22 May 2011

Broken Down Film - by Osamu Tezuka

Museum of Film Damage.

This marvelous piece of animation from Osamu Tezuka dates from 1985.

I remember seeing it at the Ogden Theater in Denver as part of one of their annual "Tournee of Animation" programs.  I'd guess in 1986.

The genius of this film relies heavily on the viewer knowing a bit about the medium of film itself. It strikes me that some younger people might not "get" this movie, since image projection has changed to digital formats since the film was made. And even where traditional film is still projected, the quality of film prints and projection these days is usually pretty high.  So this little gem now acts as a kind of period piece, a museum of film damage.

The home video revolution has also lessened the impact of this film.  It is much more effective seen on the big screen, where this panoply of film distress could actually be real.  

Here, in less than 6 minutes,  we see an entertaining compendium of many of  the ways now-old-timey frame-and-sprocket-hole film could fail, break, and get damaged from overuse.  Not only that, but we see the implied hack work of a series of inept projectionists who splice sections of film in backwards, upside down, and in at least one case, slug in footage from some completely different film.  

In just a quick review, I spot these (brilliantly simulated) film problems:

  • footage spliced in backwards
  • film breaks
  • image full of deep vertical lines
  • scratchy
  • dirty with hairs and fuzz
  • mis-framed
  • bad, abrupt splices
  • film slips off sprocket holes
  • wrong footage spliced in
  • film pieced together from unmatching clean & dirty  prints
  • timing footage slugged in
  • censored footage removed
  • section spliced in upside-down
And that is just the visual aspect. The soundtrack is variously damaged as well.

What is fun and often inspired about this cartoon is how the characters in the film react to and interact with all the damage to their cinematic world.  One of these wonderful moments stayed with me for years:  the vertical lines grow so intense that they threaten to obliterate the image entirely, and become for the characters falling rain.  The cowboy pulls out an umbrella and shields his lady love from the "rain."  Beautiful.

Tezuka's brilliant 1985 short plays with all these varieties of film damage so adeptly that film damage becomes the subject, and thus the title, of the short.

Tezuka was not the first animator to incorporate fake film distress right into his animated world.  Famously, Tex Avery used the "hair gag" in his "Magical Maestro" in 1952.   An  annoying wiggly hair appears on the film frame at one point and continues its wiggling and jumping until a character in the film angrily plucks it off and throws it aside.  The legend is that this and other animated fake damage in Avery cartoons gave some diligent projectionists fits until they figured out the gimmick.

Recently, Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodruguez's Grindhouse did an amazingly realistic job of recreating all kinds of film damage in a live-action film.

When I saw Grindhouse, it was hugely nostaligic for me:  all that marvelous old film damage that used to be a typical part of the movie-going experience!  All those bad splices and green lines and chewed up sections of film!  Tarantino and Rodriguez got it exactly right.

But before them, there was Osamu Tezuka's amazing and delightful Broken Down Film.



  1. I remember seeing this! It is an excellent 5 minute history of the old manual projector days. This is one of those things that, along with skips and pops in vinyl, I don't miss.

  2. Fantastic! Thanks for the reminder of this brilliant gem.