The animated life of Shamus Culhane

Talking Animals and Other People, by Shamus Culhane. New York: St. Martin's Press. 463 pp. $24.95. In four decades, animated cartoons grew from flipbooks to ``Fantasia.''

So explains Shamus Culhane in his new book about his life in the hurly-burly world of the animation studio. ``Talking Animals and Other People'' is his title, and he does some salty, witty, even ribald talking about himself, his colleagues, and the ups and downs of life beyond the flipbook.

Starting out as a $12-a-week errand boy in 1924, Shamus worked with such old masters as Walter Lantz, Max Fleischer, and Walt Disney, and eventually had his own studio.

Shamus is not only a top-notch animator, he is also a born teacher, and his book is valuable for any art student, even if he or she is not interested in animation, because the author projects enthusiasm, and has learned himself that no one ever stops learning to draw if he loves it enough.

His career spans nearly the entire history of animation. Winsor McKay produced the first animated film (``Gertie the Dinosaur'') only a few years before Mr. Culhane started taking home that $12 a week.

He points out that the pictures of the 1920s, years that starred Felix the Cat and Betty Boop, were really only comic strips in frantic action. When Felix was perplexed, a question mark grew out of his tail to show that particularly deep emotion. (I don't think Miss Boop was ever perplexed, so they had no problem there.) It was the Disney studio that matured into characters that acted with realism, became more alive, dimensional.

Shamus is particularly proud of his animation of ``Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,'' a high point of his Disney years. Disney's interest in realism suited his humor and format, but after World War II the studios felt the influence of the Picassos and Mondrians. The early animators often came from newspaper work, a tradition long on fun and gags, but not so long on art. The influences from abroad changed the look of many new pictures, even the idea that formalized and ``limited'' action was not only more artistic, but funnier in a wild and woolly way.

Today, alas, cartoons are no longer made for theatrical distribution, and, except for Disney, the old studios have closed. Television is making up, and taking up, the market.

But Shamus is fascinated with the future. He sees real possibilities for animated ``fine art,'' and gives a glowing account of the work now being done by computers. All that old painstaking hand tracing, carefully photographed drawing by drawing, can now be accomplished by this electronic medium, colors and all. Perplexing as it might be for Felix the Cat, maybe Betty Boop will make an electrifying comeback, after all.

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