Ask an American “who invented animation” and the most likely response will be “Walt Disney.” Students of animation history know better, of course — but while Disney contributed significantly to the development of the form, his most permanent legacy may be the tireless self-promotion with which he stamped his own name on animated cinema. Foremost among Walt Disney’s gifts was his facility with storytelling, so it’s no surprise that to this day, millions accept as historical fact the studio’s own carefully constructed narrative about its role as engine of technological progress in animation.

But in the silent era and well into the 1930’s, animation’s technology leader was the Fleischer Studio; other studios, including Disney, struggled to keep up with Fleischer’s visual and mechanical inventiveness. And while Disney, obsessed with realism, strove to create an environment in which rigidly contained characters behave according to strict visual, narrative, and social rules, the principles at work in Fleischer-space are the exact opposite. Betty Boop and Popeye inhabit a profoundly rubbery world, in which the fourth wall is full of holes, distinctions between human, animal, vegetable and inanimate taxonomies are unstable, and the boundary between cartoonal and real space is up for grabs.

Fleischer deployed a number of techniques in the service of this anarchic cinematic vision, among them rotoscoping (patented by Max Fleischer in 1917); integrating live action shots; and using still photographs as animation backgrounds to create the illusion of cartoon characters inhabiting a real-world space, as in the opening scene of the astounding Betty Boop short Ha! Ha! Ha! (1934). The most technologically ornate item in Fleischer’s toolbox was the setback camera (sometimes erroneously called the ‘stereoptical process’), used in a number of shorts and in the feature film Hoppity Goes To Town (1941).

The setback is often confused with Disney’s multiplane camera. Both systems evolved somewhat contemporaneously, and both create the illusion of dimensional depth, but functionally they have little in common. The setback rig consists of a forced-perspective, miniature set mounted on a turntable, serving as background to the cel art held in a vertical glass platen, and a horizontal animation camera. The turntable is rotated incrementally behind the cels, creating the effect of a “tracking shot” — the 2D animated character, in a side-view walk cycle, traverses a realistically proportioned (but still recognizably Fleischeresque) 3D environment which moves perspectivally across the background.

Getting the setback rig to work at all must have been a major technical feat — the lighting challenges alone seem headache-inducing — and it’s easy to imagine that 1930’s audiences, unaccustomed to full 3D motion in cartoons, were amazed by the onscreen results. Yet the scenes in which the studio deployed setback shots seem chosen at random. Setback made its public debut during a fast and comical chase scene in the Popeye short For Better Or Worser (1935), but in Li’l Swee’ Pea (1936) the setback shots accompany such humdrum, utilitarian scenes (Popeye walking; Popeye pushing stroller) that the overall effect is underwhelming.

Setback shots in the color two-reeler Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor (1936) are more sophisticated; some feature an additional foreground layer of sliding 3D scenery between camera and platen, with the nearer objects convincingly off-focus. The animators found new ways to make the drawn characters interact spatially with the backgrounds: Popeye climbs a staircase (walking ‘between’ two balustrades built into the turntable) and Bluto convincingly enters a 3D cave. Some shots vary the turntable velocity, with the animation timed accordingly. In one of the better-executed gags, 2D Bluto plunges his hands into a 3D treasure chest and scoops out handfuls of 2D gems. The lighting crew evidently struggled to eliminate shadows and glare from these more complex shots, sometimes without success.

Setback also makes a few appearances in Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba’s Forty Thieves (1937), including the film’s impressive final shot: Popeye and Olive Oyl ride a 3D wagon (its wheels spinning in stop-motion); a pan within the setback shot reveals 2D Bluto and his vanquished team of badguys towing the wagon. In the big-budget Hoppity, Fleischer’s failed bid for legitimacy in the animated feature arena (and the point of no return in the studio’s decline), the setback camera slowly descends on its y-axis during the visually gorgeous but narratively superfluous opening ‘crane shot.’

Disney’s multiplane camera, though technically complex, only shot 2D artwork. Fleischer attempted something more ambitious — in-camera compositing of 2D and 3D animation — decades before it became possible to do so optically or digitally. Perhaps setback was born too soon; despite its heady promise of merging the 2D and 3D worlds, the system was a one-trick pony. The technical limitations became narrative ones: since the forced-perspective effect depended on a fixed distance between the camera and turntable, setback was constrained to panning along the x-axis — an efficient but not very engaging way of moving a character from here to there. If Fleischer ever attempted moving one of the setback elements in z-space, the results must have been judged unfit for presentation. The more flexible multiplane system allowed z-axis camera moves which drew the audience into the pictorial space.

But Disney didn’t overtake Fleischer just by stumbling upon superior filmmaking machinery — history is full of bad technologies that prevail over better ones — but by harnessing all of the studio’s resources, including multiplane, to build a triumphant narrative about technological progress. Disney leveraged its story-structure chops both on and off the screen: not only did the multiplane camera highlight important moments in a given film’s narrative with its swooping spatial moves (announcing its presence in Pinocchio, for example, with soaring flocks of birds and tolling church bells), it also played a key role in Disney’s meta-narrative about how technically challenging the films were to make.

Over the following decades, the studio unspooled this story over and over, in countless promotional ‘making-of’ films shown during Disney’s TV program, and in every other known communication medium except possibly Morse Code and smoke signals. With every new feature Disney unleashed increasingly baroque publicity storms, always emphasizing how hard everyone worked to make the picture: to what distant locales the artists traveled; what species of exotic fauna the studio installed in its in-house zoo for visual reference; how many trainloads of paper and ink were consumed during production, and so on.

That any of this was necessary underscores the lasting irony of Disney’s achievement: in the service of realism, Disney drove his artists and technicians to previously unattained levels of craft, with the result that audiences forgot they were watching animation and had to be constantly reminded, through channels external to the films themselves, how hard it was to create the illusion.

Unlike Fleischer’s animators, who couldn’t stay out of the picture, Disney’s crew did their jobs so well that they made themselves disappear.

Luke Jaeger grew up in Brooklyn and attended Yale University, the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, and Massachusetts College of Art. He and his family now live in Western Massachusetts. His animated films have been shown in festivals and theaters worldwide. More at