I was listening to a Flophouse podcast episode that got onto talking about supervillains and how so many supervillains were just making life worse for themselves trying to conquer the world. Why not try selling their super-inventions instead and get rich so their evil will be socially acceptable? And that’s when I realized you could totally make that a supervillain’s backstory. Like, someone invents her army of mind-reading robot soldiers and they try making an honest living on it, and then the companies they sell it to all steal her invention without respecting her patent rights. And then she’s not just got her supervillain science going but also has a logical reason for turning against society and fighting society’s lackey superheroes. And just as I thought I had a great idea for cracking the supervillain motivation problem I realized: I was building a story premise on long-running corporate abuses of patent law. Once again I am reminded of just why everybody kind of had a point treating me like that in middle school. Please forget I said anything and if you can use this idea for your supervillain origin story I will neither sue nor send an army of battle sheep or whatever after you. Promise.
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.
I don’t want to alarm anyone but I have seen on the labels of a towel at a Holiday Inn the notice that it was part of the Holiday Inn Bath Collection, Patent Pending. There’s at minimum two things to wonder about in that fact. The first is that the Holiday Inn corporation believes it has somehow made an advancement in the technology of towels sufficient to be considered for a patent. The other is that apparently I am content to read the towel labels at a Holiday Inn. I have no excuse for this behavior. I’m sorry to have to make you all aware of it.
What would a towel technological innovation even be, though? I’m trying to picture it as I understand all technological developments by picturing how it would be explained in a little pop-up window in Sid Meier’s Civilization II, and it seems like towels have to fit in somewhere after “Mysticism” but before “Robotics”. But then we in the real world already have robots and Holiday Inn is putting forth more towel developments. So it’s not a perfect understanding, I guess, but it’s what I have.
I noticed, on the edge of the plastic bag from Meijer’s, this warning:
Patent No. 8,067,072 And Other Patents Pending
Now I’m enchanted. I mean, I understand how you might have one patent for a plastic bag, what with it being a totally non-obvious idea of having a sheet of plastic folded up again that holds stuff and can be held at the same time, but, what about the patents pending? What other mysteries of advanced technology and imaginative design have gone into this thing I got to hold a canister of canola oil because we forgot it the first time through and I ran back in? I’m kind of hoping they’re Wi-Fi enabled plastic bags, because I like the thought of recycling centers just turning into vast natural repositories of accumulated Wi-Fi signal until they reach the point that the styrofoam packing we weren’t supposed to put in the recycling bin and that’s become an unwanted pile of junk over there can send out its own e-mails about how excited they are regarding their own patent applications.