History of the Making of the First Color Cartoons

After years of a successful black-and-white career, animated cartoons are due to take on the additional appeal of color, thanks to the perfection of a process which is explained in detail in this article.

The first of 13 one-reel animated cartoon comedies in color have just been completed in Hollywood, marking the beginning of a new era in this popular form of entertainment which has already made Mickey Mouse and his cohorts the highest paid actors in the movie world, although they draw no salaries. Ted Eshbaugh, a Boston artist, is the man who has at last succeeded in producing animateds in color.

Making the colored comics duplicates the manufacture of black-white comics excepting the intricate application of color to the characters and transferring that color to the double negative that creeps through the recording camera a frame at a time. When you consider that 15,000 separate drawings on celluloid must be made by a staff of artists for a single reeler, composed of 16,000 frames, and that each figure or group of figures on each celluloid will display possibly six color combinations, you get some idea of the intricacy and tediousness of the process.

color cartoons

Let me give you some idea of the mechanical set-up before explaining the process. Eshbaugh mounts his camera lens-down on two beams above a table about the size of an ordinary office desk. An electric motor, connected by a rod to the camera’s driving mechanism, runs continuously. When the operator trips a key with his right hand, the rod engages the driving mechanism and turns the camera one frame, or one exposure.

But what is in the camera’s field of vision? First, a sheet of optical glass three-eighths of an inch thick and about 12 inches square, is set on a sheet of sponge rubber. The optical glass, which costs $30, is as nearly colorless as possible in order to give no reflections. The glass is held in two metal arms, which raise and lower by a foot pedal under the table. But we’re not ready to shoot yet. First, we must create the cartoons.

So we go back to the room where a dozen “animators” are engaged in drawing pencil sketches and others are coloring the celluloid sheets. The latter is the real background and secret of the whole process. As described at the Cartoon Museum, Eshbaugh conducted hundreds of experiments to get the correct color combinations, colors which would not change by the time they appear on the screen. How he accomplished that is, of course, his secret; a secret for which producers would pay a huge sum.

Next, the animals are drawn and colored on the celluloid sheets. Sometimes an entire group of animals will appear on a single sheet, again possibly only a hand will be drawn on one while the rest of the body appears on a second sheet. For this reason:

For the first time, a young producer films a movie cartoon, not only through five thicknesses of celluloid, but also in color! Although six colors may appear on a single drawing, fundamentally Eshbaugh starts with two colors, blue and red. “Every color,” he explained, “simple as it may look, requires painstaking study. There is some halation on the celluloids that destroys color values. I found it necessary to give them a flat, ‘fishy’ appearance and increase their density to overcome that trouble.”

In preparing for a picture, an animator draws each consecutive drawing on a board over an illuminated glass at the top of which are two steel registering pegs which fit through two holes in the paper or celluloid and hold the drawings in their proper place over the glass. This enables the animator to see the preceding drawing at the same time and to gauge the distance of the following drawings concerned in any action.

Each movement of a character must be formed by a separate drawing properly placed. For example, in order that Goofy may step from the right foot to the left, five drawings are made. Nine drawings will carry him along two steps. However, 50 drawings are required for him to walk across the screen.

The camera is all ready for a “one picture one turn of the crank” movement, a process already described. On the table directly under the lens within proper focus distance of the field are fastened two registering pegs relative to the field as those on all the drawing boards in the studio. The background and celluloids are placed over these pegs.

As Eshbaugh changed “cells” rapidly and tripped the camera, he explained the “camera angle” on colored comics. “We run two films through the camera simultaneously,” he said. “One film picks up the reds, the other gets the blues. In the past it would have been necessary to set up two cameras, making two negatives on separate machines. Naturally, it was difficult to get a perfect register, as the perforations on the side of the negative, having been cut either at different times or on different dies, did not always match. Now the film is made especially for color work and both are cut at the same time.