Savant Column

Saturday January 6, 2018


We offer hearty congrats to Alan K. Rode, whose new book Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film is featured prominently in Kenneth Turan’s L.A. Times article ‘Casablanca’ director Michael Curtiz is finally getting the recognition he deserves.

And I’d like to direct your attention to Milestone Films, which has put out an elaborate web newsletter for January that’s quite informative, with news about screenings, new Milestone Cinematheque discs on the way, and a nice link to the Library of Congress online streaming site.

I’m not exactly a front rank Three Stooges fan, but correspondent Gary Teetzel has done some web research and come up with some clippings and a couple of links that are pretty interesting. Accounts of the making of the 1960 Sci-fi picture The Angry Red Planet tell us that producer and inventor Norman Maurer also tried out his ‘Cinemagic’ effect on the 1962 comedy The Three Stooges in Orbit. The Cinemagic process processed hi-con live action film in such a way as (Maurer’s description) to make them look like animation art; in the space movie it is used to create a Martian landscape with an eerie alien appearance — as if a negative image were partly printed back onto a positive. (Come to think of it, it also looks a little bit like night vision images, only in broad Martian daylight. Gary has found two shaky Three Stooges in Orbit YouTube clips to contemplate. In the movie, a wacky professor supposedly uses an electronic process to turn the Stooges into animated cartoons. He’s essentially doing what Norman Maurer claimed to have done already, for a ‘revolutionary’ process that never took off.

The first In Orbit clip shows the Stooges dancing, wearing the extreme pancake makeup needed for the Cinemagic process. The second clip shows the result. From what I can see, the shot in the final film is just an ordinary sub-par animated cartoon, with figures rotoscoped from the test shot. Gary thinks that perhaps the Cinemagic effect was rejected, a guess that sounds good to me, except that Norman Maurer was the film’s producer as well. If ‘Cinemagic’ was indeed used at all, the effect probably made the entire image look strange, not just the Stooges — and not strange in a funny way. Cinemagic never looked like cartoon animation to me.

But somebody thought it did, as reported in trade paper blurbs unearthed by Gary. As reported in Business Screen Magazine in 1957, Maurer demonstrated a process called ‘Artiscope,’ touting it as a fast and cheap way to create animated cartoons without animating anything! It’s essentially automatic rotoscoping created by washing out character detail, leaving only outlines. They don’t explain how they’d add colors, without resorting to equally expensive animation; the article partly infers that the process can be best used for ‘cartoons’ for monochromatic TV use.

In his book Keep Watching the Skies! the late Bill Warren took this subject in an unexpected direction, faulting Cinemagic as an artistically bankrupt conspiracy to destroy the art of conventional animation. What dastards could possibly consider committing such a terrible cultural crime? . . . sayeth the motion-capture CGI engineers that would arrive several decades later.

In 1959 Sid Pink joined Norman Maurer and re-dubbed the process ‘Cinemagic.’ In Motion Picture Daily Pink said that Cinemagic ‘was being reviewed by the U.S. Patent Office,’ and that his film “Invasion of Mars” was going to roll in September. Back in 1952, Pink had garnered considerable industry credibility as Arch Oboler’s partner in the movie Bwana Devil, which launched the 3-D craze. Gary found articles from 1961 in which Maurer refers to the process with a third name, ‘Dynatoon.’ But Artiscope emerges again, possibly because (according to Maurer) his 1956 Artiscope patent application had finally been granted.

I suspect that all these announcements were efforts to interest potential investors; when Variety reviewed The Angry Red Planet back in late 1959, they surely took the wind out of Cinemagic’s sails with one disparaging sentence: “While it may take considerable ingenuity to produce this effect, the result really isn’t worth it.”

Pooh to that. I’ve watched all of Angry Red Planet maybe four times, but I’ve returned to the film’s impressive Cinemagic sequences more times than I can count. We didn’t see anything like it again until solarized images become popular in the pop art era, especially when used in movie title sequences.

Yes, never forget that, with all the pressing problems in today’s world, CineSavant knows what’s most important to write about.

Thanks for reading! — Glenn Erickson