The seeds for what would eventually become Fleischer Studios were planted in 1915 when Max Fleischer, who was then Art Editor for Popular Science Magazine, invented the rotoscope. Max was fascinated by early attempts at animation and felt certain he could improve on the jerky movement he saw on screen. The rotoscope enabled animators to draw figures, frame by frame, over filmed action, thereby creating more life-like movement. The first rotoscoped film took over a year to make, and lasted only about a minute, but the results were so startlingly smooth and life-like that animated cartoons were forever altered.
Dave Fleischer in his clown outfit
J.R. Bray, a pioneer of early animation, was intrigued by Max’s early rotoscope work, featuring his brother Dave Fleischer in a clown suit, and hired Max with the idea of producing a series of Koko films to be released under the title “Out of the Inkwell.” But with the outbreak of World War I, Bray instead sent Max and fellow Bray staffer Jack Leventhal, a brilliant mechanical draftsman, to Ft. Sill, Oklahoma where they made some of the first training films ever made for the US Army, and the clown films were temporarily put on hold. Upon returning to the New York, Max worked on a number of Bray projects including some of the very early theatrical Koko films.
In 1921 Max left Bray Studios and, together with his brother Dave, launched a new company: “Out of the Inkwell, Inc.” They hired one employee, Charlie Shettler, who stayed with the studio until it closed twenty years later. Out of the Inkwell’s first “studio” was a New York City basement apartment; the brothers even shot some of the live action sequences for these early films in their own living rooms. But demand for the Fleischers’ cartoons quickly grew. By 1923 they had a staff of 19 and the studio was able to move into what would become its longest lasting location: 1600 Broadway in the heart of New York City.
It was during this period that the Fleischers partnered with Lee DeForest, a pioneer in the fledgling field of sound technology, to create the first cartoon using synchronized sound, My Old Kentucky Home, which was released in 1926 (nearly two years before Walt Disney’s 1928 Steamboat Willy, which is often erroneously attributed this distinction). The film also included another of the Fleischers’ early innovations, the “bouncing ball,” which provided audiences with the lyrics and rhythm of music so they could sing along.
The Fleischers put popular, modern music at the center of many of their films, building entire cartoons around jazz legends such as Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong and Don Redman. These cartoons often featured the Fleischers’ signature combination of live action and animation; in fact the earliest known footage of Cab Calloway in performance can be seen in the Fleischer classic Minnie the Moocher. “In 1929 the Studio made a major agreement with Paramount that would allow Paramount to distribute all Fleischer films. That same year the Studio changed its name to ‘Fleischer Studios.’
The popularity of Fleischer films exploded once again with the creation of Betty Boop, who first appeared in 1930 in Dizzy Dishes. Then in 1932, the Fleischers secured the rights to animate an already well-known comic strip character by the name of Popeye. While the Fleischers didn’t create Popeye, (or Olive Oyl, Bluto or Wimpy), they did provide him with some of his most iconic traits including his use of spinach to acquire super human strength and his trademark “I’m Popeye the Sailor Man” song.
Unlike other cartoon “stars” of the day, Fleischer characters like Betty Boop, Grampy, and Koko the Clown were modeled on human beings. With their surreal, edgy, often gritty, urban setting the Fleischers were part of what was referred to as the ‘East Coast Style of Animation’ as opposed to the ‘West Coast Style’ of animators, like Disney, that tended to feature farm animals and settings.
By 1938, the studio had a staff of 250 and occupied four full floors of the 1600 Broadway building. They moved the studio to Florida toward the end of that year, and eventually increased their staff size to over 700, in order to undertake their largest project to date, the full-length animated feature, Gulliver’s Travels.
In 1941, the studio once again found success animating a much beloved comic strip character: Superman. Considered by many to be some of the best animated films ever made, the Fleischer cartoons gave Superman the power of flight (until then he could only leap tall buildings) and coined the famous phrase “Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to soar higher than any plane!” The first film in this series, entitled simply “Superman,” was nominated for an Academy Award and is featured as one of the 50 Greatest Cartoons of all Time in Jerry Beck’s 1994 book “The 50 Greatest Cartoons: As Selected by 1,000 Animation Professionals.”
Today, Fleischer Studios is alive and thriving thanks to the timeless appeal and popularity of characters like Betty Boop, a resurgence of interest in the Fleischers and their numerous innovations, some of which, like the rotoscope and the bouncing ball, are still in use today, and a growing appreciation for the many lasting contributions their work has made to our cultural history.
To learn more about the studio, its people, and the stories behind the scenes, visit our online Museum and watch some of the amazing and wild films in the Theater section. The Fleischer Studios website, like the studio itself, is growing and ever-changing so check back often.
You can also read more about the history of Fleischer Studios in Richard Fleischer’s 2005 book “Out of the Inkwell.”