Starting around 1935, and lasting for the next two decades, the Golden Age of American cartoon animation was based on the idea of realistic motion in animation. Figures were drawn to move in lifelike ways, in three dimensions, and strike expressions that helped to convince the viewer that these characters were real. The Disney studio was always the leader in this regard. Characters were carefully designed, with model sheets detailing expressions and proportions so that each animator's work would blend seamlessly into the other's.
However, there is an older paradigm - animation as funny drawings - that began far earlier in animation history and, even in the heyday of Disney, never quite died out. The cartoons directed by Fred 'Tex' Avery at MGM during the 1940s and 1950s provide an example, as characters stretched and distorted to comic effect. The UPA studio, beginning in the 1950s, produced very heavily stylized graphics for dramatic or comic effect. James Tyer was his own one-man rebellion against the uniformity and verisimilitude of the usual animated product. Tyer could take a character off-model (a term meaning an expression beyond the limits of the model sheet) like no one else. His delightful, distinctive animation made many otherwise mediocre cartoons enjoyable and worth watching even today.
An Inexact Chronology
Jim Tyer was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, USA in 1904. He began working in animation in New York City, at the Aesop's Fables Studio, circa 1926. This studio, jointly owned by animator Paul Terry and the Keith-Albee cinema chain, changed its name after Keith-Albee sold its interest to film producer Amadee Van Beuren. Paul Terry left shortly thereafter, to found Terrytoons. Tyer's animation is indistinguishable from the other animators at this stage. Van Beuren cartoons, which were distributed through RKO Pictures, were not outstanding in any respect, though many animators who worked there would go on to better things. Tyer even directed several cartoons, which are indistinguishable from other Van Beuren products.
After a brief stint at Disney, in Hollywood, where he may have worked as an effects animator, Tyer went to work for MGM in 1938, perhaps in the story department. It is not clear exactly what he did, though his animation is easily detected in at least one cartoon, as outlined in 'Selected Shorts', below.
He then moved on to the Fleischer Brothers studio, which at that time was situated in Miami, Florida. The Fleischers, who released their cartoons through Paramount Pictures, were in decline; personal tensions between Max and Dave Fleischer, coupled with an animation staff divided between short subjects and cartoon feature films, did not make for outstanding material. Here Tyer's distorted style came into its own, as Popeye and Bluto turned to rubber under Tyer's pen. The Fleischers were bought out by Paramount, and the staff moved back to New York, to concentrate solely on short subjects.
In 1946 Tyer moved to Terrytoons, which released its cartoons through Twentieth Century Fox, also in New York City. Here he found a near-perfect home for his animation. Terrytoons was, in some respects, the worst of the major-studio animation companies. Its cartoons were formulaic and slapdash, though its best work, cartoons featuring Mighty Mouse or Heckle and Jeckle, remain entertaining. Supervision of the animation was minimal. At Terrytoons Tyer could roam through a cartoon, transforming the rather arbitrary scenes he was assigned into displays of graphic ingenuity. He paid less attention to model sheets, and animating proper mouth movements for the characters. Though this might be a drawback in some senses, in others it was a boon; there are Terrytoons worth watching solely for the Tyer animation in them.
After Tyer left Terrytoons in 1959, he worked for a variety of small companies producing animation for television. His last notable work was on the feature film Fritz the Cat. He died in 1976.
Note: There is no adequate way to convey the look of Jim Tyer's animation through words. The following notes merely cite various instances where Tyer's work is recognisable and significant.
The Pygmy Hunt 1938 - Based on the cartoon strip The Captain and the Kids by Rudolph Dirks. Directed by Isadore 'Friz' Freleng. Released by Metro Goldwyn Mayer. Though Tyer's animation in this cartoon is not as broad or distinctive as in later examples, his work is easily recognisable. Tyer was assigned to create most of the animation of the pygmy, and his loose animation style is evident. The cartoon is not politically correct, and is embarrassing by today's standards.
Her Honor the Mare, 1943 - Based on the Popeye comic strip by EC Segar. Directed by Seymour Kneitel. A Famous Studios cartoon, released by Paramount Pictures. Though not a particularly distinguished Popeye cartoon, it does benefit from Tyer's work, which is concentrated at the end of the picture.
When Mousehood was in Flower, 1953 - Directed by Connie Rasinski. A Terrytoon, released through Twentieth Century Fox. This Mighty Mouse cartoon is a rarity, in that Tyer is given a character to animate in full, rather than just animating random scenes - The Pygmy Hunt being a similar example. Tyer handles the character of the announcer at a jousting tournament in his full-blown style. The announcer's eyes change size, his mouth wobbles about roughly in time to the words. Without Tyer's work, the character would be quite forgettable.
Log Rollers, 1953 - Directed by Mannie Davis. A Terrytoon, released through Twentieth Century Fox. This Heckle and Jeckle cartoon offers only a few bits of Tyer animation, but one scene takes his style to its limits. The villain, Powerful Pierre, has tied up Heckle and Jeckle, and is preparing to do away with them. Pierre, as the other animators drew him, is a top-heavy creature, but Tyer makes him rubbery, with a loose-lipped grin. There is no attempt to put mouth movements to the dialogue.
Blind Date, 1954 - Directed by Eddie Donnelly. A Terrytoon, released through Twentieth Century Fox. A wealthy dog has offered a reward for locating his long-lost love 'Dimples'. Of course, Heckle and Jeckle can't turn away from such a temptation. This is the acme of Tyer's animation; in no other cartoon does he play such an important role in amplifying the humour of the story. Tyer's animation lends an extra air of lunacy to the dog's eager amorousness, and is well complemented by Phil Scheib's music score.
Fritz the Cat, 1972 - Based on the cartoons drawn by R Crumb. Directed by Ralph Bakshi. An MGM/United Artists release. This controversial animated feature contains Jim Tyer's last work as an animator. Ralph Bakshi was a friend and admirer of Tyer's, having worked with him at Terrytoons.
- The site of The Centre for the study of Cartoons and Caricature at The University of Kent at Canterbury offers the world's largest electronic archive of cartoons, with a catalogued database of over 90,000 images.