You could walk a crooked line from the hijinks of Steamboat Willie — one of the first cartoons starring Mickey Mouse — to, say, the mayhem of Dragon Ball Z. But when was the last time you even saw an animated film from before World War II? Or before sound? Have you ever? Because Steve Stanchfield, assistant professor of animation and animation history, wants to make sure that when you decide to do a deep dive into the early days of animation, the films are there for you to find. His side gig: preserving animation history.
“These films are the stepping stones of what we do now,” says Stanchfield, who also runs Thunderbean Animation in Ann Arbor. “Often I tell students to go look at the really early 1930s films because those animators were learning lessons that the students are now trying to learn.”
Stanchfield’s recent restoration projects involve films produced in the 1930s and 40s, like the 1948 Alice in Wonderland, a film with both live action and animation made by puppet animator Lou Bunin, and the Flip the Frog cartoons made by the Ub Iwerks Studio. Ub Iwerks was the animator of Steamboat Willie and partnered with Walt Disney before striking out on his own. Stanchfield works with the original nitrate negatives and master positives. “All of that original material still exists,” he says, “and we’re doing everything we can to do preservation work on the material before it doesn’t exist.
“This isn’t about the money; the money’s only enough to be able to restore the next film. It’s because somebody has to do it. If we don’t now…” His voice trails off. “It was brought home to me after visiting UCLA and seeing what they can’t restore now. I thought, ‘Okay, I get it.’”
His passion for film restoration is palpable, as is his passion for helping students not only discover the connection between history and now but also find their own way. But that’s why CCS has such a successful animation program, Stanchfield emphasizes, because there is neither a “house” style nor an expectation of what you’re creating — just an expectation to create.
“I feel like the program is always experimental in that way because we never know what someone is going to produce,” Stanchfield says. “Rather than say, ‘Here are the perimeters,’ we say, ‘Here are some things that have existed before. Now what can you do with this? Where can you go now?’”