On Saturday, we reviewed the recent Blu-ray release of Cartoon Roots, a phenomenal collection of early animated shorts. The mastermind behind the compilation, animation historian and avid collector Tommy José Stathes, graciously spoke with us about the process of putting together the Blu-ray, his own “cartoon roots,” and his plans on future releases.
Cartoon Roots features 15 shorts, covering a twenty-five year period from the silent days to the early talkies. Of all of the material available to you–both in your private collection and through other resources–how did you decide which cartoons to include in the final lineup?
First, a little bit of background history. Few people know this, but the idea for this collection was actually born several years ago. Early on in my collecting and archiving efforts, one of my goals had been to eventually share most of my films with the general public. Around ten years ago, I decided to use the moniker “Cartoons On Film” to describe what I work with, and my close friend and animation historian colleague David Gerstein was kind enough to design a logo for me. Now I consider it a release label. In talking about releasing material, it was also David who came up with the Cartoon Roots title for an initial release. For many reasons, it took a very long time to get the project off the ground, though I think it happened at the right moment, especially now that we can utilize HD restorations and Blu-ray.
Roots was always intended to be a general introduction to early animation, so the idea was to include examples of notable characters, studios, and directors from the early period. From a historian standpoint, I wanted to make sure to feature films that are very rare by our own standards, as well as a couple slightly-circulating subjects that most animation fans might not otherwise see easily. I operate on a shoestring budget (that’s an understatement) so I went ahead and took advantage of some films that had already been prepared for other projects, such as Turner Classic Movie broadcasts. We then topped it off with a few more gems that, today, are exclusive to this Cartoons On Film release—many of the titles included either have not been seen publicly since their initial theatrical run, or they have not been shown on television in 50 or 60 years.
You worked with Thunderbean Animation to produce Cartoon Roots. What did the collaborative process entail? Did you have a hand in any restoration efforts?
The process was a combination of a lot of fun, trial and error, and patience. The Blu-ray format is still new to us as small independent producers, and we’ve found many kinks to iron out during the learning process of assembling and building a Blu-ray. That’s more Steve Stanchfield and Thunderbean’s end of things, as I’m less of a 21st century techie and more the old-school analog archivist. Most of us involved in the project live pretty far away from one another, so much of the process is done remotely. We’ll send materials to each other, such as the original films for transferring or hard drives containing HD files to review, and we’ll inform each other of progress or problems by phone and show each other images of materials by email to keep ourselves updated. It’s the type of niche project that only specific people can work on, given the nature of the kind of films we’re working with, and what it is exactly we’re trying to do with them.
Since I’m not too fluent (yet) with restoration software, my hand in the restoration efforts was more about instructing and requesting certain fixes on a case-by-case basis, and reviewing the fixes or catching mistakes, though considering who I was working with, I could sit back more and put a lot of trust into the others performing the digital miracles. Thunderbean does wonderful work and has become a leader in the world of breathing new life into historical animation, so the Cartoons On Film collaboration with them makes complete sense.
How did you initially become interested in early animation? When did you begin amassing your own impressive collection of early cartoons? How expansive is your collection currently?
I’ve had some form of an interest in it all the way back to my toddler days, even though I didn’t explicitly realize what exactly I was interested in, at that age. Thanks to inexpensive cartoon VHS tapes family members would buy for me at the supermarket or drug store, it seems I was always watching classic cartoons. On a few of those tapes were some early black and white cartoons, and even a couple from the silent era. Even at that young age, I found the monochrome characters fascinating and striking in a way that was much more impressive to me than their Technicolor counterparts. Beyond those early passive exposures, I’ve always had a natural interest in history and collecting things as well. At age 5 or 6, I began asking adults how old a certain object or building or film was, and I learned about collecting antiques, in addition to the VHS tapes I was already collecting by that age.
When I was around 8 or 9, my father found a small cache of 16mm Castle Films with attractive cartoon character boxes, knowing I would like them as cartoon-related objects and as vintage items. I loved them, but had no idea what the heck to do with ‘reel’ film. Soon after, an older relative told me he had a projector and could play the films for me, and I was hooked. There was such a magic tied to watching a decades-old machine project even older films in a way that was so technical, involved, and wildly different from how I was used to watching films as a child in the 90s. At the same time, through reading animation history books and scouring VHS catalogs, I simply realized many of the early cartoons were not available for purchase, and the 16mm format was the only way I might find and see more early cartoons. The rest is history. As of this writing, I have partial or complete film materials (16mm, 28mm, 35mm) on approximately 750 silent-era cartoons, and approximately 600 mostly black and white sound-era cartoons.
Last fall, you appeared on Turner Classic Movies to introduce a retrospective of Bray cartoons to celebrate that studio’s 100th anniversary. You also collaborated with the network in 2012 for another night of rare animation. Are there any plans in the works to collaborate with TCM in the future, to further showcase classic animation for a broader audience?
First, I should say that I’m incredibly grateful for my relationship with Turner Classic Movies and I admire their efforts to add more varied and unusual programming to their line-up. I do believe we’ve really helped each other, in the sense that I’ve been able to bring them rare and scarcely seen films for their audience, and they have in turn supported my archival activities and career. Meeting Robert Osborne was wonderful, of course, and part of me still can’t believe that I was on the set with him to co-host a program of films I collected. At this moment, there are no immediate plans for another program sourced from my archives, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be one or more in due time. Fingers crossed!
Are there plans for a follow-up Blu-ray collection to Cartoon Roots? Perhaps we can anticipate a collection of Bray shorts?
I think many people are curious about that very subject. In an ideal world, and based solely on the amount of material I have, there could easily be at least a couple dozen releases coming out under my label. The trick for me, especially this early in the game, is to fund more releases—the proceeds from just one release are not enough to both support me and to invest in more releases, at this time.
Funny you should mention Bray, though. The studio is the one I’ve researched and archived the most films from, and I naturally want to do an introductory collection featuring a cross-section of the studio’s important series and characters. Later on, it would be great to assemble more focused collections consisting entirely of one series, character, or a particular director’s work. The studio produced well over five hundred animated films, and the surviving examples (there are many; just check my color-coded Bray Animation Project filmographies) deserve new exposure. In any case, a Bray set will probably be my next project, and I’ll likely have to rely on crowdfunding to make it happen. Anyone who is interested in this should simply stay tuned for more … and probably very soon!
Many thanks to Tommy José Stathes for taking the time to speak with us! Cartoon Roots is currently available on Blu-ray/DVD through Thunderbean Animation.