Saturday, December 30, 2006

Mother Goose Goes Hollywood Part 1






It's been a while since I've done one of these. I've just been too busy to put the necessary time in. I've got a bit of breathing room now, but the thesis deadline is out there waiting to get me.

As a lover of films from the 1930's, I'm predisposed to like this cartoon, which contains some great caricatures by T. Hee and animation by heavyweights like Ward Kimball and Grim Natwick.

Thad K. has put up some clips from this cartoon, which is available on the new Walt Disney Treasures set More Silly Symphonies. For me, it's one of the essential DVD releases of 2006. I'll have more to say about this cartoon in future entries.

Cliff Edwards in Colour


Starlit Days at the Lido is a one reel MGM musical short from 1935 that features Cliff Edwards, the voice of Jiminy Cricket, singing and playing his ukelele. His section starts around three minutes and thirty seconds in. This might be the first time I've ever seen Edwards in colour.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Unhappy About Happy Feet

Here's a perfect example of what I've been talking about with regards to animators not publicizing themselves enough and the possibility that motion capture, purely as a fashion, is threatening the existence of keyframing.

Savion Glover is the dancer who was motion captured for the lead penguin in Happy Feet. While his credit on the film is small and he isn't being publicized in the advertising, he's still getting media attention. There's a N.Y. Times article here which expresses mild outrage at the smallness of Glover's credit and a Washington Post article here and an L.A. Times article here both talking about Glover's contribution.

The Washington Post article had a quote that caught my eye.
"I knew even the greatest animators in the world would take a lifetime to pull off the nuances of dancing that a gifted dancer is able to pull off," says "Happy Feet" director George Miller, speaking by phone the other day from Sydney, in his native Australia.
It's not enough to praise the dancer. Miller has to knock the animators down to build the dancer up. Can you imagine anyone in live action saying that it would take an actor a lifetime to pull off the nuances of motion that a talented animator could pull off?

If animators don't trumpet their skills and accomplishments, nobody else will. If you don't, you deserve whatever happens. Publicity is the coin of the realm. It doesn't do any good to be brilliant if nobody knows you are.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Barbera Tom and Jerry Boards


No, I'm not repenting for my comment on Harry McCracken's blog. But I'm always interested in behind the scenes material. C. Martin Croker has posted some Joe Barbera boards from the Tom and Jerry cartoon Nit Witty Kitty. These drawings are a lot looser than the Leica reel drawings for The Midnight Snack that's on the DVD Tom and Jerry Spotlight Collection Volume 2 (which also has Nit Witty Kitty), but the drawings are expressive and you can see how much they influenced the final animation.

Monday, December 25, 2006

McCracken on Barbera

Harry McCracken, former editor of Animato, remembers Joe Barbera with a more critical eye than most of the recent testimonials. And you can see from my comment that I agree with him.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Present at the Creation

I'm guessing that anybody interested in Disney has already bought the new Walt Disney Treasures DVD More Silly Symphonies. Besides the fact that there are extremely rare cartoons on the set, there are also commentaries by Disney composer Richard Sherman as well as Ross Care and Daniel Goldmark, both of whom have written about music in animation. Other commentators include Leonard Maltin, David Gerstein, Jerry Beck and J.B. Kaufman, all of whom know their Disney history.

For me, though, there was a totally unexpected pleasure on the set. Called Animators at Play, it's basically a home movie of a lunchtime softball game at the studio from the winter of 1930-31. While it dates from after Ub Iwerks left the studio, it's the crew that put the studio on the map.
Roy Williams

Fred Moore

Ben Sharpsteen and Les Clark

Dick Lundy

Norm Ferguson with Frenchy de Tremaudan

Floyd Gottfredson

Wilfred Jackson

Dave Hand

This artists are young, riding the success of Mickey Mouse and bursting with enthusiasm for making animated cartoons. They're happy to be working together (and being the Depression, they're just happy to be working). While they have great hopes for the future, could they imagine what they'd be doing just seven years later? Could they realize how far they'd go as a group and how much impact they'd have on the future of animation? Could they possibly imagine that we'd look back at them 76 years later, envying their youth, their high spirits and their opportunities?

Watching this film is like being a witness to the Big Bang. We're still feeling the effects of these artists and we're privileged to get a glimpse of them at the beginning of it all.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Kaj Pindal is Alive and Well

There have been reports that Kaj Pindal passed away. The reports are wrong. Not only did I see Kaj in a faculty meeting after the reports were posted, a friend has since called Kaj to re-confirm that he is alive and well.

Next semester, Kaj will once again bring his experience and his expertise to the students at Sheridan College. He'll be teaching animation history and will continue to help fourth year students with their films. And may that continue for a long time to come.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Chris Sanders Removed from American Dog

It now seems to be confirmed that Chris Sanders is no longer directing the Disney feature American Dog. Cartoon Brew reports
Sanders had apparently been informed before last Wednesday that he was no longer going to be the director, and according to this source, was deeply disappointed, hurt and angered. The source also writes, "Chris felt like his heart had been ripped out, and he didn't expect if from someone (Lasseter) who always talks about a director-driven studio model. This was totally Chris' project from the start, he was pouring himself into it, and now he's fired."
I know nothing about this beyond what I'm reading on the web, but it brings to mind several things.

Creators have an emotional connection to their creations; business people do not. Creators love their characters and stories the way parents love their children. Business people see ideas, scripts, films, etc. as raw materials to be manipulated for maximum profit.

Richard Williams says that the Golden Rule is that the person with the gold makes the rules. Artists who take a paycheque in exchange for creating always serve at the pleasure of those who pay them. Reputation and track record can provide a creator with some leverage, but never enough to fully control a creation.

Right now, the Disney money is backing Lasseter and Catmull and not Chris Sanders. Eventually, Disney will back someone else. That's the nature of the system.

The high cost of creating animation is one of its artistic tragedies. Creators in other media who can afford to self-finance their work (authors, painters, composers, etc.) are far luckier than animators.

This is the second time that Pixar's management has replaced a director who originated a story. Jan Pinkava was taken off Ratatouille, which is now being directed by Brad Bird. I do not expect Pixar to make any public statements about this, but I think they should. If they don't, Pixar's reputation within the business may be seriously damaged. Those already working for Pixar will think twice about offering ideas to the company. Those aspiring to work for Pixar may think twice about applying.

Finally, a reminder about the wonders of the web. Never before in history has an animation artist had the opportunity to create and own a film and make it available to a potential audience of billions. True, at this time you've got to lower your expectations in terms of budget and box office, but I'm betting that all over the world today animators are looking at Chris Sanders and thinking twice about working for big studios.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Animators as Fashion Victims

A few years ago, bell-bottom pants came back. While I'm certainly no expert on fashion and don't follow the business, I was surprised to see them return. In my daily life, nobody was talking about bell-bottoms. I never heard anybody say that they missed them and wished they could buy a pair. I never read any articles or saw anything on television that led me to believe that there was a pent-up demand for bell-bottoms that was reaching critical mass.

The fashion business is like many other businesses in this consumer culture. They sell things to satisfy wants, not needs. In most cases, people have enough clothing to suit the seasons. Therefore, the fashion industry has to goose demand by constantly changing the look of what they sell, making the clothes you already own look old and tempting you with whatever they've decided is the latest look.

The auto industry operates the same way. A car will last for longer than a year, but every year the models are tweaked with new headlights, side mirrors, dashboards, etc. to automatically make your car look out of date.

Movies tend to work the same way. Genres come and go. Horror flicks are big for a while, then they're replaced by teen comedies. Science fiction films are hot and get pushed aside by thrillers. However, there's something of a difference. No matter what the design of a pair of pants, there will still be designers, pattern makers, cutters and sewing machine operators making the pants. The specialized nature of movies (the fact that each one is a unique product) often means that people in the industry are employed or not based on trends. Dancers and choreographers work when musicals are in production and stay home when they're not. Horse wranglers work when westerns are popular and don't when they're not. A Hollywood trend can have a significant impact on whether a person connected with film production is employed.

Fashion has affected animation the same as it has other genres. (I know, I know. It's a medium, not a genre, but whether we like it or not, Hollywood thinks of it as a genre.) There have been periods like the 1930's and the 1990's when animation and animators were in demand, and there have been other periods like the 1970's and early '80's when they were not.

What's worrisome now is that animation is healthy, but fashion may still hurt animators due to the existence of motion capture and procedural animation. I'm not interested in vilifying mocap or the people who work on it, but I'm acutely aware of the power of fashion (i.e. what everybody is perceived to want) and how, if we're not careful, keyframing may be put on the shelf.

It's unfortunate that throughout its history, the discourse regarding animation has been full of statistics on how many drawings or how many bodies it takes to make a film. This was no different than advertising a live action epic as having "a cast of thousands," in an attempt to impress the audience with the size of the accomplishment. I'm afraid, though, that the impression the audience was left with was the size of the effort.

Now there are techniques such as mocap and procedural animation (used for crowd shots in The Lord of the Rings and other films) where the amount of effort can be reduced. Just as we've been trained to respond to changing fashion trends, we've also been trained to expect increased efficiency and improved technology. These techniques promise (whether they deliver or not) faster, cheaper animation. The fact that the results on screen are subtly different does not seem to bother audiences.

I can easily see how directors familiar with live action productions would feel more comfortable with mocap than they would with keyframing. With mocap, they get an actor in front of them who can perform an action repeatedly until the director is satisfied. Contrast that with a director forced to describe what's in his head to an animator who goes off and (slowly) produces the animation. It takes the animator a certain amount of time to bring the performance to a state where it can be judged, and if there's been a miscommunication between director and animator, it's back to square one and time and money have been wasted.

Just as audiences will not demand musicals simply so that dancers can stay employed, they won't demand keyframing. Nobody really understands what animators bring to the screen except other animators, and these days, with TV animation dominated by design, many animators don't understand it either. Animators will possibly be discarded, just as this year's fashion gives way to whatever's next.

Animators have got to work harder to set the terms of the debate. Attacking motion capture is not the way to go as audiences already accept it. Nobody is going to stay away from a movie because animators tell them to. Families with children are looking for a place to go on the weekend, and anything that's suitable content will attract their attention, regardless of how it was made.

What animators have to do is become a lot more vocal about what they contribute to entertaining audiences.

In the '90's, animators were in demand and they hired agents and lawyers, making them resemble real, live actors in terms of how they did business. What they failed to do was hire publicists. Since the '90's, various studios have used their animation talent for publicity purposes (these days most commonly in behind-the-scenes documentaries on DVDs), but studios only let things go so far. After all, if a person becomes too important in the minds of the audience, that person has the leverage to negotiate a fatter paycheque, which is not in a studio's best interest.

However, that's exactly what animators need to do. The most well-known animators right now gained their major publicity in the '90's: Glen Keane, Andreas Deja, Eric Goldberg, etc. In the computer animation era, can you name half a dozen animators and major scenes they've done? Perhaps you can if you've memorized your DVD commentaries, but I'm guessing the average audience member couldn't name even one. Except for John Lasseter and Brad Bird as directors, could anyone in the general public name someone who directed a cgi feature? Next time you're at the movies, ask people who directed Shark Tale or Ice Age 2. I'm betting that nobody knows.

The audience likes certain live performers and sees their films. Because these performers command an audience, they have clout. They're able to establish media profiles that enable them to be well compensated for their work and makes producers anxious to work with them. Within animation, the business has always been dominated by studios more than individuals. Since the development of computer animation, we've been faced with techological changes that have the advantage of novelty for audiences and ease of use for producers. If animators don't stand up for what they contribute and convince audiences and producers of their value, they're going to be tossed aside like a pair of bell-bottoms. Sure, maybe they'll come back in style in another 35 years, but can we afford to wait that long?

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Actors on Motion Capture

There's a very interesting article in Variety about visual effects from the standpoint of the live actors who contribute performances that are motion captured. The article quotes Bill Nighy on his performance as Davey Jones in Pirates of the Carribean: Dead Man's Chest. This quote from Gore Verbinski, the director of that film, caught my eye.
"There's a point in the process where things have to be singular, they have to be from one person's point of view. I think you get that from an actor's performance, and not with a committee of animators and animation directors and even from myself. It's just too much to go through to say, 'Let's create nuance from scratch.' You need somebody to start it. We're always going to need great acting."
I have nothing against motion capture in the abstract and think that it's a valid approach when you're dealing with characters who have to fit seamlessly into a live action film, but I am sensitive to the continued devaluation of animators.

I'd be the last one to deny that any animated performance is fundamentally more collaborative than a live action one, but animators are being sent to the back of the bus consistently when motion capture is mentioned. I'm going to write more about this.

Seduced by Supporting Characters

It's interesting to me how passive Disney's main characters often are. That flies in the face of the current wisdom about "the hero's journey," where the main character is confronted by obstacles that he or she has to overcome. In many Disney films, the main characters don't do a lot to help themselves. Often, they react to what's happening to them, but there's no goal that they're trying to achieve.

What Disney features do, and do well, is create interesting supporting characters who are the ones who drive the plot forward. Dumbo's an outcast, but it's Timothy who becomes a surrogate parent and tries to find a place for Dumbo within the circus world. Mowgli is content in the jungle, but it's Bagheera and Baloo who take charge of him to prevent him from becoming Shere Khan's victim. I haven't watched Sleeping Beauty in years, but does Aurora do anything to improve her situation or is it her three guardian fairies who drive the plot forward?

Main characters should have character arcs. They end up in a different place from where they start; the events of the story force them to grow. Supporting characters don't need arcs; they get by purely on the strength of their personalities. Because they're free from having to change, they can be eccentric or mannered so long as they're entertaining.

If you look at Disney films from the standpoint of character arcs, you realize that the main characters aren't necessarily who you think they are. Snow White's main character is Grumpy. Peter Pan's main character is Wendy, though she's hardly central to Disney's version. One of the problems with Alice in Wonderland is that Alice has no arc and neither does anybody else. The same might be true for Sleeping Beauty and Robin Hood. Stuff happens, but do any of the characters grow?

The danger is that supporting characters run away with the movie. You can point to supporting characters who have more personality and audience appeal than main characters. The dwarfs are more interesting than Snow White. Everybody is more interesting than Alice in Alice in Wonderland and Wart in The Sword and the Stone.

In fact, all the Reitherman films suffer from weak character arcs and have supporting characters dominating the action. Without a strong narrative drive, the animators during the Reitherman years indulged in personality for its own sake. Certainly there are great bits of animation there, but they exist in a story vacuum.

In the early Disney features, the main characters were often passive, but the films always generated enough sympathy for them that the supporting characters had a focus. In the '50's and '60's, the studio was less concerned with generating sympathy but didn't always compensate for it by making the main characters more active. Instead, the studio was seduced by the entertainment value of its supporting characters, but without them having sympathetic or active leads to support, the films became collections of vaudeville bits, entertaining in themselves, but not as satisfying.

Rather than have straight leads supported by comic relief, which was the way things used to be done, now the leads are comedians themselves. We've got Mike Myers and Eddie Murphy in Shrek, Albert Brooks in Finding Nemo, Billy Crystal and John Goodman in Monsters, Inc, Ray Romano, John Leguizamo and Denis Leary in Ice Age and Zach Braff and Garry Marshall in Chicken Little. The new paradigm is that it's easier to graft a character arc onto a quirky supporting character than to take a straight lead with an arc and make the character quirky. The supporting character mentality has essentially taken over the films.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

The Importance of Sympathy

This was written in 2003 for Apatoons. I'm posting it because I think it's interesting and it relates to something I'm going to write about the differences between leading and supporting characters.

The conventional thinking these days about film scripts is that you need a main character to actively struggle against obstacles to achieve a goal. Thinking of characters, I found it interesting that some of the most successful early animated features starred passive characters.

Snow White is almost an entirely passive character. She yearns for her prince, but does nothing to win him. She is a victim of the evil Queen and is rescued by the prince. The only positive action that Snow White takes in the film is to befriend animals and to serve as a housekeeper for the dwarfs.

Why should we care about her if she doesn’t struggle to achieve a goal? The reason, so far as I can see, is that we’re sympathetic to her. Sympathy turns out to be a major factor in whether or not an audience roots for a character and based on animation history, the character can be passive or active.

I can think of only three ways to make a character sympathetic. If a character obviously does not have the ability to protect himself or herself, if the character is treated unfairly for any reason, or if the character is attempting to help another, more needy, character. A character who is defenseless, the victim of injustice or altruistic will automatically gain audience sympathy.

The only case I can think of where possibly selfish behavior gains sympathy is a character attempting to be with someone he or she loves. My guess is that love and companionship are seen as necessities of life like food, clothing and shelter. Anyone who is deprived of these is seen as the victim of injustice and not someone who is striving selfishly.

We care about Snow White because she is naïve, someone who has no understanding of the Queen’s jealousy. She has no way of defending herself against a hunter with a knife or against the Queen’s magic. Because Snow White has done nothing to incite the Queen’s jealousy, the attacks on her are all unjust.

There are other characters besides Snow White that are passive yet sympathetic. Dumbo is ostracized by the other elephants. He loses his mother, who is locked up for defending him. He is the victim of Timothy’s plan for the elephant pyramid. He is the victim of the ringmaster’s decision to make him a clown. He unknowingly drinks water laced with alcohol. The only positive action that Dumbo takes in the entire film is to fly without the magic feather at the climax.

Like Snow White, he gains the sympathy of the audience by being a defenseless victim of injustice. Dumbo is a baby, hardly the type of character to have the resources (emotional or otherwise) to fight back. He’s not responsible for his large ears, which provoke taunts and cause him to trip.

Pinocchio is an active character, but again one who is innocent of the world. Because the entire film hinges on Pinocchio telling the difference between right and wrong, he has to make decisions. The fact that Pinocchio puts himself into trouble, as opposed to Snow White or Dumbo, makes him a less sympathetic character. Disney changed Pinocchio from a troublemaker to an ignorant child, so we don’t dislike him. However, the fact that Pinocchio places himself into danger makes him less sympathetic. Perhaps this is why Pinocchio was a relative failure compared to the other early features.

Bambi is another passive character. His first year, he experiences everything for the first time, being shown the world by his mother and Thumper. In his second year, his only goal is to hook up with Faline. The rest of the time, he’s purely reactive: fighting off a rival, hunters, their dogs and fire. Bambi gets our sympathy because as a baby he’s defenseless and has done nothing to provoke the attacks against him.

Note how all the main characters in the early Disney films are children who are undeserving victims. Whether they are active or passive, I think that’s the key to why audiences are sympathetic to the characters. Disney’s use of child characters continued throughout the animated features and the later live action features. Children as protagonists guarantee that the characters are sympathetic because they’re defenseless.

As the Disney features progressed, the characters became more active, but always remained sympathetic.

Cinderella is not quite as passive as Snow White in that she attempts to go to the ball and makes her own dress. However, she is still unable to achieve her goals by herself. She’s another innocent victim. Her stepmother is actively suppressing her in favor of her own daughters, so once again, our sympathy goes to Cinderella, as she is not responsible for living with a selfish stepmother.

In The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Mulan, we have female characters who are far more active in achieving their goals than Snow White or Cinderella, but they are still all sympathetic. Ariel is attempting to win the love of Eric and is being prevented by her father (the “selfish” injustice exception). Belle and Mulan both sacrifice themselves to save their fathers, the altruistic path.

101 Dalmatians is an interesting case, splitting the active and passive characters between the dog parents and pups. The parents are active in searching for their children. The children are mostly passive victims. Both have our sympathy. The parents have it because they’ve been robbed of their children. The children have it because they will be killed and turned into a coat. While the kidnapping motif has been used repeatedly in recent animated features, it’s interesting that none of the other cases split up a child and parent. The Rescuers, Raggedy Ann and Andy and Toy Story 2 do not invoke the parent-child bond. Finding Nemo, while not a kidnapping story with the same evil motivation as Dalmatians or The Rescuers, does replicate the parent-child separation and has gone on to great box office success. The film also mirrors Dalmatians in that Marlin is active and Nemo mostly passive (until the end).

Recent Disney films have avoided using children as their main characters and have not evoked much sympathy either. Hercules is an active character who is attempting to achieve the goal of returning to Olympus, but does this make him sympathetic? Can the audience be sympathetic to somebody who feels being human makes him second class? Treasure Planet fails to make Jim sympathetic. The early scene of him as a child with his mother shows that he could be nice, but doesn’t explain the root of his surliness. Is there any reason to feel sympathetic for Milo in Atlantis? Does the fact that Lilo and Stitch has a child protagonist account for some of the box office success relative to Hercules, Atlantis and Treasure Planet?

Another of the cliches of screenwriting is that the audience needs a character to root for. All well and good, but the reason the audience will root for a character is because the character is sympathetic. From what I can see the only way to establish this is to make the character defenseless, the victim of injustice or engaged in an altruistic act.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Walt Disney's Birthplace For Sale on Ebay

The Chicago Tribune reports that the house at 2156 N. Tripp Avenue, built by Elias Disney in 1892 and the birthplace of Walt Disney, is up for sale on Ebay. Starting bid is $250,000. This seems like the kind of thing that somebody should be interested in. I don't know if Chicago has a historical society, but this would be a likely candidate for preservation. Perhaps the Disney company or Disney family would be interested in buying it, restoring it and possibly relocating it.

If I hadn't just bought a new house...

(Thanks to The Comics Reporter for the links.)

Monday, December 04, 2006

Apologies

I mentioned several weeks ago that I was going through a crunch. That culminated in a move last Thursday. In our new house, we were without phone service for two days and are still without internet service. I hope to have that up and running by mid-week, but nothing is definite.

I just wanted to post this to let everyone know that I haven't lost interest in this blog, it's just had to take second place to various responsibilities and technical snafus.

Please stand by. Regular programming will resume shortly.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

An Animated Political Trial

The N.Y. Times has an article about the forthcoming film Chicago 10. It's a work of "experimental cinema" in the words of Brett Morgen, co-director of the film. The subject is the trial of the Chicago 8 after the 1968 Democratic National Convention, which was marked by violent demonstrations against the Viet Nam War.

One third of the film will be animated using motion capture done by Curious Pictures in New York. Hank Azaria, who does voices for The Simpsons, is one of the voice cast and acts the parts of Abbie Hoffman and Allen Ginsberg.

I'm interested in seeing this film purely for its political content, but I'm a little wary of the animation. This paragraph in the article caught my eye and set off a few warning bells.
“Traditionally the director has been at the mercy of the person who’s drawing,” Mr. Morgen said. “Once you’d communicated what the action was supposed to be, it was really in the hands of the animator. Now, as the director, I get to control whether I want the eyebrow to go up, if I want it to go down, if I want the hand to go here, the hand to go there. So it’s allowed me total control over performance.”
This quote indicates to me that Morgan really has no understanding of animation. I seriously doubt that he feels "at the mercy" of live actors or attempts to direct their eyebrows. We'll see what the results look like on screen.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

An Early WB Booster

Jaime Weinman's blog has an entry on two articles by Paul Harrison, one of the rare journalists who bothered to write about the Leon Schlesinger cartoons at the time they were first released. Weinman reproduces the text of the articles, which include some interesting facts such as the size of the crew in 1937 and show that even before the birth of Bugs Bunny, there were some people who appreciated the studio's approach.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

The Collaborative Nature of Animated Acting

I'm making a presentation about my masters thesis this week at a graduate symposium at York University. Below is the basis for what my thesis will be when I finish my research and start writing it in December. I've already written a bit about this subject, but this is the longest and most organized piece I've done about it to date. I know that the things I'm writing about vary based on time period, studio, director, etc. but fundamentally, there's far more collaboration in an animated performance than in a live action one. Whether you agree or disagree, feel free to leave comments.

My name is Mark Mayerson. I’m in the studies stream and I’m doing a thesis on the collaborative nature of animated acting. My professional experience has been as an animator, as well as writing and directing for animation. I’m currently teaching animation at Sheridan College.

Within animation, there’s a cliché that an animator is an actor with a pencil. That makes it sound like a there’s one to one correlation. Animators are just like actors; they just use different tools. My experience is that animators are significantly different from actors in terms of how animated film production is structured, and my thesis is an examination of how and why this is the case.

In live action, we think of the actor as being central to a role. Marlon Brando is Vito Corleone in The Godfather. We understand that the script, direction, lighting, costuming, etc. all contribute to the performance, but while we can’t quantify how much Brando contributes, we have a gut feeling that he is responsible for the majority of the performance. Replace him with another actor and the role is different. It’s Brando’s body, voice and movement whenever the character of Vito Corleone is on screen and most of all it’s Brando’s brain driving it all.

In other cases, such as the James Bond films, we can easily see how changing the actor affects the role. Sean Connery is different than Roger Moore, Pierce Brosnan, etc. If you use the TV series Bewitched as an example, two different actors, Dick York and Dick Sargent, both played the role of Darren Stephens yet nobody confused them. They were different in same the part.

Imagine watching a dubbed film. The on-screen actor has acted the role in the usual way. The voice actor, adding his or her voice after the visuals have been created, is constrained in several ways. The timing and the emotions are dictated by what’s on the screen. The voice actor has to work within the limitations of the visuals if the dubbing is going to be successful.

If the dubbed version is the only version available to you, how do you judge the success of the performance? If the voice work is poor, is it due to the voice actor or the constraints placed on him or her? If the acting is successful, how much is due to the on-screen actor and how much is due to the voice actor? Who is responsible for the performance?

Animators are in this situation but in reverse. Where dubbing takes place after live action has been filmed, in animation the creation of the motion takes place after the voice tracks have been recorded. A performance is split between two collaborators who may never meet. Where the voice actor gets to interpret the script, the animator is forced to interpret the voice actor. Failing to do so results in a disjointed result on the screen.

This is only the tip of the iceberg for the ways that animated performances are fragmented. I’ve got to go into some history here.

Initially, animated films were the work of single artists. Winsor McCay, J. Stuart Blackton and Emile Cohl were among the earliest animators and they did all the important work themselves. Of the three, McCay was the one most interested in acting. In his Gertie the Dinosaur of 1913, he animated the dinosaur by himself. We can say that McCay is Gertie the same way that Brando is Vito Corleone.

Beginning around 1913, animation studios sprang up to produce series of films based on continuing characters such as Mutt and Jeff. This is where fragmentation entered the process. An animator who worked on the Mutt and Jeff cartoons recalled that they would pick a setting, like the beach, and then each animator would grab a section. By verbal agreement, one animator would deal with gags about a shark and another animator would deal with gags about mermaids. Each animator was responsible for writing his own section, drawing the background art and designing any characters he introduced in the segment.

At this point in animation history, cartoons were mostly about gags and acting wasn’t even on the radar. In a single cartoon, four or five animators would each take turns playing the roles of Mutt and Jeff. They wouldn’t see each other’s work until it was shot and cut together, so creating a coherent performance was not going to happen.

Animated acting came into its own in the 1930’s at Disney. The paradox is that Disney accomplished this by increasing the amount of collaboration rather than reducing it. The difference was that the control was centralized in Disney’s own hands. He used separate artists to design characters, to draw storyboards, to animate the characters and to re-draw the characters “on model” for the final frames of the film. Directors and musicians would plan out the tempo of every scene and voice actors would perform the dialogue prior to animation.
Every step of this process contributs to the performance. Character designers create the look of a character specifically to evoke a particular response from the audience, so animators, unlike actors, are forced to come to terms with an unfamiliar appearance that they don’t control.

(Powerpoint slide of early and final Queen designs from Snow White here. In live action terms, it’s the difference between Rosanne Barr and Angelina Jolie. Or in historical terms relative to Snow White, Margaret Dumont and Gale Sondergaard.)

Where a live actor can take his or her body for granted and is confident about how it moves, an animator never knows what age, size, shape or species will need to be animated in the next scene. In live action terms, it’s as if actors had their brains transplanted into different bodies. John Wayne becomes Don Knotts and Don Knotts becomes Marilyn Monroe.

In animation, it’s more severe. Several animators get their brains transplanted into a single body, and they have to grapple with how that body is going to move and how they’re going to create a consistent performance.

In live action, storyboards are mainly used for shot composition and continuity. In animation, because of the low shooting ratio, storyboards concern themselves with acting. On a feature film, an animator may produce as little as 5 seconds a week. In TV, the animator will probably produce between thirty seconds and a minute a week. At that rate, revisions take far longer than doing another take on a live action set. A production has to clearly communicate the emotional progression of each scene to the animators to enable them to get it right (or close to right) on the first attempt. But that means that the conception of the performance (both audio and visual) exists before the animator starts work.

(Story reel/Animation comparison from Mulan here).

In many ways, the job of the animator is more a synthesizer than a creator. All the work done prior to animation must be woven together into a coherent whole. This is different than an actor being free to create an interpretation with the approval of the director.

When an animator’s work is finished, there are still hands that shape it before it reaches the screen. At Disney, animators were encouraged to concentrate on performance more than drawing. Their assistants took their rough drawings and polished them into what finally appeared on screen. Assistants also often took care of secondary bits of animation on the character, such as hair, drapery, or costume details. (Slide of Sleeping Beauty rough and clean-up here.) Their contributions aim to be invisible, but there is the potential for introducing problems. In the 1939 animated feature Gulliver’s Travels, there are scenes of the Princess Glory character where the assistant work detracts from the animation. The character’s hair shifts around on her head, giving the impression of a loose wig. (Princess Glory clip here.)

The problem I’m dealing with is determining where an animated performance is centered. In the case of a character like Bugs Bunny, he had at least three character designers, nine directors, eight writers, one voice actor and more than two dozen animators in a fifteen year period. Is there anybody whose influence is as large as Brando’s on Don Corleone?

In feature films, animators are sometimes cast by character, but the amount of screen time a character has often requires that the animator supervise other animators in order to hit the deadline. On Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, Glen Keane was the animator in charge of the Beast character, but he supervised seven other animators, in addition to assistant animators, breakdown artists and inbetweeners who all had to draw the character consistently as well as merging their work into a coherent performance. There’s a scene of the Beast learning to eat with a spoon that was animated by Tom Sito and based on actions he observed when his cat tried to eat from a spoon. Sito pitched the idea to Keane who accepted it, but the scene would have been done differently had another animator handled it.

This thesis will also examine live action reference, whether rotoscoped (which is tracing live action to turn it into drawings for cel animation) or motion captured (which uses hardware and software to capture a live performance and convert it into a computer animated character). Both these approaches are another layer of collaboration.

Not a lot has been written specifically on this topic; because people who write about animation are rarely animation professionals, they don’t understand the process or the repercussions of it. I’ve collected studio documentation from Disney, Warner Bros, Lantz and MGM that lists who animated specific scenes in a film. This has given me insight into the styles of individual animators as well as directors, who have very different approaches to assigning animators to characters or scenes. In addition, there is a large body of interviews with animation professionals that reveal the behind-the-scenes working methods.

With the exception of writings by Michael Barrier, who argues that casting by character results in better performances than casting by sequence, and Ed Hooks, who never deals with the issue of fragmentation, there really isn’t any critical writing on the nature of animated acting. In part, this thesis is an argument against Barrier’s position, as I don’t think he understands the degree of fragmentation that exists. Even when casting by character, I don’t know if animators ever have the same level of control that a live actor takes for granted.

I am familiar with an animator’s thought processes from personal experience. I am not familiar with an actor’s thought processes. I’m curious to know how similar they are and if differences are due to how theirjobs are organized or due to their nature of their crafts. I need to read more about acting, though I’m not sure that the material will turn out to be relevant to this thesis.

In writing this thesis, I have to be sensitive to how I use jargon and how much explanation is needed. If I was writing about what a film editor does or what a steadicam is, I know the readers would understand what I was talking about. However, I don’t think that the readers are going to understand what a inbetweener does or what an exposure sheet is, so I’ve got to make sure that I explain things so that readers can follow my argument.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Cartoon Medicine

The N.Y. Times has an article called "Historians Resurrect 'Cartoon Medicine' for a New Generation." It talks about the Private Snafu cartoon Malaria Mike and a film about latrine sanitation called Use Your Head, that was produced by Hugh Harman. Apparently, the National Library of Medicine has a whole collection of health-related animated films from the 1920's through the '60's. Perhaps some enterprising DVD producer (paging Steve Stanchfield!) will contact them and put out a collection of their best cartoons.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Gabler on Biography

Neal Gabler on his approach to writing biographies, including his latest on Walt Disney.

The Death of DVD

Sean Cooper writes about the future of home media and why he thinks that the two competing high def DVD formats are both going to fail. I think the logistics of pushing high def video through cables to your computer are going to take longer to solve than Cooper does, but this isn't the first time I've read about DVD being the last physical format for distribution. It's only a matter of time before we're storing hard drives on our shelves instead of DVDs.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Keith Lango Prescribes

I've already mentioned the series of articles Keith Lango is blogging about how large cgi features are organized and how that organization often gets in the way of good looking images. In his latest post, he offers possible solutions to these problems.

Keith's experience at several studios means that he has a well-rounded view of production. He's not married to a single pipeline model. The broadness of his perspective is one of the strengths of his recommendations.

Even if you disagree with his thoughts or think that you have a better solution, Keith has done us all a service. Pointing out the trouble on screen and how organization creates those problems means that studios can no longer ignore it. Alex Toth once talked about a stain on a white dinner jacket. Once you are aware of it, it's the only thing you see. Keith has pointed out the stain and we can't take our eyes off it.

Any studio looking to graduate to longer productions should think hard about Keith's points. Those studios already involved in longer productions should use them as a way of examining their procedures.

We're all constrained by budgets and deadlines. We're also all constrained by human frailty, whether it's studio politics, questionable clients or just plain stubbornness. It's always amazing to me how much talent is in even the worst studios; it's usually something other than talent that is responsible for poor results on screen.

Don't underestimate the effects of pipeline organization. Pipelines are there to get a film finished, but they are often more concerned with volume than they are with flexibility. Keith has made some constructive suggestions that I hope will be debated at production meetings all over the world.

Monday, November 13, 2006

The Pointer and the Click Track

The ever-generous Hans Perk has posted a video of the Mickey Mouse cartoon The Pointer which includes an audio and visual representation of the click track used to time the cartoon. He has also included the animator identifications with each shot, so you can watch animation by Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston, John Lounsbery, Norm Ferguson and others.

I showed this to my animation lecture class of over 100 students. I had previously discussed the use of the metronome and I've also been talking about beats in terms of walks and runs. The Pointer doesn't rely on music as heavily as Thru the Mirror, another cartoon that Hans has posted with an accompanying click track, but you can still see the animation working with the beats on walks, runs and even hand gestures.

This is an incredibly powerful tool for organizing the timing of a cartoon and guaranteeing that your animation will synch tightly to a music track. Hans and ASIFA-Hollywood have brought this approach back from the dead and we owe them a debt of gratitude.

Don't just look at this stuff and file it away. USE IT! Your films will be better for it.

Brad Bird on Animation

The N.Y. Times Magazine had an article entitled "How to be Funny." Comedy and the N.Y. Times are something of an oxymoron; they don't call the newspaper "the gray lady" for nothing. However, they solicited contributions from stand-up comics, writers, etc, and did include one contribution from our neck of the woods.

How to Draw Funny Pictures
By Brad Bird, creator of “The Incredibles”

Because animation is a relatively complicated process, and because it is not spontaneous, it is often mischaracterized as purely mechanical. In reality, and at its best, the art of character animation exists somewhere between silent comedy and dance. Its success depends on finding a physical expression that is recognizable yet beyond what occurs in real life.

Fred Astaire had unusually large hands and learned how to use them in a way that made his dance more dynamic; he’d fold his hands for most of a routine, then flash them out for accents at key points. Their sudden increase in size made those moves pop in a way that other dancers couldn’t match. Animators use tricks like this all the time in ways that the audience never sees but always feels. Bugs Bunny, imitating the conductor Leopold Stokowski in concert, will violently raise his arms in onetwelfth of a second (two frames of film). Every part of his body will be rock-still — save for Bugs’s quivering hand.

It is impossible for a living being to do this, but not for Bugs. He is truly Stokowski, more Stokowski than Stokowski was himself, because Bugs is the impression of Stokowski: his power, his arrogance, his supreme control over his musicians, perfectly boiled down to its essence. We laugh because it is completely unreal and utterly truthful in the same moment.

Friday, November 10, 2006

More Click Tracks

Hans Perk has posted another piece of animation accompanied by a click track. This time, it's the Mickey Mouse cartoon, Thru the Mirror. Hans has taken the beats off the original bar sheets and put visual and audio beats over a copy of the film.

Take a look at it soon, as YouTube has been fairly aggressive lately in removing copyrighted material. Clearly, this is not an attempt to rip Disney off, this is an attempt to explain the studio's work processes and educate a new generation of animators.

(Mike Sporn beat me to linking to this, but it's so important that it deserves the redundant link.)

Thursday, November 09, 2006

You Are a Tool

Shawn Kelly of Animation Mentor has written a column that accurately describes the animator's role in a large production. Animation students who currently have creative freedom are advised to read it (and perhaps weep). Having personally created a TV series, I found that I was still a tool of broadcasters and distributors.

Richard Williams once said that the golden rule was that the guy with the gold makes the rules. Unless you're financing your own work, you're going to be answering to somebody.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Click Tracks

Hans Perk has posted a clip from Quark and the Highway Robber from the '80's. The great thing about this clip is that the click track is audible, and you can watch the animation and see how it relates to a musical beat.

For those who don't know, a director (with or without a musical director) will set a tempo for a sequence. In the case of the above clip, Hans set a 12 beat (a beat every 12 frames) for the start of the sequence and switched to a 10 beat as the action heated up.

By laying down the beat, the director can make sure than actions take place in such a way that when the music is added later, the action will work with the music. The musical director composes music (or takes music out of a library) that is timed to the same beat that the director has specified. When recording, the musicians will hear the click track to make sure that the music is played at the proper tempo.

Carl Stalling, who composed for Disney, Iwerks, Van Beuren, and was the major musical influence at Warner Bros. is credited with the invention of the click track.

This Quark clip is very different from cartoons from the early 1930's, where the visuals tried to hit just about every beat. The Quark clip shows that working to a beat is not a straightjacket; it's a convenience. It provides enough structure to give the director a way to time action coherently and guarantees that the music track will fit the action tightly.

This is a useful tool even within the budget constraints of a TV series that is going to build a library of music cues rather than use original music for every episode. If the director and composer plan things well enough, the director can work to a beat with the knowledge that there's an appropriate piece of music to accompany the action. This also speeds up the creation of the music tracks, as the music librarian can go straight to the appropriate piece of music.

If you're a director, an aspiring director or a student, the clip is worth looking at.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Animated Soviet Propaganda

The Animation Guild Blog has an entry and links to a new DVD release of animated Soviet propaganda. If you follow this link, you can see a half hour documentary from the set dealing with American imperialism that includes clips from many films. The complete set includes four half hour documentaries and six hours of animated films.

Having seen a fair amount of American propaganda cartoons from World War II, it's fascinating to see the U.S. viewed from another ideological viewpoint. The films excerpted in this documentary view America as a racist and corrupt society where money can buy a dog a place in congress or where rich people can amuse themselves in a shooting gallery by using live people as their targets.

Other parts of the set focus on fascist barbarians, capitalist sharks and the Soviet shining future. You can order the set here, and the page includes a two minute trailer and a mosaic of images from the films.

Monday, November 06, 2006

John Ford

This has nothing to do with animation, but I'm indulging myself.

As much as I love animation, my favorite filmmaker, bar none, is John Ford. While there are many movies I like and watch repeatedly, I return to Ford's films more than those of any other director.

TCM (which I unfortunately can't get in Toronto) is having a 22 film retrospective of Ford's work. I think that these days Ford is an acquired taste; he's terribly different from contemporary directors and his films are now at least 40 years old and suffer from changes in social attitudes (many of which needed changing). But if you can respond emotionally to Ford's work, you enter a universe where everything is an expression of his personality and every film echoes and reverberates against every other.

If you're not familiar with Ford, try the Bogdanovich documentary Directed by John Ford airing Tuesday evening. After that, dip into Stagecoach, They Were Expendable, Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Rio Grande, The Long Voyage Home, Wagon Master, The Last Hurrah and Judge Priest.

YouTube and Copyright

Over at Mark Cuban's blog, there's a very interesting speculation about how Google is dealing with the copyright problems they're inheriting with the purchase of YouTube.

I had talked earlier about YouTube being in a position to try and reform the copyright laws to allow for greater freedom to use copyrighted material. Copying is going to happen anyway, so why not figure out a way for copyright holders to profit from it? However, if the above speculation is true, Google preferred to buy off the media conglomerates (and screw creators) rather than fix a broken system.

Another Business Model

Everybody is trying to figure out new business models right now. The audience is dispersing and nobody knows how things are going to shake out.

Craig Mazin's site The Artful Screenwriter has a two part article on how the talent agencies and some screenwriters are beginning to see their new places in the world. You can read the first part of the article here and there's a link at the top to the second part.

In Mazin's view, writers are better off finding private investment to make their movies. The investors are less interested in creative than they are in making a profit. Mazin talks about Sacha Baron Cohen's next deal (made before the wide release of Borat), where he raised $25 million in private equity and then turned around and sold the film to Universal for $42 million, not only making an instant profit but owning a significant piece of the film, which will pay off in DVD and TV sales. In other words, why not become a partner rather than an employee?

There's no way of knowing if this business model will become the standard, but there's obviously potential for animation. Everyone who has worked in production in the last 15 years has stories about enormous financial waste due to poor management. We know that animated features can be made less expensively than the big studios can make them. I hope that somebody with an audience-friendly idea can find enough private investment to try this approach out.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Animation Oscars

Over at the Risky Biz blog, Anne Thompson offers up her opinions on which films will be nominated for the Best Animated Feature oscar. There will possibly be five nominees this time, rather than three, due to the high number of releases this year. That will make it tougher for any one film to garner votes.

It's a pretty safe bet that Cars and Ice Age 2 will get nominations (though Thompson doesn't include Ice Age 2 in her nominees), but the others are not so certain. I would think that Flushed Away, Monster House, Happy Feet, Over the Hedge and Open Season are in the running. A Scanner Darkly has a good shot at a nomination for being so different from everything else released this year. Curious George stands a chance based on name recognition and holding up the banner for drawn animation.

Each of the above films has its fans, but I don't think there's a consensus in the industry or in the audience as to what film should win.

More Keith Lango

Keith Lango continues his excellent series on production, this time focusing very perceptively on pipeline differences between drawn and computer animation and how those pipelines have an impact on the resulting images. This is a tremendously important set of articles and I urge everyone to go have a look.

More MGM

And yet another interesting and informative Greenbriar entry on the MGM cartoon studio, with more behind the scenes pictures (including Pete Burness and Harvey Eisenberg), tales of TV salesmen hawking cartoons and some interesting figures on theatrical budgets and grosses.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

MGM Cartoons

The Greenbriar Picture Shows blog has an article on collecting MGM cartoons in 16mm, which gives something of the history of the MGM cartoons on TV. The piece also reproduces some posters for the cartoons as well as some behind-the-scenes publicity material. There's a picture of the MGM ink and paint department, a photo of Carman Maxwell (the original voice of Bosko at WB) with Fred Quimby, Hugh Harman with cameraman Jack Stevens, and a page of photos including musical director Scott Bradley, background artist Joe Smith and sound effects creator F. McAlpin.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Keith Lango On What Makes an Image Work

Cartoon Brew noted this earlier, but Keith Lango is continuing an excellent series of blog entries where he takes sample stills from recent animated features and discusses where they succeed and where they fail. His focus is on colour and composition and he argues that the nature of cgi production pipelines are working against the creation of good imagery.

All the articles are still on his main page. Start with the entry for October 29 and read forward. Keith isn't done with this yet, but it's already a must-read for those working in animation and anybody else trying to get a better appreciation for how images are put together.

Crunch Time

Over the next four to six weeks, I have way too many responsibilities. I'm afraid that posting on this blog may be less frequent than it's been and rather than contribute much in the way of original content I'll be pointing you to things of interest elsewhere.

I won't be able to read Neal Gabler's new Disney bio until December or January at the earliest, but Tom Sito has checked over the section relating to the 1941 strike at Disney and offers comments on his blog. For those unfamiliar with it, Tom posts historical items of interest each day in addition to various bits of animation news.

Tom's own book, Drawing the Line, is about the labour movement within the animation industry. I won't have time to read that book either until my crunch is over, but I am very much looking forward to it.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Ollie Johnston's Birthday

Today is Ollie Johnston's 94th birthday. Happy Birthday, Ollie! Thanks for all the great scenes and the books that you and Frank wrote explaining your approach. Best wishes for the day and for the coming year.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

New Walt Disney Biography


Neal Gabler's Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination has now been published and reviews are beginning to appear. You can read the L.A. Times review here (registration required?), a short interview with Gabler on Amazon.com's website, and an interview with Library Journal.

Friday, October 27, 2006

How to Write a Movie

I'm reading The Sound of No Hands Clapping: A Memoir by Toby Young. The book, among other things, details Young's attempts to become a successful screenwriter. I thought I'd share this paragraph with you:
Take the script for Alien 3. In 1986, cyberpunk author William Gibson (Neuromancer) was hired to write "two drafts and a polish," only to be interrupted by the 1987 writers' strike, and, when that was over, Eric Red (Near Dark) was brought in to do a "five-week job." At this stage, Renny Harlin (Die Hard 2) was attached to direct, but when he read the script he handed in his notice. The next writer to come on board was David Twohy (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and while everyone liked his version he'd neglected to write a part for Sigourney Weaver, the star of the franchise. So in 1991 the producers hired Vincent Ward (The Navigator) and put him to work with Jon Fasano (Another 48 Hours). Fasano was replaced by Greg Pruss, but after "five arduous drafts" Ward and Pruss quarreled and Larry Ferguson (The Hunt for Red October) was called in to do a "four-week emergency rewrite." However, when Sigourney Weaver read this version she threatened to pull out, so producers Walter Hill and David Giler knocked out a draft of their own. The version that eventually reached the screen in 1992 was a combination of this and another script written by David Fincher, the film's 27-year-old first-time director. Of Gibson's original screenplay, only one detail survived. "In my first draft, this woman has a bar code on the back of her hand," he told me during a newspaper interview. "In the shooting script, one of the guys has a shaved head and a bar code on the back of his head. I'll always privately think that was my piece of Alien 3."

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Gene Deitch and Terr'ble Thompson


Gene Deitch is one of the many cartoonists who works for print as well as animation. Before he took over Terrytoons in the 1950's, Deitch had a syndicated comic strip called Terr'ble Thompson. Fantagraphics will soon publish a reprint of the strip. It's something of a precursor to Deitch's TV cartoon Tom Terrific.

At the time the strip was appearing, a children's record was produced to tie in to the strip. It featured Mitch Miller's Orchestra and had Art Carney providing voices. Unfortunately, the record was never released, but Deitch managed to locate a copy and Fantagraphics has posted an MP3 as well as a spoken introduction by Deitch himself.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

More Bar Sheets

A while ago, ASIFA-Hollywood posted the bar sheets to the Merrie Melody Shuffle Off to Buffalo, directed by Rudy Ising. Hans Perk has now posted the complete bar sheets for the Mickey Mouse cartoon Thru the Mirror, directed by Dave Hand. In addition, he's posted a sheet with his annotations, explaining what the notations on the bar sheet mean. It's an excellent guide to figuring out how classic cartoons were timed to a musical score.

While you're at it, you can read Dave Hand's speech about directing made to the Disney staff, courtesy of Hans Perk. Here's part 1 and here's part 2.

Børge Ring Documentary

I had the pleasure of screening a 2006 documentary on Børge Ring made, I believe, for Danish TV. It's a half hour long and includes photos and footage of Børge talking about his films, as well as shots of his home, his wife Joanika and her sculptures, and a guest appearance by animator Kaj Pindal. The film also covers some of Børge's career as a professional jazz musician.

(Right now on Ebay, you can buy an LP of De Millers at the North Sea Jazz Festival, recorded in the early '80's and featuring Børge.)

I don't know where this documentary is scheduled to be screened. Keep an eye out for it at festivals. Somebody should package this film and Børge's animated films together and release them on DVD. The documentary shows that Børge is working on a new animated short and I'm looking forward to seeing it.

If you're not familiar with Borge's films, you can watch Oh My Darling and Run of the Mill on YouTube. Unfortunately, Anna and Bella is no longer posted there.

DreamWorks Diversifies

This Variety article reports that the penguins from Madagascar and the cast of Kung Fu Panda will both be developed into series for Nickelodeon. Nickelodeon is owned by Viacom, which recently purchased DreamWorks' live action division.

In addition, Animated News is reporting that Shrek is due to become a Broadway musical in 2008.

As I've noted before, companies that are animation-only have a tough road to travel. Pixar decided to sell itself to Disney rather than continue to rely solely on their feature releases for revenue. DreamWorks is a public company that has to take stockholders into account. By adding new revenue streams, they're bolstering their profits and reducing the impact of a film that's a box office disappointment. I wouldn't be surprised if we see DreamWorks making more moves to diversify.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Symphony Hour Part 3

I have to admit that I've been referring to this cartoon as The Symphony Hour, but its official title is just Symphony Hour. My mistake.

This is another Riley Thompson cartoon where he has cast the animators by character. Mickey is mostly done by Les Clark and Marvin Woodward, with a bit of Ken Muse and a sprinkling of Bernie Wolf. Les Clark gets the confident, in-control Mickey at the start of the cartoon. The animation is slick as a whistle and beautifully drawn. For all of that, Marvin Woodward actually gets the more interesting Mickey scenes. Instead of being in control, Woodward's scenes have Mickey react to everything going wrong. As great as Clark's animation is, I'm betting that Woodward had more fun.

Ed Love does Pete in a somewhat old-fashioned way. By this I mean that by the time of this cartoon, there was a streamlining of characer design going on. In the mid-thirties, the Disney characters have lots of wrinkles in their clothing and all kinds of follow-through in their fleshy bodies. By this time, a lot of that was pared away, but Love's Pete still has that fleshiness.

I wonder the final shot is a satirical jab at Walt Disney himself. Pete ends up hiding Mickey behind him while he takes the bows for Mickey's work. Is Pete a stand-in for Disney and the hidden Mickey a comment on the artists who didn't get screen credit at this point in time?

Bernie Wolf does a very interesting Donald. He catches Donald's temperament without resorting to the kinds of fireworks that Dick Lundy used when Donald's temper exploded. His Donald is also thick with multiple images and dry brush streaks to sell the idea of fast action. Wolf draws a great, mean Mickey when he's holding that gun.

With the exception of a couple of Muse shots of Mickey, the rest of the animators just do 'bits.' There's not a lot of acting here for Horace, Clarabelle, Clara or Goofy. They're all slickly animated, but they're just there to put across gags. Only Horace reacts to what's going on with other characters in scene 61 by Jack Campbell. Clarabelle, Clara and Goofy exist in a kind of limbo, playing their instruments in a vacuum.

In many ways, this is a 'high concept' cartoon. It's based on a funny idea that's well executed; the gags themselves are nothing special. The fun comes from Riley Thompson giving the animators lots of room to work, and in the case of Clark, Woodward, Love and Wolf, it pays off.

Friday, October 20, 2006

The Great Sketch Experiment

I received an email from Evan Spiridellis of JibJab. You've got to hand it to the Spiridellis brothers. They refuse to stand still. They invited 50 comedy sketch troops to submit scripts using a police station set. They selected the six best and flew the troupes to L.A. to make the sketches under the direction of John Landis. Those sketches are on the site as of today, in addition to a dozen documentaries on their making. Tonight the Spiridellis brothers will be appearing on The Tonight Show to talk about the project.

JibJab is not abandoning animation. Their next three projects are all animated.

At Evan's presentation at the Ottawa Festival, somebody asked him his opinion of YouTube. He replied that he felt they had done a poor job of branding. He considered JibJab a comedy brand. Clearly, these sketches were in the works during that appearance and are proof that JibJab sees itself as something bigger than just animation.

I think this is all to the good. Historically, companies that focus only on animation have had a rough time. Disney did not become truly successful in a financial sense until the 1950's when the company diversified into live action, TV and theme parks. In the 1950's, commercials studios like Shamus Culhane Productions and Pelican both made money on live action and struggled to make money with animation. Pixar chose to sell itself to Disney rather than take its chances as an animation-only company. By broadening its brand beyond animation, JibJab is building a stronger foundation for its future.

The Spiridellis brothers are also ace marketers. I wasn't the only one to receive Evan's email. Today on CinemaTech, there's a discussion of filmmakers building databases of their audiences as a marketing tool. This is old news to the JibJab boys, who have been doing this all along.

As I mentioned in a comment under To Pitch or Not to Pitch, NBC is laying off 700 people and giving up on producing comedy or drama for the 8-9 p.m. timeslot. They can't compete and have decided to shrink. At the same time, JibJab is expanding and offering a wider variety of content. There's still a tremendous gap between NBC and JibJab, but it's only going to get smaller. That's why I think that pitching to a dying TV industry is a mistake. Better to own your own content and build your own audience like JibJab.

And if this industry discussion isn't your cup of tea, why not head over to JibJab for a laugh?

Thursday, October 19, 2006

To Pitch or Not to Pitch

I assume that everyone who reads this blog also reads Cartoon Brew. Amid Amidi originally commented on September 11 on an interview with Pat Smith, where Smith offered his thoughts on the pitching process for selling ideas to TV. David Levy then offered his thoughts on Amid's comments. Amid has now returned with a long, thoughtful piece about whether or not artists should pitch.

(I should point out that Michael Sporn also referenced this debate before Amid's latest article.)

I have to say that I agree with Amid's point of view based on personal experience. I pitched several TV series and managed to get one sold. My experience on that series makes it unlikely that I'll ever bother with TV again.

For those not familiar with Monster By Mistake, the series was based on a boy who accidentally gets affected by a magic spell. Every time he sneezes, he turns into a 7 foot tall blue monster. My thinking, as the creator, was that this situation was general enough so that any child in the audience with a social, mental or physical problem could identify with the boy. The show always had comedy and adventure in it, but the underlying message was that life was unpredictable and often unfair. People have to be resilient in order to survive.

A Canadian broadcaster, YTV, bought the series quickly cut the heart out of it. Being a monster couldn't be seen as a handicap; being a monster had to be fun. Our producer-distributor simply said, "Right," and my concept of the show went up in smoke. There was money on the table and the producer was not about to jeopardize it. My concerns were totally off his radar.

Other bad decisions were made over my objections as the series progressed. They had to do with stories, designs and business deals. I won't bore you with the details.

The experience completely soured me on working in TV. I now understand that even if someone is lucky enough to sell a show, the structure of the business is such that the creator has no leverage and that business people will act on their opinions, no matter how poorly informed those opinions may be.

Other people's experiences may be different. Actually, I hope that my experience was unusually bad and that other creators are not facing the same frustrations. However, I'm not willing to try again. I don't need the aggravation. When I left the TV business and started teaching, I realized that I wasn't angry anymore and I liked that feeling.

I have written a lot on this blog about the possibility of bypassing gatekeepers and going directly to the audience via the web. The nature of web video is still evolving and there are lots of issues (primarily economic) that have to be worked out. However, if you are a creative person with an idea that would make a good film or series, I'd think seriously about going straight to the audience instead of pitching. For one thing, you may never make the sale, and if you do, you may not recognize the work that results.

There's no story and no character that hasn't been done before. There's only your point of view to differentiate your work from everybody else's. If that point of view is stopped or twisted before it reaches the audience, the essence of your work has been destroyed. My experience tells me that it's unlikely to survive in the TV industry and if there are alternatives that will protect your point of view, you should seriously consider them.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

TV and Autism

Slate has published an article on a Cornell University study that links autism to the exposure young children get to television.

As much of the programming made for pre-schoolers is animated, this is something that may have an impact on the animation industry.

Studies are done all the time and it takes several to corroborate a finding. I am curious to see if this study will be backed up by other research and more curious to see how the broadcast and animation industries will deal with it if it turns out to be true.

The typical corporate response to inconvenient facts is to deny them by commissioning biased studies of their own and to throw money at government officials to protect business-as-usual. Should this study prove to be true, I'm wondering if we'll be able to tell the difference between the tobacco, oil and animation industries.

Getting Paid

I often reference Scott Kirsner's blog Cinematech. It's a great place to keep tabs on the way that the media is evolving.

Scott has just posted an article and a table of video websites that pay producers for their content. The chart lists specifics for each site. If you're making a film or have one on the shelf that's not generating any cash, it's worth taking a look.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Irv Spector at the Mintz Studio

Updated October 15 with more information.

One of the nice things about this blog is when I'm contacted by people who have historical material to share. It was great hearing from Bernie Wolf's daughter, Laura Wolf-Purcell, who shared some photos and artwork. Now, I've heard from Paul Spector, son of animator Irv Spector, who sent these photos taken of the Mintz staff in the early 1930's. Paul writes,
I do feel compelled to tell you -- probably out of some journalistic integrity -- that they have been through what I will call the "light wash cycle" in Photoshop: converted to grayscale with minor sharpening, contrast, levels, blah blah. Not tremendously of course, but it does give you a better chance at identification of the cartoonists. I use an 800x600 monitor resolution...if they appear to small you might want to view them at that.
We need to identify the people in these photos. Click on any of them for a larger view.

In the photo above, Irv Spector is second from left in the dark sweater. Possible identifications are Al Gould third from right, Felix Alegre second from right and Ed Solomon at right. These guesses are based on a 1935 Mintz photo that Jerry Beck was good enough to send me that's published below.

When the Mintz studio moved to Los Angeles from New York in 1930, they were first located at 1154 Western Avenue in a space that had been occupied formerly by Hugh Harman and Rudy Ising. Harman and Ising occupied it in 1926 when they made Aladdin's Vamp. Furthermore, when they were making Oswald cartoons after Mintz took the character away from Disney, they also occupied this space, so Mintz had a former association with it. The first floor included a pool hall, and the animation studio was on the second floor. This information comes from Mike Barrier's book Hollywood Cartoons. For more views of the doorway to 1154 Western, you can go here to see some Al Eugster pictures from the same location.

Sometime after 1932 and before 1935, the Mintz studio moved to 7000 Santa Monica. Therefore, the above photo is from a different location and time period than the photos below, which were shot at the Santa Monica address.

In the photo above, Irv Spector is at the lower right wearing the dark blazer. Based on the 1935 photo below, I'd say that's Ed Rehberg at left with Sid Davis wearing the sweater at center.
I have a hunch that the above man at left wearing the white shirt is Preston Blair.

The man in the left foreground above is probably Ed Rehberg and at right is probably Sid Davis. Thanks to Paul Spector sharing these great photos with us.

Here's the 1935 photo supplied by Jerry. At least this shot has many, but not all, of the staff identified. I think it's a shame that the ink and paint women in many historical photos of animation studios go unidentified. If you can identify anyone in these pictures, please comment and I'll edit the entry to add the information.