Monday, August 31, 2015

Tulips Shall Grow

The Library of Congress National Film Registry invited me to write about the George Pal Puppetoon Tulips Shall Grow.  It is one of the most dramatic of Pal's animated films and the first American animated cartoon to be explicitly anti-Nazi.  The historical circumstances behind its creation include Pal's history as well as Hollywood's dealings with the German market in the 1930s.

If you're unfamiliar with the film, you can watch it below.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Jack Kirby's 98th Birthday

August 28 would have been Jack Kirby's 98th birthday.  While Kirby has been gone since 1994, it's still a day to celebrate for a variety of reasons.  First, Kirby's influence on popular culture is probably larger than it's ever been.  The Daily Herald reports that movies featuring characters created or co-created by Kirby have grossed $6.7 billion world-wide.  That doesn't count TV shows, toys and comics that are still being made based on his work.

Another reason to celebrate is that this is his first birthday since his estate received a settlement from Marvel and Disney for his creations.  While the amount is unknown, one hopes that it was significant given the earning power that Kirby's creations are still showing.  Marvel, which for years downplayed Kirby's role, is once again celebrating him now that the legal battles are over.

Charles Hatfield, author of Hand of Fire, an analysis of Kirby's work, has curated an exhibit of Kirby originals at the California  State University Northridge Art Galleries that runs until October 10 entitled Comic Book Apocalypse: The Graphic World of Jack Kirby.  If you're in the area, I would urge you to see it.  As powerful as Kirby's work is in print, the originals are more forceful.  Hatfield says, "The catalog is a monster: 20 essays on Kirby, most of them short and punchy, interleaved with more than a hundred images, most shot from original art. It's a joint publishing venture between the CSUN Art Galleries and IDW, under Scott Dunbier's eye and with design by Randall Dahlk, who designed IDW's incredible Kirby Artist's Editions. It's in production even now."

If you are in the mood to immerse yourself in Kirby's drawings, Tom Spurgeon at The Comics Reporter has put together an online gallery of his work that spans a good portion of his career.  And if you're looking for a more personal reminiscence, you can't go wrong reading Mark Evanier, who had the great fortune to work with Kirby and know him for around 25 years.

As powerful as Kirby's images are, single images don't address his strength as a storyteller.  I've just finished reading Invisible Ink: A Practical Guide to Building Stories that Resonate by Brian McDonald.  It's an excellent book on story structure and one of the best books on story creation I've ever read.  In his first chapter, he talks about structure in a way that illuminates Kirby as a writer.
Often when I listen to how people evaluate stories, I hear them talk about dialogue.  When they talk about "the script" for a film, they are often talking about the dialogue.  Or when they mention how well a book is written, they most often mean the way the words are put together -- the beauty of a sentence.

When people speak of Shakespeare's work, they almost always talk about the beauty of the language.

These are all forms of "visible ink."  This term refers to writing that is readily "seen" by the reader or viewer, who often mistakes these words on the page as the only writing the storyteller is doing.

But how events in a story are ordered is also writing.  What events should occur in a story to make the teller's point is also writing.  Why a character behaves in a particular way is also writing.

These are all forms of "invisible ink," so called because they are not easily spotted by a reader, viewer or listener of a story.  Invisible ink does, however, have a profound impact on a story.  More to the point, it is the story.  Invisible ink is the writing below the surface of the words.  Most people will never see or notice it, but they will feel it.
Kirby often worked with collaborators, sometimes by choice and sometimes not.  However, in telling the story pictorially, he was writing the story.  The contents of each panel, the continuity from panel to panel, the choice of "camera" distance and angle, the composition, the character poses, the facial expressions, the use of black ink, etc. all told the story before the dialogue was added.  As McDonald would say, it was the story.  As distinctive as Kirby's images are, it is also his imagination and his storytelling that make him worth remembering and studying.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

R.I.P. Richard Cohen

Feb. 3, 1952 - Aug. 20, 2015
Richard Cohen, an artist who contributed to the early days of computer animation and digital visual effects, passed away on August 20 from a cardiac arrest.

I first met Richard in the summer of 1984 at Sheridan College.  At the time, they had a 14 week summer course in computer graphics.  Richard was already an established illustrator, having done covers for Heavy Metal magazine.  He had also hung around Ohio State University, one of the hotbeds of cgi development at the time.

One of Richard's illustrations

Richard and I stayed in touch after the course and he was hired almost immediately by Pacific Data Images in San Francisco.  Later, he worked for ILM on films like Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Death Becomes Her.  Other work included matte paintings on The Hudsucker Proxy, Starship Troopers and The Santa Claus 2.  His IMDB listing is woefully incomplete, as so much of the early days of cgi were spent on company logos and TV commercials, work that IMDB doesn't track.

By 1999, Richard was teaching visual effects at Sheridan College, the same program that he had taken 15 years before.  He also taught painting in the Art Fundamentals program. 

Richard had amazing taste and a strong sense of design.  He and his wife Ria bought a house on the Niagara escarpment in Grimsby, Ontario, that was something out of an architectural magazine.  It was the kind of house you'd see pictures of but never expected to see in person.  It was also exquisitely furnished.

In addition to art, Richard was heavily involved with woodworking, making guitars and furniture that were professional quality.  He was intensely focused when he found something he was interested in and stopped at nothing to get the results he wanted.

Richard in his workshop with a guitar in progress

In December of 2009, Richard had a stroke which resulted in a limp and losing the use of his left arm.  As you can imagine, that was a major blow for someone so interested in creating both digital and physical things.  In more recent years, as a result of the stroke, he developed chronic pain which no medication seemed to control.

He was an outgoing, boisterous guy who, as I said, could be intensely focused.  My wife and I shared many dinners with him and Ria and it's hard to believe that he's gone.  I'm going to miss his booming voice.  He's survived by his mother; five younger brothers; a daughter, Mara, from a previous marriage; and his wife Ria.  He's to be buried in San Francisco.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

No Spec Work

I've written about creator rights.  I'm especially against contests, which are all over the internet and a really pernicious way for companies to solicit work for free.  Here's a great comic by Maki Naro about the problems of spec work and here's Mark Evanier on spec from the writer's side, but it still applies to anyone creative.

Saturday, August 01, 2015

The Collected Works of Hayao Miyazaki will release a package of 11 Miyazaki features in Blu-ray for $224.99 on November 17, 2015.  No listing yet on  Apparently, versions of this box have already been released in Japan, Europe and Australia.  The link has more details.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Legend of Korra

(Spoilers below.)

Having watched and admired Avatar: The Last Airbender, I have now watched all of its semi-sequel, The Legend of Korra.  While there are aspects of Korra that are superior to Avatar, I don't think the series reaches the same high level, and I think that the reason has to do with the nature of television.

As I understand it, when Avatar was given the green light for production, the commitment was for three seasons right from the start.  Because of this, the creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko were able to know how long they had to tell their story and how they could develop their characters over time.  It resulted in a show I referred to a novelistic

To the best of my knowledge, Korra's initial commitment was only for a single season.  As a result, the show suffers from a common TV ailment.  Stories and character arcs can only be developed one season at a time, as nobody knows how many shows will eventually be produced.

In Korra's case, this led to disjointed stories and character arcs compared to Avatar.  The first season was underdeveloped.  The villain, Amon, was the head of a social movement built around resentment of those with bending powers.  Except for an early robbery attempt broken up by Korra, there were no other events that would explain why the general population resented benders.   When Amon was revealed to be a bender himself, public opinion immediately shifted against him, but if there was anger against benders, why would the population now side with Korra and her friends?

There was an attempt to tie the second, third and fourth seasons together.  In season two, Korra's uncle Unalaq attempted to free and merge with an evil spirit Vaatu and bring about 10,000 years of darkness.  In season three, the villain Zaheer revealed that Unalaq was a renegade member of a group called The Red Lotus.  In season four, the defeat of Zaheer led to the rise of a military dictator, Kuvira.  Unfortunately, these attempts at continuity were band-aids.  Each season there was just another villain bent on destroying Korra.  In this way, each season's arc devolved into formula.

This is a common problem with TV series due to the nature of renewing for single seasons.  Boardwalk Empire suffered from the same problem, where there had to be a new threat to the main characters for each set of episodes.  This limitation is a major drawback to coherent storytelling and is something that Avatar miraculously avoided.  Has there been another series with continuing characters that got a multi-season commitment before going on the air?

Formula also worked it's way into other parts of Korra.  Team Avatar was again four characters, two male and two female, with one of the males as comic relief.  The brother and sister Desna and Eska seem based on the deadpan Mai in Avatar.  This season by season development also led to questionable character appearances.  Zuko, a character from Avatar, appeared in season three as he was concerned about the threat posed by Zaheer, but he was absent from season two, which was an equal threat to Korra and a larger threat to the world.  While it was nice to see the character return, he didn't have much to do and his appearance was ill-timed relative to the levels of danger Korra faced.

The large cast caused several characters to remain undeveloped.  Suyin Beifong had a large family, and while she was given enough screen time to become a rounded character, her husband and children were not for the most part.  While Tenzin and his children were well developed, his wife Pema was not. Kai was heavily featured for awhile and then seemed to vanish into the crowd.

On the plus side, the production values were higher than the Avatar series.  There was more 3D animation brought in for vehicles and machines.  The fight scenes were better choreographed and animated.  The climax to season four was as elaborate as anything I've seen done for television animation.  In Avatar, there was the tendency to pop character's faces into extreme takes.  I don't object to the takes, but felt that they were clumsily animated and were jarring as a result.  The facial animation in Korra avoided the extreme expressions, though once again television budgets resulted in lots of limited animation in acting scenes.

The reunion and reconcilation of the Beifong family was nicely done.  Toph Beifong was brought back from Avatar and given enough screen time to be as vivid as she was in the earlier series.  Her relationship with her daughters and their sibling rivalry was one of the more satisfying parts of the series.

Season four seemed to be about reconciliation and redemption.  Asami's father was brought back to redeem himself.  Even the villains Zaheer and Kuvira were shown to be misguided rather than just evil.  Bolin, Varrick, Zhu Li, Prince Wu and Bataar, Jr. are all brought firmly into the good guy camp regardless of their earlier actions.

Like Avatar, Korra will continue in graphic novels.  It's interesting, though, that the series creators will be stepping out of animation, at least for a while.  Working on an animated TV series is exhausting and I can imagine how much more exhausting work on Avatar and Korra must have been due to the ambitiousness of the shows.  DiMartino will be writing novels and Konietzko will be creating a graphic novel.  Based on their animation work, I look forward to what they do next.

While I've listed areas where I thought Korra had weaknesses, it's still an immense achievement.  Falling a little short of Avatar: The Last Airbender is nothing to be ashamed of, and in some ways it exceeded the earlier series.  While I'd pretty much given up on TV animation as a place for quality storytelling, DiMartino and Konietzko managed to beat the system.  I congratulate them on that and hope that broadcasters are smart enough to learn from their success.