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Monday, April 23, 2007

Kevin's View: The Shimmering, Glimmering Jim Tyer

Jim Tyer's twisted sense of anatomy and movement
is clearly
evident in the above sequence


The recent "Terrytoons Double Bill" prompted some fascinating insights from Kevin on the strange, almost ethereal nature of Terrytoons animation. In my review of THE POWER OF THOUGHT, I put forward the theory that Terry's animators existed in a sort of time warp, retaining the straight-ahead, unpredictable style that by the 1940's was considered "old hat" at most studios. Seeing some of the earliest efforts produced by AmadeƩ Van Buren only confirmed it for me--in such cartoons as the 1929 SUMMERTIME, there existed an almost total disregard for such things as weight or dimension--characters would thrust their heads toward the camera from across a room, appearing for seconds at a time to be horrendously off-model (assuming there was even such a thing as "off-model"--or on--in that era) only to snap back a moment later. Such a glaring disregard for anatomy and logic seems careless to our modern eyes, but it gave those early Van Buren cartoons an "otherworldliness" rivaled only by Fleischer.

Paul Terry, who had worked for Van Buren on the AESOP'S FABLES cartoons as a director in the 1920's, carried that sense of animated characters as "pure cartoon" with him when he struck out on his own, and he imparted that attitude to those who worked for him. No one exemplified that feeling of "anything can happen" quite like his key animator Jim Tyer, whose characters often seemed as if they had no anatomy at all, floating effortlessly through the animated landscape. Model sheets merely served as a "suggestion" for Tyer, who would adhere to them--or not--as his whim dictated.

Kevin elaborates on that devil-may-care quality in Tyer's work in this installment of KEVIN'S VIEW. Though his comments are brief, he gets at the heart of what made Terrytoons visually unique:

Kevin's View
by Kevin Wollenweber

It (THE MAGIC PENCIL) kinda brings back memories of Terrytoon art. Yes, even Paul Terry's cartoons could be somewhat magic. I'd like to someday talk to John Kricfalusi and find out just why he likes Terrytoons. I have my own vague reasons-vague, because I can't outline actual scenes as to why I like some of the visuals in a Terrytoons cartoon.

There is this almost chilling thing that happens sometimes in a
Terrytoon-it often happens a lot more fluidly at other studios when a character has high voltage driven through him. Remember that BUGS BUNNY cartoon in which Bugs believes that dogs who are racing are after a real live rabbit and he goes to somehow caress the electronic bunny, only to get a sizzling dose of high voltage sent through him? Well, Terry would do this with characters at odd moments, and most of those moments don't have anything to do with high voltage but might represent a character suddenly getting angry or just suddenly feeling strangely.

Somewhere, there exists a print of a PERCY & ROQUEFORT cartoon in which Percy, the cat, comes in contact again and again with catnip and has this strange reaction, and this includes the most surreal shimmering. I wish someone knew what you call this technique. To some it might appear to be a cheap shortcut or an instance in which the animators in question didn't know what they were doing because the effect looks a bit jumpy, but it is no doubt meant to be that way as a kind of surreal slow burn. It must be an interesting effect to freeze and examine, frame by frame, like those riveting Tex Avery takes.


Like Kevin, when viewing these cartoons as a child, I was at a loss for words to describe what I was seeing when viewing a Tyer scene. "Shimmering" is perhaps the best term I've heard--when Tyer's characters would go into a take, they would do precisely the opposite of what Avery's would do in that situation--instead of stretching like putty, they'd seemingly contract into themselves, literally shrinking for perhaps a quarter of a second, just long enough to be perceptible. Then, just as quickly, they'd resume their original form, much like the characters in the Van Buren cartoon--except that Tyer was doing this in 1950.

Kevin makes comparisons to Tex Avery, but I would go further and compare him to Rod Scribner at Warner's. Scribner, as you've no doubt seen in such cartoons as GRUESOME TWOSOME and THE HEP CAT, liked to vibrate his characters to a stop, exaggerating the laws of inertia and giving them a "cartoony" spin. Tyer could do this well--
Mark Myerson, in his 1990's APATOONS article on Tyer, uses the fight scene from the 1945 Popeye cartoon SHAPE AHOY as an example of Tyer using such a technique logically, for dramatic effect.

But Tyer didn't always use such techniques logically, particularly in his years at Terrytoons. The "ladder" scene in THE POWER OF THOUGHT is almost certainly Tyer's, for when Heckle causes a fireman's ladder to issue forth from his bare hands, it vibrates as it goes up, almost as if it were straining to expand. Illogical, yet logical at the same time.

The Rod Scribner Project blog, while being generally complimentary of Tyer, criticizes his seeming lack of control in comparison to Scribner. Though, as the frames below illustrate, Tyer knew precisely what he was doing, adding vitality to what in anyone else's hands would have been a rather mundane "sneak" cycle. Note the limbs seem as if they're dislocated, yet this quirky little sequence couldn't better describe Percy the cat's emotions. Viewed in motion, the expansion and contraction of his body creates precisely the shimmering effect Kevin speaks of:

In all, Tyer's animation sequences more often than not lifted Terrytoons above the commonplace, "shimmering" like the animated jewels they were.

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(Edited 4/23/07 for spelling and minor "tweaking" of content--R.)

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