Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Pinocchio Part 2A

This sequence, on the surface, is fairly mundane. But it is a critical sequence in that it introduces the main characters and gives us a chance to get to know them in a relaxed way. It's also a very complicated sequence in terms of staging. There are many shots with three characters done by three separate animators. Getting them to work together and not upstage each other is a major logistical problem.

It's no surprise that this sequence was given to Wilfred Jackson. The Disney directors of the 1930's and of the features are not discussed much. That's probably because they served Walt Disney's point of view more than their own, so their personalities are never allowed to dominate. Still, Jackson was known for his meticulous attention to detail, including timing. He was the director of The Band Concert, a short that had to match an intricate musical score and also had many threads to be woven together.

Here, Jackson makes the sequence look effortless. We never lose track of where the characters are or what they're feeling about the various events. Figaro and Cleo are successful comic relief characters, but Gepetto is critical to the success of the film as the relationship between him and Pinocchio is the centerpiece of the story. That relationship is what allows both characters to grow.

Jackson also juggles a large crew: Gepetto is animated by Babbitt, Moore and Thomas; Jiminy by Towsley, Anthony and Elliotte; Figaro by Larson, Bradbury and Calonious; Cleo by Larson, Lusk, and Karp. The animators are mostly cast by character, but there are still several animators per character whose work has to be coordinated and the resulting performances are seamless. You can see subtle differences when you know who animated a particular scene, but without the draft I'd never have noticed.

I think that Babbitt's Gepetto is his masterpiece, but that's probably because I prefer warmer characters. to cold ones like Babbitt's Queen in Snow White. Christian Rub's voice for Gepetto is great and Babbitt builds on it to make Gepetto a very grandfatherly figure, full of enthusiasm and a sense of fun. Moore's two Gepetto scenes are somewhat livelier than Babbitt's and are well placed in the sequence. Frank Thomas's Gepetto is an afterthought in his scenes, which are all about introducing Pinocchio as a puppet. Thomas has the unenviable task of animating a dead character and still make the motion appealing, something that he succeeds in doing. However, I think that the film missed a bet here. Gepetto is literally an animator, bringing Pinocchio to life, and rather than focus on Pinocchio it would have been nice to see Gepetto’s pleasure at watching Pinocchio move. Perhaps that was a little too self-referential for the studio.

One of the most impressive things about this sequence is Disney's bench strength. Don Towsley is not talked about much, but his handling of Jiminy here is excellent. He retains the character's charm from the first sequence and the reaction shots keep him in the picture even though he's reduced to an observer for most of the time. Scene 3.1 is a beautiful piece of action animation as Jiminy launches himself away from Pinocchio. The gag in 33.1, where Jiminy pretends to be a mechanical figure on the music box to escape detection is lifted from Chaplin's The Circus, if anyone cares. Towsley's no slouch in the acting department, either. His reaction shots and shots commenting on the action are all convincingly in character.

The Jiminy scenes taken by Dick Anthony or John Elliotte are equally well done. Anthony's gag with Jiminy's hand on a woman figurine's rump has very strong poses. Elliotte's animation in 19.1, reacting to the stern-looking pipe, contains wonderful contrast in facial expressions. We always associate Jiminy with Ward Kimball, but Kimball is completely absent from this sequence and we don't feel his loss.

Eric Larson creates a great character in Figaro. The cat is cute, but has definite dislikes and is easily annoyed, giving him a well-rounded personality. Frank Thomas contributes some good scenes of Figaro interacting with the Pinocchio puppet.

Jack Bradbury is another unsung animator who is probably better known for his comic book work than for his animation. Yet scene 81, where Figaro opens the window, is by Bradbury and it's a great piece of physical action that's completely believable with no cheats.

Don Patterson does all the clocks and their gags. It's one of the few times you'd be complimenting an animator by describing his work as mechanical.

I'm not qualified to talk about colour and backgrounds, but I do want to point out how theatrical the set lighting is. Looking at a scene like 2.1, 25 or 85, you can see how the backgrounds have been lit as if with spotlights, creating staging areas for the characters to operate in.

From the standpoint of story, Pinocchio is without life in this sequence except for what Gepetto imparts. We care about him due to his design, courtesy of Milt Kahl, but also due to the care that Gepetto takes in crafting Pinocchio. Gepetto's clocks are more evidence of his abilities and played for laughs, but remember them because they're a key to his character and I'll be saying more about them in the future.

Note also that Gepetto uses Pinocchio to kick the cat. That small piece of vicarious cruelty never reoccurs, but it's another clue to Gepetto's background.

There's an expressionistic shot where a camera move links up the wishing star outside Gepetto's window and Gepetto in bed (scene 83), reinforcing the scene from the first sequence where the camera cranes down from the star to Gepetto's workshop. As the blue fairy will soon arrive, this reminder of the connection of heavenly power and Gepetto sets up what will follow in the next sequence.

6 comments:

the spectre said...

Figaro by Larson, Bradbury and Calonious

Small correction. I think Calonius handles Pinocchio. McClellan and Karp are the other Figaro animators.

David N said...

Part of what I love about reading the drafts is that it gives a little bit of a spotlight on the work of excellent animators like Don Towsley , John Elliote, and Dick Anthony (among others). Their Jiminy scenes here are just as good , indistinguishable, from Kimball's. I would never take away from any of the accomplishments of "The Nine" and the honor they received, but too bad that so many other great animators have been obscured by their shadow for too long.

It seemed like at this point in the studio's history things were still fluid and any of these young men may have had the chance of rising to the prominence later bestowed upon the favored Nine. One always wondered why some continued to rise in the esteem of Walt and the other bigwigs , but some never went that far ...however the important thing, the work, their marvelous animation, remains and will continue to be enjoyed for years to come . Let's hope that the efforts of people such as yourself (Mark) result in more people knowing their names.

(of course, we live in such a specialized niche don't we ? As the years pass the general public probably isn't even aware of the names of the Nine Old Men, not really.)

SW-H said...

Another marvellous post. I am amazed that so many different animators worked on the various characters...perhaps amazed is the wrong expression, but it is so seamless.
David N. is right and it is good to see these mostly unsung animators getting some long overdue recognition. I imagine that aside from their undoubted talent, studio politics had a lot to do with the solidifying of the nine old men in their positions at the top of the Disney studio heirarchy. The world doesn't change much...ho-hum.

Mark Mayerson said...

I think that the spectre is right, though I'm amazed that with Babbitt's Gepetto handling Pinocchio, they'd still give the animation of the puppet to Lars Calonius and not let Babbitt do it.

McClellan and Karp are definitely other Figaro animators. McClellan's Figaro walk in the cat's first scene is really lacking weight, which might be why we don't see much more of McClellan's work here.

Daniel Thomas MacInnes said...

This is a terrific blog you have. It's a great inspiration for me, as I'm writing similar commentary for Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki's films. Your writing provides me with a great source of inspiration, as well as a good education about classics like Pinocchio.

Michael Sporn was right - what ever happened to the Pinocchio DVD? We're onto the third Peter Pan, and the twentieth Helpless Little Stepford Wife Princesses. So what's the deal?

Nancy said...

Jack Bradbury's scene of Figaro opening the window was reused in ONE HUNDRED AND ONE DALMATIANS.