Preserving Animation History: A Miniflix Interview With Tommy Stathes
Early animation archivist, historian, distributor and educator talks about his life and career.
Tommy José Stathes is a truly unique cinephile. Ever since a young age, he couldn’t get enough of two things: animated films and film history. As it turns out, the two go pretty well together. Eventually realizing this, Stathes combined these two passions that resulted in him becoming one of the foremost collectors, preservers and exhibitors of early animated shorts (1900s-1930). He’s been responsible for over a hundred special screenings of his archive all around New York City. He’s also a key part of many educational efforts on the subject (including a Consulting Producer on Cartoon Carnival: The Documentary and the site creator of the all-things animation online resource The Bray Animation Project). In our interview, Stathes talks about animation through the decades, the joy that comes with teaching students at the college-level and some of the highlights of his career so far.
Miniflix Interviewer: You loved early animated films even as you were growing up. When did the switch from loving early animated films to realizing a real need to preserve and exhibit them first happen for you?
Tommy Stathes: When I was born at the tail end of the 80s and growing up in the 90s, it was fairly commonplace for kids to have access to Golden Age animation, as it were — the famous Hollywood cartoons of the 1930s and 1940s from Disney, Warner Bros., and so forth. I became enamored with these more famous early cartoons through these avenues, and spending most of my time with relatives born in the 1920s through the 1950s, who watched with me, really helped me form an appreciation. It wasn’t until I read a couple books on animation history, I’d say around the age of 6 or 7, that I began to understand that there was an entire universe of silent-era animated films predating Mickey Mouse’s debut, and the majority of these films were not widely circulating, or easily accessible. In most cases, they were considered completely lost. I was fascinated by the awareness that these films were made, but also lost or very difficult to see now.
I was not much older (say, age 8 or 9) when, by ‘chance,’ I was introduced to the 16mm format — which boasted many earlier films that did not make their way to the modern age of home video distribution. Not all films originally shot for theatrical exhibition in 35mm were later reduced to 16mm for alternate uses, though many were, and it turned out that collecting these scarce 50–80 year old prints was one way to try and obtain copies of these elusive early cartoons, which predated the Golden Age animation that I grew up on as a toddler. As I entered my teen years and began obsessively seeking out these very old film prints, I started to realize that I wanted to try and reunite a historically significant body of early film works, in a specific genre, and on a level that hadn’t really been attempted previously.
Miniflix: What was it about early animation that drew you to it more than contemporary animation (both as a child and as an adult?)
Tommy: A great deal of the early films I work with are black and white productions. I grew up with a lot of Golden Age animation produced in color, yet even as a child, black and white films called out to me. I had seen a couple silent-era Felix the Cat cartoons and Charlie Chaplin films, at a very young age, and I recall being enchanted by them. There was something surreal and other-worldly about a monochromatic image in photography or film that fascinated me. I enjoyed thumbing through black and white family photos. A black and white image was also a tip-off that something I was looking at might be very old, and being a young history buff, I certainly wanted to see old things and learn about them. I also enjoyed contemporary media as a child, as I do now, and yet having a record of the past, a moving image, is something I’ve always found to be immensely powerful and emotive both as a form of technology and as a work of art. In any case, animation from the first few decades of filmmaking tends to be rather wild and surreal on many levels, in ways that have been lost over time. They really are a ‘trip’ to watch.
M: What was your time like as an undergraduate like at CUNY (The City University of New York)?
T: My undergrad experience at CUNY was more or less what I envisioned college life being, as a New York City resident: commute to classes, and return home afterward to resume life as usual. I actually started out as a Digital Art and Design major at Queensborough Community College on the associate level, getting to learn Photoshop and particularly enjoying fine arts and art history courses. I wound up transferring out of that degree track and into what was then known as the CUNY Unique program. My traditional black and white 35mm photography professor, Bob Rogers, who shared my fascination with early animation, took an interest in my personal work and recommended that I enter the CUNY Unique program, where I could self-title and tailor a bachelor’s degree with a set of core courses of my own choosing, so long as I had the approval of a mentor — a faculty member at the next CUNY campus of my choosing. That turned out to be Bob Kapsis, a sociology and film studies professor, at Queens College, where I studied next.
At Queens, I took a variety of media studies and history classes as part of my self-titled Historic Media Research and Conservation BA degree, including Kapsis’ very enjoyable and informative seminar on Hitchcock’s films, of which Kapsis is an expert historian and writer. As a lifelong Queens resident, I really enjoyed the opportunity to do all this studying within a range of just two to four miles from home. I’m grateful to the professors at both colleges who educated me greatly, while also appreciating my independent film archiving and research that was already well underway at that point, considering that I began reading about film history as a young child, and collecting films on video at a young age as well. Even so, it was an enriching opportunity for me to learn more about film history in an academic setting, especially with regard to genres that I don’t normally focus on much in my own work. The CUNY experience definitely lent more personal credence to my overall interests and goals, and I’ll admit that it also further solidified a lifelong geographical and cultural pride that I have as a New Yorker. As someone who deeply appreciates the vast cultural diversity and history of this place, I consider it an honor to have become a college educated person in my own backyard.
M: How did you get to be on Turner Classic Movies (TCM)? What was that experience like?
T: My association with Turner Classic Movies began back in 2011 or 2012. One of the head programmers there had seen a news piece on my work, and became interested in simultaneously helping my cause and seeing if I could provide some rare early animation material to show on their channel. Our first talks culminated on a wonderful program of early silent shorts, sourced from me, that were co-hosted by Robert Osborne and well-known animation historian Jerry Beck in 2012. A couple years later, we came up with another collaboration concept where I would provide a program’s worth of shorts from the Bray Studios, and personally co-host these films with Robert Osborne. This program tied into a larger evening of additional animation programs that had been planned, with material sourced by or co-hosted by other colleagues of mine in the field.
It was an absolute pleasure to provide this sort of material to the foremost cable channel focusing on classic films in this country, and being part of special animation programming on the channel when they had not really featured animation or shown it prominently for several years prior. These programs were a big deal in our animation history circles, and the exposure was also valuable. Being able to work with the late and esteemed Robert Osborne on their New York set was an experience I’ll always treasure — Robert was an absolute gentleman; a kind and patient soul who made a television newcomer like me, with some stage fright, as welcomed and comfortable as possible. Working with Turner on these projects is one of my proudest accomplishments in my career. Since the Bray program, I’ve been in the midst of providing some animation to them for streaming purposes, and I do hope we get to work on other projects again in the future as well.
M: You’ve been fortunate enough to work at both the School of Visual Arts and the Feirstein Graduate School of Cinema at Brooklyn College, lecturing and teaching on Animation History. How is that experience? Do you find incoming students to be particularly interested in animation history?
T: It’s been a couple of years now of having my own daytime undergrad/grad level courses, and I’m really enjoying the process of learning and growing with the job of teaching. In many ways, I’m an introvert, and being in charge of a classroom has given me the opportunity to practice public speaking with relatively small groups of people. I think I’ve slowly been able to find my own voice for verbally communicating concepts and opinions that I’ve been so accustomed to only expressing through writing, or via internal contemplation.
In any case, I’ve found joy in bringing awareness of these films to young people, and I’ve found that most of the students I’ve come across in these art and film production schools are definitely interested in the subject matter and enthusiastic about being exposed to and learning about a wide variety of films. I learn so much from them, too, whether it’s in understanding how large cross-sections of young creatives react to the films and comprehend what we discuss in a class setting, or whether they’re telling me about more contemporary films that are important to them, which I may not have already seen myself. I consider it to be a win-win situation, and my hope is that I can gradually expand my course load at these and other schools in the general vicinity.
M: What’s one way that you see contemporary animated short films continuing the tradition started by these early animators you’ve studied? What’s one major difference between the cartoons of today and those in the early 20th century?
T: While this can be a complicated question, I think there are a couple of simple answers I can give. While I don’t consider myself to be an expert or well-informed critic of contemporary animation, or of the student and independent works I’ve seen in recent years…in my opinion, there are two major differences:
1. The earliest cartoons were silent films, and while contemporary animators have a great opportunity to really experiment and flesh out visual gags and visual storytelling mechanisms, a lot of contemporary animation is awfully dialogue-driven, in the way television sitcoms tend to be. That was not the case in the art form for many of its initial decades.
2. CG animation, of course, is the most prevalent medium of production today. A lot of technical skill and finessing is necessary for making CG films and the effort is nothing to sneeze at, and quite amazing things can be made with the clicks of buttons and a mouse. Although, I think there is an innate dexterity and craft that is lost from the process, and perhaps some contemporary animators’ senses of fine art production, when the mainstream method of production no longer requires the artists to take a pencil or brush to paper and cels and have no pressure to know how to perfect an effective image with that method.
M: When you take your archive on the road and exhibit these restored shorts at different venues, what are the reactions like? Any surprising reactions? What are the demographics typically like for these events?
T: I find that at my public events, we seem to have a healthy mix of dedicated animation and film history fans, as well as curious newcomers who are not so familiar with the material and are interested in having an offbeat experience. Reactions can be varied, but I find that they tend to be positive. This ranges from being appreciative of the ability to see these rare early films, or being entranced by or enamored of them for their innate entertainment or historical value.
Unfortunately, some of the films contain gags and imagery that we generally recognize as offensive today, such as racism and sexism. We haven’t really had much negative reaction to these bits, possibly because the programs are usually contextualized in a way that explains how these films are a reflection of the times in which they were produced and the sensibilities of the filmmakers, which were problematic, and do not reflect our (the hosts’) values and sentiments.
Age wise, our guests tend to vary from college age to folks in their 60s and 70s, sometimes older. Generally, people are in their 20s-40s. In any case, my favorite reactions are when older guests become excited because they’re seeing something they remember watching as kids on TV in the 1950s, or younger people falling in love with some wild, wacky, or really ‘cute’ thing they’ve just seen anew at one of the shows.
M: Though no two restorations are ever alike, I’m sure, could you generally walk us through the process of restoring one of your prints? Maybe just a simple walk through of the steps you might take from start to finish.
T: Indeed, restorations of individual films vary wildly. Each film’s needs all depend on the condition and completeness of the main print being used as the source material. Albeit being time consuming and one of the more expensive aspects of my re-releasing activities, the restoration process is a rather fun one for me, as it’s highly collaborative. I’m not particularly gifted in the digital restoration realm, and so various colleagues of mine are tasked with performing different kinds of fixes on the films. In a very basic sense, a digital restoration generally entails the following workflow: inspect the source print for dirt and damage, cleaning and repairing appropriately; a professional 2K resolution scan is then performed at an outside transfer facility; I may edit the new digital file to repair splices that result in missing action by recycling identical animation cycles in nearby sections; the picture in this new digital file is then steadied shot-by-shot, and lastly, a combination of automatic and manual dust-busting is performed on the picture to remove dirt and other forms of picture damage that are not native to film as it was originally released. Flaws in the animation cels are normally left in for authenticity purposes.
That’s simply a straightforward process, and some films require lots more work — such as using 2 or 3 source prints to form a new composite print, and even digitally re-drawing or repainting certain damaged sections of the films that we can rehabilitate, but don’t have completely original picture information to complete a damaged shot. The result that we can get from digital restorations are nothing short of miracles, in some cases. Finally, of course, if we’re working with a silent film, a colleague will record a new musical track for it. Not all of the restorations we produce look perfect — sometimes that’s impossible if the source material is in really poor condition, and our digital tools sometimes have their limitations as well. Sometimes I don’t want a very good source print to look artificially cleaner than it would have looked when initially running in a theater.
M: It seems that one of the most iconic things about the early animation you’ve preserved are the characters. Even if many people haven’t seen some of these shorts, they often know who Felix is, or are familiar with some iteration of Tom and Jerry. Do you have a favorite early animation character? If so, who? Why is it your favorite?
T: I do have an offbeat sort of guilty pleasure, which might appear to be an unlikely candidate: Bobby Bumps. Bumps was initially a comic strip character in the early 1910s, first going by the monikers Brick Bodkin and Pudge Perkins, and it was drawn by Earl Hurd. Hurd based the mischievous little boy character on his own young son, and eventually wound up adapting the character to some of his early animation efforts in 1915.
This character, and these films, are fascinating and enjoyable to me on two different levels; their stylization or aesthetic and their historical significance in terms of technical innovation and their legal implications for the early industry. It was with the Bobby Bumps series that Hurd introduced and patented the cel technique for speeding up animation production, effectively separating elements of the picture onto different transparent layers above a static background. J.R. Bray soon took Hurd into his studio to produce the Bumps films and form a joint patent company with Hurd, which intimidated or downright pushed others out of the business, if not forcing competitors to pay Bray-Hurd a license fee for being able to use these techniques for animation production.
Artistically speaking, Hurd was born in 1880 and, in my opinion, the Bumps films definitely have a crude moving-Victorian-comic strip feel to them. It’s fascinating to see that style of illustration in a motion picture time capsule of sorts. Sometimes the characters have grotesque or hideous features, when compared with more ‘cartoony’ designs we see in slightly later series. The visual and story-driven humor in these films can be pedestrian and subtle at times, requiring patience and a keen eye to fully grasp — they’re an acquired taste for many.
For me, viewing them amuses me at face value while it also gets me thinking about the invention that made them possible, and the impact they had on revolutionizing the rest of the industry, helping take animation from an experimental art form to a lucrative, and sometimes cutthroat commercial commodity. I’ve sought after the Bumps cartoons for many years for all of these reasons, and fifteen of them will be featured in the latest entry of my Cartoon Roots home video release series, which should be available sometime this spring.
M: If someone who has never seen a cartoon before 1940 (or even 1950 if you want) came up to you and asked what they should watch first, what would you say? Why?
T: Funny you should ask this, because I may amuse or disappoint some of my closest colleagues with my answer. First, to humor myself, I would suggest to such a person that they should watch a silent era cartoon in order to understand what kind of mainstream animation existed in a pre-Mickey Mouse world, which is what led up to whatever 1940s or 1950s animation they may already have seen. Now, I have a joke with some of my friends — it goes something like: “The only silent cartoons ever made were Gertie the Dinosaur (1914), Felix in Hollywood (1923), and Koko’s Earth Control (1927).” The joke is a sarcastic one, a sort of parody of how general film history scholars and repertory cinema/festival programmers have touted these films, again and again, as practically the only silent-era cartoons deserving attention. Of course, many many hundreds of silent cartoons were produced, and it’s not these folks’ fault that so few of them survive and even fewer of them have circulated in recent decades. My work has been all about trying to change that reality, and so there’s a bit of eye-rolling when these films continue to steal the spotlight in some settings.
In any case, these titles are indeed among some of the most historically significant and genuinely good, enjoyable films of the subgenre. To this person in the hypothetical question, I might recommend watching Koko’s Earth Control first. It would give them a really good idea of how effectively animators of the 1920s could perfect character designs, animate effective expressions and gestures with excellent pacing of action and gags, and create both a surreal and funny situation comedy for the characters. All while having the producer of the films, Max Fleischer, appear in live action segments, which was a common trope of the time that showed audiences there was a mastermind behind the films, interacting with and — sometimes — controlling their cartoon creations. Prior to this combination animation and live action hybrid trend, it is said that some audiences thought early animated cartoons were wire trickery, or some other form of live-action magic being performed.
I think modern audiences sometimes lose sight of the fact that these early cartoons were incredible to initial viewers not only because some of them were very well made and very fun to watch and were popular, but also because people had never seen any such thing before, or could even conceptualize such a novelty before the earliest experimental animators showed their work in public. When contextualized properly, there is that sense of initial awe that I would hope a modern viewer appreciates when they think about how groundbreaking these early animated cartoons really were, and no matter how forgettable and merely a quick profit-making novelty a lot of the early producers and distributors viewed the films to be.
To check out more of Tommy’s work, go to http://www.tommyjose.com/.