Monday, September 29, 2008

What Cartoon Is This?

A reader named David Graves sent the following query:
I found your name through your blogs, but feel that my naive question might be appropriate for your readers.

I am the Process Architect at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City. My job is to re design operating processes, particularly when they are changed by installing computer automation. At a recent conference, my peers and I discussed our problem in explaining what we did.

I remember seeing a early black & white animated short that I felt captured the essence of the problems we all work on. I am trying to identify the short so I can acquire a copy.

In the short, a group of mice is taking mail from a basket and sorting it into a series of mail slots. On the back of the slots are a series of mail chutes that merge into one chute that drops the mail in a basket where a group of mice takes it and sorts it into a series of mail slots. On the back of the slots are a series of mail chutes that merge into one chute that .... and so on.

As you might image, Process Architects seek out and re-design that sort of process.

I am not a student of animation. I am seeking someone who is and can help steer me to the short. Can you tell where to look or how do the research that will lead me to the short?
I can't name the short, though I remember the gag. Most likely, it's a Terrytoon. If anyone can name the cartoon, please comment.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Spike Lee Quote

Spike Lee is interviewed at While this quote does not relate directly to animation, it does relate to the larger film industry that animation operates in.
People try to pretend like they have the answers. They don't have the answers. Man, I still think William Goldman had the best quote ever: "Nobody knows nothing." When I sit across the table from these executives and they're telling me stuff, in my mind I'm saying, "You don't know what you're talking about. You don't have a crystal ball. You don't know what this thing can do. All you're thinking about is saving your neck and your job."

I understand that self-preservation is Rule No. 1, but I don't have a lot of respect for these people. I'd rather they said, "I'm doing this because I got to save my job." That I can respect. But when it comes to aesthetics, or film history, or what's happening, they don't know.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Good Photograph

Emru Townsend, founder and editor of fps, has been suffering from leukemia and monosomy 7. His family, especially sister Tamu, have been campaigning to raise awareness of bone marrow registration. If somebody needs a bone marrow transplant and no members of their immediate family are a match, the next step is to search databases worldwide, hoping to find someone, somewhere, who can provide a match. The Townsend family has worked hard not only to locate someone for Emru but also to increase the size of the database so that others in need have a better chance of finding a match.

The reason this is a good photograph is that Emru had his bone marrow transplant on September 16. He is posing here with the donor stem cells. I certainly hope that the transplant does its job and starts Emru on the road to recovery. He's a longtime booster of animation in its many forms and the sooner he can resume his normal life, the better for us all.

If you're interested in details of Emru's story or how you can add yourself to the bone marrow registry, the best place to go is here, where Emru and family have documented his experiences.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Bad Photograph

We've all had bad photographs taken. I'm sure that everyone reading this has cringed at a driver's license, passport or yearbook photo of themselves. It's unusual, however, for a publisher to use such a bad photograph on the cover of a book that they want people to purchase. This book, out in October, is aimed at the 9-12 age range. No doubt many children would love to know more about Pixar and animation, but I can't imagine that the above photo will encourage them to reach for this book.

I'm sure that Disney and Pixar have excellent portrait photos available for publicity purposes. Why did an art director choose one where Lasseter is clearly not at ease? Cover up the smile and look at his eyes. This is a classic case of a face sending mixed signals. We've all done it, but most of us are lucky enough not to have it splashed on a book cover.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Which of These Men is Not Like the Others?

Charlie Chaplin, Walt Disney, Darryl F. Zanuck and John Lasseter. All of them worked as studio heads and film makers, but one of them was significantly different than the others. I'll bet you're guessing Zanuck, who was head of 20th Century Fox, but is that the case?

I've just finished re-reading Michael Barrier's The Animated Man, his biography of Walt Disney (now in paperback). His portrait of Disney strikes me as being accurate based on my own knowledge and experience of Disney history. Starting in the 1920's, Walt Disney was an entrepreneur trying to build a business. It wasn't until the early 1930s, that he really began to see the artistic possibilities in animation, that his focus shifted. The culmination of Disney-as-artist was Snow White, a film that Disney was intimately involved with every detail of.

The problem in a collaborative commercial art form like film is that the delicate balance that has to be maintained between business and art. I could argue that Disney tipped the balance too far towards art with Snow White in that if the film had failed at the box office, the studio would have been in a precarious financial position. Disney had a weakness for taking huge financial risks (Disneyland being another example), but he was fortunate that his risks paid off.

The problem for Disney was that once Snow White was an established success, the studio had to be kept busy. Disney could have chosen to have only one feature in production at a time, with the shorts supplying the studio with work and cash flow, but he decided to launch an entire slate of features. None of the features that followed claimed his attention the same way Snow White did. It couldn't be otherwise. The urge to grow the company and to capitalize on success reduced Disney's involvement. His abilities, however strong, were diluted by the number of projects he put into play. From 1950 onward, with Disneyland, the TV series, the live action films, and the animated shorts and features, Disney functioned much the same way that Darryl F. Zanuck did at Fox: holding story meetings, watching rushes and taking a hand in post-production, especially editing and music.

Zanuck himself started out as a writer at Warner Bros. and rose to head of production there in the early '30s before leaving in a disagreement with management. He formed Twentieth Century pictures and when Fox was in financial trouble due to the depression, Zanuck's company took over Fox and he ran the combined operation for decades.

Disney knew Chaplin in addition to Chaplin being an inspiration to Disney's animators. While Chaplin was hugely successful as a film maker and was a partner in United Artists, a distribution company, he only made one feature that he did not write and direct. That film, A Woman of the Sea, starred Edna Purviance and was directed by Josef Von Sternberg. The film was never released and was later destroyed in order to take a tax write-off. Chaplin's studio existed for a single reason: to make films written, directed and starring Chaplin. He kept his crew on salary all year, regardless of whether he was actively shooting or not. He was rich enough to make films according to his own schedule (after 1925, Chaplin never released a film more frequently than every three years). All of Chaplin's mental, physical and financial resources were focused on one film at a time.

A short time ago, Pixar released the schedule for its upcoming features. I don't remember anyone remarking on the fact that none of the films would be directed by John Lasseter. Lasseter started out like Chaplin, excited about his medium and working on one film at a time. However, with Pixar's purchase by Disney and Lasseter's promotion to chief creative officer of the Walt Disney Animation Studios, Lasseter has stepped away from being a film maker and become a producer. He's gone from Chaplin to Zanuck (or Disney).

Because of the specialized nature of animation, animators often have to create studios in order to realize their films. Disney, Harman and Ising, Max Fleischer, Paul Terry, etc. all built studios from scratch in order to make cartoons. Later, Dick Williams, Don Bluth and Ralph Bakshi assembled studios to make their films. Unfortunately, the balance between art and entrepreneurship is especially hard to maintain when an artist is responsible for meeting payrolls and other overhead. I could argue that Williams, Bluth and Bakshi didn't pay enough attention to the business side, which truncated their careers. The irony, of course, is that Lasseter is paying full attention to the business side and this has also truncated his career as a director.

It's possible that John Lasseter is happier where he is than when he was directing movies. He's certainly busy and his full time job is to make creative decisions about every project going through Disney and Pixar. But just as Walt Disney's later work did not reach the heights of Snow White due to his increasing responsibilities, Lasseter's influence may also be diluted.

So while it may have looked like Zanuck was the odd man out, the real answer is Chaplin. While he was certainly a successful businessman, he stayed more focused as a film maker than any of the other three. The others were seduced by corporate growth and power. Barrier argues that it was to Disney's detriment. The jury is still out on Lasseter.

Bacher is Back

Designer Hans Bacher (Mulan, The Lion King), the author of Dream Worlds, is back again with another blog dedicated to reconstructing the background paintings of the classic Disney films.

(link via Tom Sito)

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Dick Williams at MOMA on Sept. 22

Dick Williams will be appearing at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City on September 22. Here's the press release:


Monday, September 22
7:00 p.m.
The Roy and Niuta Titus 2 Theater

Three-time Academy Award winner Richard Williams discusses his long and influential career in a conversation with animation filmmaker and historian (and fellow Oscar-winner) John Canemaker. Williams, who was awarded Oscars for Special Achievement and for Visual Effects as the director of animation of the Walt Disney/Steven Spielberg blockbuster Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) and for his short film A Christmas Carol (1971), is one of the finest animation filmmakers of our time. His stunningly crafted, award-winning films have featured the work of veteran animators from the Disney studio's "Golden Age" and from Warner Bros. Cartoons, most notably Grim Natwick (Snow White), Art Babbitt (Fantasia), and Ken Harris (Bugs Bunny). Williams also learned from his friends Milt Kahl (Pinocchio, The Jungle Book), and Frank Thomas (Bambi, Cinderella). A distillation of his acquired knowledge went into the exuberant animation he directed for Who Framed Roger Rabbit and, most recently, into an unparalleled and indispensable series of instructional DVD master classes based on his bestselling book The Animator’s Survival Kit.

Illustrated with clips from Who Framed Roger Rabbit, The Charge of the Light Brigade, A Christmas Carol, Raggedy Ann & Andy, the animated titles from The Return of the Pink Panther, award-winning commercials, segments from The Animator’s Survival Kit, and more.

Organized by Joshua Siegel, Associate Curator, Department of Film, and John Canemaker.
John Canemaker and Dick Williams will be doing something similar at the Ottawa International Animation Festival next week, though I understand that event is already sold out. I saw a public appearance by Dick Williams several years ago in Toronto and he is definitely worth seeing. Unfortunately, I won't be able to attend either of the above appearances.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

101 Dalmatians: Part 17A

In this segment, Cruella and the Baduns are searching for the dogs, who are fighting their way through a snow storm. They are rescued by a collie who brings them to a dairy barn where they are able to eat and rest.

You will notice that in Part 17, I was able to identify which animator did which character in a shot. That's because Ruth Wright, the secretary responsible for this portion of the draft, included the information whereas none of the other secretaries bothered. I did make one change to this in shot 17. Wright had Ollie Johnston animating Perdita and Hal King animating Pongo. Given the characters' relative size in the frame and the amount of acting each had to do, I believe that Wright made an error.

The opening scene between Cruella, Horace and Jasper is cast by character. Marc Davis handles Cruella (as he does throughout the film), and Cliff Nordberg takes care of her henchmen. I've talked a fair bit about the so-called "lesser" animators at Disney. Here's a perfect example of excellent work being done by Nordberg. At other times in the film, Horace and Jasper are animated by John Lounsbery or John Sibley, but Nordberg is fully capable of animating to their level on these characters. He shares the screen with Marc Davis, certainly one of the best of Disney's animators, but there's no feeling that Cruella is a more polished piece of work than what Nordberg is doing. Nordberg's handling of the acting and dialogue in shot 4 is excellent, as is his action animation when Cruella throws Horace back into the van on top of Jasper in shot 5.

The march of the dogs through the snow storm (and the draft notes that there is "live action blowing snow") is a demonstration of the power of posture to communicate a character's emotional state.
Perdita's entire spine, from head to tail, is drooping, showing her to be exhausted. Facially, her eyelids are partially closed and drooping, while a single line beneath each eye, indicating a bag, reinforces how tired she is. This one drawing shows the power of cartooning. What Hal King has done here is to isolate what conveys the necessary emotion. Adding more detail to this drawing would not strengthen it; additional detail would distract from what's important. The point of cartooning (and animation) is to strip away everything that doesn't contribute to the desired statement and to play up what's left.

Hal King pretty much handles the entire march through the snow and deserves praise for how effective the animation is in these shots. Eric Larson and Ollie Johnston get some personality scenes with Pongo, but King sets the tone.

The first shot of the collie (shot 14 by Julius Svendsen) is my nomination for the worst piece of animation in the entire film. The collie is running through deep snow, yet the dog does not appear to be exerting himself in the slightest. There is no sense of force emanating from the dog's limbs or a sense that the terrain isn't solid. There is also no effects animation of snow being disturbed by the dog's legs (though this probably wouldn't have been handled by Svendsen). The run is especially weak when you compare it to Ollie Johnston's Pongo animation in shot 16.1, where Pongo struggles to run through deep snow to let Perdy know that they have reached shelter. Johnston's run is specific to the environmental conditions, where Svendsen's is not.

Later shots of the collie tend to go quite flat. In contrast to the other dog animators, Svendsen leaves the collie in profile most of the time and doesn't turn or tilt the character's head during dialogue. It's a shame, as the collie has a heroic role to play and his voice, by Tom Conway, is quite distinctive. While other supporting characters in the film are successfully realized, the collie is a missed opportunity.

(Tom Conway was the brother of George Sanders, who later voiced Shere Khan in The Jungle Book. Sanders was married to Zsa Zsa Gabor, whose sister Eva voiced Bianca in The Rescuers. Instead of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, for Disney features you can play Six Degrees of George Sanders.)

Svendsen is the sole animator of the collie, so he has to take responsibility for this. His animation of the horse earlier in the film is far superior. Once the characters move to the dairy barn, the drawing and animation of the collie look decidedly weak next to Hal Ambro's cows, who are far more dimensionally drawn and animated.

You can tell that censorship was breaking down by the 1960s. In the '30s, Disney had to cover up Clarabelle Cow's udder with a skirt. Here, the pups are actually shown suckling on the cow's teats, something that never would have been allowed in earlier years.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Gene Deitch Interview

The Comics Journal #292 will be available on September 4, and it includes an interview with animator Gene Deitch and his cartoonist sons Kim and Simon. You can read an excerpt of the interview here, and the excerpt includes Gene talking about his early days in the animation business, including mentions of John Hubley, Terrytoons, Ralph Bakshi and Jules Feiffer.