Friday, December 05, 2014

CTN vs. TCAF and Zen Pencils

I attended CTN for the first time this year, representing Sheridan College.  Because of that, I was pretty much tied to Sheridan's table in the exhibition hall.  I didn't attend any of the presentations or screenings, though I did get to walk around the exhibition hall several times.  The observations that follow all relate to that.

There were hardware and software vendors there, like Wacom and Zbrush.  There were schools of various types offering formal and informal education.  There were book dealers like Focal Press and Stuart Ng.  However, the vast majority of exhibitors were artists selling their work in the form of prints, sketchbooks and collections.

The quality of work was exceptionally high and the love of drawing was visible everywhere.  It would have been easy to spend thousands of dollars on artwork and have years of inspiration as a result.

However, it struck me that the exhibition hall was like a farmer's market where the only people buying were other farmers.  It puzzled me that the exhibiting artists were not creating work that would appeal to a wider audience than just other artists.

I regularly attend the Toronto Comic Arts Festival (TCAF).  The people exhibiting there sell comics and graphic novels.  Their audience certainly includes artists, but the majority of people who attend are the general public.  The work there is something that average people, not people in the art field, might buy for themselves or purchase as a gift.

This is the case even though the average quality of the artwork is below what I saw at CTN.

Similarly, I've just found the Zen Pencils site.  Gavin Aung Than illustrates quotes from other people about various aspects of life.  While I admire his work, once again it's fair to say that his draftsmanship is below the CTN standard.

Yet at TCAF and Zen Pencils, the artists are reaching a broader audience.  The reason is that they are creating content, not simply demonstrating craft.  There's a difference between designing a character and creating a character.  While the CTN folks are great at design, a sketchbook or print lacks the narrative structure that an audience is looking for.

The artists at CTN love drawing and are good at it.  But in only talking to other artists, they're limiting their sales.  Why aren't they creating childrens books, comics, graphic novels and greeting cards that would show off their art as effectively as their sketchbooks, but also sell to a general audience?

Zen Pencils shows that you don't even have to be able to write, just recognize writing that has a meaningful perspective on life.  It also shows that cartooning, not just realistic illustration, can deal with subject matter that's relevant to adult lives.

I don't doubt that the artists at CTN would love to see drawn animation come back.  By just selling to other artists, they're doing nothing to make that happen.  Only when a property catches with the larger audience will producers take note.  Only when the audience is surrounded by drawings that entertain and enlighten them will there be a demand for drawn animated features.

As Chuck Jones once said, "All of us must eventually do what the matador does: go out and face not only the bull but the crowd."  The talent at CTN should seek out the crowd.

Cartoon Carnival: A Documentary on Silent Era Animation

Silent animation is esoteric, even to people who love animation.  Not much of it is shown anymore and animation has evolved so much from the silent period that these films seem ancient, when they are really only a hundred years old.

Tom Stathes has devoted himself to collecting and researching the animation from this period.  He's appeared on Turner Classic Movies to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Bray studio, the first animation company in the U.S.  He's now collaborating with Andrew T. Smith in a Kickstarter campaign to make a documentary about the silent animation era.

Pioneers like Winsor McCay, Max Fleischer, J.R. Bray, Paul Terry, Earl Hurd, Raoul Barre, Bill Nolan and Otto Messmer laid the groundwork for everything that came after.  Without them, there would have been no Walt Disney, and without Disney the animation we watch today would not exist.

This documentary is an opportunity for the animation world to explore its roots.  I've contributed to the campaign and I hope that the campaign reaches its goal.

Van Beuren Cartoons on TCM Dec. 7

Steve Stanchfield (right) with Robert Osborne
Due to a snafu last October 6, TCM didn't run its scheduled program of Van Beuren cartoons, with guest Steve Stanchfield of Thunderbean.

That program has been rescheduled to this Sunday, December 7 at midnight, Eastern Time.

Steve wrote about the cartoons to be shown here.

I've known Steve for several years and have nothing but admiration for him.  Besides working as an animator and animation teacher, he also puts out fabulous DVD and Blu-ray sets of vintage animation, lavishing far more care on restoration and extras than higher profile companies do.  In addition, he writes a regular Thursday column for Jerry Beck's Cartoon Research site, where he showcases historical treasures and updates Thunderbean's release plans.

I look forward to finally seeing this show on TCM.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Torill Kove's Me and My Moulton

On Dec. 2nd and 3rd, the National Film Board of Canada is making Torill Kove's latest film, Me and My Moulton, available for free.  You can watch it here.

It's a droll story about growing up with unconventional parents and how being different can lead to being uncomfortable.

In the event you see this entry after the free period expires, here is the film's trailer.

Sunday, November 16, 2014


I'll be at CTN on behalf of Sheridan College's animation program.  Fellow faculty member James Caswell and I will be at the Sheridan table for the duration.  If you're going to be there, stop by and say hello.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

25 Years of Ghibli Music

Joe Hisaishi is as closely associated with Studio Ghibli's musical scores as Carl Stalling was with Warner Bros. cartoon scores.  Here is a two hour concert featuring his music from Nausicaa, Princess Mononoke, Kiki's Delivery Service, Ponyo, Castle in the Sky, Porco Rosso, Howl's Moving Castle, Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro.

If you want links to specific selections in the video, go here.

At 1:36:40, there is a brief clip of Miyazaki and John Lasseter singing together.

(link via Boing Boing)

Friday, October 31, 2014

Canadian TV is Dying. Does Animation Know it?

Over the last year, Rogers and Shaw, the two largest cable TV suppliers in Canada, have lost a total of 200,000 subscribers.  That has enormous repercussions for TV producers, including animation studios.

YTV is one of the major outlets for Canadian TV animation.  It is part of the basic cable package, which means that everyone who has cable TV in Canada automatically receives YTV.  YTV receives money for each cable TV subscriber, and it has lost the fee from 200,000 people in the last year.  In addition, it earns money from advertising and its ratings must have suffered by some amount, as some of those 200,000 people must have watched YTV.

Teletoon is part of a cable bundle, but surely some of those 200,000 people were paying for Teletoon.  As Teletoon also sells advertising, the smaller audience has cost Teletoon income on two fronts.

The cable companies are rapidly diversifying away from TV.  Rogers and Shaw have partnered in Shomi, a Netflix-like service that makes content available on demand.  Rogers has now partnered with Vice, which will produce content for them.  The money quote that justifies the deal is that there is a “dramatic shift in Canada’s media landscape which sees young people increasingly consuming news and entertainment from their mobile and digital devices.”

Bell Media is creating its own streaming service.

What are the repercussions for Canadian animation?  It means that broadcasters such as YTV, Teletoon, and Family Channel will have less money to spend on new programming.  Either they will buy less or buy the same amount but provide less money for each.  Either way, the TV market for Canadian animation is going to get tougher.  The future is online and the cable companies know it.  The animation studios that grasp this are the ones most likely to survive.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Tale of Princess Kaguya

Isao Takahata's The Tale of Princess Kaguya is a thematically rich and artistically beautiful film.  As it may be the director's final feature and the last feature to come from Studio Ghibli,  the studio exits on a high note.  This film and Miyazaki's The Wind Rises are both landmark films that challenge accepted notions of what an animated film should be.  Only time will tell if they serve as inspiration for other artists or remain outliers.

It is impossible to talk about Princess Kaguya without discussing key story points below.

A poor bamboo cutter discovers a child within a tree.  She grows unnaturally fast.  The bamboo cutter later discovers gold and fine fabrics in a similar manner and takes it to mean that heaven wishes the girl to be brought up as a princess.  His wife is obedient to his wishes, but more sensitive to the child than he is.

The child revels in living in the woods, playing with other poor children and being surrounded by nature.  However, her father and mother move her to the capital, where she may no longer act as she likes but must conform to society's expectations for a young woman of nobility.  She respects the wishes of her parents, but as she gets increasingly immersed in the society's ways, she becomes more unhappy.  She is desired by high status suitors, including the king.  She is able, by her wits and some magic to elude marriage.  She seeks to escape back to her childhood environment, but the world has moved on and she realizes that her chance for happiness is over.  She is called back to heaven against her will, regretting missed opportunities and sad at what she must leave behind.  Her father finally realizes his mistake as he loses her.

The central question of the film is what constitutes happiness.  For the bamboo cutter, it is being able to give his child what society says are advantages.  For her suitors, it is taking a special wife to add to their status.  For the princess, it is obeying her parents.  All of them are wrong.

The bamboo cutter learns that the advantages he has showered on the princess have gone against her  nature.  The suitors are unable to keep their pledges to the princess in order to win her hand.  Two face embarrassment, one the loss of wealth, one the loss of his illusions, and two have their lives endangered, all for a woman whose face they have never seen.  The princess learns that the natural world is superior to life in the capital and that acting according to her own wishes is more satisfying than obedience to her parents, especially when the result is to reduce her to a mere ornament. 

All of these characters are burdened with regrets due to poor choices and paths not taken.  When heaven comes to reclaim the princess, a clear metaphor for death, there is much pain for the characters who can no longer avoid acknowledging their mistakes.

Social class is a great divider in this film.  When the princess and her mother spend time in the mansion kitchen and garden as an escape from the rigid behaviour expected of them, the father cannot understand why.  When the princess journeys to the countryside to see the cherry blossoms, a young child, as excited by the sight as she is, bumps into her.  Instead of them being able to share their happiness, the child is snatched away by its mother, who prostrates herself in front of the princess and begs forgiveness.  Sharing joy is forbidden across class lines.  When one of the princess's childhood friends is caught stealing a chicken, he is brutally beaten, but when one of her suitors fails to pay some artisans, he escapes without punishment.

The characters in this film don't understand where happiness lies.  Society has created divisions and rules that stifle people while claiming to exalt them.  Nature is more beautiful than anything people have created, yet people choose to leave nature behind.  People are blind to each others' needs.  Awareness comes only in retrospect, when it is too late to correct poor choices.  In short, the characters are fully human, doing what they think is best but unable to see their mistakes.

The artwork, especially for the scenes in the countryside, is exquisite.  The animation varies somewhat; early scenes with the bamboo cutter and the children seem to be the strongest overall, but Takahata's direction is capable of getting dramatic impact from minimal movement in some later scenes.  The softness of the linework and the watercolour backgrounds are refreshing after so many years of computer animation.  The hands of the artists are visible everywhere, not just in the pre-production artwork.

The Tale of Princess Kaguya, like The Wind Rises, is more dramatically sophisticated than animated films made for North America.  The willingness to embrace characters who are flawed and to acknowledge the existence of tragedy separates these films from the feelgood fantasies churned out by Hollywood.  The term "family film" really means "we won't do anything to upset your children."  By limiting itself to this genre, North American feature animation has neutered itself, spending fortunes to divert audiences from real life instead of helping to illuminate it.

I am deeply grateful for Studio Ghibli's existence.  While the level of craft in their films doesn't always conform to what North American audiences expect, the intelligence in them surpasses anything animated that Hollywood offers.  Ghibli's films, in particular The Wind Rises and The Tale of Princess Kaguya, set a standard that Hollywood will most likely ignore.  But if feature animation has a future beyond amusing parents while babysitting their children, it doesn't have to look any further than what Miyazaki and Takahata have accomplished.