Wednesday, February 28, 2007

ToonBreak

Scott Kirsner has an article about ToonBreak, a new video website that's set up to feature animation and share revenue with contributors. This is a long tail type of aggregation, where Shawn McInerny is attempting to create a destination for people seeking out animation. Individual contributors may not experience financial success, but the site is non-exclusive. If you've got a film, you've got nothing to lose by posting there. Should the site be successful, the entire animation community would benefit from a high traffic location that shares revenue.

Disney Exhibit Contest

Once Upon a Time Walt Disney, the exhibit which ran in Paris, will open at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts on March 8 and run until June 24. fps has two double passes to give away and is running a contest that ends on March 2. You've still got time to enter.

The Danish Poet Online

This year's Oscar winner for best animated short, The Danish Poet by Torill Kove, can be seen free online here. A tip of the hat to Alan Cook for pointing out the link.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Pinocchio Part 1



Click on any of the above to enlarge.

I have no idea how long it's going to take to complete this, but it certainly seems to me to be worthwhile to do. Here's the first sequence from Pinocchio. You've probably noticed that I've started using tags with these entries. The tag 'Mosaics' will call up all the mosaics I've done as well as the related commentaries. I'm reserving the 'Pinocchio' tag for just the Pinocchio mosaics, so it should be convenient for you to call them up as we go.

(I note that the 'Mosaics' tag does not bring up entries all the way back to the beginning of this blog. I'll see if I can make this work better.)

Thanks go to Hans Perk and Michael Sporn for posting the animator drafts on which this is based. Thanks also to Alberto Becattini, whose list of animator credits has been a huge help in identifying lesser-known animators for these mosaics.

Because of Pinocchio's length, I'm going to post whatever I have to say about a sequence at the same time I put up the mosaics.

When I first saw these drafts, I was surprised at how many other animators handled Jiminy in this sequence. Looking at the animation carefully (and these mosaics don't do them justice; they're just a reference), it's clear that Kimball's cricket has a larger head, hands and feet than those of Luske, Wolf or Towsley. Towsley's proportions are more traditional cartoon than Kimball's, which are close to Dick Huemer's approach to the early Scrappy.

Kimball uses a hold for the word "true" at the end of the opening song. It isn't Kimball's fault, but you can see the cel scratches and dust stop moving during the hold and the whole screen goes dead. It was more obvious in 35mm than on video or DVD, but it always bugged me. I wish that he'd used a moving hold.

Kimball's poses in scene 2 are amazing. Every one of them has a beautiful line of action and drips appeal. The dialogue is not particularly juicy from a content or emotional standpoint, but we instantly like this cricket because he exudes charm and friendliness. The drawing and motion add enormously to what's in the voice track here.

The crane shot from the wishing star to Gepetto's workshop is straight out of German Expressionist film of the 1920's, using spatial continuity to imply a connection between things. Here, the two brightest spots on the screen are the star and Gepetto's window and the camera has told us that one will have an affect on the other.

In general, the use of the multiplane and other camera moves in this sequence makes the world feel large. The camera and we are exploring the space along with Jiminy. This sense of scale wasn't common in short cartoons and it literally took the creation of oversized artwork to make it work.

The effects animation is very rich. Shadows, dust, heat distortion and glows are present. The backgrounds are very detailed and Gepetto's workshop is stuffed with visual interest.

In the first five minutes of the film (including credits), we've been introduced to a character we like and a world that charms us visually. These days, many films feel the need to start off with an action sequence so that the audience doesn't get bored. In 1940, there was time to seduce the audience, letting us get to know a character before the plot kicks in. If nothing else, we know that Jiminy is important and someone we have to pay attention to.

UPDATE: In comments, the spectre pointed out that I had mis-identified effects animator John McManus as Dan MacManus. The correction has been made in the mosaic.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Machinima

I've been aware of the existence of Machinima for a while, but as I'm not into video games, I haven't bothered to search any out. If you're not aware, Machinima are films where the visuals have been created using videogame graphics.

Slate.com has story on Machinima that includes several samples. It's a good, quick, primer as to what it's all about. Personally, I found the music videos based on songs from Avenue Q and by Avril Lavigne to be the most satisfying pieces, mainly because the music created a structured narrative for the visuals.

The most interesting thing about Machinima to me is the democratic nature of it. Not everyone can draw or create cgi characters and environments, which in the past prevented many people at trying their hands at animated films. Machinima provides people with ready-made characters and sets and game play educates them as to how to get visual results on the screen.

I don't want to re-open a can of worms, but I have to add that in their way, these films are motion-captured. They're definitely not created by keyframes. While the Machinima creators are not wearing body suits with tracking markers, their real-time manipulation of controlling devices puts these films in the mocap category.

It's only a matter of time, if it hasn't happened already, before there's a TV series or low budget feature created using this approach.

Guerilla Marketing

Steve Schnier has a blog entry on how he got coverage for his forthcoming movie, Pubic Lice: The Motion Picture, in the Toronto Star.

Marketing is an area that most studio-based animation artists never get near. There are too many layers of management between artists and marketing departments. However, independents are forced to do it all themselves, so if you have plans to create anything independently, Steve's advice is worth reading.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Why Niche Brands Win

There's a very interesting article over at Chris Anderson's Long Tail blog about large companies that work hard not to be associated with some of their own brands. Needless to say, I think that there's a lesson for animation studios here. I've thought for a long time that there's a market for animated features that aren't aimed at the family audience and are made for relatively low budgets. If Hershey, Nike and Black & Decker can make this work, there's no reason an animation studio can't.

Television and Children's Health

I wrote about a Cornell University study that linked autism and the amount of TV watched by young children. Now there is a British study that not only suggests the same link, it also suggests that TV interferes with the production of the hormone melatonin. The study claims that this affects the immune system, the sleep cycle, and the onset of puberty.

I have no way of judging the validity of the study and I'm sure that there will be follow-up studies that will test these results. However, if true, there's no question that this will have an impact on the animation industry.

Canada has specialized in production for the pre-school TV niche. World-wide, there are many cable channels that are aimed at pre-schoolers and many media conglomerates that make a measurable portion of their profits from that audience.

I'll be watching for further studies and the media responses to this issue. As I mentioned previously, I'm curious to see if the children's television industry starts to behave like the tobacco companies or the oil industry. I'm sure that nobody ever expected cartoons to present the same health threat as lung cancer and global warming.

Monday, February 19, 2007

The Films I Return To...

In my entry called Criticism, I mentioned "the films I constantly return to." In the comments, Sean LeBlanc asked me what those films are. I've been thinking about it and I've come to a disturbing conclusion. Few of them are animated.

I mention this because over at John K's blog, there's a discussion going on about whether the only people who can write for animation are cartoonists. I'll let you read it and come to your own conclusions, but when I think about animation vs. live action in terms of their effect on me, my conclusion is that the content in animated films is rarely complex enough.

I know that theatrical shorts were handicapped by their length and by having to generate laughs. Certainly, there are several that manage to transcend these limitations. Bad Luck Blackie and Duck Amuck are two that succeed as entertainment while leaving you with something more to think about. Independent animation like Hubley's Moonbird and Ring's Anna and Bella evoke emotions that most other cartoons ignore. Mike Sporn has tackled themes that other animated film makers haven't touched.

And I know that the majority of animated features have been child-friendly, which limits the type of content that's acceptable. There are a handful that speak to larger concerns for me. Pinocchio and The Iron Giant are two that dwell on personal responsibility, a theme I respond to. Spirited Away deals with issues of maturity and opening yourself up to the world.

However, I can name a dozen films by John Ford that I'd rather watch than any of the above. And there are films by Chaplin, Jean Renoir, Howard Hawks, George Cukor, Frank Capra, Frank Borzage, John Huston, etc. that are also more attractive to me.

I'm not implying that my taste is better than anyone else's. We all respond to different things. I certainly admire the craft of the best animated films. I enjoy studying the work of animators and animation directors. But from a content standpoint, the number of films that I would defend against live action is relatively (maybe pitifully) small.

I don't doubt that the writers John K. has been forced to work with have been less than the best. The economics of Hollywood being what they are, anybody capable of writing for movies or live TV does so because it pays better and carries more prestige than writing for animation. But maybe the problem with animation is that cartoonists write it. That's not to imply that bad writers are preferable, but what would animation look like if it was written by Samson Raphaelson, Robert Riskin, Dudley Nichols, Billy Wilder, Preston Sturges, Frank Nugent, Paddy Chayefsky, Robert Towne, William Goldman, Francis Ford Coppola, or Charlie Kaufman? And what about TV writers like Steven Bochco, David E. Kelly, Aaron Sorkin, Phil Rosenthal, and Larry David? I can name works written by them that are at least as good as any animated film I'd champion.

Whoever ends up writing animated films, the bar has to be set higher.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Ryan Larkin Has Died


Ryan Larkin, the Oscar-nominated animator, died on Feb. 14 from cancer. He was best known for his films for the National Film Board, including Walking and Street Musique. Recently, he created three five second bumpers for MTV. At the time of his death, he was working on a film entitled Spare Change. According to a CBC radio report I heard, the film will be completed and released this coming Fall.

The Toronto Star obituary is here and The Globe and Mail obituary is here.

Steve Schnier's Movie

It isn't animated, but it's an example of somebody from the animation business generating their own opportunity. The Toronto Star has an article about the creation and progress of Pubic Lice: The Motion Picture.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Brad Bird Splinecast

When it rains (or is that snows?), it pours. Three entries in one afternoon...

Anyway, Splinedoctors has posted a podcast interview with Brad Bird.

Money From Web Video

Scott Kirsner, the author of the Cinematech blog, has an article in the N.Y. Times about people who have been earning money from the videos they upload to various websites. This link will take you to a Cinematech entry that links to Kirsner's chart of video sites that pay for content and his book The Future of Web Video.

There's been discussion on other sites about an animation studio running a contest where they invite content submissions and keep the rights to all entries. Anyone producing content right now is foolish not to place it with one of these video sites. You maintain full ownership of your work. You have the potential to see some cash from it. Best of all, if your work proves popular with an audience, you may attract industry interest and you are negotiating from a position of strength.

The big players in film and TV are not looking for creative properties, they're looking for an audience. They're stuck having to guess what creative properties will attract that audience. If you can attract your own audience, you've beaten the system.

Halas and Batchelor

This is a new book that I was completely unaware of. Halas and Batchelor were, for years, the leading British animation studio. They were the first British studio to do a feature, Animal Farm, and did other features as well, including one of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta called Ruddigore. The book also includes a DVD, though I'm not sure what the contents are.

Animators will probably be familiar with the book Timing for Animation by Harold Whitaker and John Halas. Whitaker was one of the leading animators at the studio.

Here's the link to Amazon in Canada and in the U.S. Neither has a cover image, which I nicked from Bud Plant.

I haven't seen this and have no idea how good it might be. If anyone already has a copy, please leave a comment with your impressions.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Criticism

I'm close to crossing the finish line on my thesis, which is why things have been somewhat quiet here. However, I've come across two pieces of jazz criticism that make me reflect on animation.

Gary Giddins' book Natural Selection contains a piece on Billie Holiday entitled "On Her 90th Birthday." It opens with this:
"We live under the sway of artists who haunt our lives, who take hold at an early age and never let go; they inform us of our progress in the world as our perceptions of them change. Faulkner once said that Don Quixote had to be read three times, in childhood, adulthood, and old age, because it is really three books and aspects of it are available only in stages. Over time, we bring more connections to works of art - connections that belong to us, not necessarily to the work or the artist."
Over at Slate.com, Clive James writes about Duke Ellington. The entire article is worth reading, but this quote really hit me.
"The alleged progession from mainstream to modern jazz, with bebop as the intermediary, had a political component as well an aesthetic one and it was the political component that made it impossible to argue against at the time, and makes it difficult even now. The aesthetic component was standard for all the arts in the 20th century: One after another they tried to move beyond mere enjoyment as a criterion, a move that put a premium on technique, turned technique into subject matter, and eventually made professional expertise a requirement not just for participation but even for appreciation. The political component, however, was unique to jazz. It had to do with black dignity, a cause well worth making sacrifices for. Unfortunately, the joy of the music was one of the sacrifices. Dignity saw enjoyment as its enemy."
I find both these pieces to be elegant. They offer insights through precise, well-crafted prose. The insights, with some adjustment, can be held up against animation to see if they offer new and useful perspectives. The Giddins quote makes me consider the films that I constantly return to. The James quote raises issues about the nature of non-narrative films and films that are dominated by design.

I deeply regret that so little writing of this sort exists about animation, but what's worse, I suspect that more such writing would exist if only animation was good enough to inspire it.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

A Mickey Mystery



A fan/historian going under the internet handle The Spectre pointed out that the draft for Mickey's Birthday Party lists the Music Room as responsible for the majority of footage in the two Mickey Mouse dance sequences. Ken Muse is credited with a small amount of footage for the first scene and Riley Thomson a small amount of footage for the second. Footage attributed to the Music Room (which was really the director's room) means that the scene either had no animation or had existing animation lifted from another film.

When I did the mosaic for the film, I definitely didn't look closely enough at the draft and assumed that the credited animators were responsible for the whole thing.

In comments when I printed the mosaic, Galen Fott said that he had a drawing of Mickey that he was told was from Mickey's Surprise Party, which was a commercial that the Disney studio made for Nabisco for use at the 1939 World's Fair. Galen's drawing matches the costuming of Mickey in that cartoon, but there is no dance animation in it. Furthermore, the pose in Galen's drawing matches a frame in Mickey's Birthday Party pretty closely.

At this point, I do believe that the dance animation pre-existed Mickey's Birthday Party, but there are several unanswered questions. Was the animation originally done for Mickey's Surprise Party and cut from the film for some reason? If not, what film was the footage done for? Finally, who animated this great dance? It always looked like Ward Kimball to me before I got a look at the draft. Is it Kimball? Fred Moore? Of course, it's possible that Muse and Thomson animated the scenes for an earlier film and then added some new material to make it fit into the new film.

If there is anybody out there who can shed some light on this mystery, I'd love to hear from you.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Don Graham on Rotoscope

"The only thing an artist has is the fact that he can do something that can't be done with a machine. He should say to himself, "Am I going to let a machine work me out of a job and a profession?" That is what it is going to do, unless the artist keeps moving. It is up to him. As long as jobs have to be done, and have to be done economically, the rotoscope is the quickest way to do it, the challenge will always be there. So it is up to the artist to deliver. He must do a drawing and say, "See here - my drawing may not be perfect as far as realism is concerned, but it has a spirit the rotoscope can never give you." -Don Graham, July 26, 1937
Hans Perk has posted a series of transcriptions (starting February 5) of Disney action analysis classes from 1937, while Snow White was still in production. The above quote is only one of many interesting quotes about rotoscoping in the transcripts. As Hans points out, these same issues are now relevant to the use of motion capture.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Jack Kirby Bio Coming in October


Today is the 13th anniversary of Jack Kirby's death, and Mark Evanier has chosen today to announce the forthcoming publication of Kirby: King of Comics from Harry N. Abrams this October.

I wrote about Kirby last August. He remains a major influence on innumerable artists, animators and film makers. Mark was lucky enough to work with Kirby and has spent the years since his death researching this biography.

But there's more. Mark, being an extremely knowledgable comics historian, is interested in minutiae that the general public would never care about, let alone understand. He's continuing to research Kirby to the nth degree and will publish a second biography a few years from now for the hardcore comics fan.

I eagerly look forward to both volumes and I'm especially pleased that Abrams is publishing the first book as they are a major publisher of art books. Kirby deserves the best.

PM on Animation

PM was a New York City newspaper that leaned heavily to the left. Kip Williams has put a collection of PM articles on flickr, which include material relating to the Disney strike (PM was pro-union) as well as some Disney war work and an article about animation done for TV in 1941 by the Douglas Leigh company.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Marketing 101

So here's the scenario. The Superbowl attracts one of the biggest TV audiences all year. It's a marketer's dream to get their product or service in front of so many people. Disney buys time to plug their forthcoming cgi animated feature Meet the Robinsons and runs this commercial.

The family's sitting around the TV, not necessarily aware of the film until this moment. The commercial fails to answer two very basic questions. Who the heck are the Robinsons and why should we want to meet them?

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Hypocrisy, Thy Name is Fox

This article in the Toronto Star tells the story of comedian Brian Froud and writers Daniel and Steven Shehori, who created a play called Swiss Family Guy Robinson, a re-imagining of Swiss Family Robinson starring the cast of the Fox TV series Family Guy. The play was a hit at the Toronto Fringe Festival and also enjoyed a run at the Diesel Playhouse and the college circuit.

The three contacted Andrew Goldberg, Seth McFarlane's assistant, seeking approval for the show. Goldberg told them that he didn't have the legal authority to even mention it to McFarlane until Fox approved it. The three then contacted Fox's legal department which refused permission for them to do the show. Fox did not request a copy of the script or a video of the play. They did not attempt to negotiate a royalty. They just said no.

Ironies abound here. For one thing, there is a version of MacBeth called MacHomer using the cast of The Simpsons. Fox has allowed the performance of that play, which has toured 130 cities. For another thing, one of Family Guy's standard laugh-getters is parodying other pop culture. One of the latest examples of this is the wholesale rip-off of the sequence in Anchor's Aweigh where Gene Kelly dances with Jerry the Mouse. Family Guy shamelessly rotoscoped animation by Ken Muse and Ray Patterson, pasting the character of Stewie over top of Jerry.

So here's a case where Fox says no to the kind of thing they've approved in the past while at the same time doing what they won't allow others to do. Besides turning down income, they're preventing exposure for Seth McFarlane's show and encouraging creative people to avoid working with Fox. Who's the genius who made this decision?