George Pal Puppetoons – the early years

Ken Clark pieces together a portrait of George Pal – in his ealy days – as seen through the eyes of a number of star witnesses.

The 1947/48 edition of the American Motion Picture Almanac says of George Pal… “he devised the production system for his Puppetoons in London.” Even Bruce Holman, in his excellent history of Puppet Animation in the Cinema believed that… ‘In about 1935 Pal went to London, where he produced three puppet films for Horlick’s Malted Milk… He also produced a series of films based on The Thousand and One Nights… After George Pal left for England…’

Several times, over the years, I have seen the belief blossom into outright declaration, most recently in the last issue of Animator and I do not believe it to be true.

So – what really happened? I call my first witness, John Halas. As an ex-student he began his film career in Hungary in the company of an equally young George.

John Halas: I entered the profession when I joined a small animation unit specialising in advertising films and titles (sub-titles) for feature films which were translated from American text to Hungarian text. And in that studio we not only did the Hungarian translation but also the lettering of the text. From there on the small unit branched out to do local advertising. That’s where I met a highly talented young student from the local art school, and that was George – but his name was not Pal, his real name was untranslatable into English.

Actually, George Pal did not do model films in those times, he animated cut-outs. Our early training involved grabbing a pair of scissors and cutting out the separate pieces of paper, putting them together and animating them under the camera. The other mental discipline was the fact that the films had to be made between the morning and the evening (of the same day) under the camera. That entailed writing the story between 8 – 10 am, designing the characters between 10 – 11 am, cutting them out and joining them by lunchtime, doing the backgrounds after lunch, animating the figures under the camera by the evening and having it developed during the night, so that the next morning we could deliver it. It was a very good discipline. Screen time ran from half to one minute. Now just imagine, in full animation, how long it takes to make a one minute cartoon – not one day, that’s for sure!

I was 15, he was 18 when we met and already he had shown all the genius which has subsequently been proved when he went to Berlin, to Eindhoven in Holland, and eventually to Hollywood. He left us very early in the Thirties.

George Pal 1935.

Ken Clark: No model work, yet!… but it was still early days. Our next witness, Peter Sachs, worked with Pal continuously throughout the Eindhoven days, and even before.

Peter Sachs: I started with George Pal in 1931/32 in Berlin. First we were with a studio which ran for six months before the money behind it ran out. Then George set up on his own. We started in a very small way in 1932 making model films exclusively for probably less than a year until 30th January 1933 when Pal packed his suitcase and departed. When we arrived at the studio next morning there was Pal’s secretary, my colleague Karl Zontack, and letters addressed to each of us telling us we would be hearing from him. In the envelopes were our insurance cards, and our wages plus one week extra.

He went to Paris and there made a short animated film cartoon and on the strength of that he obtained a contract from Philips early in July 1933.

(K.C.: Peter was by this time back in Holland. Pal contacted him and asked him to join him in Eindhoven.)

Eindhovn was like a gold-rush town. New houses were going up – expansion – radio boom – craftsmen, artisans, were needed, etc. In an area built by Philips, Pal had found a butcher’s shop which had storage space and a big workshop out back. The cold storage became our darkroom, and above that were rooms that originally could have been used as living accommodation or to house sausage-making machines. We took it over and it was absolutely ideal for our purposes.

The cameraman had a portable rostrum which Pal had ordered from Paris, that fitted into a suitcase of moderate size. It had a triangular base with a drawing board, hinged glass and pegs. Made with wooden up-rights it stood high enough to permit a short track-in. Much later it was adapted for 3-filter Technicolor.

We started with films for Philips – The Ship of the Ether, was the first film we made. Because of my previous experience I knew how to animate puppets and I was put in charge of the rostrum camera.

Pal manufactured his puppets in the round, one for each fractional movement in the same way cartoon animators draw in-betweens. We made hundreds of these puppets. Arms and legs were pliable and could be bent into position. Heads could be changed and re-arranged for different actions, a most convenient way of effecting repeat movements.

From line drawings all the pieces – the head, hands, body, feet – could be turned on a lathe, and then assembled in sequence. We had an excellent carpenter, a Dutchman; for example, a character might have a pot-belly and while walking it would bounce up and down. He would produce a series of bodies with the spherical belly rising and falling and stretching to an oval when necessary. When we needed a character to jump he would take his wood and dowelling, cut them in half then re-join the two sections by gluing them together with a paper gasket between. Then he would turn the figure keeping the invisible join dead centre. When the jump scene came to be shot, the figure would be split in half and the frontal half of the figures glued on separate sheets of glass, lust as one might trace and paint on separate cels. As each exposure was completed the glasses would be changed and the background or the camera moved along. The camera was mounted on a trestle table capable of prescribing an arc in front of the set, and equipped with parallel rods allowing the camera to slide forward and back for track-in and-out shots. The background or set was held in a scaffold of wooden beams and could slide left or right in groves. It was a very expensive way to do it but only fractionally more expensive than cel animation. We could use the same figures over and over again and by moving the camera around we achieved a simulated form of live action.

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