Max Fleischer Universe: Master Illustrators at Work

The Breathtaking Backgrounds of Max Fleischer… 

I never fail to find something new and breathtaking in the backgrounds of Max Fleischer’s delightfully surrealistic and highly askew cartoon worldview. From the rubbery, curvilinear city scene backgrounds that inspired the likes of underground comix masters R. Crumb and Kim Deitch, to more naturalistic renderings based on the way Manhattan and environs more or less appeared in the early 30’s, to the fantastical fairytale and mythological landscapes that emanated directly from the fecund ids of the talented artisans who toiled at 1600 Broadway, it is almost as if the backgrounds themselves are the stars of the show, not Betty Boop or Popeye and Olive Oyl in all their antic glory. There is a beautiful high-art tradition at play here, lovingly rendered in sharp to near-soft focus by master illustrators at work, often uncredited (what a shame!).

Popeye the Sailor “Shoein’ Hosses”

Take for example the incredibly detailed background of this scene from the 1934 Popeye classic “Shoein’ Hosses” directed by Dave Fleischer and animated by Willard Bowsky and Dave Tendlar, where the camera pans from right to left, from a shot of Popeye preening in front of the village smithy to Bluto in a bar across the street. Note how the background illustrator has actually blurred the center of the elaborate background street-scape to provide an accelerated transition effect during the camera’s rapid pan.

 detailed background of this scene from the 1934 Popeye classic "Shoein' Hosses" directed by Dave Fleischer


Here’s another Popeye classic background — this time a lovely 3D composite using real photos of miniature sets and foreground animated 2-dimensional figures (Max was way ahead of Walt Disney in the 3D department,) from Max Fleischer’s 1935 gem “King of the Mardi Gras” (which amongst other things is the first cartoon wherein Popeye is voiced by Jack Mercer, substituting for Billy Costello). This opening sequence’s constructed miniature sets are most probably based on Coney Island’s famous Luna Park, including their infamous Steeplechase roller coaster, the “War of the Worlds” flying spaceship ride, and other Coney fairground attractions:


This opening sequence uses Max’s patented STEREOPTICAL PROCESS, whereby footage of actual miniature 3D constructed sets rendered in forced perspective are integrated with two-dimensional cell animation to provide a 3D effect. In 1933, Max Fleischer, ever the inventive genius (he patented the rotoscoping process in 1915, whereby live action footage was literally traced over and replaced with animated drawings to create extremely lifelike articulation of movement of the cartoon characters ) came up with this innovative STEREOPTICAL technique, which actually pre-dates Walt Disney’s own celebrated “planar animation” 3D process by a few years. The secret to Max’s process was his unique  “setback camera” to photograph miniature sets–trees and buildings, with a blue sky hanging behind them– on a rotating turntable while simultaneously hanging and filming two-dimensional cell drawings in the foreground. The turntable would rotate the sets slowly to create a realistic feeling of 3 dimensions when combined with the 2 dimensional foreground animation.

Here is a 1936 Popular Science article detailing this elaborate process:


And a basic breakdown of Max’s ingeniuous technique:

fleischer set back camera

And here is a photo of  Max hard at work with his celebrated “setback camera” shooting a detailed scene:

Max Fleischer hard at work with his celebrated "setback camera" shooting a detailed scene:

Finally, here is a vintage clip of Popeye walking baby Swee’Pea which showcases the Fleischer Stereoptical Process superbly:

In closing,  I return once again to my favorite all-time Betty Boop cartoon, the 1933 surrealist masterpiece “Snow White”, animated by Roland Crandall:

Feast your eyes on the rich and macabre detail of this sumptuous background drawing below, featuring the dissolute and depraved denizens of a hellish subterranean watering hole cum milk bar.

In the foreground to the left the rotoscoped ghost of Cab Calloway (transfigured from Koko the Klown by the evil queen of the tale) capers and pirouettes, all the while singing “St. James Infirmary”.

In an alternate Fleischer universe, would that one could view an entire cartoon spin-off utilizing this haunted eldritch background and its shadowy background characters only 🙂

background for 1933 Max Fleischer surrealist masterpiece "Snow White", animated by Roland Crandall


– Gary Lucas for Classic Movie Hub

Dubbed “one of the best and most original guitarists in America” (Rolling Stone), Gary Lucas is a Grammy-nominated songwriter and composer, and an international recording artist with over 25 solo albums to date. As a fan of classic cinema, Gary tours extensively, playing live accompaniments to legendary horror films including Dracula, Frankenstein, and Vampyr among others. He has also recently released two classic-related albums: “Gary Lucas’ FLEISCHEREI: Music from Max Fleischer Cartoons” featuring 2015 Tony nominee Sarah Stiles as Betty Boop, and “Cinefantastique,” a collection of themes and incidental music from classic films, ranging from South Pacific to Psycho! You can learn more about Gary at or by following him on twitter @lucasgary.






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