I’d had a little theme going of Popeye in Outer Space, and I wanted to continue it, but I couldn’t find any other Popeye In Space cartoons. I thought about carrying on with Popeye alone and after finding an episode of Popeye and Sons on YouTube — actually a compilation of what I guess was all the episodes released on DVD — I just couldn’t do it. Even the promise of the Sea Hag appearing couldn’t keep me from losing interest.
So let me go with Space instead, and the 1935 Fleischer Brothers Color Classic Dancing On The Moon. The Color Classics were, basically, the Fleischer Brothers’ version of Silly Symphonies, cartoons with typically one-shot characters that animate a song or two, so do be warned: the song from this cartoon is going to haunt your dreams. (I like it anyway.) And the Color Classics are, well, in color, using first Cinecolor, then two-strip Technicolor, and finally (once Disney’s exclusive contract on the process expired) three-strip Technicolor. This one is in two-strip Technicolor, so it looks a little more red-and-green than the equivalent in three-strip would have, but the setting is designed to not need so much blue.
The most striking bit of it, though, is implicit in that notice at the start of the cartoon: “Patent Pending for Special Processes Used in this Production”. That’s almost certainly the development of the Stereoptical process. This is partly a kind of multi-plane camera that allows animation cells to be at different focus depths, and to move with an appropriate parallax, conveying depth. The Fleischers took that a step farther, though, and built neat little sets, up to six feet deep, for the characters to move within. Sometimes the sets themselves contained moving components, such as the spaceship in this short.
They relied on this trick a lot in their late 30s cartoons, and for good reason: it worked every single time. It added a bit of three-dimensionality to the cartoons and used that third dimension the way I think it works best, to add depth behind the screen. And they had a knack for creating real sets that look like cartoons. In some cartoons they’d realize they could have the animated figure disappear behind some of the setting, making the world that much more tangible.
Mixing cartoon and live-action elements feels modern — it’s hard sometimes to realize it was ever done before Who Framed Roger Rabbit, or at least before Mary Poppins, but it was strikingly common not just in the late 30s with the Stereoptical camera and miniature sets, but especially in the silent era. The Fleischer Koko the Clown cartoons depended on Koko and the animator (Max Fleischer) interacting, and Disney had a series based on the human Alice being in a cartoon land. There is just something about a cartoon character that inspires trying to touch it.