Saturday, February 15, 2014

The Subtext of the Animated Explanation in The President's Analyst (1967)

NB: This post refers to a key point in the climax of the film The President's Analyst (1967).

There is an obscure sub-genre of animated shorts that has the role of explaining a science-based plot point in a major motion picture. In general it is considered bad form to stop the action of a movie to explain something, but many great movies have done this in spite of the low esteem with which this technique is held. As a variation on this otherwise discredited approach, filmmakers have occassionally used the animated short to do the explaining for them.

An important example of this technique in a major motion picture was Jurassic Park (1991) in which an animated character is used to explain how DNA extracted from a drop of blood preserved in amber can be used to create an entire franchise of films without ideas. This classic animation was done by Kurtz & Friends Animation and they have a pencil test of their work online at this link.

Classically cute DNA Fragment

Another example is that fabulous but sadly overlooked film from the cold war, The President's Analyst (1967). In the climax of the film, the villain reveals himself to be the CEO of TPC, The Phone Company, and explains to our hero, James Coburn, the psychiatrist to the President of the United States, why they need his help to get legislation passed to require the implant of a new communication device in everyone's brain.

This sequence is more than just an explanation, although it is an explanation, it is also the climax of the movie, everything else is mere gun fights and denouement.

The Cerebrum Communicator happily does its thing.

In order to completely appreciate both of these sequences there are two important things that the audience should realize, and which will become more and more obscure as time goes by. You see these shorts are more than mere animated explanations with cute animated characters, they are in fact double-barrelled nostalgia aimed directly at the baby-boomer demographic, and thus as this demographic ages and then departs, these nuances will be lost on all but the most informed audiences.

The first and overt nostalgia item are the films themselves, which are clearly references to the Bell Laboratories Science Films. Readers will recall that many years ago there used to be a company called AT&T which had a state-enforced monopoly on certain kinds of telephone service in this country. The profits from this monopoly were so extraordinary that the company was able to finance an important scientific laboratory known as Bell Labs. This now defunct entity was responsible for many, many key inventions in our daily lives before we turned R&D, and every other vital function, over to the Red Chinese in a desire to be "more efficient" and increase the profits of the rich.

But back in the day, and that day was the late 1950s and early 60s, we were involved in something called the Cold War, and the nation was concerned about having enough scientists and engineers in order to build nuclear weapons and the rockets to propel them, so there was an emphasis on science education. And to help serve that need, Bell Labs created films for young students to introduce them to important scientific concepts. Thus, the Bell Labs science films such as Our Mr. Sun (1956) and Hemo the Magnificent (1957) to name two. As you might have guessed by now, or recalled if you were there, these films featured a combination of live action and 2D (hand-drawn animation) in a dialogue with each other to explain some scientific concept.

The Sun and Father Time have a few words

Michael Sporn has an excellent discussion of this film on his blog at this location.

But if we reach a little further we can find yet another point of obscure nostalgia that these science films, and hence our animated scientific explanations, appealed to. Back when those of us who saw these films in their proper environment, which was about 4th - 6th grade in elementary school, one did not regularly see videos whenever one wanted. In fact, you did not see video much at all, except on broadcast television and then not in color unless you were rich or had a rich friend. Anything that was video-like was actually projected on film, normally 16mm film, with all the shades drawn to make the room dark.  This was a real treat for those of us in the early days of being educated. What a relief this was compared to the normal curriculum!

Even more obscure, the films were shown on the esteemed "multimedia" or "A/V" (as in audio/visual) cart, a cart that contained a 16 mm projector, a slide strip viewer, and an overhead projector, and was rolled from classroom to classroom as needed.

The classic form of the A/V Cart

The Bell & Howell 16 mm Film Projector

All of this goes through the mind of the baby boomer as he or she watches these animated explanations and that is the subtext that will be lost as these films are viewed in the future, assuming they are viewed in the future, that is.

We can only hope that there will be the equivalent of liner notes to explain these critical issues to the audiences of that distant time that they might understand our culture and context a little better.



Perhaps the best known of the Bell Labs Science films is Our Mr. Sun, directed by Frank Capra, staring Eddie Albert. It is one of the first uses of front projection in narrative film.

You can download Our Mr. Sun from the following web site:

The sequence from The President's Analyst (1967) can be viewed at

Kurtz & Friends Animation web page on Jurassic Park

Our Mr. Sun (1956) on IMDB

Jurassic Park (1991) on IMDB

The President's Analyst (1967) on IMDB

Bell Laboratory Science Films on Wikipedia

No comments:

Post a Comment