 16mm prints. As was the industry standard at the time, McCay's film was shot in 35mm. Milestone's VHS (and later DVD) collection of McCay's films used at least a fragmentary 35mm print for their version of the film, and a 16mm print was included as an extra feature.

At this point in time, it is fair to consider, for example, a fragmentary 35mm print to be a master element--and it is unclear if Plympton has used sources closer to an original nitrate than a 16mm printdown dupe. It is not necessary to recount the story of the original 1940s 'rediscovery' of McCay's films at this time. However, in Plympton's defense, it is important to state that the few surviving master elements of McCay's films (or nitrate prints and 16mm prints closer to those elements than what circulates in collectors' circles) were retained, possibly in a controversial manner, by the Cinémathèque Québécoise following their screening of historical animation at EXPO '67. Gaining access to films in the Cinémathèque's archives is incredibly difficult, even for established historians, and this may explain why Plympton might not be working from a higher-quality element--if such an element exists in the archive.
While the blogmaster has yet to see the results of this project, it is fascinating to see in retrospect that Mr. Plympton not only met the goal of his Kickstarter campaign but brought in nearly DOUBLE the $10,000 sum originally sought for the endeavor.

I'm still on the fence about what weight this project carries in terms of historical ethic and setting precedents for future 'restoration' concepts. What do you think?


Silent Girl said...

I can't say that I am crazy about "remaking" Windsor McCay's work. His films should be restored as close to the original as possible. Like all films of the Silent Era, they should not be colorized if the original is Black and White, and voices or other dialogue should not be added in order to "make it more appealing to modern audiences". These films are beautiful, unique, and hold a place in history. Remaking them in this "modern" fashion is a step in defacing its original beauty and it takes away from Windsor's art.

Emerald Avalanche said...
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Unknown said...

Restoration, bravo. McKay's films are not just historically vital, but have their own artistry. However, I do not approve of adding voices, removing voice balloons or colorizing, let alone changing the aspect ratio. That's not preservation; it's overriding both the realities of the medium at that time, and the choices made by the artist within those limitations.

Michael Sporn said...
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Michael Sporn said...

The restoration is no more than a bastardization of McCay's film allowing Plympton to give himself equal credit with the genius, McCay. The animation timing by McCay is destroyed by Plympton and his army of interns. The voices are good and the colors are well chosen, but when you're destroying the scenes - one after another - you're destroying the film. It's embarrassing to anyone in love with history, animation and McCay.

I chose to be part of his amateur documentary on the DVD to tell Plympton this to his face. To his credit, it's included.