I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Motionless Animation: the Wonder of Space Angel

by Gabriella Arrigoni
Dec. 31, 2011

The relationship between the moving image and reality is complex, and inevitably intertwined with technological development in film production. The search for realism, or verisimilitude at least, has been only one of the driving forces behind the history of cinema, which at the same time has attempted to materialise the unthinkable and the non-existent. It is true, however, that the direct inscription of reality is still a fundamental paradigm in the filmic experience. Even after the appearance of digital technology, filmmakers have attempted not just to guarantee a recognisable impression of the world, but to create a connection to time and history -- to trace change. That might explain the puzzling effect we receive watching Space Angel (produced between 1962 and 1964), where the juxtaposition between cartoon drawings and the live acting of flesh-and-bones performers creates an uncanny interplay between natural and unnatural, familiar and unfamiliar.

What is remarkable in this animated science fiction series specifically aimed at kids is in fact how little animation is actually used, to the point that the adventures of the Spaceduster crew look much more like a comic strip on TV rather than proper moving pictures. It is, however, a first class comic that we are talking about, designed by one of the most influential cartoonists of all times. When you mention Alex Toth to comic books lovers, all that you are likely to hear are words of praise and admiration. And it should not be so surprising to hear that he has worked for DC Comics (The Flash, Green Lantern…) and Dell Comics (Four Color, Lil' Eightball), before moving on to animation in the Sixties and Seventies, when he designed most of Hanna & Barbera's super heroes, including the legendary Space Ghost. The turning point in this passage from the printed paper to the cathode ray tube (and the first opportunity to show his design skills in animation) was this unorthodox show that places itself more or less half way between the static and the moving image.

Toth’s outstanding panels work as a storyboard, in which the illusion of depth is given by multiplane camera panning and tilting, and where the only movement is that of live actors' superimposed talking lips on the motionless drawings (the so-called Synchro Vox technique). As happens very often with good ideas, this technique was originally conceived by cameraman Edwin Gilette for TV commercials, as a cost-cutting strategy at a time when animation was incredibly expensive (the ‘50s). Cambria Studios, the small production company behind the cartoon, adopted this system for their first production, Clutch Cargo, followed, after the addition of some some technical improvements, by Space Angel, Captain Fathom and The New Three Stooges. Even better, more savings were achieved by occasionally hiding the mouths of characters with cartoon microphones. It’s hard to tell how the kids of the Sixties would perceive what appears so odd and creepy but terribly fascinating to us now, used as we are to the faultless perfection of Pixar productions.

What we know is that the eye-patched Scott McCloud (Space Angel’s alter ego) and his mates Taurus (an overweight Scottish mechanic with a terrific accent) and Crystal (the red-haired navigator and communication expert) managed to keep hooked a great number of children who still remember it as their favourite show. Simplicity was certainly part of its appeal, together with a heavy use of cliff-hangers: the five-minute daily episodes form a brief story, all ending with the protagonists facing unexpected discoveries or dangerous dilemmas. The climax and resolution came on Fridays, delivering a neat and reassuring lead-in to a peaceful weekend for the local TV audience. However, little effort had been made in terms of the psychological modelling of the main characters: adventure was definitely emphasised over dialogues and personality. Disappointingly, the shift between public and secret identity of the captain relied exclusively on the swap between sunglasses and the eye patch. Apart from that, nothing seems to differentiate his two identities, a dialectic which is instead traditionally exploited in the character design of every super hero.

The Synchro Vox has been nearly forgotten, used only occasionally for its farcical effect in mocking celebrities, such as on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, or on the youtube series The Annoying Orange, in which fruits on the counter are filled with irritating and pestering life, thanks to the superimposition of a real person’s mouth. What makes Space Angel so archaic looking is not just outdated technology though. The three astronauts’ mission was - guess what? - to keep the galaxy safe from aliens, ghosts in search of recognition and fame, and other villains perpetually wishing to conquer the universe. And their main enemies, which were called Anthenians, closely resembled the ancient Romans, wearing togas and Greek-style armours and helmets, and living in a city terribly similar to Rome (and not just because of the presence of a Coliseum!). Also, don’t think about laser blades or force fields: gladiator battles are still the rule in the future, and the latest space-travel technology seems limited to multi-coloured blinking lights. After all, the human kind was yet to conquer the moon at the time, and computers weren’t that popular either.

So here we have a quick lesson on how the mutual influence of budget, technology and aesthetics determines the legacy of a show: creative ways of saving money will always find admirers, no matter if under the spell of a nostalgic cult, history and documentation, or hilarious re-interpretation.

Gabriella Arrigoni is an independent curator and writer; former editor
in chief of undo.net, she now contributes to a number of contemporary
art magazine. She lives in Newcastle upon Tyne (UK) where she also
works as translator. She is part of the collective Nopasswd
in[ter]dependent contemporary culture.