J. P. Telotte, “Spatial Presence and Disney’s Oswald
Comedies,” Journal of Popular Film and Television 39.3 (2011): 141-148.
Abstracted by Ira Clark
Walt Disney and his studio had always been pioneers of animation, even long prior to their famed success with the Mickey Mouse cartoons. Telotte claims that Disney’s most significant advancement was spatial awareness and subsequent utilization of the entire film frame to enhance storytelling ability. This is utilization is further described as “positive negative space,” unlike in contemporary cartoons where so called “negative spaces” went unused entirely (143). Oswald and successive Disney characters would make this “negative space” positive by filling it with their gags and antics. Telotte notes three cases where Disney’s spatial awareness is distinct and contributive, through staging, use of shadows, and body morphing. Beginning with Oswald, Disney cartoons contained unmistakable “staging” (143), as objects now had arranged purpose within the frame, achieved through storyboards, another pioneering Disney technique, which allowed for preplanning. Staging allowed Disney to create more immersive scenes, such as when a myriad of thrown objects from off-screen engulfs the space around Oswald. In more complex films such as the 1928 Ossie of the Mounted, staging facilitates elaborate scenes as animators plan out multilayered scenes with distinct fore, middle, and backgrounds which allowed for minimal negative space and a more enthralling visual narrative. Secondly, spatial awareness was demonstrated by characters now employing shadows in their antics. A creative example of this is seen in the 1928 silent cartoon Bright Lights where shadows become important plot devices, allowing Oswald to sneak into a theater by “lifting up” his own shadow, hiding underneath, and walking right in. Finally, in what would become trademark Oswald humor, body morphing would entail character’s limbs becoming unnaturally stretched or enlarged to encompass the entirety of the frame. In another 1928 production, Fox Chaser, Oswald’s legs are ludicrously stretched across the screen as one foot is stuck on a ladder and another on a galloping horse. These “spatial gags” (146) both address negative space and add comedic value. Telotte argues that animation scholars have overlooked the early use and impact of this “spatial presence” and its origins within the Oswald cartoons.