Follow the Bouncing Ball

Recently, I have noticed an interesting phenomenon. If one can't support a personal memory or experience with a link to Wikipedia or some other online reference, that memory is simply suspect, no matter how factual. Forget about the fact that you lived it firsthand, if it's not documented on the Internet, it might as well not have happened. So the story below is one such memory and my attempt to document what little I know about one forgotten individual in the history of animation, hopefully giving credit where credit is due... 

Wikipedia states, "The bouncing ball is a device used in video recordings to visually indicate the rhythm of a song, helping audiences to sing along with live or prerecorded music. As the song's lyrics are displayed on the screen, an animated ball bounces across the top of the words, landing on each syllable when it is to be sung."

It goes on to say that "The bouncing ball was invented at Fleischer Studios for the Song Car-Tunes series of animated cartoons (both Max and Dave Fleischer later claimed to have devised the idea). It was introduced in September 1925 with the film My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean."

This would all be good if it were not for my personal acquaintance with an all but forgotten, pioneering cartoonist, animator, and cinematographer whom I believe to be the inventor of this particular effect and many more.

In 1977 I was newly married and a student at Art Center College of Design. I had been contracted to produce an animated surf parody of Star Wars called "Surf Wars,"; a short subject that would play before Gary Capo's surf movie, "Many Classic Moments."

I accepted this gig thinking I could shoot the entire film on Art Center's animation camera stand, but it soon became apparent that the school was unwilling to let me monopolize their animation department, so I needed to find an inexpensive animation camera stand to complete this epic. After asking around Hollywood, I was introduced to a retired animation cameraman named, Sid Glenar. 

At 74, Sid was thin and spry with shocking white hair. He had long since shut down his production company when I met him. He wore two hearing aids that would occasionally feedback on each other causing an unbearably loud squelching sound. Words cannot adequately describe just how alarming this was to experience.

Sid was a long-established resident of Burbank and had set up one of his smaller (and older) animation cameras in his garage. Carl Vidnic, who shot much of Surf Wars with me, used to refer to Sid's garage as the "sweatshop" because there was no air conditioning and it really heated up once the movie lights kicked on. 

One day, Sid asked if he could visit me for lunch at the Art Center campus. Even at his age, he was curious to visit the school's new campus, which had only relocated to Pasadena the year before. I will never forget that lunch because it turned out to be an amazing history lesson about the early days of the animation industry.

I learned that among other accomplishments, Sid was a charter member of IATSE, the Hollywood cameraman's union, and the senior cameraman for Fleischer Studios. 

Fleischer Studios produced many animated classics, including the original feature-length animated version of Gulliver's Travels, the Popeye cartoons, and the immensely popular Out of the Inkwell series featuring Betty Boop and Koko the Clown.

In fact, it was Sid's hand that drew Koko the clown onscreen to start each episode of Out of the Inkwell. This was a novel gag at the time. Sid's hand would quickly draw Koko and then the little clown would spring to life and run around the drawing table.

He went onto explain exactly how the effect was created.
  • Using a large-format view camera, he photographed his hand holding an ink pen, laying across his animation table. He also photographed the same scene, from the same angle, without his arm -- just his animation table with a blank sheet of drawing paper. This became the background for the famous opening. 
  • The image of his hand holding the pen and a section of his forearm was printed as a life-size photo and mounted onto thin cardboard. Next, the image was meticulously cut out using a Xacto knife. Lastly, a vertical slit was cut in the arm's upper part.
  • To shoot the effect, animation cells of the Koko drawing sequence were placed onto the animation stand, under the arm cut-out, and shot frame-by-frame — each cell photographed with the tip of the pen carefully placed at the leading edge of the advancing ink line. 
  • When played back at 24fps, the illusion was that the hand was actually drawing Koko.
  • What made the gag work was genius. Sid anchored a pushpin through the slit in the offscreen portion of the photographed arm, allowing it to pivot and slide freely so the point of the pen could easily be on the advancing line, so it looked like the arm and hand were working together to draw the character.
Another thing I learned was that Sid was a contemporary to a young Walt Disney. Not only did the two men know each other, they apparently looked quite similar. Sid told me that around the union hall, they used to say, "Here comes 'Disney', There goes 'Sidney'."

I left that lunch with a napkin drawing of Koko the Clown, which Sid drew effortlessly - as if he had done so a thousand times before.

One of my animation teachers at Art Center was Chuck Jones (Bugs Bunny, Pepe Le Pew, Road Runner & Coyote). During one class, Chuck said, "I have never met a creative animation cameraman."

I found this intriguing since I was working with Sid at the time. After class, I asked Chuck if he had ever met Sid Glenar. Chuck looked dumbfounded as he explained, "As those words came out of my mouth, I thought to myself, ' ...with the exception of Sid Glenar, but none of these kids will know the difference.'"

Then Chuck asked me, "How do you know about Sid?" "I'm working with him." Chuck knew about Surf Wars, and I went on to explain how Sid was helping me to shoot the film on his animation stand.

Chuck was amazed to learn that Sid was still in the land of the living, sharing, "I haven't seen Sid in decades. One of the true pioneering geniuses of animation!" Then he asked, with a glint in his eye, "Does he still wear those Gawd awful hearing aids that you can hear from a mile away?"

I smiled and said, "Yup!" We both had a good laugh over that.

So, what does all this have to do with following the bouncing ball? 

During our lunch, Sid told me that he created the concept of following the bouncing ball in 1914 while working on a movie for King Vidor. The movie was called "Kelly With A Green Necktie." If true, this predates the movie noted in Wikipedia by a decade. 

I've tried Googling that movie and have so far come up empty. But here is what I have learned: King Vidor moved to Los Angeles early in life to pursue a career in Hollywood. Wikipedia states that his career as a writer-director began in 1913. His filmography on IMDb lists two movies in 1913, nothing in 1914, and numerous short films in 1915.

I have no evidence to support this, but as someone who started my career working in and around Hollywood, I have no trouble believing that both Vidor and Glenar were involved in various spec projects and could easily have worked together — two young creative guys trying to make something happen. It is very likely that Kelly With A Green Necktie was never completed or released. I further suppose, years later, working for the Fleischers, that Sid might have dusted off an old gag for a new project, Song Car-Tunes, as reported in Wikipedia above.

Given Sid's other credits and reputation for innovation, confirmed by Chuck Jones, I have no trouble believing Sid's claim that he was the true author of this landmark special effect, just as he claimed.

I'd love to hear from you if anyone can offer further details supporting or refuting these claims.

Update 03/23/2023

With further research, I have determined that there was no way that Sid and King Vidor worked together in 1914. Sid would have only been 11 years old, living on the east coast, and Vidor was working in Texas. By the time they were both in Los Angeles in 1928, Vidor was a well-established A-list Hollywood director.

Sid was in his seventies at the end of a fantastic career when I met and worked with him. Did he muddle up the facts and timelines as he relayed his story? Perhaps. But it seems just as likely, maybe more so, that I conflated the facts, missing some critical context when Sid relayed his story. We may never know the circumstances of exactly how, when, or if Sid worked with King Vidor, but I did solve the mystery about Kelly with a Green Necktie, thanks to Marianne's comment below and some dumb luck.

All of this is explained in the updated and amplified version of this article, "Following up the Bouncing Ball: In Search of 'Kelly with the Green Necktie.'"