The Schultheis Notebook

Herman Schultheis

Herman Schultheis

A long time ago I wrote about Soyuzmultfilm and the Russian animation tradition– in my opinion, these cartoons are a national treasure and among the best things to come out of the USSR. Sadly, the US didn’t produce anything comparable, but that doesn’t mean we couldn’t have, with some German help.

By the time Soyuzmultfilm got started, Walt Disney had made enough money to branch out into some very innovative projects, most notably, Fantasia in 1940. The film wasn’t an initial commercial success, and in the following years Disney kept the company afloat (just!) by producing war propaganda for the US government, so artistically interesting projects weren’t funded.

Ironically, America’s chance at a Soyuzmultfilm-like achievement died on the the vine because of a shortage of money. Or, at least in part because of a shortage of money. Perhaps more important than financial concerns was that Disney’s Fantasia rubbed influential people like Dorothy Thompson the wrong way, and new inspiration was required.

But all of that political ugliness doesn’t detract from Disney’s artistic achievement with Fantasia. It’s a remarkable film, with an amazing array of innovative animation techniques, thanks in part to a man named Herman Schultheis.

Schultheis was born in Aachen and held a Ph.D. in mechanical and electrical engineering. He was artistically inclined, an excellent pianist and cultivated a circle of musical friends including Richard Strauss. Schultheis immigrated to the USA shortly after receiving his Ph.D.; read about his toaster incident here. Like Nikola Tesla, Schultheis learned about America the hard way!

Schultheis quickly became a rising star at Disney Studios. It’s unclear to me how many of Disney’s special effects were thanks to Schultheis alone, but he clearly had an encyclopaedic knowledge of the processes involved and his after-hours documentation suggests he felt some personal ownership. Either way, without his notebook, no one would know how Disney Studios achieved the spectacular effects they did.

Take for instance, the image below.

fantasia dew web

Fantasia was one of my favorite movies as a child. I would try to draw the characters, but for some reason, my pastels never had the vivid, glowing colors that the film had. No matter how I smudged and mixed, they never sparkled like they do in the movie.

Herman’s notebook tells why. The frame above uses at least two exposures. The first exposure is of a hand-drawn image, the second exposure, the exposure which provides the ‘scintillation’, is of strategically-placed metal filings which reflect different colored lights. When the two exposures are superimposed, you’re left with a twinkling web. Nothing like that can be achieved with pencils or pastels, the closest you’ll get (outside of film) would be paints using structural color.

Schultheis’ notebook is a treasure-trove of information, from the use of multiplane cameras, to light-bending glass, to image-distorting mirrors and even track-based mechanical effects. Schultheis’ fundamental understanding was that film captures a slice of light, and therefore animation can benefit from light’s special properties.

I wish Disney would publish Schultheis’ notebook in its entirety, but it seems that the closest we’ll get is a selection chosen and explained by John Canemaker, due out in 2014. Get a taste of what’s to come here.

Herman Schultheis worked with Disney on Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo and Bambi. Some sources add Snow White to that list too. He left Disney in 1941, hopefully because 20th Century Fox offered him better opportunities, and not because Disney’s collaboration with Washington poisoned the working environment for someone of German descent. Whatever the reason, Disney turned down Schultheis’ offer to buy his notebook for something like $300. Nearly fifty years later, the company (probably) paid Howard Lowery considerably more. Lowery got the notebooks from a Catholic order of nurses, to whom Schultheis’ widow willed her estate.

Schultheis died in mysterious circumstances. He was an avid traveler and amateur anthropologist, who made a habit of solo-expeditions to Tikal in Guatemala. One day in 1955 he walked into the jungle and didn’t walk out again. The Milwaukee Journal reported that a body was found, but they could not confirm that it was Herman’s or give a cause of death.

The most comprehensive account of Herman Schultheis’ life that I can find is an obituary published by his colleagues at Librascope, a military contractor, where he worked until his death. Schultheis was employed as a technical research librarian, probably interpreting intellectual property documents stolen by Americans from Germany after the war. This is what his colleagues had to say about him:

If your Mayan gods have reclaimed their own, Herman, we will miss you for your happy smile and your jokes, we will miss you for the part you have played in maintaining the spirit of Librascope, because we think you are irreplaceable.