Tuesday, July 29, 2008
I'd also like to make a general comment about comments. I'm all for spirited debate and not interested in censoring anybody. However, I would ask that comments restrict themselves to the films or media in question and not get personal. The best comments, even ones you disagree with, provoke thought. They force you to examine your own point of view. Mud slinging is a critical dead end that dilutes the value of any discussion.
Friday, July 25, 2008
What's clear from WALL•E and Kung Fu Panda , as never before, is that computer animation is a dead end, a form of puppetry even more limited than stop motion. There's no reason to believe that its characters will ever live on the screen as the characters do in the best hand-drawn films; given the way that computer-animated films must be made, the vital connection between artist and character simply can't be strong enough.And Sporn says this:
My disagreement isn't with their views on particular films, but I think that their generalizations are far too broad. Barrier not only writes off cgi, but stop-motion as well. Sporn says that because commercials or effects for live action are capable of matching the technical sophistication of a Pixar film, somehow that makes Pixar superfluous.
When I first saw Toy Story, I realized that the possibility of computer animation replacing traditional animation might actually exist. Nothing prior to that point led me to think that. What I didn’t expect was that I was watching the high point of the medium.
People concentrated on animating grass (A Bug’s Life), hair (Monsters Inc.), water (Finding Nemo) and, now, machines (Wall-E). Essentially, they were concerned with moving the technical capability of the medium forward and ignored the very real need of moving the characters with any REAL depth. Pixar and Dreamworks gerry-rigged stories around the capabilities of the new medium and animated around those problems. They’ve gotten to the point where they can successfully impersonate the things of real life.
However, if a well rigged commercial can feature computer animation that equals or betters something in Pixar’s best, or a live-action/computer-effx feature (such as Spiderman 2, which has a story almost identical in parts to The Incredibles, or The Dark Knight, which has superior performances to anything in Pixar) works better than the best feature animation scene, what’s the point?
Barrier believes that in computer animation, the "vital connection between artist and character simply can't be strong enough." I disagree. For one thing, I've written extensively on how tenuous the link between animator and character is in drawn animation. The process of animating cgi characters is different in the details, but the system is an extension of what was used in drawn animation. If the connection between artist and character is possible in drawn animation, it is every bit as possible in cgi.
I resolutely believe that no animator can be held accountable for what's on screen, and that's true of classic Disney films as much as it is for recent cgi efforts. This industry is and always has been filled with talent, but that talent requires the right type of producers, directors and writers to let the talent shine. Take Bill Tytla out of Disney and Tytla becomes average. I would bet that there are animators capable of great things currently working, but who are not given material with depth or that plays to their strengths. Condemn the industry and the production system if you like, but they are not the medium or the technology.
Barrier's mention of stop motion makes me wonder if drawings are a prerequisite, in his view, for good character animation. I hope not. There are performances in stop motion that touch me deeply, whether dramatic or comic. Jiri Trnka's The Hand is a great film, one where the main character's face never changes expression, yet his feelings are crystal clear. It's a great performance, one that contributes to a film with a strong political point of view. Tim Burton's The Corpse Bride contains moments of achingly beautiful character animation, though the film as a whole has problems. Nick Park's The Wrong Trousers is a small masterpiece, one that I would hold up as comparable to shorts by Keaton or Laurel and Hardy.
I have enormous respect for Sporn's historical knowledge, but I would point out that the sins he accuses Pixar and DreamWorks of can also be aimed at the Disney studio in the 1930s. Disney was fixated on effects and technology. Disney "gerry-rigged" stories around animation's capabilities, avoiding human characters for years as well as sticking to low comedy. Barrier, in Hollywood Cartoons, talks about how Disney seemed to abandon his advances in character animation after Snow White in order to pursue other goals.
Artists, regardless of their medium, tend to be seduced by surfaces. It was true of Disney in Fantasia and Sleeping Beauty and it's certainly true of recent cgi films. The problem with Hollywood animation across the board is that it aspires to be slicker, not deeper. Another problem is that animated feature directors seem to do their best work early in their careers: Walt Disney, Don Bluth, Ralph Bakshi, Musker and Clements, Trousdale and Wise, and now, unfortunately, John Lasseter. With only two features he's directed, I don't know if the same is true of Andrew Stanton, but it's possible.
Barrier points to Brad Bird and Stanton gravitating to live action and it's because animated features are exhausting. Combine that with having a limited number of things to say, the seduction of slicker surfaces, the excitement of new technology, and the pressures of the marketplace, and you're left with animation directors who either don't think deeply enough about their stories and characters or who are prevented from doing so by commercial considerations. The people making animated films are either not smart enough or are being constrained. Both are likely true, as much as artists prefer to place the blame elsewhere.
The problems and failures of industry animation are far bigger than whatever technique is chosen. Just as we believe that animation is capable of expressing the entire range of human experience, I believe that every technology is equally capable. Artists and business people make choices and some of them are bad ones. To paraphrase Shakespeare, the fault, dear Michaels, lies not in our technologies, but in ourselves.
Thursday, July 24, 2008
Aardman fought hard to retain the rights to [Wallace and Gromit], which left DreamWorks feeling uncomfortable about losing control of an area almost as important to the bottom line as the box office take. "They found it difficult working with characters they didn't own," says Park. "They were trying to respect that at the same time as trying to completely dictate to us. There was a sense of tension."
Wednesday, July 23, 2008
There are several well-known online companies that are built on this business model: Amazon, iTunes and Ebay. They each offer a wider selection than physical stores are capable of and have enlarged the market for their products as a result. These companies are often referred to as aggregators, as they pull together lots of products under their virtual roofs.
The long tail has been criticized as a theory. Anita Elberse is a marketing professor who's written something of a rebuttal. There's also a blog called Whiskey's Place that predicts an end to niche markets in the shrinking economy.
While the aggregators have a successful business model, creators who live in the long tail have yet to find one. As a retailer, if you have 100,000 items that each sell one unit a year, you're making money. A creator may only have 1 item, and selling one unit a year isn't going to provide much income. While creators eventually develop a backlist, even somebody prolific is going to be limited to 20 or 30 items.
So is the long tail just a pipe dream as a viable business model for creators? Seth Godin has written an interesting analysis about the nature of the curve, breaking it into three profit centers. His piece is interesting from a big business standpoint. Kevin Kelly looks at Godin's three profit centers and talks about how they relate to creators.
I've been wrestling with this for a while and I think the only advantage to the creator that I can see in the long tail is that aggregators can invent or produce a long tail domain that was not present before. Like Seth's Squidoo does. Before Squidoo or Amazon or Netflix came along there was no market at all for many of the creations they now distribute. The proposition that long tail aggregators can offer to creators is profound, but simple: you have a choice between a itsy bitsy niche audience (with nano profits) or no audience at all. Before the LT was expanded your masterpiece on breeding salt water aquarium fishes from the Red Sea would have no paying fans. Now you have maybe 100.
One hundred readers/watchers/listeners is not economical. There is no business equation that can sustain profits for continual creation from so few buyers. (It can of course support the business of aggregation above the level of creation.) But the long tail niche creation operates perfectly well in the realm of passion, enthusiasm, obsession, curiosity, peerage, love, and the gift economy. In the exchange of psychic energy, encouragement, meaning of life, and reasons to live, the long now is a boon.
That is not true about profits. Economically, the more the long tail expands, the more stuff there is to compete with our limited attention as an audience, the more difficult it is for a creator to sell profitably. Or, the longer the tail, the worse for sales. But if we view the long tail as a market of a different type, as a market of enthusiasm and connection, then as the long tail expands, this increases the chance of two enthusiasts meeting, and so the longer the tail, the better. The first two pockets of the curve are trying to maximize profits; the last pocket of the long tail is trying to maximize passion and connectivity.
There is one further indirect advantage to the long tail. Since your creation now exists in a market (where it would not have existed at all before) it can, if you are lucky, start to migrate uptail. With creativity you may be able to move your creation out of the economic doldrums of the long tail up into section #2, where 1,000 true fans and other mid-level success lies. As I argue in 1,000 True Fans, this is where you want to be as a creator. Seth calls it the pocket of " the profitable, successful niche product" and I agree with him that this pocket #2 rather than pocket #1 is where you want to aim for.
So the long tail is no magic bullet. However, as this comment on Chris Anderson's site shows, opportunities come out of the tail that wouldn't exist without it. The big question for creators is how big an investment to make relative to the expected (or unexpected) return. With animation being so labour intensive, maybe it's the wrong medium for niche markets. I hope somebody proves me wrong on that. The link in the above quote for 1,000 True Fans is very worth reading, and might be the only strategy that's going to prove viable for long tail creators.
Sunday, July 20, 2008
Shots 4 and 7 are fairly simple from a narrative standpoint, but difficult for animators. In each shot, Horace and Jasper move in depth, changing size as they move. The benefit of shots like these is to provide a sense of the characters existing in a real space that they have to move through. The challenge for the animators (Bill Keil, Amby Paliwoda and Ted Berman) and their assistants (unknown, unfortunately) is to maintain the proportions of the characters as they shrink or grow.
Even at the time, there were tools available to help the artists. The camera lucida (often referred to as the "lazy lucy"), an opaque projector with the ability to enlarge or reduce drawings, was often used. The artist would be forced to trace off the projection. As this film introduced the use of Xerox on a large scale, it's possible that the drawings were photocopied up or down. Most likely, several drawings were resized for reference and the artists brute-forced the animation to work.
This is the kind of thing totally taken for granted in the age of computer software. 3D packages provide accurate perspective by default and even 2D packages allow for resizing without requiring redrawing.
Shot 7 also includes some nice effects animation on the flashlights. They're double exposed for all the scenes they are in, but in shot 7 they occasionally are aimed directly at the camera and the double exposure is replaced by an airbrush glow.
I'm guessing that Hal King is responsible for Tibbs' take in shot 20. It's beautifully done. There's great shape changing on the fur and the arms and legs are pumping away on ones, leading to a fast vibration. Tibbs' landing on Jasper's face contains some great drawings by King and either Sibley or Nordberg handling Jasper.
There's a lot of puppy re-use within the crowd shots of puppies running. Shot 23, a low angle shot with the pups coming over the horizon to run down the stairs (probably animated by Berman) is a flagrant example. A limited number of puppies have been animated and then photocopied and repositioned in order to make up the crowd. If you look at the mass of pups in many of these shots, you can easily see the cheats.
In shot 30, (example below) take a look at how rough they left the drawings for the puppies. As they were all moving non-stop, somebody made the decision to just paint the roughs and hoped that the audience wouldn't notice. The puppy animation is probably by Ted Berman and in this case, we're looking at the animator's original drawings, not at the work of an assistant.
Friday, July 18, 2008
I want to call everyone's attention to a comment made by Andrew Osmond on the entry One Percent. He provides more details about the state of children's animation in the U.K. and it was Andrew who pointed to the above video, showcasing the culture issues that result from the lack of local production. If you're curious to see what the Wombles are actually like, go here (once again courtesy of Andrew.)
Canada has many co-production treaties, which allow companies from different countries to collaborate with a Canadian company on a show and still have it count as Canadian content. It works economically as it makes it easier to get a show financed and provide local employment. Culturally, however, the show has to satisfy multiple masters and the result is almost always a watered down compromise. The show can't be too specific to one partner's culture or it ends up being incomprehensible to the other partner's.
The result of all this is either imported children's TV (cheaper to buy than to produce original content) or co-productions (half a loaf being better than none). In neither case are children seeing the world they know reflected back to them.
While I have no idea when the Space Chimps DVD will be released, it's likely to be for Christmas, where it will be up against Wall-E, Kung Fu Panda and the latest Looney Tunes compilation. A strong theatrical marketing campaign and good box office gross would have helped the Space Chimps DVD release, but it doesn't look like that's in the cards.
My sympathies go out to the crew of this film. A lot of hard work is going to go unnoticed.
Tuesday, July 15, 2008
While Song of the South has been controversial for years due to its racial content, Harris himself was targeted during the Civil Rights era for appropriating Black creations and commercializing them. The museum prefers to view Harris as a preservationist, someone who put the oral folklore of Black slaves in a permanent form and saved it for future generations.
While the museum is trying to rehabilitate Harris himself, there's seemingly no interest in rehabilitating the Disney film. Click on the poster below for the museum's view of Song of the South.
Like it or not, the children's audience is considered a niche that broadcasters have been abandoning for years. Some, like NBC, have abandoned it completely while others (Fox, CBS) have just leased out their children's timeslots rather than bother to originate programming themselves.
I recently spoke to a Canadian studio owner who said to me that while there are quotas for how much Canadian content a channel must broadcast, there's no requirement that the Canadian content be new. As overall audiences shrink (and the world heads into a recession), there's lots of incentive to avoid commissioning new children's programming. Here's an article from the Telegraph in the U.K. about the British situation.
There are 26 channels available to satellite and cable viewers that specifically cater for children. They include Cartoon Network, which shows the popular US-made cartoon Ben 10. However, the number of original and native programmes has plummeted. One per cent of the 113,000 hours of children's programmes broadcast last year were new commissions made in Britain.The situation in Britain is complicated by a ban on junk food advertising during children's programming. That's undoubtedly good for children's health, but not so good for animation artists' bank accounts.
These pressures have also affected budgets. I heard from the same studio owner that producers are attempting to get half hour shows produced in China for $25,000. That price is only for the visuals, not scripts, boards, audio tracks and post-production, but I commented that in the 1970's in New York, Zander's Animation Parlour would get $30,000 for the visuals of a 30 second commercial. Commercials always had higher budgets per minute than the shows they interrupted, but it's hard to imagine how any studio could produce 22 minutes for $25,000.
Disney's recent live action successes have also reduced the amount of new TV animation being produced. The big question is whether this situation is temporary and will improve or if we're seeing the a permanent change in children's TV.
This might be a good time to be pitching puppet shows.
Sunday, July 13, 2008
Wednesday, July 09, 2008
If Jasper was aggressive with Tibbs in the sequence before last, Cruella is far more aggressive here. She blows smoke in Jasper's face, yells at the two of them, throws Jasper's bottle into the fire and slaps both of them.
Marc Davis pulls out the stops on Cruella for this sequence. She starts out frantic, but once she tosses the bottle in the fireplace, she loses control. Her dialogue about killing methods leaves little to the imagination and her rage makes it plain that she is fully capable of killing the puppies if her henchman won't.
The follow-through elements of Cruella - her hair and furs - really get a workout as Davis has her thrash around the room as she yells.
Eric Cleworth and John Sibley handle Horace and Jasper. While Sibley has gotten some attention in recent years (particularly through Pete Docter's Animation Blast article), Cleworth is a virtual unknown. However, in this sequence, he gets the juicier shots. He animates the Baduns throughout their discussion with Cruella, including some strong bits of physical comedy when Horace gets his face knocked into a can and Jasper gets soaked when Cruella grabs his bottle. He also animates a very interesting take in shot 41. For 10 frames, each eye alternately lacks a pupil.
The effect is a fast oscillation that certainly draws attention to Jasper's eyes. While the Baduns are clearly frightened by Cruella, Cleworth immediately has them revert to their lazy, apathetic selves once she leaves. The TV is more important to them than any job.
Speaking of the TV, Art Stevens deserves kudos for the bulk of what's on it. From a story standpoint, the need is for Horace and Jasper to be distracted while Tibbs hustles the puppies out. It's a tribute to Bill Peet and Stevens that what's on the TV is so enjoyable. The show is an obvious parody of What's My Line, and the caricatures of various British types and manners are really amusing. The criminal's reactions to the presence of the policeman are priceless. Here's yet another case where characters who are seen briefly and are not central to the story are still very well defined personalities and are fun to watch.
Eric Larson handles the majority of Tibbs in this sequence. He starts out with Tibbs and the Colonel, and Larson's Colonel is drawn differently. In the image below, animated by Cliff Nordberg, the Colonel has a beard.
In this later scene, animated by Eric Larson, there's no beard.
Drawing differences aside, Larson's animation of the Colonel scrambling towards Hell Hall is nicely loose. There's a good solidity and physicality as the Colonel fights to get traction in the snow.
Larson animates Tibbs witnessing the argument between Cruella and the Baduns, realizing what their ultimate goal is. Once Cruella exits, he starts the puppies moving towards the hole in the wall, herding them as best he can. Larson has Tibbs working efficiently, racing the clock as the show draws to a close.
Larson draws Tibbs with enormously long arms in shots 88 and 89 when Tibbs catches Lucky.
Tibbs is the most heroic character in the film after Pongo and Perdita, and unlike them, he's not motivated by family. He risks his life twice, first to get information and second to get the pups out of danger. He's an intelligent character, gently maneuvering the Colonel into the proper actions without damaging the Colonel's pride. It's a shame that the studio never did more with this resourceful character.
Sunday, July 06, 2008
Peter Emslie has done two very interesting posts about how generic designs often are. In this one, he shows how he redesigned some characters and explains his thought process. In the second part, he zeros in on how ethnicity has been handled in various places and offers an alternative to the Disney Fairies that are now Tinker Bell's sidekicks. I've known Peter for years and I've come to realize that behind his talented draftsmanship is a very perceptive and articulate artist.
I have to admit to not being a fan of John K's work, but I check his blog regularly and do admire his ability to analyze the work of various artists and animation disciplines. As an example, here is an analysis of the work of cartoonist and animation layout artist Owen Fitzgerald and a follow up on Mort Drucker, both of whom illustrated the comic book based on Bob Hope.
(Speaking of Owen Fitzgerald, Cartoon Snap makes an entire Fitzgerald issue of Bob Hope comics available and Thad K reproduces a Fitzgerald Fox and Crow story.)
Lots of people have written about the Warner animation directors and more recently, there's been material about the various Warner animators. Jaime Weinman has written an interesting piece about the various Warner writers and how their stories were suited (or not) to the various directors.
Keith Lango has an entry on timing animation to music illustrated by a clip from Bad Luck Blackie. For this section, director Tex Avery was working on a 9 beat (meaning a beat every 9 frames) and Lango's version of the clip makes it obvious that the animation was pre-timed to work with the music track that wasn't composed until the animation was finished. I've talked about this previously, as has Hans Perk (here, here and here). It's a very powerful tool that used to be standard in animation but has fallen by the wayside except for sequences that are musical numbers. Animators need to understand this approach so they can take advantage of the foundation it provides for timing.
Keith also points to Tim Hodges review of Wall-E, which includes this statement: "The setting was epic and the story was small." That statement is similar to one found in Stephan Rowley's review of Kung Fu Panda. He writes, "animated filmmakers need to learn to get their subject and visuals working in harmony." When two critics who are continents apart make the same observation about current animated features, there's definitely something to it. Rowley uses Kung Fu Panda as a "meditation on the current state of the animation industry" and he has interesting things to say.
Michael Sporn has written about how special effects are severing performers from their surroundings and the lack of reality is having an impact on performances and how audiences perceive films. I have been slow to realize the significance of setting in films but having just spent a week in the American southwest, I'm more convinced than ever of the importance of time, place and culture on a story.
In part 2 of the article, Michael says, "You have to find the book or the film or the charge that’s going to keep you going." That's good advice for anyone working in the animation business. There have been times, and now might be one of them, when animation can be disappointing, failing to provide the excitement the best of it can provide. Artists have to stay focused on what they love or they can fall prey to disenchantment. I remember in 1984, animation was going through a rough patch in Toronto and I returned to school to study computer animation, not because I had any particular love for it, simply because I was looking for a way to stay employed. That summer, I saw Børge Ring's Anna and Bella and had an epiphany: the problem was not the medium, the problem was the industry. I've tried to keep that in mind.
Finally, something about the copyright situation in Canada. The federal government has introduced bill C-61, amending the copyright law. Unfortunately, many perceive it as caving in to American industrial interests. One of the main problems is that breaking digital locks for any reason is a violation of copyright. So if you buy a DVD and rip it to put on your laptop hard drive, even if you don't sell, trade, or show anyone else the movie, you're a criminal. In short, it gives the manufacturer control over how you use products that you pay for. It's the equivalent of saying that you're a criminal if you use a hammer as a doorstop. Anyone interested in more details about this should visit Michael Geist's site.
There is also an interesting article by Brad Fox (sent to me by friends Paul Teolis and Chuck Scott) that argues that this law is even bad for producers. "By restricting what consumers can do with their purchased media, the distributors who control these platforms also limit producers to how they can access these markets....Under this situation distribution channels would essentially be given a monopoly on certain audiences and producers would have no choice but to accept whatever terms these corporations impose."
As I am someone with a pathological dislike of gate-keepers, I have yet another reason to be against C-61. With luck, the current minority government will fall before this bill can be passed.
Wednesday, July 02, 2008
The film presents the audience with a monopoly capitalist economy gone mad. Buy N Large seems to be the only remaining business on the planet and it is so blind to the effects of its way of doing business that it finds it easier to transport its customers and system into space than to change its ways. The people who consume in this society are sheep. So long as they are entertained and distracted, they give no thought to the waste building up around them.
There is apparently no moral price to pay for this. The business isn't condemned for polluting the Earth and the consumers are not condemned for their willingness to attach themelves to the corporate teat. If the film has a villain, it's a ship's computer system that isn't flexible enough to deal with altered circumstances. Once the ship returns to Earth, there is no awareness of what got the humans into trouble in the first place or any plan for avoiding the problem in the future. No one takes responsibility, and that seems okay with Andrew Stanton. The humans get home, Wall-E gets a girl friend and that's all that seems to matter.
This isn't the first time that an animated feature has flirted with a message and then backed away from it. Chicken Run and Madagascar both deal with meat-eating as a threat but can't indict the meat-eating audience. Wall-E can't indict mindless consumption when Disney and Pixar are asking the audience to buy the DVD and whatever merchandise that this (and previous) movies have deposited on store shelves. When the point of a film is to generate profit, you can't expect the film to criticize the process by which the profit is made. That puts the film in an impossible situation.
And the strange thing is that it didn't have to be there. The film is called Wall-E, but the film seems to lose interest in him once the humans show up. The humans' situation overwhelms his love story, and the humans are not well-developed characters. The film abandons character for plot. Wall-E isn't even aware of what the plant means for the humans; he just wants to make sure Eve gets it, hoping that the gift will bring them closer emotionally. She also doesn't understand why it's important, simply that it's her prime directive.
That means there's a giant disconnect between the robots' and human's motivations. Had Wall-E understood the larger repercussions of the plant, at least the two stories would have been tied together. Instead they're separate and neither is particularly satisfying. Wall-E is treated as a child-like character, so his feelings for Eve can't go beyond the limits of puppy love. The humans have fouled their own nest and lack any initiative, so why should the audience care about them?
Science fiction requires that any novel ideas make sense, but there are big logic flaws in this film. If the Axiom's computers know that they've been directed not to return to Earth, why are they bothering to send the space probes there? What possible reason would the computers have for not notifying the humans that the Earth can't be rehabilitated? The humans seem totally satisfied on the ship, so what difference would it make?
Why, when the Axiom tilts, do people slide to the side? Either the ship has artificial gravity, in which case the people will be pulled towards the floors regardless of the ship's orientation (there is no 'up' in space), or the ship has no gravity, in which case the room would shift but the people would stay stationary.
It appears when two of the humans touch, it's a novel experience for them. So where do the babies on board come from?
If the ship disposal unit hurls tons of garbage into space, where does the ship get the raw material to keep manufacturing the crap that it sells to humans? Where are they getting all that rocket fuel for repeated probe trips, since there are several Eves on the probe mother ship and I assume that they've been sending probes for several hundred years?
A film that wants to be taken seriously has to do more than choose a serious subject. Wall-E flirts with big issues, but doesn't do them justice. The film is getting good reviews and will undoubtedly make money, but I found it to be a major disappointment.