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.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Hirschfeld Exhibit in New York

If you are in New York City before October 22, I urge you to go to the N.Y. Historical Society and see The Hirschfeld Century: The Art of Al Hirschfeld.  Hirschfeld (1903-2003) is best known for his caricatures of performers and for hiding the name of his daughter Nina in his drawings.  The exhibit contains original drawings, paintings, sculptures as well as lithographs and printed material.  You can see Hirschfeld's style coalesce in the mid 1930s.  From then until the 21st century, his work is of a uniformly high standard.  The work since 2000, when Hirschfeld was in his nineties, shows some deterioration in his line, but there's remarkably little loss of skill for a man his age.

The originals are a revelation.  While I have a shelf-full of books of Hirschfeld's work, none of the reproductions do justice to the originals.  For one thing, the originals are larger and so it is easier to see the quality of the line work and the detail.  Hirschfeld's control over the weight of his line has never been adequately captured in the printed reproductions of his work.

While his caricatures are they key to Hirschfeld's fame and popularity, they overshadow recognition of his abilities as a graphic artist.  Had Hirschfeld dealt with different subject matter, his work would still be worthy of study.  His use of rhythm, texture and composition are impressive and I'm fascinated by tension in his drawings between flat designs and dimensional volumes.
L to R: Cyd Charisse, Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Donald O'Connor and Debbie Reynolds.  Click to enlarge.

In the drawing above, look at the graphic treatment of most of the ankles.  Lines cross each other producing flat shapes.  For Rogers' legs, Hirschfeld uses three lines to describe four edges.  There's no logic to it, but it works.  See how flat Astaire's entire body is except for his hand and head.  In the same drawing, dimension is achieved by the overlapping volumes in the faces, skirts and O'Connor's right arm.
L to R: Tony Curtis, Marilyn Monroe and Jack Lemmon in Some Like it Hot.  Click to enlarge.

Take a look at the textures in this piece, all created with line.  Look at the contrast between the dots on Curtis's dress and the curved lines of his leg and chest hair.  Compare that to the flower pattern on Lemmon's top contrasted with the short stubby leg hair.  See the variety of texture on Monroe's dress contrasted to the open areas of her skin.  Note the treatments of the three performers' hair, all done with line but all having different value and texture.
L to R: Mildred Dunnock and Lee J. Cobb in the 1973 production of Death of a Salesman.  Click to enlarge.

Hirschfeld's drawings are built with curved lines.  Curves are inherently more friendly than straight or angular lines.  But Hirschfeld is very aware of his choices, as you can see in the above image.  Death of a Salesman is about how life crushes people and how the main character fails to achieve his ambitions.  The pain and tension in the character are manifested in the angular way Hirschfeld draws Cobb's hands.  Note the lack of detail in the shirt so that the contrast between the openness of the shirt and the density of the hands makes the hands stand out.  Note Cobb's face, where the features are jammed together in the middle, with lines radiating downwards.  This drawing gives life to the cliché that a picture is worth a thousand words.  Hirschfeld has not just caricatured Cobb, he's captured the essence of Willy Loman, the beaten character that Cobb is portraying.

The exhibit is curated by David Leopold, who is also the author of The Hirschfeld Century: Portrait of an Artist and His Age.  The book contains more art than is in the exhibit, including many pieces I was unfamiliar with.  My main complaint is that the art is reproduced too small.  I long for an oversize Hirschfeld book where the work is reproduced the same size as the originals.  If you can't make it to New York, the book is reasonable substitute for seeing the exhibit, but the originals are vastly superior.

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Wacky Walk Signal

In Toronto, the walk signals count down to let pedestrians know how much time is left before the signal changes. In Havana, they not only count down the "walk" but also count down the "don't walk" for both pedestrians and drivers.  That seems like an improvement.  In addition, though, the "walk" sign actually walks.  While the animation is not great, it's a nice idea.  Is this done anywhere else in the world?
While I'm sure that there is no connection, it reminded me of this Sheridan student film made by third year students several years ago.

Friday, July 03, 2015

Animation in Havana

Click any image to enlarge.
I just spent a week in Havana, Cuba, a city that is interesting for many reasons.  One of the highlights of my stay was a visit to Estudios de Animación, the state run studio that is part of the Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematográficos.  The studio is run by the brothers Juan and Ernesto Padrón and they generously toured me through their entire facility.

The studio is located in the Vedado section of Havana in a modern, multi-story building.
Inside is a full service animation studio, where work is done on paper, in stop motion, with 2D and with 3D software.  The lobby has a mural showing many of the studio's projects.
The studio does a variety of work.  There are educational films on Spanish grammar, how the body changes during puberty and Cuban history.  There are shorts made for festivals.  There are commissioned films and TV series for children.  They recently completed their first cgi feature that was a Cuba-Spain-Venezuala co-production entitled Meñique, directed by Ernesto Padrón.

I always feel at home in animation studios.  The artists there were like animation artists everywhere: friendly, happy to show off their work, and enthusiastic about the medium.  One artist I talked to talked about how much he loved working on paper and how superior he felt it was to software.  I shared complaints with another artist about the limitations of certain software packages.

As in most studios, the artist's desks were surrounded by toys, many of their own making.  The planes above this 3D animator were his own work, crafted from paper.  He also had built a replica of a rifle that appeared authentic until you touched it.

Ernesto and Juan showed me some stop motion shorts with tools as characters.  The puppets were amazingly lightweight.  There was a thin wire armature inside and the outside was a light, flexible foam.  They could be supported simply using pins to hold them to the stage surface.

Here are Juan (at left) and Ernesto in one of the 3D production rooms.

Juan has also done cartooning for print.  Here are some examples. 
Here are some posters of recent work

By coincidence, I was there on July 1, the day that Barack Obama and Raul Castro announced that they would reopen embassies in each other's countries.  President Obama has moved to improve relations between the U.S. and Cuba, but some of the restrictions, such as the embargo, are acts of Congress and can only be repealed by Congress.  I hope that relations are eventually normalized.  It will make it easier for this studio to get the supplies they need and will make their impressive work more readily available in English-speaking countries.

I am grateful for the opportunity to see this studio and speak to the artists.  I was impressed with the quality and variety of their work. 

Below is a series of spot gags directed by Juan that I believe is from the 1980s.  I'm sorry that the resolution is so low.  Below that is the English version of the trailer for Meñique, directed by Ernesto. 

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Avatar: The Last Airbender

Yes, I know.  I'm 10 years late.

I backed into this series due to my interest in the work of comics writer/artist Gene Luen Yang.  Having read his books American Born Chinese, The Eternal Smile and Boxers/Saints, I discovered that he had written several graphic novels based on the Avatar TV series.  I read them and was extremely impressed with the political sophistication of the stories.  The Promise has to do with two ethnic groups both laying claim to the same land.  Anyone who follows the news can easily see the resemblance to the middle east or Ukraine.  The Rift has to do with the tension between technological progress and ecological preservation.  Like life, these books don't present easy answers, showing that there are valid claims on all sides.

I should also mention the art by the Japanese team known as Gurihiru, which is very attractive.

So, knowing nothing of the backstory of the animated series but being impressed, I wrote Yang and asked where the stories came from.  Did he originate them?  He replied to me that they were written in collaboration with the series' creators Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino.

Hearing this, I wondered if the series reached the same standard that the graphic novels had, so I've now watched all 61 episodes.  I am very, very impressed.

Briefly, the series is set in an Asian world where there are four tribes based on the elements of fire, water, earth and air.  In these tribes, there are some who can manipulate their namesake element.  In essence, they're superheroes, though free from the cliches that have encrusted themselves around superheroes.  The fire nation has attempted to conquer the rest of the world and the Avatar, who is the only one to master bending all four elements, works to end the war and restore a balance in the world.

I can no longer claim to be an expert on animated TV series.  I haven't watched a lot in the last 15 years.  However, in my experience, I've never seen a series like Avatar.  When I was working in production, there was a strong resistance from broadcasters for continuity between episodes.  They wanted the ability to run them in any order without causing audience confusion.  I'm amazed that Nickelodeon agreed to letting a story play out in continuity over several seasons. 

The result is a story that is novelistic.  Characters come and go and their histories are filled in bit by bit.  They have time to truly develop based on their experiences, so they grow organically.  Just about every character gets screen time to become fully rounded.  In too many children's TV shows, there are a handful of personality traits assigned to a character that they never move beyond, but in Avatar, characters reflect on their pasts as they try to figure out how they should move forward.  The characters are driven by their emotional needs, not simply manipulated for the benefit of the plot.

In addition to well-developed characters, there are themes here that are also rare for children's TV:  war, genocide, racism, fascism, brainwashing, reincarnation, mysticism, loss of loved ones, and family relations that run the gamut from nourishing to dysfunctional.

The fights and action scenes remind me a lot of Jack Kirby's work at Marvel in the 1960's.  While there are explosions, collapsing buildings and characters thrown through the air who slam into objects, there are no broken bones and practically no blood.  I was surprised to find myself caught up in what would happen to the characters.  With so much formula storytelling on TV, for adults and children, that was a novelty for me.

I would love to know how the creators managed to get this series approved.  Did they reference The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter in order to show that children would accept material this dense and downbeat?  (There is a lot of comedy in the show, but a story built around a hundred year war is hardly a giggle fest.)  I consider it something of a miracle that this show ever got produced, as it breaks so many of the accepted norms of children's TV, which tends to be relentlessly shallow and cheerful.

It isn't perfect, but TV animation never is.  The animation itself, done in Korea, suffers from the compromises of TV budgets, with animation on 3's, 4's and 6's.  There's a six-legged bison character  they never did get a believable walk cycle for.  There are lots of held cels with only parts of characters moving.  However, there are fight scenes and action scenes that are elaborately choreographed.  The facial expressions are sometimes pushed too far based on the rest of the design approach, but even with the limited animation, the characters genuinely act.

There are some episodes that feel like padding, included to fulfill a 20 episode season.  However, there are interesting episodes that break expected patterns.  "Tales of Ba Sing Se" features vignettes of each of the leading characters, allowing them time to develop outside the overarching plot.  "The Ember Island Players" is meta-textual, where the characters watch a play based on their own adventures in earlier episodes and reflect on how they're being portrayed.

I know that the creators followed this series with The Legend of Korra and I'll now work my way through that.  Yang and Gurihiru have another Avatar graphic novel coming out in September called Smoke and Shadow.  Their novels are broken into three parts and come out at three month intervals.  This week, Yang's first written issue of Superman is in comics shops.

I am surprised and encouraged that material this good has made it into TV animation.  I might be the last person to discover this show, but if I'm not, I highly recommend it.  It's been a long time since I've felt this good about an animated TV series. 

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Inside Out

(Mild spoilers below.)

I'm in in the minority on this, but I was disappointed with Inside Out.

There is no question that Pete Docter has the ability to emotionally affect an audience.  My problem with this film, and on reflection with Up, is that he focuses too much on invention, and it gets in the way of the characters and the story.

In Up, everyone remembers the montage of Carl's life with Ellie.   Nobody talks about the absurd age and inventions of Charles Muntz.

In this film, what people will take away is the characters inside Riley and the ending, but the world they inhabit is overly complicated.  There is an lengthy journey for two of the characters inside Riley's head and there are all sorts of rules of the world that are introduced too conveniently.  Characters and props appear during the journey that change the audience's sense of what is possible and what is not.  It's hard to generate suspense when you never know when the equivalent of a magic wand will show up to help the characters. 

The problem is structural.  The film makers had too many good ideas to fit in the beginning, and so by introducing them mid-film, the world was continually redefined to the detriment of the story.

Here's a spoiler.  If Joy can be sad and cry, why can't the other characters inside Riley's head go beyond their dominant characteristic and grow as well?  The problem is that if you have characters who are incapable of change, you have no drama.  But introducing change into one character reveals the other characters as nothing more than stereotypes, no matter how entertaining.

The solution would have been to spend more time outside Riley.  Because she contains conflicting emotions, it's natural that the drama should have played out there.  But Riley is a puppet who can't experience emotions outside of what the characters in her head allow.  While her experiences moving to a new city, entering a new school and screwing up in front of peers are all easy for the audience to empathize with, they are done in a perfunctory manner.  We never see her interacting with the others in her school and so her experiences are left at the level of the generic.

Inside Out contains a lot of good character comedy, inventive concepts and striking design.  However, the dramatic logic of the film often gets broken under the weight of those things, and that's why I find the film unsatisfying.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Annecy Signal Films

The Gobelins signal films for this year's Annecy festival are turning up online.  They are all dedicated to women animators.  As usual, the art and animation are beautiful.  However, I'm a little wary of some of the historical interpretations, particularly the ones for Mary Blair and Evelyn Lambert.  The Blair piece implies that Disney heavily edited Blair.  Disney heavily edited everyone, but in Blair's case, he was always trying to get more of her look on the screen, much to the frustration of the animators.  Blair was one of Disney's favourites and there are many artists who are better examples of being victims of Disney.  In Lambert's case, the film is not very flattering to Norman McLaren.

I wish the Lotte Reineger tribute had been done cut-out style.  The film does use silhouettes, but it would have been more satisfying to me if the style was closer to Reineger's own.