At Large  July 27, 2021  Anna Claire Mauney

The Return of Space Jam & the History of Live Action Animated Films

Still of Micheal Jordan and Tweety Bird from Space Jam | 4K Trailer | Warner Bros. Entertainment.

Although it has not received the best reviews, the premier of Space Jam: A New Legacy is the result of a long history of films that combine animated sequences with live-action film. While the processes used to combine these two mediums have evolved greatly over the decades, they are still all part of a cohesive, technological timeline.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Koko the Clown and Fitz the Dog (left and center) shown alongside the hand of Max Fleischer (right).

Out of the Inkwell (1918-29), a series starring Koko the Clown, was notable for its early, seamless melding of live-action and animation. Each animated episode began with a live-action shot of creator Max Fleischer drawing or opening an inkwell to 'release' his characters into reality. Sometimes, Fleischer would hand his animations a note or they would leap from the page and run across his desk.

In many ways, the pioneering Willis O’Brien set a decades-long standard for live-action animated movies. The creative worked on the land-mark films The Lost World (1925) and King Kong (1933), creating stop-motion animated sequences while devising and improving many of the systems used to combine them with shots of actors.

For example, The Lost World was the first feature film to use back projection or the rear projection effect. This technique involves filming a full scene of either actors or animated (often stop-motion) characters, projecting that onto a translucent screen from behind, and filming the rest of the scene in front of the projection.

Still from The Lost World (1925) that shows a live-action actor (lower left) next to what appears to be a gigantic dinosaur (right).
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Still from The Lost World (1925) that shows a live-action actor (lower left) next to what appears to be a gigantic dinosaur (right).

Rear Projection Process. Courtesy of wikimedia Commons. Created by Wikiwikiyarou
Courtesy of wikimedia Commons. Created by Wikiwikiyarou

An example of the rear projection process.

One of the simplest tactics used in the early twentieth century to achieve the animation and live-action combination is a bit more complicated to explain. This ‘split-screen’ process involves covering or blocking out a portion of the frames in a film strip before running the strip through the camera to record the first half (animated or live-action) of the scene. The blocked-out portion would then be uncovered and the same piece of film would run through the camera to record the second half of the scene (animated or live-action, whichever had yet to be recorded).

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

This colored lobby card, created for the 1942 reissue of the 1933 film King Kong, features a combination of live-action actors (in the lower-left corner) and the stop-motion figurine of King Kong (middle).

When actors had to physically interact with the animated figures, more complex techniques were required—such as the Dunning and the Williams processes, which were both employed to create the iconic King Kong film. The Dunning process uses similar logic but with a couple of twists involving the color-tinting of film strips to block different types of light and the layering of filmstrips. The layering, which is also called bi-packing, allowed separately filmed sequences to overlap and appear as though they were touching.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The Dunning Process was used to create this scene from King Kong (1933).

Of course, many other films through the years have used technology to combine animated and live-action characters. Mary Poppins (1964) did so to great effect—although P.L. Travers, the author of the Poppins books, famously hated the use of animation. Still, the resultant musical and dramatic sequence became, in many ways, the fulcrum of the film’s version of the story.

Another Disney film, Song of the South (1946)—which is now recognized as racist propaganda and has thus been pulled from all commercial markets—also employed the combination of live-action actors and animated sequences for a musical segment. In the movie, the character Uncle Remus is transported from ‘happy’ plantation life into a bright, animated world as he sings "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah," a song likely inspired by the racist, pre-Civil War folk song “Zip Coon.”

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Still from one of the 'Censored Eleven.' Jungle Jitters (1938) is part of the Merrie Melodies series from Leon Schlesinger Productions, later known as Warner Bros. Cartoons (1944-1969).

Unfortunately, although perhaps not surprisingly, cartoons are steeped in racist history. Cartoon shorts in particular were often egregiously racist, stereotypical, and propagandistic. The 'Censored Eleven' refers to a group of early Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies shorts that were pulled from syndication in 1968. Many other cartoons from the era have been edited to remove blatant racism and graphic violence and continue to run. Perhaps the separation from reality provided by cartoons allowed creatives to more freely air their biases and pick at society’s darker beliefs.

This history makes the advent of Space Jam and its contemporary resurrection all the more fascinating. Especially because the success of black athletes has not been easily achieved or consistently well-respected, particularly within the NBA. Over the course of the 1980s, as the sport changed and the number of affluent black players grew, the league experienced a real crisis of culture. For a time, Larry Bird was even designated “The Great White Hope,” to his deep displeasure and discomfort.

So, does the existence and relative success of Space Jam (1996) starring Michael Jordan and Space Jam: A New Legacy (2021) starring LeBron James mark some sort of culture change? Perhaps.

Jordan is and was well known for hesitancy to speak out on racial issues—he discussed this in The Last Dance (2020). James and his contemporaries are, on the whole, far more willing to speak up. But, in many ways, they have more freedom to do so. The game of basketball and the world surrounding it has changed a lot within the last thirty years.

Similarly, the technology employed to make both Space Jam films is practically unrecognizable when compared to the original systems used to integrate live-action and animation. Today, few films don’t feature some sort of animated special effects and these processes are largely, if not entirely, digital. Some of the old guard refuse to even recognize these effects as animation. To be fair, many applications of these effects can be so mundane—touched-up backgrounds and increased crowd-sizes—that most viewers would never even think to spot them.

On top of that, the difference between the two Space Jam films themselves is perhaps even more technologically striking. One thing is clear—the world is changing faster than ever and the things people make certainly reflect that.

About the Author

Anna Claire Mauney

Anna Claire Mauney is the former managing editor for Art & Object. A writer and artist living in North Carolina, she is interested in illustration, the 18th-century, and viceregal South America. She is also the co-host of An Obsessive Nature, a podcast about writing and pop culture.

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