Jim Tyer: The Animator Who Broke the Rules
IntroductionI wrote this paper in 1990 for the Society for Animation Studies conference. I've altered it somewhat, mainly because I'm not in a position to show video clips at appropriate points. Too see a compilation of Tyer's work, go here.
There are several reasons that I'm interested in Jim Tyer. Tyer's work is animation's equivalent of a train wreck or a freak show. It's not something you'd necessarily choose to look at, but once it's caught your eye it's hard to look away. I also think that Tyer's work is very funny. I'd be the first to admit that Tyer had severe limitations as an animator, but within those limitations he was highly entertaining.
Lastly, I admire Tyer's bravery and iconoclasm. Looking back on this paper now, I can see my own frustration at the anonymity and conformity of the animation business. Tyer did not let it crush him. Rather than be another hack animator at Famous or Terry, Tyer found ways to do work that was personal and interesting. We should all be so lucky.
Jim Tyer: The Animator Who Broke the Rules
© 1990, 1995 Mark Mayerson
Every successful creative act has to strike a balance between freedom and control. Freedom is necessary for an idea to be born and take shape. Control is necessary for an idea to be expressed in some medium. When a creation is the result of a group of people instead of a single person, control becomes more important. The work must be organized so that a fragile idea can withstand the touch of many hands. If that group is working in a commercial art form, with budgets and deadlines, control becomes even more important. But control is only one side of the equation, and often enormous control is exercised in the name of a poor idea.
The cartoons made by American studios and shown in theaters were a group effort in a commercial art form. From it's birth, animation potentially had as much freedom as any other medium, starting as it did with blank paper and unexposed film. Control was something that was not present at first, and only evolved over several years. During the silent era, animators tended to go their own way on a film. With the coming of sound, the artists' jobs became much more specific. At some studios, such as Disney, Warners, MGM and UPA, a successful balance between freedom and control was struck. Other studios, such as Terrytoons, were off-balance, in that they spent time and effort to make trivial films.
So far as animators in American studios were concerned, controls existed in two key areas. The first was the overall production process. Animators had a specific function in the making of the films, mainly, to make the characters move. The second was the nature of animation itself. A national style of drawing and motion evolved that became the accepted way that animated characters should look and act.
The production process was broken down into discreet steps. Each department took work from the department above it, made its contribution and passed the work on to the next department. While the assembly line resulted in well made cartoons, it put animators far from the center of creation. When an animator sat down to do a scene, the story was written, the characters designed, the shot continuity decided, the voices cast and recorded, the staging set and the timing determined. The animator's job was to take all this material and synthesize it into a performance. The animator was an interpretive artist, like an actor working from someone else's script or a dancer working from someone else's choreography. The animator was free to express himself within the limits of the material, but there was no place for individuality at the expense of the film.
A standardized approach to drawing and movement also evolved, so that animators could easily move between directors and even studios without having to adjust their visual approach. The animator's basic tool was line. The characters were drawn using simple, rounded shapes, so that they could be easily duplicated by the many artists who worked on a film. Characters were drawn to appear solid; to have volume and occupy a three dimensional space.
The reality of characters was further bolstered by the way they moved. They appeared to react to gravity and momentum. When acting, a character's body posture and timing were exaggerated versions of an approach that the audience was familiar with from theater and live action film.
There is no question that the development of the production system and the style of animation improved American cartoons. The cartoons of 1940 are vastly superior to the cartoons of 1920. However, with all that was gained, there was also something lost: individuality. The production process concentrated the control of the films' content into very few hands. The assembly line dominated the artists who worked on it. The style of animation required that animators submerge their own styles of drawing and motion into accepted patterns. Some animators, like Rod Scribner, Emery Hawkins and John Gentilella, produced work that was recognizeably their own within the American style. But their work was still consistent enough with their colleagues' that an audience never thought to differentiate between animators.
No one fought the controls imposed on animators more than Jim Tyer did, starting in the mid 1940's. His work constantly called attention to itself. His drawing and animation were so different from anyone else's that they visually broke the flow of the cartoon. His footage was so odd that attention shifted from the cartoon as a whole to what his animation was doing. He demolished the limitations imposed on him as an animator and often hijacked the film. He did this at two studios where the cartoons rarely justified the effort involved in producing them: Famous Studios and Terrytoons.
If you judge Jim Tyer by the best in American animation, the man was a failure. However if you judge him by the films that he worked on, you can't think of him the same way. Jim Tyer expressed himself in the face of massive indifference. Surrounded by formula gags, drawing and timing, Tyer provided originality. For all his technical shortcomings, there is an emotional truth and humor to his work that is hard to find in the surrounding animation.
The first 20 odd years of Jim Tyer's career were unexceptional. He was born February 8, 1904 in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and by 1926 he was working at the Aesop's Fables studio in New York. That studio evolved into the Van Beuren studio, and Tyer worked there until 1935. While there, he directed at least four cartoons, Marching Along and Pals in The Little King series in 1933 and Grandfather's Clock and A Little Bird Told Me in the Toddle Tales series in 1934. These films were not markedly different from the standard output of the studio, which has left us very few memorable cartoons.
Tyer moved to Los Angeles, where he reportedly spent a short time as an effects animator at Disney. From there, he became a gag man for Rudy Ising's unit at MGM. After a short stay at the Jam Handy studio in Detroit, he joined the Fleischer studio in Miami. At the time the Fleischers lost control of the studio, Tyer was animating on Popeye shorts.
His animation in the early 1940's was competent, but not great. His quirky drawing style was already present, but it was under control. For the most part, characters looked the way they were supposed to and maintained their proportions, though Tyer was somewhat sloppy. His timing had a slightly different texture than other animators, but not different enough to call attention to itself. He had mastered the ability to deliver dialogue. His lip sync was accurate and he phrased body action properly to match the accents in a character's speech. He had a fondness for vibrating people and objects, but he used it in appropriate places. His work on the Popeye cartoons We're On Our Way to Rio, Puppet Love and Moving Aweigh, all from 1944, was consistant with the approach he was using in Her Honor the Mare (1943), where he animates the entire ending of the cartoon, starting with Popeye's nephews feigning sleep on a couch.
Around 1945, Tyer's animation became a lot more adventurous. His drawings became looser, and he didn't maintain shapes and proportions as consistently as before. In Shape Ahoy (1945), during a fight scene between Popeye and Bluto, they pound each other with the trunk of a palm tree so hard that rocks and trees are uprooted by the impact. Unfortunately, Tyer didn't have enough control over the characters' lines of action or sense of weight and momentum to make the gag work. The viewer doesn't feel the necessary impact from the animation. Instead, Tyer seemed more interested in a graphic experiment: he popped the characters off the screen repeatedly. Instead of a cel with characters on it, a blank cel was substituted for two frames. It provides something of an optic shock to the viewer, having the shapes and colors of the characters flash on and off. He used the same approach in the climax of the Popeye cartoon Service with a Guile (1946), when a car that has been hastily repaired falls apart in a series of spasmodic explosions.
In 1946, Tyer moved from Famous Studios to Terrytoons. While Famous Studio cartoons tended to have formula stories, they were slickly produced. Famous had the tradition of the Fleischers and two feature films to measure themselves against. Terrytoons were equally stale in the areas of story and direction, but their animation was worse. Paul Terry's mercenary attitude towards his cartoons guaranteed that talent left the studio instead of gravitating to it.
The lack of quality control at Terrytoons was a boon to Jim Tyer. He had begun to experiment at Famous. At Terrytoons, he pulled out the stops. His drawing became exceptionally loose and his version of characters rarely matched the model sheets. The characters were no longer convincingly three dimensional. Tyer ceased worrying about good lip sync or how gravity affected a character. His animation became an exercise in how radically he could change shapes from one drawing to the next. The illusion that the film had been drawn by a single hand was shattered every time a Tyer scene appeared on the screen.
In most American animation, the shapes of a character's head and body change over time, but the transition from one shape to another is done as smoothly as possible. A happy face will have a different shape from a sad face in terms of the eyes, eyebrows, mouth and cheeks. These shapes are exaggerations of human facial expressions, so they communicate a character's feelings to the audience.
The way that the drawings are produced helps the smoothness of the shape transitions. An animator will do drawings one and five, and inbetween drawings two through four are put in after. Drawings one and five are stacked on top of each other on frosted glass lit from below, so that the inbetweener can see both drawings at once. The inbetweener can thus make sure that the new drawings move the character smoothly from the position of drawing one to drawing five.
By contrast, Jim Tyer animated "straight ahead." He did not do drawing one and drawing five, he did drawings one, two, three, four, five. Instead of having a start and end position to refer to, he had only a start position. Under normal circumstances, this makes it harder to control shapes. Tyer's style depends on the shapes not flowing together. This gives his lines and shapes a boiling, agitated quality, because they are changing every single drawing. This makes his characters seem to move more than average animation.
In most American animation, the graphic component of how the lines are arranged is subordinated to what a character's pose or facial expression is supposed to communicate to us. The content of a drawing or movement is more important than how the lines are arranged. In Tyer's work, the graphics are more obvious. The shape changing is pronounced enough that the lines sometimes overpower the character. You get caught up in what's happening graphically, watching the lines dance around the screen at least as much as you watch what the character is doing.
Tyer worked for all the Terrytoon directors of the period, Connie Rasinski, Mannie Davis and Ed Donnelly, and on all the series that the studio produced. Amazingly, the Terry directors treated Tyer like any other animator. They were insensitive to the differences between his work and everyone else's. They had no hesitation in alternating Tyer scenes with those of other animators. The clash of styles didn't concern them in the least.
In the Heckle and Jeckle cartoon Ten Pin Terrors, Tyer animates the bulldog grabbing a bowling ball that has had glue poured into it's holes. Tyer continues with the bulldog attempting to throw the ball and getting pulled down the alley by the momentum and crashing through the pins. Another animator has the dog raise his head, get hit by the falling bowling pins and then run towards the magpies. Tyer then picks up the animation with one of the magpies tossing a ball at the dog. The dog ends up balancing on top of the bowling ball and once again crashes into the pins.
There seems to be no reason for having broken up Tyer's scenes with another animators. If anything, the alternation makes Tyer's scenes stand out even more. Tyer's version of the dog is extremely loose and the drawings are funny looking. You can take funny to mean both humorous and strange. The other animator is competent, but his work is much more conservatively drawn and animated. His drawing and action are technically better, but don't have nearly the same impact.
While the Terrytoons directors were not willing to restrain Tyer, they also weren't interested in using him to a film's advantage. Tyer animated scenes that he was clearly unsuited for, and robbed the cartoons of some of their impact. In other cases, scenes that cried out for Tyer's approach were handed off to more conventional animators.
One of the best and worst examples of Tyer's work at Terrytoons is the Mighty Mouse cartoon A Cat's Tale (1951), directed by Mannie Davis. Tyer animated the opening of the film. A cat in a state of panic is fleeing from some mice. He enters a cave, bars the door and starts explaining his situation to the audience, introducing a flashback on the origin of Mighty Mouse, who's responsible for the cat's condition.
The animation is not only incredibly stretchy, it also has something of the quality of mercury. Tyer's animation was perfectly suited to this character. It is one of the few times that the story justified Tyer's approach in more than a superficial way. Tyer's nervous, agitated lines are perfect for a nervous, agitated characters. Since the cartoon returned to this character several times, you would think that Davis would have assigned Tyer to all these scenes, but he didn't. Someone else took over the character, and showed him pacing and chain smoking cigarettes, but the animation was a poor second to Tyer's. At the film's climax, the cat is frightened by an image of Mighty Mouse drawn by the animator's hand. But here again, the animation was far more reserved than at the opening. Davis wasted Tyer on Mighty Mouse's battle with a giant cat. This sequence was supposed to be played for some drama, but Tyer wasn't up to it. His weaknesses as an animator robbed the fight of impact. Contrast this to Hot Rods (1953), where the fight was played strictly for laughs. Tyer was much more successful here. A cat pulls a succession of weapons out of a valise and uses them against Mighty Mouse. Mighty Mouse stands still and non-chalantly takes the full impact of each weapon, ending with a cannon shot at point blank range. The animation contains typical Tyer vibrations and an off-model version of Mighty Mouse.
One might be tempted to see Tyer's work at Terrytoons as a degeneration of his skills. However, in Pill Peddlers (1953), we see just how conscious Tyer was of his approach. In this film, he did not do any of the chase scenes. He was cast completely against type and animated the situation that sets up the rest of the cartoon. Heckle and Jeckle are selling pills they claim will add muscles. Unfortunately for them, they're doing it outside a gym and the bulldog proprietor wants them to move on. Tyer reined himself in and reverted to his pre-1945 style. It was a very restrained performance, in sharp contrast to the rest of his work of the period. He was clearly capable of animating in a conventional style, but rejected it in favor expressing himself.
When Mousehood Was in Flower is a 1953 Mighty Mouse cartoon that was released just two months later, and it shows just how far Tyer was prepared to go. In this cartoon, he got to handle the tournament announcer straight through in an amazingly abstract piece of lip sync. There is no sense of the mouth forming shapes that match the soundtrack. There is only a synchronization in so far as the mouth action starts and stops with the dialogue. As an approach, it is closer to animating to music, where the animator is concerned with hitting beats and ignores individual notes.
Tyer's deviations from the normal approach were so that he could better express himself. It took an extreme technique because Tyer was expressing extreme emotions. All his characters are manic and are barely able to contain their emotions, just as Tyer's lines can barely contain them graphically. The radical shape changing he employed make his characters and objects seem like volcanoes ready to erupt. In Miami Maniacs (1956), Tyer animated several scenes with a stereotypical cartoon bomb: a black ball with a fuse. While the other animators treated the bomb as solid, Tyer changed the shape radically frame by frame. The result was a perfect visualization of the bomb's potential energy and it appears to be much more threatening. Tyer's graphic sense of urgency gave the cartoons a forward momentum they wouldn't otherwise have.
Tyer's approach tended to stay constant regardless of what character he was animating. He was less interested in a character's individual response than he was in his own response. An animator like Ken Harris could portray characters as different as Pepe Le Pew and Daffy Duck and make each convincing. Tyer did not have that range. The paradox, however, is that while Harris was a far better animator, we look through his work to Chuck Jones and Michael Maltese. His skill renders him less visible to the audience. Tyer is completely opaque. You can't see past him to anybody else.
In some ways, Tyer's Terrytoons work was a last hurrah for him and the system he was rebelling against. By the 1960's, more TV animation than theatrical animation was being turned out, and whatever theatrical animation was left was suffering from low budgets. The assembly line production system continued, but animators' ability to provide entertainment declined with the number of drawings they did per second of screen time. Animation came to be thought of as a mechanical process that was executed after the creative work was done.
Tyer moved into the TV era with work at Joe Oriolo's studio on Felix the Cat and The Mighty Hercules (1959-1962). For the Hal Seeger studio, he worked on Out of the Inkwell (1962-1963), Milton the Monster (1964) and Batfink (1966). At Paramount, he animated on the Snuffy Smith (1963) series. His last important animation was on Fritz the Cat, where he worked on the section which takes place in Harlem. Tyer's drawing was still recognizeable, but the energy was depleted. It was a shadow of what he was doing at Terrytoons 20 years earlier. He died in 1976.
Jim Tyer was a renegade, but he wasn't a revolutionary. His work was not a call to arms that other animators heeded. His approach was so personal that it was unusable by others. None of his contemporaries worked in anything approaching his style. In the years since Tyer's death, he has occasionally influenced others. In the 1970's, N.Y. animator Tony Eastman made an independent film in homage to Tyer's style called TV Baby. Tyer was also cited as an influence on the Bakshi Mighty Mouse show.
I've been trying to think of a live action equivalent to Jim Tyer, and the closest I could come was Curly Howard of The Three Stooges. Curly Howard didn't write or direct, so he wasn't responsible for the shaping of the films. As a comedian, he had a fairly limited bag of tricks, but he had a manic quality similar to Tyer's which livened up any material he was given. The Stooges' films with Curly are the ones most fondly remembered. The same can be said of Jim Tyer and Terrytoons. His animation was funnier than any gag he was given to draw and his animation is the only reason I can think of to watch Terrytoons of the period.
While his work is funny, it is also a constant reminder of the tension between what studio animators want to do versus what they're allowed to do. The life that an animator instills in a character is usually somebody else's and not the animator's own. Jim Tyer pointed up the contradiction of the studio approach, but his solution, like Tyer himself, was one of a kind.