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Early lifeBorn to a Jewish family in Kraków, Poland, then part of the Austrian-Hungarian province of Galicia, Max Fleischer was the second oldest of six children of an Austrian immigrant tailor, William Fleischer. His family emigrated to the USA in 1887 and settled in New York City, where he attended public school; he spent his formative years in Brownsville and Brooklyn. He attended Evening High School, received commercial art training at Cooper Union, and also attended The Mechanics and Tradesman's School. While still in his teens, he worked for The Brooklyn Daily Eagle as an errand boy, and eventually became a cartoonist. It was during this period he met newspaper cartoonist and early animator, John Randolph Bray. He married his childhood sweetheart, Ethel (Essie) Gold on December 25, 1905. Shortly afterward he accepted an illustrator's job for a catalog company in Boston. He returned to New York as Art Editor for Popular Science magazine around 1912; he also wrote books, including one called Noah's Shoes.
The RotoscopeFleischer devised a concept to simplify the process of animating movement by tracing frames of live action film. His patent for the Rotoscope was granted in 1915, although Max and his brother Dave Fleischer made their first cartoon using the system in 1914. Extensive use of this technique was made in Fleischer's Out of the Inkwell series for the first five years of the series, which started in 1919 and starred Koko the Clown and Fitz the dog.
Fleischer StudiosFleischer produced his Inkwell films for the Bray Studios until 1921, when he and brother Dave established Fleischer Studios (initially named "Out of the Inkwell Films") to produce animated cartoons and short subjects; Max was credited as the producer at the beginning of every cartoon as well. Koko and Fitz remained the stars of the Out of the Inkwell series, which was renamed Inkwell Imps in 1927. The Fleischer brothers also partnered with Lee DeForest, Edwin Miles Fadiman, and Hugo Riesenfeld to form Red Seal Pictures Corporation, which owned 36 theaters on the East Coast, extending as far west as Cleveland, Ohio.
Fleischer invented the "follow the bouncing ball" technique for his Song Car-Tunes series of animated singalong shorts beginning in May 1924. After a few films with unsynchronized sound (music and sound effects only), Fleischer added synchronized sound to this series, with My Old Kentucky Home (released April 13, 1926) with a dog-like character saying "Follow the ball, and join in, everybody." The sound entries in the Song Car-Tunes series — roughly 19 out of 36 short films — used the Phonofilm sound-on-film process developed by Lee DeForest. The Song Car-Tunes series would last until early 1927, just a few months before the actual start of the sound era. This was before Walt Disney's Steamboat Willie (1928), which is often mistakenly cited as the first cartoon to synchronize sound with animation. However, by late 1926, both the DeForest Phonofilm Corp. and Red Seal Pictures had filed for bankruptcy, and the Song Car-Tunes series came to an end.
In 1923, Fleischer made two 20-minute educational features explaining Albert Einstein's Theory of Relativity (The Einstein Theory of Relativity) and Charles Darwin's Theory of Evolution. Both features used a combination of animated special effects and live action. Fleischer also produced Finding His Voice (1929) illustrating how sound films worked.
Into the early sound era, Fleischer produced many technically advanced and sophisticated animated films. Several of his cartoons had soundtracks featuring live or rotoscoped images of the leading jazz performers of the time, most notably Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong and Don Redman. Fleischer's use of black performers was bold at a time when depictions of blacks were often denigrating and stereotypical.