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12 Essential American Cartoons

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American cartooning began well before 1937, the year Walt Disney’s full-length animated feature Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs debuted to astonished audiences. In fact, American animation started as an offshoot of vaudeville, and moved into the theater to provide a pre-show diversion for other films. Characters that proved popular received orders for more cartoons, and the dawn of the cartoon serial and educational cartoon shorts expanded the field of American cartooning into the Cold War era.

Long before the 1980s tied children’s cartoons to product placement, the American cartoon short was where innovation was unveiled and storytelling met entertainment. Here is a special short list of 12 essential American cartoons.

1. "Gertie the Dinosaur" (1914)

When animation was still “moving pictures” on the vaudeville circuit, many shorts were gimmicks or tricks using simple animation to create the illusion of movement. Gertie the Dinosaur by Winsor McCay was the first animated short to be centered around a character that the performer would interact with—in this case a Brontosaur (or, what we now know as an Apatasaurus) named Gertie. McCay would perform in front of a large screen seemingly interacting with Gertie and eventually stepping behind the screen to ride Gertie off stage.

2. "Out Of The Inkwell" Series (1918-1929)

Max and David Fleischer of Fleischer studios gave America some of its best animation techniques. The Out Of The Inkwell series starring KoKo the clown was the first series of cartoons to mix live action and animation. Not only would Max draw KoKo into existence at the beginning of the shorts but, later in the series, KoKo’s smooth actions were some of the first state-side uses of rotoscoping—shooting a live actor to trace his motions later.

3. Disney’s "Skeleton Dance" (1929)

Painstakingly animated by Ub Iwerks and directed by Walt Disney, Skeleton Dance was the first of the Silly Symphonies series that used musical backing tracks to provide narratives to animated shorts. Up until the Silly Symphonies, American animated films added sound and music through a process called "post-sync" where all the audio was added after the film was finished. Skeleton Dance was the first short to animate to a custom soundtrack rather than let the drawings dictate the storytelling.

4. Betty Boop and Cab Calloway in "Minnie The Moocher" (1932)

Betty Boop was one of the most popular characters of the black and white era. Real-life big band leader and vocalist Cab Calloway’s star was rising at the same time, and the two paired in this cautionary tale that is essentially a music video for Cab Calloway’s song that had been recorded a year before. Calloway himself provided the voice and moves of the Walrus that scares Betty Boop back into her abusive family’s household.

5. Max Fleischer's "Superman" Series (1941)

Paramount Pictures paid Fleischer Studios to make a series of eight animated shorts starring Superman. Popular opinion is that Fleischer didn’t want to work on the project, so he quoted a then ridiculous $100,000 per short (about four times what a Popeye cartoon would cost). For one reason or another, Paramount agreed to the fee, and Fleischer put all the money on screen with a distinct, realistic style and some great action rotoscoping.

6. "Der Fuehrer's Face" (1942)

Originally and hilariously titled “Donald Duck in Nazi Land,” this Disney cartoon features Donald Duck as a reluctant Nazi who gets worked almost to death in a munitions factory—only to wake up from his horrible dream an American citizen. “Der Fuehrer’s Face” is one of the few American propaganda cartoons that still holds up as a technical and social achievement. Disney finally released it on home video in 2004.

7. Tex Avery's "Red Hot Riding Hood" (1943)

The first fractured fairy tale from a medium that would later become famous for Fractured Fairy Tales, animator Tex Avery’s take on Little Red Riding Hood as a nightclub singer influenced everything from Who Framed Roger Rabbit to The Mask. Undoubtedly of its time, the look of the short and the techniques used would go on to influence American cartooning into the 60s.

8. "What’s Opera Doc?" (1957)

Disney’s Silly Symphonies were a precursor to Chuck Jones and his Merrie Melodies, but Jones got the last laugh with "What’s Opera Doc?" Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd sing their way through the impeccably designed sets and a loose parody of Wagner operas like "Der Ring des Nibelungen" and "Tannhäuser." Most importantly, it brought those operas to Looney Tunes and, in doing so, became one of the most beloved American cartoons ever.

9. Disney’s "Highways of the Future" (1958)

This short was part of Disneyland TV’s “Magic Highway USA” episode and is a prime example of one of the new uses of animation at that time: selling a concept. As Disney was scheming over his theme park, he also had grand views of a highway-dominated future. Some of the inventions have come to pass (like dashboard displays), but others never will thanks to the computer age. Pre-dating The Jetsons by several years, Disney gave the public its first look at a highway-centric future.

10. "Bambi Meets Godzilla" (1969)

This less-than-two-minute short is considered more of a reel for creator Marv Newland. It spends most of its running time crediting Newland before its punchline—and what a punchline. Newland has held occasional jobs in mainstream animation, like directing a few episodes of the stop motion sitcom “The PJs,” but mostly makes his own art shorts like 2009’s "Postalolio," where every frame of the short was sent through the U.S. Postal Service system.

11. "Luxo Jr." (1986)

Everyone might be familiar with Luxo Jr. from the Pixar title cards before their shorts and movies, but the little lamp that plays with the ball was a 2-minute short that featured the first shadowmaps to produce lighting effects (instead of shadows being hand drawn). It was also the first short to use RenderMan, a program that pioneered the now-industry standard method of breaking up large render jobs.

12. Batman: The Animated Series - "Heart of Ice" (1992)

Though not technically groundbreaking, Batman: The Animated Series took a large step in reclaiming cartoon shorts from the Saturday morning cartoon ghetto. All the backgrounds for the show were painted on black paper instead of white paper, and the Art Deco style would become tied to the character’s animated life as time went on. But most notably for the storytelling of the medium, this Paul Dini story took a half-baked Mr. Freeze character and gave him an emotional hook that is considered canon to this day.

For 12-12-12, we’ll be posting twenty-four '12 lists' throughout the day. Check back 12 minutes after every hour for the latest installment, or see them all here.

This Edible Water Blob Could Change Hydration Forever

It can be tough to get your recommended daily intake of water, but one innovation is making it easier than ever to keep a bottle, or blob, of H2O on hand. Ooho!—an inexpensive, biodegradable "water bottle" that’s paving the way for the future of hydration—first came to the public's attention in 2013.

Created by Rodrigo García González, Guillaume Couche, and Pierre Paslier of Skipping Rocks Lab in London, the orb (which Fast Company once described as looking like a silicone implant) is created by taking a frozen ball of water, then covering it in layers of membrane made from seaweed extract. The process is a riff on a culinary technique called spherification, which is appropriate given that the gelatinous coating is edible.

Back in 2015, Ooho! received a $22,500 sustainability award from the EU, and now it looks like these water blobs could be ready for tossing into your bag on the way out the door in the near future. Designboom reports that the company will begin testing out their water bubbles at major sporting events in 2018.

Ooho! does have serious potential when it comes to environmental efforts: In America alone, 50 billion plastic bottles are used annually, and the spherical Ooho! packaging could one day bump petroleum-based plastic from store shelves. But if the idea of biting into a water blob weirds you out, don’t worry, it’s not a must.

"At the end of the day you don’t have to eat it," Paslier told The Guardian. "But the edible part shows how natural it is. People are really enthusiastic about the fact that you can create a material for packaging matter that is so harmless that you can eat it."

So natural in fact, that you can even make them yourself at home—though, to be honest, the tap might be easier in that case.

To see what it’s like to hydrate with Ooho!, check out the video below.

An earlier version of this article appeared in 2015.

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Lesser-Known Weapons of World War II
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Believe it or not, the massive machine in the picture above was actually a cannon. Designed by the Nazis, the Vergeltungswaffe 3 was built directly into a hill and designed to shoot artillery shells across the English Channel, blasting from France directly into London. While it was able to fire shells up to 58 miles, the whole thing was a failure—which is precisely why you've probably never heard of the Vergeltungswaffe 3.

But that’s not the only odd weapon to come out of World War II. People from all walks of life—dentists, psychologists, and more—came together to come up with some crazy, unorthodox, and sometimes wildly successful weapons to win the war.


A bat bomb canister. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

While Charlemagne probably never said “Let my armies be the rocks and the trees and the birds in the sky,” militaries throughout history have used that general idea—including during World War II.

One of the most famous winged weapons is bat bombs, a plan dreamt up by Lytle Adams after a visit to New Mexico's Carlsbad Caverns, where thousands of the animals roost. The dentist (and friend to Eleanor Roosevelt) heard about Pearl Harbor, thought back to his vacation, and had an idea: Put tiny explosives on bats and set them loose in an enemy city. When they found areas of the city to hide in, Adams reasoned, the military could explode the bombs and start thousands of fires in hard-to-reach parts of buildings. The fire would spread throughout the city uncontrollably, leading to a victory for the Allies. (Adams—who actually went back to Carlsbad Caverns to capture some bats for testing of his plan—would later defend his idea by saying that while the fire would have been economically and physically devastating to the city, it would be nowhere near as destructive as an atomic bomb). The military actually tested Adams’s idea, and it worked almost too well: While testing, the bat bombs accidentally burned down a hangar (and a general’s car). It wasn’t long after that the project was cancelled, presumably to focus on the atomic bomb.cancelled, presumably to focus on the atomic bomb.

Bats weren’t the only weaponized animals the United States was working on at the time. Famed psychologist B. F. Skinner was working on training pigeons to steer objects (mostly missiles), but he couldn’t get anyone interested in his project. But a few months after Pearl Harbor was attacked, a man named Victor showed up.

Victor wanted to put dogs in anti-submarine torpedoes, where the canine, using its amazing hearing, would hear faint sounds from the enemy submarine and steer the torpedo toward it. No one—including Skinner—was interested in Victor’s idea, but Victor began presenting Skinner’s pigeon idea to potential donors as proof that his dog idea wasn’t actually that crazy. One donor, General Mills (the cereal company), was interested in the pigeons.

Here's how it worked: The pigeons would look at an image on a screen and be trained to peck on a target, like a ship. If the image started moving off center, the pigeon would tap on the new location, and the missile would change course to keep the ship in the center of its sights. The birds performed beautifully, acing every test that Skinner could throw at them—even in front of military brass. But, according to Skinner, the military commanders couldn’t get over lingering concerns about the practicalities of using pigeons.“The spectacle of a living pigeon carrying out its assignment, no matter how beautifully, simply reminded the committee of how utterly fantastic our proposal was,” the scientist said.

Militaries around the world didn’t just focus on winged creatures as weapons during World War II. While Victor was eccentric, the Soviets did attempt to put bombs on dogs to blow up tanks. But only one exploding animal was massively successful—and not in the way governments had intended.

British agents had a plan to pack the carcasses of rats with plastic explosives and leave them near boilers in German industrial centers and on ships. When the rats were found, the British believed, whoever discovered the carcass would throw it on the fire, which would cause the bomb inside to explode with devastating consequences. But the Germans discovered a shipment of the rats before they could be used. The mission wasn’t exactly a failure, though: The Germans assumed that they had caught only one of any number of such shipments and started training their recruits to look for the dangerous rat bombs that they believed the Brits were planting. Suddenly, every rat became a potential explosive, causing “an extraordinary moral effect,” according to the special operations executive (SOE). “The trouble caused to them was a much greater success to us than if the rats had actually been used.”


“Dear Fish,” the letter began. “I wonder if you could do a drawing for me of an explosive slab of chocolate.” It’s a rather strange opening to a letter, made even stranger because it was from Lord Victor Rothschild of MI5 to an artist named Laurence Fish.

The letter was sent in response to reports that the Germans were working on peculiar ways to assassinate Winston Churchill, chief among them a bomb coated in a thin layer of chocolate that would explode and kill everyone in the room when someone broke off a piece to eat. Rothschild wanted Fish to create the drawing to warn people what to look out for when it came to explosive sweets.

But exploding chocolate wasn’t the only potentially dangerous everyday item Rothschild and Fish were concerned about. Other designs Fish drew included exploding mess tins, Thermos flasks, and motor oil cans. Agents on both sides also worked to create fake coals that contained small amounts of TNT and a detonator. When the fire consumed the exterior, the detonator would go off and the TNT would go boom. The exploding coals were made but don’t appear to have ever been used. Britain’s MI5 also cooked up a plan to sell booby-trapped souvenirs. “Native agents” would pose as vendors to sell exploding woodwork to Japanese sailors boarding ships (it’s unclear if they were ever made or used, though).

The Germans did almost get to the Brits with a bit of exploding food. In 1940, three men were discovered with bombs in cans marked "peas" on the Irish coast. The saboteurs claimed they were for Buckingham Palace, but British intelligence officers discounted that because the bombs were so primitive; they believed that the bombs were just prototypes.


In 1942, the Allies attacked the German-occupied port of Dieppe in France. It became a notorious disaster for the Allies, in no small part because their tanks and such got stuck on the beaches.

According to the Imperial War Museums, the Allies were determined to keep that from happening during D-Day. And to make sure it didn’t, Major-General Percy Hobart was tasked with coming up with a series of vehicles that would win the day. They were so strange they'd come to be dubbed "Hobart's Funnies."

One of the first vehicles to hit the shore was the Sherman Duplex Drive, or DD. Commanders were concerned that a landing craft with several tanks onboard would be destroyed and knew they needed a backup. So the Allies built a Sherman DD tank outfitted with a propeller and a canvas flotation aid. The original plan was to release the buoyant tanks around two to three miles away from shore; the tank would then move up to the beach and secure the position for the following landers. The Allies went through with that plan at Omaha Beach, but the majority of the tanks sank. But they had much more success at other beaches where the tanks were released later. The design itself was so successful that it was used for many more water crossings throughout the remainder of the European campaign.

Another vehicle used during D-Day was called the Crab. This modified Sherman tank was equipped with an arm that had a spool of chains on it. The vehicle would roll up to an obstacle and an operator would turn on the arm, causing the chains to spin at 140 RPMs, detonating mines and obliterating barbed wire for the following invasion force. (The tank itself was fully functional when the flail wasn’t moving.)

Then there was the “Bobbin” (above). To prevent vehicles from getting stuck on the sands of Normandy, the vehicle had a giant bobbin—like the kind you’d see on a sewing machine—of matting 10 feet wide and over 200 feet long that it rolled out to effectively lay carpet on the beach. This meant that following heavy vehicles wouldn’t get bogged down in the sand. The laying out of the carpet also told troops and vehicles which areas had been cleared of mines.


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