INDUSTRIAL CARTOONS
March 31, 2018 posted by Jonathan Boschen

GM’s Power Primer ‘ABC’ Series – Part 2: The Sound Masters Sequels

This is the second of two articles regarding a forgotten, but noteworthy educational cartoon series produced by General Motors. Last weeks article took a look at it’s first installment, The ABC of Internal Combustion Engines, a film the author considers to be one of the greatest industrial training films EVER made. This second and last article takes a look at it’s final three films.

Following The ABC of Internal Combustion Engines, four additional Technicolor “Power Primer” cartoons were to be produced for General Motors’ by Herb Lamb Productions. However this would not to be. Despite the positive reception of The ABC of Internal Combustion Engines and other industrials such as “Design for Arc Welded Structures”, Herb Lamb Productions was not able to support itself financially and in 1948 declared bankruptcy. Further details regarding this bankruptcy and one of it’s 1952 Supreme Court cases can be read on Google Books: Supreme Court of the State of New York: Appellate Division-First Department. In May of 1948 Herb Lamb apparently ended his career as an independent animation producer, and took a job as a production manager at a motion picture studio being established by Winthrop Rockerfeller.

To finish the “Power Primer” series General Motors contracted a studio called Sound Masters, a New York based industrial film company that had it’s own in-house animation department. Sound Masters was established in 1937 to produce sponsored 16mm sound films, and by the end of World War II the studio had grown to where they could offer clients a variety of in-house services such as technical and cartoon animation. At the time the studio was approached by General Motors to take over the “Power Primer” projects, their animation department was under the direction of former Fleischer/Famous (Paramount) Studios animator Gordon Sheehan who was working for the company by 1946.

Post World War II era trade ads for Sound Masters. The first advertises the company’s animation services, while the second advertises their 16mm color film production.

Sound Masters would produce three cartoons for General Motors’ “Power Primer” series consisting of “The ABC of the Automobile Engine” released in 1948, The ABC of The Diesel Engine released in 1950, and “The ABC of Jet Propulsion” released in 1954, each of which would feature the characters Air, Fuel, and Ignition visually breaking down the various complex topics in an educational and entertaining manner. The three films all clock in around eighteen to twenty minutes, and appear to have been filmed directly onto 16mm film in Kodachrome; They do not appear to have been shot on 35mm in three-strip Technicolor and then reduced to 16mm prints as was done with The ABC of Internal Combustion Engines. Distribution of the films would be handled by General Motors and issued in the same manner as The ABC of Internal Combustion Engines, in which they were only loaned for scheduled group showings.


THE ABC OF THE AUTOMOBILE ENGINE (1948)

Sound Masters’ first animated cartoon for the “Power Primer” series was The ABC of the Internal Combustion Engines: The Automobile Engine, completed in 1948 and directed by Gordon Sheehan. This second installment is an extension of the first film, The ABC of Internal Combustion Engines, and uses the antics of Air, Fuel, and Ignition along with detailed graphics to show how a typical (General Motors) automobile engine operates. This film covers the workings of the carburator, pistons, crankshaft, valve mechanism, ignition, cooling and lubricating systems, and features enjoyable descriptive narration that allows any viewer to understand how the various engine systems work. All to accompany this is a nice, rather catchy musical score consisting of stock cues which appear to have been composed specifically for the cartoon by Sound Masters’ music department.

While the cartoon is effective and entertaining, it is evident that it was made by a different studio than the first installment. It does not have the gag driven demonstration or narration like Herb Lamb’s film, and instead seems to rely more on cutesy humor with the characters, narrator and music to entertain and educate viewers. However, when not comparing it to it’s predecessor, it’s still a fun and ‘unique’ technical presentation that fits General Motors’ advertising of the production: ‘A film that handles a complex subject in an interesting and easily understanding manner’.

(A nice copy of The ABC of the Automobile Engine can be viewed on the Hagley Institute website)


THE ABC OF THE DIESEL ENGINE (1950)

Sound Masters’ second “Power Primer” cartoon “The ABC of the Diesel Engine” would apparently be subcontracted to Film Graphics, a New York City based animation studio that was operated by Lee Blair. The copyright registration states the film being made by Sound Masters, however production photos show the film’s directors, Lee Blair and Lu Gaurnier, reviewing an early storyboard to the Diesel cartoon in their Film Graphics studio. Interestingly, the film also features Film Graphics’ logo at the end with no credit to Sound Masters. This would be the only one of the three “Power Primer” cartoons Sound Masters would sub-contract to another studio, and the reason for this sub-contracting is not currently known to the author.

This third entry in the “Power Primer” series once again features the three characters (Air, Fuel and Ignition), a narrator, and detailed technical animation, but takes a slightly different storytelling approach to show how a Diesel engine operates. Air, Fuel, and Ignition all talk in this film and are buddies with each other; Ignition is no longer an explosive bully obsessed with blowing up Air and Fuel. The narrator also acts as a fourth character as he interacts with Air, Fuel, and Ignition to teach them how they allow diesel engines to work. (For readers unfamiliar with diesel powered engines heat is used to generate ignition, not an electric spark). The background music used throughout the film also has a much different sound, which some viewers may notice. As Film Graphics did not have a music department, Lee Blair and Lou Gaurnier did not have a score composed for “The ABC of the Diesel Engine” and instead put to use a wide variety of library stock music. The use of this music is certainly not bad and still enhances the content.

Lee Blair and Lu Gaurnier reviewing a storyboard to “The ABC Of The Diesel Engine” at the Film Graphics Studio. This photo, from the program book to the 4th Annual Golden Awards Banquet, comes from the courtesy of Harvey Deneroff.

Overall “The ABC of the Diesel Engine” is an entertaining film that effectively teaches the complex world of Diesel engines. Today the film itself is an excellent showcase of Lee Blair’s beautiful artwork (especially the end montage of diesel powered vehicles) and filmmaking capabilities.

(A better copy of this film can be purchased on the American Industrial Cartoon Revolution Volume 2 collection available from Something Weird Video.)


“THE ABC OF JET PROPULSION” (1954)

Sound Masters’ final “Power Primer” installment was “The ABC Of Jet Propulsion” completed in 1954 and would be the final appearance of the characters Air, Fuel, and Ignition. The exact reason why there is a four year gap between this final film and “The ABC of the Diesel Engine” is a little bit of a mystery, but may have had to do with the advancement in aircraft technology since World War II, and General Motors updating their book “A Power Primer” in 1950 to vastly cover jet propulsion. This film when announced in 1946 was originally going to be “The ABC of The Airplane Engine”, and based on the 1944 first edition of “A Power Primer” which did not really cover jet propulsion technology. To add to the mystery regarding this final entry, it’s unknown who the film’s director was. Gordon Sheehan left Sound Masters in 1952 to become the animation director of an industrial film company called Sarra Inc., and unfortunately information stating who filled Sheehan’s position is a bit scarce. While these questions are unanswered, there are some details regarding what went on behind the scenes during the cartoon’s production in a (positive) review that Business Screen Magazine wrote up on the film:

“Stickler’s for accuracy, GM brains spend over a year on each of these brief pictures. A contingent of automotive engineers confer with the New York producers. The dimensions of all drawings are checked and rechecked for complete exactness. This care pursues every step: black and white story board, public relations, technical check, black & white work print, complete check, revision, color storyboard, first version color print.

Once, a whole series of drawings were rejected because the proportions of a cylinder head were not exact. Engineers from GM’s Allison division labored on ‘ABC of Jet Propulsion’ during the past year. Expert heads wagged “try again” until even the jet exhaust color blew true.

The 1954 Business Screen Magazine Review for “The ABC of Jet Propulsion”, and GM’s film catalog listing for the film.

The overall premises of The ABC of Jet Propulsion is similar in nature to Lee Blair’s diesel film, in that the narrator teaches Air, Fuel, and Ignition how they power jet propulsion engines and how the technology is being used to advance our society. This is all of course accomplished with nicely designed, perfected technical drawings and several humorous cartoon sequences. The music score was composed strictly for the cartoon and has some decent music cues throughout the production; the triumphant fanfare of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” during the opening credits along with other cues, fit the film well. General Motors accurately advertised the cartoon as being “authoritative technically”, and entertaining to anyone curious about jet engines.

(A better copy of this film can be purchased on the American Industrial Cartoon Revolution Volume 2 collection available from Something Weird Video.)


Sound Masters’ three ABC cartoons all took on a similar life to Herb Lamb’s The ABC of Internal Combustion Engines. They were widely used at schools and technical colleges throughout the 1950s and 1960s, until being remade and replaced in the 1970s with ‘updated’ versions; these updated versions did not use the three cartoon characters Air, Fuel, and Ignition.

Once updated and discontinued, the old cartoons were sold off by General Motors to film collectors and instructors, some of whom continued to show them as educational aids. Since this time the three films have kind of fallen into obscurity, but have fortunately lapsed into the public domain giving them an opportunity for a second life. In the early 2000’s film collector Mike Vraney released two of Sound Masters’ ABC cartoons he acquired, The ABC of the Diesel Engine and The ABC of Jet Propulsion, on Something Weird Video’s American Industrial Cartoon Revolution Volume 2 (a fun collection the author recommends) which has given them a much deserved main stream release and has contributed to their survival.

Today viewers will see that the films are more than just ‘how it works’ films from yesteryear, but are excellent examples of a well made presentation. They utilize storytelling, graphic design, and humor to entertain and effectively educate audiences on a complex subject and should be observed for this reason. The AV tools are certainly available today for filmmakers and presentation designers to further build upon the ideas and concepts that Sound Masters and Film Graphics put to use…

A very special thank you to Lisa Petrucci of Something Weird Video for allowing the author access to Mike Vraney’s transfers of The ABC of the Diesel Engine and The ABC of Jet Propulsion. The author would also like to thank the late Mr. Vraney for collecting the cartoons (along with hundreds of other industrial films) and making them available through his label Something Weird Video. Without his work and devotion to making obscure films available, the author probably never would have discovered these wonderful animated gems.

In addition a special thank you to Mitchell Dakelman, Don Yowp, and Harvey Deneroff for their research assistance.

3 Comments

  • I once had a book that described the four-stroke engine cycle as “suck squeeze pop phooey” – and I drew a Movie Record version of it.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zlxT5591Ynk

  • I find it odd that the Diesel engine video was divided so that the second part was only a minute and a half.

  • AS I recall, the prints issued in 16mm by GM were Eastman color. The only Technicolor ones were ABC OF HAND TOOLS and ABC OF INTERNAL COMBUSTION. Once again, great article. Most likely, though, the original release prints were in Kodachrome although I have never seen any. In the mid 1950s Kodak introduced their negative-positive print film stock and as all know, they faded badly. The premise of course. that a film would last 5 years, a new one could be made or revised or withdrawn.

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