Saturday, March 28, 2009


If you have ever bought anything from Amazon online, you know that they send you emails to alert you to items they believe you will want based on your past purchases. Occasionally, though, the recommendations leave me scratching my head, such as this one:
(Click to enlarge.)

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Reruns Redux

I'm frankly amazed (and amused) that the video of Disney re-use is still generating comments after more than a week. I was certainly aware of how heavily Disney re-used animation during the Reitherman years. The video didn't surprise me so much as wrap things up in a neat package.

Thad Komorowski has created a similar video cataloging Bob Clampett's history of re-use, some of which I wasn't aware of.

Anyone who has worked in animation production knows the twin pressures of budget and deadline. While nobody has brought it up, Chuck Jones re-used animation multiple times within his half hour TV specials, including The Grinch and Riki Tiki Tavi. We can argue over a director's motivation and judge whether the end result has value or not, but I don't doubt for a second that given the opportunity, every director would opt for new footage instead of re-use.

Monday, March 23, 2009

It's the Cat Again

Mark Kausler has updated the site for his independent film, It's the Cat. There are original cels for sale as well as artwork on display. One of the neat features of the cels for sale is that when you display them, you can flip between the cel and the drawing it is based on. If you buy a cel, Mark will throw in a DVD of the finished film for free.

(If you just want the finished film, you can download it from MyToons for $1.99.)

The real plum, however, is the complete pencil test online. I'm one of those people who loves pencil tests and prefers them to finished animation. I love seeing the pencil lines in the rough and even the grain of the paper animating. It's animation, unplugged.

Run (or dance) over and take a look.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Against Outsourcing

"And 44 percent of the time (there are commercial airline crashes), the two pilots have never flown together before, so they're not comfortable with each other."
-Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers

"A palpable energy is released when inspiration and dedication come together in a creative art. The energy is transformative in an individual who is innovative, but it is transcendent when manifested by a group. There are no words for the dynamic thrill of participating in a mutual mosaic of creativity."

— Wynton Marsalis
My father worked for over 60 years as a machinist. His job was to take a blueprint supplied by a client and figure out how to make the machine part using the tools and crew at his disposal. Often, my father had only the vaguest sense of what the piece would be used for; he rarely saw his piece assembled with any other pieces.

The system worked because of the nature of blueprints. I grew up listening to my father talk about the challenges of making certain parts. The allowable tolerances, meaning the amount that the part could deviate from the blueprint without being rejected, was often as small as four ten-thousandths of an inch. As a child, working with a ruler whose closest marks were one thirty-second of an inch apart, I was amazed that anything could be made so exactly.

It works for machine parts; it doesn't work for entertainment.

The theory behind outsourcing is straightforward. If you can buy something for less money than it costs to build yourself, it makes sense to buy it. If a dentist needs a stapler, it's far more cost-effective to buy one than to order raw materials and tools to make a single stapler. Even when a dentist needs a crown for a patient, it's more cost effective to buy the crown from a specialty company than to make it in-house.

Problems arise when entertainment is treated like something that can be built to a blueprint. The relationship between client and supplier is very different than that of collaborators. Both client and supplier need the instructions to be as specific as possible (down to four ten-thousandths of an inch if possible). The client needs this so that the resulting work will fit his or her needs; the supplier needs this as he or she is being paid piece-work, and poor instructions inevitably mean rejects, which cut into profits and threaten the existence of the business.

It's clearly a master-servant relationship. The master has a need; the servant wants to meet that need with as little fuss as possible. While this sounds like a symbiotic relationship, where both parties benefit from each others existence, it often becomes an adversarial relationship. The master doesn't always know what he or she really wants. The servant has to satisfy the master in order to get paid, but has a limit as to how much effort can be expended before taking a loss. The master rarely takes this into consideration, thinking that payment allows for unlimited revisions. The goals of the master and the servant are different and the financial relationship they enter into makes this inevitable.

Collaborators share the same goals. They may disagree as to the particulars or how to reach the goals, but they agree in principle or they would abandon each other as collaborators. What happens in a good collaboration is something called a positive feedback loop. One collaborator does something which presents opportunities for another collaborator to elaborate on. If the elaboration is any good, it often stimulates additional improvements. The feedback between collaborators pushes the idea or product farther than one simply giving directions to the other.

In many cases, animation is now thought of as a service to be outsourced. It requires that pre-production be far more detailed than in the past. Storyboard artists (especially for TV) are being asked to draw tightly and on model, as their work serves as the basis for the creation of the animation. In other words, the boards are thought of as the blueprints. But there is no way that a storyboard can contain as much information as a blueprint, and so inevitably there are mistakes and retakes. More money is spent on pre-production to take advantage of the economics of outsourcing, but due to the nature of entertainment, there are more retakes required to fix the mistakes. More money is being spent up front and at the end in order to justify saving the money in the middle.

Furthermore, this process eliminates the possibility of a positive feedback loop. There's no financial incentive for servants to try and outperform their masters' expectations. It only makes life more difficult when masters are already asking for too much for the money. Masters don't see their servants as collaborators; servants are merely "the help." My father never knew how a part was to be used, so it was impossible for him to suggest design changes that might have made a part work more efficiently.

What outsourcing does in entertainment is to increase costs in certain parts of production and to wall off any supplier innovation from the rest of the production.

You can't put a dollar figure on collaboration, because until it happens, you don't know what will result. Eliminating collaboration is a false efficiency. In entertainment, it may reduce cost, but it also reduces quality. As the marketplace becomes more crowded and as the internet drives the cost of everything towards zero, the cost of entertainment is going to become less important than its quality.

Chuck Jones Reminder

This Tuesday, March 24, Turner Classic Movies will be running four and a half hours saluting the work of animation director Chuck Jones. The complete schedule is here.

Highlights include the TV premiere of the documentary Chuck Jones: Memories of Childhood, as well as such noted cartoons as What's Opera Doc?, Duck Amuck, One Froggy Evening. The evening will also include early works, such as Jones directorial debut The Night Watchman, as well as Prest-O Change-O and Elmer's Candid Camera, two early steps in the evolution of Bugs Bunny. TCM will also screen The Phantom Tollbooth, Jones' feature, based on the book by Norton Juster, made for MGM.

The entire program will be repeated twice during the evening, followed by 1001 Arabian Nights, a UPA feature starring Mr. Magoo and directed by veteran Disney director Jack Kinney.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Upcoming Sheridan Industry Day

For those in the Toronto area who might be interested, this year's industry day at Sheridan College will take place on April 30.

In addition, I am in the process of booking the Bloor Cinema for a selection of this year's films. The dates I am trying to book are June 9 and 10, with both dates featuring the same films. Once details are confirmed, I'll pass them along.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Reitherman Reruns

One of my students, Agnes Salek, pointed this compilation out to me. It is skillfully cut together, showing all the Disney re-use, most of which was the work of director Woolie Reitherman. It seems he never saw a scene he couldn't reconfigure. I think that only the material re-used for Beauty and the Beast is from the post-Reitherman era.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

A Tashlin Rarity: The Way of Peace

I was not aware of this film until today. It's from 1947, written and directed by Frank Tashlin for the Lutheran Church. Some of the crew, such as Wah Chang and Gene Warren, will be familiar to fans of stop motion animation of the time. The film is narrated by actor Lew Ayres.

There is relatively little animation in this film. It is more a series of illustrations to accompany the narration. I don't know how much this film represents Tashlin's own religious feeling or how much it was simply an employment opportunity.

At this time in his career, Tashlin had left Warner Bros. and was attempting to break into live action feature writing and directing. The year this film appeared, Tashlin first got credited as a screenwriter on the all-star musical Variety Girl. The Way of Peace followed a stint directing animated industrials for John Sutherland Productions, but it would be another five years before Tashlin got credit for directing his first live feature, fittingly titled The First Time.

A Missed Opportunity

The Toronto Star has an article today about the Purchase brothers, who hope to break into the live action film business and who are working on their reel. One of the pieces they've created is based on the video game Half-Life 2 and the piece has been watched more than 2 million times on YouTube.

While I don't play video games and don't seek out films like the Purchase brothers are making, I do have to admire their skills, their dedication and their ability to entertain an audience. Most of all, I admire their resourcefulness. Their film was made for relatively little cash, though many hours were invested in it.

Valve, the company that makes Half-Life 2, is aware of the film and likes it, but they have no interest in a Half-Life movie as they've been disappointed in movies that have been made based on videogames thus far. While I have no interest in insulting people, I need to say that the Valve people are IDIOTS. They're stuck thinking about $60 million budgets, big name stars and 2000 theater opening weekends. It doesn't have to be that way.

I don't doubt that the brothers could complete their film for less than half a million dollars. A budget that low presents many options. The entire film could be given away for free online as an ad for the game. Material could be made available free online as a teaser for a paid download or DVD purchase. A limited theatrical release or a cable TV sale would both be possible. Any of the above would advertise the original game and expand its fan base. Already 2 million people have viewed what exists. The snowball has started rolling down the hill and Valve is too stupid to give it a push when they would be the main beneficiary. Instead, they've set up a road block.

In his book What Would Google Do? Jeff Jarvis says that he thinks the current business model for advertising is doomed. The satisfied consumer is the new advertisement. This means that if a friend tells you about something (and these days you might hear it in person, by twitter, by email, on a blog, or on Facebook), you're far more likely to try it than if you've seen a traditional kind of advertisement. Two million people have decided, without seeing an ad, to check out this film. Why wouldn't the makers of Half-Life 2 want to cash in on this?

Besides being a missed opportunity for Valve, it's also a shame for the Purchase brothers. They've already received calls from Hollywood because Hollywood is smart enough to realize that anybody that can attract an audience is worth investing in. But while the brothers may get an opportunity, they'll be pulled into a business model that's eroding. A Hollywood budget will provide them with resources they don't currently have, but it will also shackle them with a bureaucracy and an overhead they've proven they don't need. If Valve was a smarter company, they'd cash in on the brothers while allowing the brothers to make the film without Hollywood interference. Everybody, except Hollywood, wins and what's wrong with that?

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Academy of Art Animation Notes

I've had a link to David Nethery's blog listed here for a long time, but he has a second blog done for the Academy of Art in San Francisco that features news of new books and interesting clips. There are some pencil tests there of Sergio Pablos' work on Treasure Planet, for example. In addition, there's news of a new book on effects animation by Joseph Gilland called Elemental Magic and the two volume collection of Disney artist Walt Stanchfield's lectures on drawing for animation.

I've added a link to the right and the site is worth checking on a regular basis.

It's the Cat

Mark Kausler's animated short, It's the Cat, is now available for purchase at MyToons. Set to a 1920s recording by Harry Reser's Syncopaters, the cheefully amoral cat plays pranks on the moon, a dog and the three blind mice. You can see the above preview in a larger size at the MyToons link above.

I love this film because of the intricate synchronization of the animation and soundtrack. While the actual cartoons of the time period often just bounce repetitively to the musical beat, Kausler is constantly animating accents to hit off beats and notes in a very sophisticated way. The above clip really doesn't do the film justice as it stops before the most interesting animation.

As I'm going to be teaching a workshop on animating to music in May and June, I was interested in Mark's process for dealing with the synchronization. He gave me a very detailed description of his process here. Scroll down for his comment.

Mark is known both for his animation on films like Who Framed Roger Rabbit and his extensive knowledge of animation history. I'm sure it was his love of the latter that prompted him (and producer Greg Ford) to ink and paint the animation on actual cels and shoot it on a film camera stand. This is as old school as it gets. This film was made over a 10 year period, as Mark was busy with professional assignments. This film is a small gem and I understand that Mark has already completed the pencil test for his next short. That's something to look forward to.

I've added Mark's link to the list at right. It should have been there a long time ago.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

More on Silent Comedy Timing

Another great example of silent comedy slowed down to real time. Here's Ben Model working his magic on the opening factory sequence of Chaplin's Modern Times (1936). The bulk of this has been shot at 16 frames per second, so that watching it at 24 fps means that the action is 50% faster than life.

Note the pauses in the acting that Model points out that separate the movements and gestures. This is so the actions read clearly when they are sped up.

This sequence works in the finished film due to the inhuman speed that the workers must move on the assembly line. There's a sense of urgency that's not only funny but a story requirement: Chaplin's eventual nervous breakdown has to be believable.

As noted by Ben Model in the comments, here is the sequence where Chaplin has his breakdown, first at the speed at which it was shot and second as it plays in the film, 50% faster than it was shot.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

For Students

This week, two very good sources of information, one on the east coast and one on the west, have blogged their thoughts about animation students approaching the end of school year and moving into the wider world. Independent animator and instructor David Levy's thoughts about thesis films may be coming too late in the school year to be much help to this year's graduating students, but it's definitely worth reading for those students with a year or more to go.

For those students who are graduating and looking at an uncertain job market, Steve Hulett, business rep of The Animation Guild, summarizes a talk he gave to the students at Cal Arts.

Their advice sounds pretty good to me.