Sunday, August 31, 2008

101 Dalmatians: Part 16A

In this section, the pups and their parents spend some quiet time together before Horace and Jasper arrive to resume the chase. The Colonel, Captain and Sgt. Tibbs delay the Baduns, but are not capable of stopping them.

As Peter Emslie points out in the comments to Part 16, the delaying action gives the Colonel his brief moment in the sun. He finally gets to take action. It's an important moment because it shows that Tibbs and the Captain respect the Colonel for valid reasons and they're not simply indulging him. The story forces limitations on how successful the three can be, though, so as not to distract from the main characters.

This is a sequence which is pretty much cast by animator. Frank Thomas has a major hand in animating the dogs, especially the adults. Blaine Gibson contributes some animation to Pongo and Perdita. Hal King takes care of the personality close-ups of the puppies while Ted Berman gets the their long shots. John Lounsbery animates the Colonel in addition to some scenes of the Baduns. Cliff Nordberg animates Tibbs. Julius Svendsen continues to animate the Captain.

The first part of the sequence is low key, bringing down the tension and the action in preparation for the long chase to come. Frank Thomas is the right choice to animate the dogs here as what's needed is a stong feeling of warmth between the parents and the pups. Once Horace and Jasper arrive, the chase is back on and with the exception of the upcoming sequence with the cows, the tension continuously rises from here until the climax of the film.

Pongo's snout is something that should have been better defined on the model sheets. Frank Thomas draws Pongo with a prominent bump on his snout. Other animators who handle the character treat the bump differently.
Frank Thomas

Eric Larson

Milt Kahl

Watching this sequence (and the entire film) closely, you run across all kinds of cheats. Here's a detail from shot 54 animated by Dan MacManus. Perhaps this was a stop motion model shot that was rotoscoped, but in any case, Horace and Jasper could use some more detail.
If you think it looks bad here, imagine how it looks on a theatre screen.

Shot 63, with pups sliding on the ice, has the animation and the pan done on two's and there's noticeable strobing as a result. There are also continuity issues. When the Captain is about to kick Jasper in shot 45, he has his left rear leg raised. But when he kicks Jasper in shot 46.1, he does it with his rear right leg. I wonder if this a mistake or if someone decided it made for clearer staging?

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Ed Catmull and the Harvard Business Review

Ed Catmull, the president of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation, has written an article for the Harvard Business Review that can be read here. There is also a podcast you can find here.

Both focus on organizational structure and the steps that Pixar has taken to prevent the mistakes that are all too common in business. Here are some excerpts from the article:
"To act in this fashion, we as executives have to resist our natural tendency to avoid or minimize risks, which, of course, is much easier said than done. In the movie business and plenty of others, this instinct leads executives to choose to copy successes rather than try to create something brand-new. That’s why you see so many movies that are so much alike. It also explains why a lot of films aren’t very good. If you want to be original, you have to accept the uncertainty, even when it’s uncomfortable, and have the capability to recover when your organization takes a big risk and fails. What’s the key to being able to recover? Talented people!"

"Creative power in a film has to reside with the film’s creative leadership. As obvious as this might seem, it’s not true of many companies in the movie industry and, I suspect, a lot of others. We believe the creative vision propelling each movie comes from one or two people and not from either corporate executives or a development department. Our philosophy is: You get great creative people, you bet big on them, you give them enormous leeway and support, and you provide them with an environment in which they can get honest feedback from everyone."

"Everyone must have the freedom to communicate with anyone. This means recognizing that the decision-making hierarchy and communication structure in organizations are two different things. Members of any department should be able to approach anyone in another department to solve problems without having to go through “proper” channels. It also means that managers need to learn that they don’t always have to be the first to know about something going on in their realm, and it’s OK to walk into a meeting and be surprised. The impulse to tightly control the process is understandable given the complex nature of moviemaking, but problems are almost by definition unforeseen. The most efficient way to deal with numerous problems is to trust people to work out the difficulties directly with each other without having to check for permission. It must be safe for everyone to offer ideas."
I've never worked at Pixar or even visited the place. Catmull makes it sound somewhat utopian, but I've worked in enough companies to know that people within a company are always competing for plum assignments or for having their vision prevail. That's human nature and I doubt that Pixar has found a way to re-engineer it. However, Pixar has had a remarkable run at the box office and remains a leader in the field, so I can only assume that the company philosophy has helped them in their continued success. It certainly sounds different from most of the places I've worked, none of which have been as successful.

(link via Cinematech.)

Friday, August 22, 2008

Behind the Scenes of Walt's People

Didier Ghez, editor of the Walt's People series of books interviewing those who worked with and for Disney, goes into detail on the creation of each volume. It's a long and involved process, dedicated to bringing a wide variety of source material and a high degree of accuracy to the reader. Anyone interested in Disney or animation history should have these volumes on a nearby bookshelf.

Michael Maltese in 1960

Jaime Weinman has unearthed a 1960 interview with Michael Maltese from the New York Herald Tribune. Maltese, if you're unaware, was one of the writers of the classic Warner Bros. cartoons. At the time of this interview, he was writing Quick Draw McGraw for Hanna Barbera.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Rowley on Persepolis

I want to draw your attention to Stephen Rowley's review of Persepolis, which has only recently been released in Australia. It begins:
"Even those who love animation are prone to dark speculation about its shortcomings as a medium. The lack of live actors and the associated hindrance to truly subtle performances, in particular, is often cited as limiting the potential for serious dramatic work in animated films. The fear is that the relative paucity of full length, adult-oriented dramatic features might not only be due to a lack of courage and imagination on the part of directors and studio executives, but might also reflect actual limitations of animation itself. Thank goodness, then, for Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis."
Rowley goes on to enumerate the ways that animation is better suited to telling this story than live action would have been. Definitely worth reading.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Vital Conception

With regards to animated acting, I've written that I don't believe the technique (meaning drawn, cgi or stop motion) is responsible for the quality of a performance. What I believe is that a character has to be conceived with an inner life and a certain measure of complexity before a good performance is possible.

I'm going to start with some live action examples, though they're not particularly current. In the 1930's, Humphrey Bogart was almost always cast as a gangster. These characters were one dimensional, usually nasty and violent. Occasionally, the character would reveal cowardice when he was about to die. To use Dorothy Parker's comment about Katharine Hepburn in another context, in these roles Bogart ran the gamut of emotions from A to B.

In 1940, Bogart was cast as a gangster in High Sierra. There are major differences in the way this character is conceived. Bogart is shown to be weary. He is disappointed several times in the film by the world treating him worse than he deserves. He sees his options disappear as the law closes in. The character's end is tragic; he's finally found the loyalty and emotional support he craves, but it's too late. Bogart's death in this film resonates emotionally in ways that his earlier deaths never did.

Bogart the actor did not suddenly get better; he merely got a better role. It was better because the character had a history, a point of view, and self awareness; in short, an inner life. Bogart's character in High Sierra is a complete person, not merely a few traits assigned to a role in order to advance the plot. After High Sierra, Bogart continued to get better written roles.

This process can also work in reverse. During the 1920's, Buster Keaton worked for producer Joseph Schenk. Schenk was a hands-off producer who left Keaton alone to create films the way he wanted to. The plots of all of Keaton's features in this period follow the same pattern: put-upon little guy makes good; gets girl. Keaton varied the settings and often built the films around large machine props like locomotives, ocean liners and steam boats, but stuck to the formula.

In 1928, Schenk sold Keaton's contract to MGM. The producer there, Irving Thalberg, was the opposite of Schenk in that he involved himself in every aspect of the studio's production. MGM and Thalberg considered Keaton a performer, not a film maker. At MGM, Keaton's scripts were created on an assembly line without his input. They didn't understand that Keaton's success depended as much on the construction of Keaton's world as it did on his performances.

In truth, while Keaton was a marvelous acrobat and had a fine mind for gags, he was somewhat limited as a performer. Keaton the performer depended on interacting with a universe that was a giant machine, indifferent to its inhabitants. Keaton's appeal came from his ability to overcome physical obstacles on the way to achieving his goals. Social situations were not the root of Keaton's comedy, and Keaton's sound films were all built around social misunderstandings and threats.

Like Bogart, Keaton did not change as a performer. In Keaton's case, the character's relationship to the universe was taken away, leaving his character with nowhere to go.

On the animation side, Bill Tytla is very much like Keaton in that his skills did not suddenly desert him, but the way his characters were conceived did. At Disney, Tytla animated several characters with a complex inner life. Grumpy starts off as a misogynist, but falls in love with Snow White. Dumbo goes from being a victim, persecuted for his appearance, before discovering his talents and finding the courage to exercise them. Stromboli is a supporting character and doesn't have much of a character arc, but he alternates between charm and threats, with explosive violence often rising to the surface.

Tytla left Disney to animate for Paul Terry. While Tytla did solidly crafted work in The Champion of Justice and Jeckyll and Hyde Cat, the conception of the characters is so limited that Tytla had nothing to work with. After leaving Disney, Tytla didn't do a single piece of animation that compares to his Disney work.

In live action, an actor gets to own a character. The actor can create a character's history in order to fill out whatever is in the script. As the actor will be the only person to portray the character, this allows the actor a major hand in conceiving who the character is and how the character should behave.

In animation, even when a studio casts animators by character, the animator is rarely the only one to inhabit the role. Usually, the animator will supervise a team in order to generate the necessary amount of footage. Even before the animator(s) get their hands on a character, there are many others who have a hand in shaping the performance. There may be a script. There will be a story team with different artists handling different segments of the film. There will be a voice actor who will interpret the script or boards in ways that will limit the animator's choices.

This level of fragmentation makes it more difficult to conceive a character as there are simply too many cooks. It is not easy to create a personality that an audience wants to spend time with. If it was, there would be more hit cartoon characters. Adding additional layers of history and inner life to a character is increasingly difficult when studio politics result in everyone wanting their point of view to dominate. Compromise, the inevitable result of politics, simply results in characters who fail to become individuals and instead are just a collection of traits.

Somebody with a deep understanding of character needs to drive the process. If it is a producer or director, that person has to be better than an actor in that he or she has to create the inner lives for all the characters, not just one. If it is left to the animators, they need more control so that the character isn't fatally compromised before it reaches them.

It can be done. In Toy Story, Buzz Lightyear sees a commercial that makes him realize that his view of himself is wholly false. That story point is powerful enough that the animators have something strong to work with. In The Incredibles, Bob is leaving for work and it appears to be a typical mundane morning departure. However, he is leaving on a mission that his wife doesn't know about (and wouldn't approve of) and he can't wait to get started. She believes that he is having an affair, so Bob's departure is more than leaving for work, it's the end of their marriage and their home. This is all conveyed through subtext. The dialogue says nothing of this.

The above are great scenes because of what's going on inside the characters' heads. A great performance can only come from scenes written consistently at this level. The acting starts with the writing.

In addition to the problems outlined above, there are others. Managements rarely admit ignorance, confusion or guilt. If things are going well, then management is obviously doing a good job. If things are going badly, then management "knows" what the problem is ("People must be tired of 2D animation. Yeah, that's it."). Artists often don't understand writing enough to supply what's needed for a performance at the story stage. Animators often get lost in the details ("it needs more eye darts") instead of dealing with larger character issues.

These problems exist regardless of what technique is used to animate a film. All of these issues contribute to the lack of great acting in recent animated features and in my opinion make it harder to create a great animated performance than a great one in live action. I don't know what the solution is, but I'd love to see people completely re-imagining the animation process with the goal of putting great acting at the center of it.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Otto Messmer's Parrot

Comicrazies has reprinted 22 examples of the comic strip Laura, drawn by Felix the Cat creator Otto Messmer, from 1932. Laura is the name of a pet parrot, though in this series of strips, she's one of 6 parrots.

In the old days, famous comic strips would get an entire newspaper page on Sundays. Often, the creator would add a second strip to the page. In this case, Laura was the strip on top of Felix. Another example would be E. C. Segar's Popeye having a topper called Sappo.

Messmer's design is heavily rooted in the 1920's. The poses are hardly naturalistic and the character construction is based on the "circles and hosepipe" animation approach of the time, though Messmer's characters are generally more angular. The style has definitely dated, but I always found it charming.

Looking at these strips, I wonder if Messmer was an influence on Herge and his ligne clair style.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

101 Dalmatians: Part 15A

In this part of the film, Pongo and Perdita arrive at Hell Hall and attack Horace and Jasper, allowing Tibbs and the puppies to escape.

Pongo and Perdita's entrance is interesting for several reasons. The breaking glass in shot 72 is in rather large chunks. I hate to say it, but it looks like Blaine Gibson (or possibly an uncredited effects animator) took the easy way out by limiting the number of pieces.

Shot 75, with the dogs in front of the fire place, is one of the few expressionistic pieces in the film, where the backgrounds mirror the characters' inner emotions. That fire is an expression of the dogs' rage at anyone who would threaten their pups. This kind of thing was used extensively in Snow White: Snow White's flight through the forest where the trees are an expression of her terror, the storm as the dwarfs pursue the Queen expresses their anger and the candles "crying" when Snow White is in the coffin. Live action film continued with expressionsim during the post-war film noir period, but Disney seemed to abandon it after the war, one of the things that make the post-war features less interesting to me.

Shot 77 of Pongo, teeth bared, charging the camera is this film's equivalent of Monstro charging the camera in Pinocchio. Reitherman animated the Monstro shot and I'm sure that he recalled it when directing this sequence.

In shot 80 by Ted Berman, the pups are looking in the wrong direction. The shot is re-use from earlier in the film, but the puppies should have been flopped based on the character locations established in shot 68. This is known as crossing the 180 line and is frowned upon as bad film grammar.

The pan in shot 101 is on two's, which results in some strobing. Shot 100.1 has a pan on ones, but the animation is on two's. This kind of thing is indicative of the studio trying to hold down costs on this film.

The battle is an interesting mix of genuine action, with the dogs and the Baduns intent on damaging each other, and low comedy. Pongo knocks Jasper down and gets kicked towards a closed door, hitting with real impact. John Sibley, Cliff Nordberg and Frank Thomas handle the above. When Pongo recovers, he gets behind Jasper and manages to sink his teeth into Jasper's rear, courtesy of John Lounsbery on Jasper and Thomas on Pongo. I'm sure that there was a conscious calculation not to let the action become too intense for the children in the audience by making sure there was comedy at regular intervals.

Once Pongo bites Jasper, the rest of the sequence shades more to comedy, with additional assaults on characters' posteriors and dignity. Perdita upends Horace butt first in the fireplace and Pongo pulls Jasper's pants down. The sequence ends with the Baduns being bonked on the head by falling plaster. Knowing Reitherman, I was expecting a close-up of the two of them looking goofy from the impact, but they've got to stay conscious as the chase continues, moving from Hell Hall to the countryside.

Whatever acting is here is pretty broad. There's good action that's solidly drawn. The characters have weight and momentum. They occupy well defined spaces. However, there's little time for characters to think or register their emotions when the action is so furious.

The sequence is definitely exciting and moves the story forward. The characters are no longer searching, they're now escaping. This might be a good spot to consider as the end of the second act.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Happy Birthday Gene Deitch

Today is Gene Deitch's 84th birthday, so happy birthday, Gene! Gene worked for UPA and was the head of Terrytoons after Paul Terry sold it to CBS. Since the 1960's, Gene has worked in Europe where he did adaptations of many children's books for Weston Woods.

Gene and his cartoonist sons Kim, Simon and Seth are the subjects of a joint interview in The Comics Journal #292, pictured above. That issue was apparently available at Comicon but has yet to hit comics shops or bookstores. Look for it in the next few weeks.

Gene's online book about his life in animation can be found here.

(Birthday link via The Comics Reporter)

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

The Vital Connection

There's no reason to believe that [computer animated] 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.
Working off of the above quote, I'd like to talk a little about "the vital connection." Mainly, I want to talk about the technical side of how animators work in various media. There's no question that different forms of animation have different strengths and weaknesses, but, if anything, computer animators have a level of control over characters that easily rivals other forms and in some ways exceeds them.

In stop motion, the animator is limited by the puppet itself. If the puppet's movement is physically restricted by its construction, the animator must adapt to that. There are also limitations imposed by the recording technique. Ray Harryhausen's animation tends to be jittery due to his technology. Because his work was being photographed onto film, he was stuck waiting for it to be developed and wasn't able to relate his current frame to previous ones. On more recent stop motion projects, such as The Corpse Bride, the frames were digitally captured, allowing for playback of previous frames on the set. As a result, modern stop motion animation is generally smoother.

Even with digital recording, though, a stop motion shot still needs to be thoroughly visualized before animation begins. The animation is still being done straight ahead, so timing and paths of action must be worked out in advance and they're not easily changed without re-animating a character.

In drawn animation, an animators drawing ability is roughly equivalent to the limitations of a puppet. With drawings, it is definitely easier to revise shapes and the overall timing of a character than it is in stop motion. Visualization doesn't need to be as thorough as the animator can add or subtract drawings at any time. While it is easier to revise timing or the path of the overall motion, it remains difficult to revise timing on only a portion of a character. Assuming that all parts of a character are drawn on a single level, altering timing for an arm or a leg requires erasing and redrawing before a test can be shot.

In cgi, the limitations of the rig are equivalent to the limitations of a puppet. While I'm sure that cgi animators all have their pet peeves about the flexibility and controls of rigs, the rigging at studios doing high budget features is very impressive. There is quite a bit of flexibility of a character's shapes, though not as much as pencil animators whose work is heavily graphic, like Eric Goldberg or Fred Moore.

Timing in cgi is far more flexible than in stop motion or drawn animation. In cgi, it is trivial to alter the timing on the arms of a walking character. It literally takes seconds to select the relevant arm controls in the dope sheet and slide them forwards or backwards in time. Timing can also be globally or locally compressed or stretched in the dope sheet. This makes trying variations more practical than they are in other forms of animation. Paths of action for an entire character or just a part can also be altered with far less effort. If anything, from a technical standpoint, the level of animator control in cgi is equal to or greater than stop motion or drawn animation.

Yet Michael Barrier and others somehow feel that cgi character animation is lacking. Why? One possible answer is the need for pre-visualization of a character's actions before starting to animate. A stop motion animator must do this more than a pencil animator and a pencil animator must do it more than a cgi animator. If this was what was bothering people, then stop motion animation would be the gold standard and that doesn't seem to be the case.

Perhaps it is the animator's interface for creating motion. Stop motion animators put their hands on the puppet to manipulate it. That makes for an intimate relationship. Drawn animation is done with a pencil, something animators have used for 15 years before entering the industry, giving them a greater familiarity with that tool than with a computer mouse. A pencil certainly expresses individuality better than a mouse does. An artist's line is a form of a signature, though in drawn animation the animator's lines are often homogenized by assistants for the sake of consistency. A cgi character will automatically look consistent, though nothing stops cgi animators from having as individual a sense of posing and timing as any other type of animator.

Another possible answer is that the ease of revising cgi leads to over refinement. It's sort of the difference between whole wheat and white bread or molasses and white sugar. In both cases, the refinement leads to blandness. While cgi animators can revise more quickly, the footage quota on cgi features is not higher than in drawn features of a similar budget. The time saved goes towards refining the surface. There are few imperfections in the movement, which may lead to a kind of sterility.

While cgi lends itself to this level of refinement, it is not a necessity. As I've said, artists make decisions and some of them are bad ones. This is why I think that blaming a form of animation for the weaknesses in a film is wrong. The bigger problem is not the technique, but how the characters are conceived. I'll take up this issue in a future entry.