So I was watching this Betty Boop cartoon, "Betty Boop and Grampy" (1935) from the Max Fleischer studios. I am used to seeing, as is almost always the case, the animation over the top of a matte painting. So imagine my shock when in the scene when Betty is walking down the street (singing a very catchy tune), the background moved in 3D. Now I am used to this in modern productions with the use of CG to map paintings onto 3D mesh backgrounds but what I saw in this cartoon from 75 years ago seemed IMPOSSIBLE! I didn't even realize that I was watching something out of the ordinary until she had finished crossing the street. All of a sudden I paused it and thought, "Wait a minute!" I rewound it and watched it again. "No WAY!" It was on the third time that I realized that they had shot the animation cells in front of an actual miniature set built to match the background painting style. I don't know if this communicates well from the stills but here are some screen shots I pulled.
This reminded me of a modern film that had also caught me off guard. It was a scene from Katsuhiro Otomo's 2004 masterpiece, "Steamboy." The artwork in that movie is staggering. Take a look at some of the Matte Painting art here. So about 20 minutes in I continue to be captivated with the incredible work on the background art when all of a sudden the camera rotates the scene in 3D. Whoa!
Now I know that Disney has been using a blend of CG and 2D cell animation since Beauty and the Beast and that perhaps Tarzan was the first to really use that technique so that it didn't really look like CG but this was so unexpected because this wasn't a Disney-esque background, this was a fully rendered matte painting. Turns out about a quarter of Steamboy uses CG but it's is very difficult to tell. It all fits together so seamlessly.
I certainly cheer artists who surprise me today but I was definitely not prepared to be surprised in a movie from 1935. Check out the Betty Boop short here if you like - I think you too will be pleasantly surprised.