Welcome to the Insta-hood: @tomatitojose!

This week’s Welcome to the Insta-hood is on fellow instagram profile:

@tomatitojose !

  1. Tell me a little about yourself:

“I’m Tommy José Stathes, a lifelong resident of Flushing, Queens, New York City. A somewhat quiet and reserved kind of guy, I would say I have a variety of cerebral and intellectual interests related to the arts and psychology—which I mostly enjoy in a personal and introverted way. Observing and listening are what I do much more so than speaking, when I’m not writing a bit more expressively. This all strikes me as a bit amusing and ironic, since a large part of what I do creatively and professionally involves interacting with public audiences and classrooms full of students, through my roles as a film exhibitor and college teacher.  You see, as a young child, I became very interested in the media, especially film and animation history. From an early age, I sort of definitively knew that I wanted to use those interests as a basis for some kind of work or career as a teenager and eventually an adult. After various trials and tribulations, and following a somewhat self-forged and unorthodox path, I’ve more or less made good on that childhood aspiration, and I’ll discuss some aspects of that here!”

2.  What is cartoon carnival?

“My monthly 16mm Cartoon Carnival is an ongoing film screening series through which I showcase a selection of films from my 16mm film archive, which I began building as a movie and vintage-collecting preteen. I began this series in June of 2009, when I was 20, and had built up a large enough collection at that point where I could regularly compile programs of different material to show on a regular basis. I’d become bored of watching films by myself at home, and was collecting a lot of material that didn’t circulate in other ways. So, I figured others in the New York City area would enjoy seeing this material, and regardless, watching films with an audience is a completely different (and much more fun!) experience than viewing alone at home. 
Back in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, local movie theaters would often compile packages of classic cartoons for Saturday or Sunday matinees, advertising them to children in the audience throughout the week or month, and these screenings were often dubbed Cartoon Carnivals. So, I felt it would be fitting to adopt that same moniker for my series as a way of paying homage to the history of dedicated animation screenings in mainstream settings. However, my Cartoon Carnival series is somewhat more esoteric.
In this series, we cycle between topical themes, holiday themes, and “just for fun” type themes which may center on certain ideas, objects, scenarios, news items, or anything else fun or timely that I can think of. It’s a somewhat esoteric series at this point for a few different reasons. First, I’m using archival 16mm prints that are anywhere from 5 to 95 years old, and screening them with a real 16mm film projector in the same room as the audience, rather than giving a digital presentation. ‘Reel’ film projection has become largely extinct in this century, and it’s always a delight to show the films this way, and have people be curious or admiring of the 16mm projector in the back of the room. It’s a very warm and organic way of watching films, in my opinion. Second, what I’m doing is mixing up a combination of some classic Golden Age favorites and audience pleasers of the 1930s and 1940s, featuring some well known characters, but also including some incredibly rare items from the silent era, the 1910s and 1920s, and some obscurities from later, which normally wouldn’t be included in screenings designed for general audiences. There are many films in my collection of which only 2 or 3 other copies are known to exist in other private or institutional archives, and many dozens or hundreds of others that simply do not circulate in open channels. I enjoy inserting these rarities into these programs occasionally and having that as part of the appeal or draw of the events. 

When pandemic quarantining began, I naturally lost the opportunity to put these events on in brick and mortar venues with physical crowds in attendance. I scrambled to readapt to an online format and after a crash course in learning some things about live streaming and investing in a couple pieces of equipment, I’m glad to say I pulled it off with the help of a few colleagues (as well as loyal and new fans!). This month, we’re up to the 94th Cartoon Carnival program. It’s been quite an eventful and fun decade plus with this particular project—and while it’s certainly an effort to keep it going on a monthly basis now, especially in a new format for a global audience, I also feel like we’re still just getting started. There are so many more themes, combinations, and revivals we can do with a series like this, especially when the sourcing can be done from an archive of something like 2,000 prints.”

3. What made you want to pursue in learning and talking about older cartoons?

“As a child, I grew up mostly around adults as opposed to other children.

The majority of my close family members and their friends and our neighbors were all born roughly between the period of 1920-1960, which necessarily meant that I spent a lot of time in the midst of aesthetics and discussions shared by people of those generations. I loved cartoons, like most young children do, but I also had an intense interest in history, and an inexplicable interest in collecting things from a very early age. While I was seeing a lot of classic ‘Golden Age’ cartoons as a toddler and beyond—think things like Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, Popeye, Woody Woodpecker, Little Lulu, and so forth—and discussing them with all of these adults who grew up watching the same films themselves, I’d been able to see a few slightly earlier cartoons, such as some Felix the Cat and Mickey Mouse entries. These were older, black and white films, and those monochromatic images really struck me as being extra surreal and stunning to me. I also recall seeing some film footage of Charlie Chaplin here and there, and being mesmerized by the silent pantomime in monochrome. I really wanted to see and learn more about all this, and with the help of some of these relatives, I began finding and obtaining more examples on VHS video, and eventually acquiring some film and animation history books by the time I was 5 or 6 years old. 
This interest was so intense that I felt compelled to tell other people around me about what I was wondering about, admiring, or trying to learn about or find and obtain. I recall some adults listening to me quote facts from animation history books and showing them cartoons I had on VHS tape, and some of them exclaiming that I was professorial, even at such a young age! I wasn’t looking for praise or admiration over this; I simply really thought this stuff was so fun and interesting and wanted to share it. To this day, I really get a kick out of seeing others watch these films and enjoy them. It’s more meaningful to me than watching the films by myself, for my own enjoyment. In a possibly ironic twist, I rarely do that anymore, either, on my own, unless it’s preparation for some work related effort. 
In a more global sense, I’ve always felt historical films are an especially intriguing time capsule of sorts. It’s quite special to be able to see moving pictures and ideas in motion from the past, in a way that was not possible at all to capture or replicate just prior to the late 1890s. While the act of animating still drawings or illustrations predates motion picture filmings of live action subjects or events, it somehow didn’t ‘click’ (pun not intended) to the earliest filmmakers, of the 1890-1905 period, that there could be filmed drawings set in motion, even though stop motion photography of physical objects had been practiced. I’ll go out on a limb here and say that animating still artwork is a much more tedious and careful act than a lot of raw live action filmmaking can be, and so it’s extra special to have animated films from a still early period, from 1906 and onward, to study and enjoy today.
Long story short, all of this also factors into my work as a college level animation history teacher. For the past few years, I’ve been teaching multiple classes relating to all this at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan and the Feirstein Graduate School of Cinema in Brooklyn, where I take great pleasure in sharing films and information with new and upcoming students from a variety of creative disciplines. Seeing and hearing their reactions to these historic films is a pleasure to me and is also insightful, as I learn a lot from them when their varied perspectives are shared. One other personal opinion I’ll share is that I believe historical animated films age a bit better than many forms of live action films do, and continue to be appealing on the surface as leisurely viewing material to a wider variety of contemporary viewers…which probably makes my teaching and exhibiting work a bit easier than, say, that of historians or exhibitors who specialize in other forms of historic films.”

4.  Who are your top 3 cartoon characters and why? 

“I’m going to say that my top 3 favorite animated cartoon characters were all incredibly important during the silent film era. Going in chronological order according to when the characters first debuted, they would be Bobby Bumps (1915), Farmer Alfalfa (1915), and Felix the Cat (1919). 

The Bobby Bumps cartoons, animated by Earl Hurd (1880-1940), were the first series to use what we call cell animation, which was developed by Hurd. In short, Hurd patented the process whereby clear sheets of transparent celluloid could be used in the process of animating a film. It’s similar to the concept of ‘layers’ in modern programs like Photoshop, where different moving or morphing elements can be sandwiched together and photographed without changing all of the artwork on one single level. Prior to this, the process of animating for motion pictures was far more limiting both aesthetically and technically, and the cell process allowed much more to be done in terms of design and also in speeding up production. As for the character itself, Bobby is a mischievous little boy with a small dog, Fido, who are always getting into trouble together. I find the humor to be subtle but very creative and amusing. Hurd apparently found inspiration in his own young son, and the character dates back to the earlier 1910s when it first appeared in a few different newspaper comic strip iterations with different names. Given the age of the artist, Hurd’s particular drawing style, and the early point at which this series appeared in production, I also view this series as a rare and unique form of a more Victorian era form of cartooning set into motion, which is fascinating to be able to watch more than a century later. The series has a decidedly more antiquated look than others that were in production at the same time, and looks nothing like what was made by other animators in the 1920s and 1930s. It truly is from another time. 
Hurd enjoyed some success with this series and with the financial returns on having his cel animation patent be part of a trust company that was formed with his 1916-1919 producer, J.R. Bray, which capitalized on the process and forced some rival studios to pay a royalty for employing the process in their films. If you look at some of the earliest Mickey Mouse cartoons, for example, the Bray-Hurd Process is credited at the bottom of the title cards, until their patents expired in 1932 or so. Hurd later worked on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) for Disney. I’ve always taken a particular interest in the Bumps cartoons, working hard to collect as many of the previously neglected and lost films as possible, and am proud to have produced a Blu-ray/DVD collection of fifteen of the original shorts, featuring brand new restorations. These films are now available in a volume called Cartoon Roots: Bobby Bumps and Fido. 

The second character, Farmer Alfalfa, was created by another newspaper cartoonist and early animator, Paul Terry (1887-1971). Farmer Al first appeared in a short cartoon called Down on Phoney Farm (1915), which I was delighted to help rediscover some years back in an untitled, unidentified print in the Library of Congress’ collections. Not long after, Terry was brought in to produce this character in a recurring series for the Bray Studios in 1916 (where Bobby Bumps was well underway!) and, after a few more independent stints, Terry finally organized his own studio and began releasing a quantity of films on a regular basis in 1921. 
Terry didn’t really develop any groundbreaking technical innovations for animation in the same way Hurd did, but, he was one of the first to release animated cartoons at breakneck speed, and was practically the largest producer of cartoons in the silent era and 1920s. His studio produced something like 450+ “Aesop’s Fables” cartoons from 1921 through 1929, many of which featured Farmer Alfalfa. I enjoy the character a lot because he’s a cranky old man who’s always getting into trouble in his farmhouse, on his property, or anywhere else he’s adventuring through…and the entirety of the animal kingdom (including most other humans) mostly hate the guy! It’s pretty funny to see how much he fails in getting along with others. Perhaps it gives comic relief to all the disagreements we come across in real life. Terry continued using this character heavily in the sound era, in many cartoon entries of the 1930s and 1940s, and many baby boomers remember seeing these older cartoons on early television in the 1950s and 1960s. It’s fun when they recall these early childhood memories and I tell them that I’m still showing them in my programs. 

Last, but certainly not least, is Felix the Cat. Felix first appeared in 1919 as part of the Paramount Magazine series of film releases. However, he wasn’t Felix at first! He was first known as Master Tom and lived in ‘Pussyville.’ No joke. Soon after, though, the character was aptly named Felix. The classic original Felix the Cat cartoons were produced in 1919 through 1930, animated by Otto Messmer and a team of assistants, and produced by early animator and studio owner Pat Sullivan.

I won’t go into too much further detail about Felix for a few reasons: there is much controversy, misunderstanding, and disagreement out there about Felix’s initial creation; and, more than anything, it’s a character that’s still rather well known and identifiable on sight to a wide variety of people. 
In any case, Felix was the first animated cartoon character to achieve worldwide super stardom, which many historians and critics would credit to his cute and appealing design, creative ways of problem solving, his knack for expressing a full range of thought and emotion, and having a sort of reliability where earlier or contemporaneous cartoon characters were sort of flat or lacking in such dimensionality. The classic original Felix films are very endearing and fun to watch as a result. And, Felix was also the first animated cartoon character to be merchandised heavily for toys and other sorts of sponsored products…which was groundbreaking for animation, and paved the way for Mickey Mouse to achieve (and surpass) those critical acclaim and profitability benchmarks not long afterward. I’ve also been working on producing some restorations of these silent Felix films, and hope to have more news on that project soon. “

5. What upcoming events or news do you have coming up that you would to share?

“Great question, as this is a somewhat special month in animation history! This coming Saturday, August 15th at 3pm eastern, is when I’ll be holding the 94th installment of my Cartoon Carnival series as a live stream. We’re paying homage to Betty Boop, as this August marks the 90th anniversary of Betty’s debut (in a more poodle-like form) in the Max Fleischer cartoon Dizzy Dishes (1930). Betty rocked the world of animation and film for so many reasons, and it’s difficult to believe she’s finally become a nonagenarian. This special Cartoon Carnival is going to be an extra long program with 15 cartoon shorts, a variety of archival behind-the-scenes clips to give some historical background info, our usual Q&A session, and possibly two brief intermissions instead of one. Whew! It should be a lot of fun, though, and while it will focus on one cartoon series instead of being a potpourri of characters and studios, I think it makes a great introduction to the Carnival series for anyone who doesn’t already know about the shows. A link to my site which gives further information and ticket & viewing link can be found here: http://www.cartoonsonfilm.info/online-carnival.html

Here is the trailer for the upcoming event:

If you would like to learn more about Tommy here is the following contact info:

Website: http://www.cartoonsonfilm.info/online-carnival.html

Instagram: @tomatitojose

Thank you so much for the interview!

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