June 4, 2015 posted by

FIRST LOOK: Willie Whopper Restorations

A frame from "Hell's Fire"

A frame from “Hell’s Fire”

The summer here is always much anticipated; it’s a time where I’m able to catch up on so many things and commit
uninterrupted time to the often interuppted or longer projects- something that teaching college allows.

This week I want to talk just a little about the Willie Whopper project and how things are going- it’s had lots of time put into it over the last handful of months, and I’m happy to say that I think it’s one of the best looking projects we’ve put together, and a challenge too! If you’ve read this blog before, you know I’ve talked more than once about this one as it’s been in progress; I liked the idea of talking a little about the various stages that happen to bring one of these projects together.

"See How They Won"

“See How They Won”

Mel McCann, Thad Komorowski and David Grauman have been invaluable in helping on the Willie project; We all worked really hard on making these shorts look as good as possible.We’re a little behind the original deadline for the project, but I do hope to have the set finished in June at some point.

The Willie Whopper project almost didn’t happen. I had wanted to gather all the films from the series in a whole collection, and asked David Shepard of Film Preservation Associates if that would be possible. He said that sadly he didn’t have rights to all the films, so there were only some we could use. Another issue was that it wasn’t known what materials on the Willies were in good shape and what wasn’t- there had never been an attempt to put them ALL together since the home movie releases and 16mm rental releases of the early 40s.

Happily, as we were working on another project with Film Preservation, the long-time rights holder of six of the Willies decided to sell, so now all the films are back under one roof again. With that agreement came the Fine Grains that were struck when the films distribution agreement was made, in 1961.

"See How They Won"

“See How They Won”

Sadly, the materials that had been part of the license agreement seemed to no longer existed in Nitrate. Modern Sound Pictures had struck new 35mm fine grain masters. It’s hard to say what generation of materials those fine grains were from. My guess is they may have been from 35mm printing negs, or a fine grain was provided to them and they struck a Dupe neg, then printed these fine grains from that. In any case, the Nitrate material they were given had been destroyed.

The hunt for the best of the Willie materials has been an interesting one- in some ways it’s familiar territory, in other fascinating to see what showed up and where. Happily, nearly all of the materials were at either UCLA or the Academy Film Archive, where David Shepard deposited them in the mid 70s. Since that time, some things have been lost to Nitrate deterioration. Safety materials were made on some things, others not. Most of the elements from private collectors were used to replace original missing titles and end titles where they were not intact on the 35mm sources.

Perhaps the best find was the successive exposure neg for the Hell’s Fire, the second of the two-color Willie Whoppers. UCLA managed to unearth this material when we went searching for it on this project, and happily so. We did a 4K scan on the reel, along with the successive neg on Davy Jones’ Locker.

Metropolis Film in New York did an amazing job on combining the original elements. Jack Rizzo and Jason Crump have to be commended for helping Willie regain his color. Their work is absolutely fantastic, as can be evidenced by these stills from Hell’s Fire. My jaw dropped when I saw what they were able to do. It has that great Cinecolor look, with an excellent balance of full, rich color.

HELLS_FIRE_Hell's Fire-1


In addition to these shorts, they are also working on a restoration of the two Iwerks produced Boots Chemists’ films – See How They Won and Leave It To John. Here are some stills from the later of the two. I think it’s safe to say this has been out of the public eye nearly since it was made. (click to enlarge thumbnails below)

Leav. John__1Leav. John__2Leav. John__3Leav. John__4

I’ve put together a sampler of clips from eight of the films that have been restored. These are ‘not quite’ final versions- there’s still some cropping and balance issues to finish, but they’re pretty close! We only has three films left to finish the restoration on at this point. I hope to have next week’s column talk specifically about the color shorts, with some clips from the films.

Here’s a quick breakdown of each and what the material is from. It’s safe to say now that the best materials for the series have been identified, and we’ve used the best known materials on all the films for the set.

Play Ball – The first half of this version is from UCLA’s 35mm safety preservation made from the 35mm Nitrate master positive after it had started to deteriorate. The first half of the film was in decent shape, so we used it for this version, and used a beautiful 1942 16mm printdown for the rest. Often, these older 16mm prints were made using a 35mm neg rather than a 16mm neg, and it shows. The end title was restored from Mark Kausler’s rare 16mm print- the only copy I’ve seen that still has the original end title intact. This was the icing on the cake in that it was the only Willie I didn’t have the original end title on. The sound is from the Academy’s preservation element off the 35mm nitrate track.

Stratos Fear-This short only exists in 35mm in one print as far as I can tell- it’s a safety print made from the Commonwealth reissue of the film. It wasn’t a bad print at at, and with a good amount of cleanup looks really nice. The title sequence was from both Ron Shultz and Mark Kausler’s 16mm elements. The soundtrack on this was a safety element from the Academy- it has a noticeable improvement on fidelity.

Robin Hood Jr. – This print was from Modern Sound Pictures’ 35mm Fine Grain Master Positive. It is the only known 35mm material on this film. The title and end title sequence were from Chris Buchman’s 1945 16mm printdown. The track is also from the Modern Sound Finegrain.

Spite Flight – This is also mainly from the Modern Sound Pictures fine grain material. Sadly, the only other 35mm material had deteriorated; the preservation material from that Nitrate was in too bad of condition to use.

Insultin’ the Sultan – This cartoon was from Blackhawk films’ 16mm master positive, reduced from the 35mm master positive that no longer exists.

Reducing Creme – This cartoon is from the original nitrate Fine Grain Master Positive, held at UCLA archives. It was scanned at 4k and digitally cleaned up. When we’re able to work at a higher res, it’s much easier to get an excellent result.

The Caveman – The title sequence is from a 16mm element, the first scene is from Modern Sound Pictures 35mm Fine Grain, and the rest of the cartoon is from the original camera negative held at UCLA. It was a joy to work on such beautiful material- I wish all the Willies had as good of material to work from, but overall I think the set looks really nice. As it stands, we’ve now done 4K scans on all the Nitrate Willie Whoppers except one.

Here’s the sampling of our restorations- hope you like them! Have a good week everyone!


  • Steve:
    Usual excellent job on the restoration! Thank God for folks like you who care enough to preserve animated material for the rest of us to enjoy! Thanks again and continued success!

  • Awesome job!

  • I love to hear how projects come together and where the elements come from. And the previews look beautiful — but they’re all in black and white. How many Willie Whopper cartoons are there, and how many are in color?

  • Hell, these are great.

    I thought Thunderbean Thursday would never get here. Already looking forward to next week’s installment.

  • When I first began to program animated cartoons I found animations fans dismissive of almost everything non-Disney which was a bummer. The general public, which, of course, is much larger an audience, were thrilled and delighted by the films the fans turned away from. In particular the strange look of Cinecolor cartoons grabbed people in a big way. It is great that Steve, Thad and the rest are saving these films for future eyes to enjoy.

  • I’ll be purchasing this set, of course. But these days my preference is to view cartoons one at a time on my iPad. It also helps me share with the kids in my life (grandkids and nieces and nephews and their friends) Is there any chance that you will release a digital version?

  • Beautiful work! Can’t wait for the release of this material!!!

  • Holy Crap, this is some of your best restoration work yet! I can’t wait for this to glow from my TV!

  • Vulcan has never looked better!

  • Great job Steve and this has to be your biggest release to date.The clips to these shorts looks absolutely beautiful and these are the best I ever have seen of the Whoppers.I’m highly anticipating this release.

  • How did the rights to such a short-lived series end up split between two different companies?

    • Over the years, rights for various films were sold in packages together- it’s hard to say exactly why sometimes, while other times it’s clear. My guess is that the distributor just wanted some of the cartoons, and picked a handful…

    • It did seem very randomly picked, like they didn’t care to take all the Willie Whoppers that way. Glad they all came back together.

  • I’ve watched a few Cinecolor cartoons on the cheap “public domain” cartoon collections I’ve acquired during the DVD boom years; it’s no exaggeration to say the stills posted above are a revelation, displaying a vibrancy and richness sorely lacking in the weathered old copies used in the dollar discs and 500-toons-at-once sets. My most sincere thanks for all the work you and your friends have put into preserving and restoring these shorts!

  • Sweet, THIS is what makes these projects so exciting. Studios tend to balk at putting this much work into any series, especially for PD material. Movies they might put some effort into, but series like this are usually left to rot (see Olive Film’s incomplete Betty Boop project)

    I’m not even a big fan of the Iwerks cartoons, but if they look this good, I’ll buy in a heartbeat. Thunderbean is setting a gold standard for indie releases and restoring old classics.

  • Prior to this, I never realized how closely Marge (LITTLE LULU( Henderson Beull’s “Tubby” resembles the earlier, tubbier version of Willie Whopper!

  • Looking forward to pre ordering this set

  • That you started with such old, degraded elements and were able to achieve such clarity is amazing. Iwerks certainly used a wide & varied palette of greys, didn’t he? That must have been a daunting challenge. I can only assume that many of the originals were a dull, muddy mess when you started!

    So there were two completely different models used for the Willie character? That couldn’t have helped his popularity — it must have confused the heck out of audiences.

    • Going by what is on Wiki, it looks like the slim version of Willie was designed first (by Grim Natwick) and was seen in those first three cartoons before Ub changed the design to the chubby version we know and love. At least he seemed more appealing than the previous design I sorta confused for Buddy’s cousin. 😛

  • That’s some really great colour pics from “Hell’s Fire”. Quite excited we’re getting restorations of the two Boots Chemists ads too, seriously where did you dig up this stuff? And “Reducing Creme” and “The Cave Man” look incredible, can’t wait for the final set! Massive kudos to UCLA, Messers Shepard, Stanchfield and all those involved for your preservation/restoration efforts!

  • Steve, you’ve done it again. The Cinecolor color balance looks absolutely authentic. And I can’t believe the Boots Chemists films are in the works. I know how long you’ve been searching for those; hope that’ll be a story for another column soon!

  • Oh, boy, I can hardly wait to pre-order this baby! I’m sure that some of these films ended up on our local ABC affiliate when it used to run random cartoons, including these and the other MGM classic cartoons of the later 30’s, 40’s and so on. In fact, they mistakenly ran the Robin Hood cartoon in reverse and upside down–was it a prank to see if viewers were watching? I don’t know, but it will be oh, so good to have all these fully restored (or as restored as possible) to enjoy on Blu-ray and DVD real soon! This is truly exciting news, and again and again, I have to say that I hope that Steve Stanchfield can someday move out of the realm of public domain and into restoration of a beloved classic that is still under copyright and, perhaps, asking for his diligent support! That’s my dream for the future!

    • Well, Kevin. The majority of the Willie Whopper cartoons are still under copyright, so this is a step in the right direction, I totally agree with you.

    • Yes, Willie Whopper and the upcoming Flip the Frog blu-rays are both licensed properties that Thunderbean paid to get the rights to release. This is a significant step towards licensing more popular/expensive cartoon film properties in the future.

  • Great restorations, Steve. They look absolutely sublime. Some of these Willie cartoons, I have never seen before and it is worth noting that these cartoons also used jazz records of the day as some of their background. In ‘The Cave Man’ the tune that is played (when the dinosaur terrorises the young cavewoman) is called “Lafayette’ which was recorded by Bennie Moten’s Kansas City Orchestra featuring Ben Webster on tenor saxophone and Count Basie on piano.

  • As usual, I’m staggered by what you’re able to achieve. The restorations look astounding. That you and your team go to so much effort to locate these gems and restore them is great appreciated. Long live Thunderbean!

  • The Cinecolor cartoons are no doubt going to be the highlight of the set! The frames from “Hell’s Fire” look beautiful!

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