Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Filmation Paradoxes

The new issue of Flip is online and the lead article is a look back at Filmation by three artists who worked there: Tom Sito, Bronwen Barry and Tom Mazzocco. The piece highlights two paradoxes that are common within the animation industry.

The first is that it's possible to work at a studio that has a comfortable environment and a friendly crew while turning out work that is, to put it charitably, of little value. Filmation is best remembered for shows like He-Man, She-ra and Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids. While those series may produce a nostalgic glow for a generation of children, a dispassionate look at them shows them to be low budget formula cartoons. While artists would prefer to work on good projects, the truth is that a comfortable environment is perhaps as valuable as the quality of the finished work when the project takes up most of an artist's waking hours.

The other paradox is that artists tend to be judged by the projects they work on, and that's a false standard. A great many of the Filmation crew migrated to Disney, where they were major contributors to the success of The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. While resume credits are a handy way to pigeon-hole someone, they don't accurately reflect the skills of an artist. The intelligence and taste of the management, the size of the budget and the length of the schedule have more to do with the results on screen than the abilities of the crew.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Pondering Ponyo

(There are spoilers below.)

When I first watched Hayao Miyazaki's latest feature Ponyo, I thought it was another of Miyazaki's ecological fables. Based on Nausicaa and Princess Mononoke, it wouldn't be surprising to once again see Miyazaki dealing with humans' relationship to the environment. However, a second viewing and much thought has led me to the conclusion that the ecological elements are something of a MacGuffin, Hitchcock's term for an excuse to set the characters in motion when the director's real interest is somewhere else.

Miyazaki's subject here is love, though not romantic love and certainly not sexual love. What the characters in this film are missing is devotional love. Just about every character in this film has been abandoned in one way or another.

The nursing home that Sosuke's mother Lisa works at is next door to a school (or is it a pre-school?). In each case, the old and the young have been isolated from the world of adults. The old women in the home are, I presume, widows, and their children are not taking care of them. The children in school are not being looked after by their parents. In each case, the group is being looked after by somebody collecting a paycheque, not family. Humanity's past and future are not integrated with the present.

Both Sosuke and Ponyo have two parents, but those parents are not together. Sosuke's father is captain of a ship and over the course of the entire film, he never gets off it. There is always a geographical gulf created by work between the father and his family, which leads to an emotional gulf between husband and wife. Ponyo's mother is a goddess who is not present in Ponyo's home and who only interacts with Ponyo once during the entire film. The parents that are present, Lisa and Fujimoto, Ponyo's father, are so wrapped up in work that they abandon or ignore their children in favour of their jobs. Ponyo and her sisters don't like Fujimoto and Sosuke sees him as a threat at the end of the film and flees from him.

It is significant that Sosuke is the only character to pass between the nursing home and the school and that he does it through a hole in the fence. He breaks through boundaries that adults have set up and his need to connect is the same need that connects him to Ponyo when he finds her. His renaming of her is transformative, much the way that Chihiro being renamed in Spirited Away is. Ponyo's need to connect is so strong that she transforms herself from a fish into a girl and in a bravura sequence runs along the tops of fish and waves to reunite with Sosuke. Her repeated transformations bring to mind Sophie's changing age in Howl's Moving Castle. In Miyazaki's world, characters change physically as they change emotionally.

Ponyo running atop the fish, an absolutely astounding sequence

It is Ponyo's actions that release the magic that results in the flood. This flood is the catalyst for everything that follows and the reintegration of what has been separated. Extinct fish once again swim in the ocean, uniting past and present. The old women are able to walk again and rejoin the adult world. The goddess and Fujimoto are brought together. Sosuke's father is able to bring his boat back home.

When Ponyo and Sosuke set off in Sosuke's toy boat, it is significant that they are the first in the film to encounter a complete family. It is the only time we see a man, woman and child together. Ponyo is fascinated with the baby and attempts to give it food. When the mother explains that the child is too young to eat it, but if the mother eats it she can produce milk for the child, Ponyo is happy to let the mother have the soup and then loads her up with sandwiches. The father returns the favour as best he can by giving Sosuke a candle. This is the moment in the film when the world begins to regenerate.

Sosuke's acceptance of Ponyo, regardless of whether she is a fish or a girl saves the world because it acknowledges no boundaries. The devotional love between them has no limit. The boundaries that people have erected -- between nature and humans; between the past, present, and future; between water and air -- are dissolved by Sosuke's declaration.

The plot elements of humans hurting the environment and the world being out of balance are there as outgrowths of the film's central problem: the gulf between people. Ponyo is an argument for us to reconnect with each other more strongly in order to bring the world back into balance.

(There are many brilliant visual things in this film, and I just want to point out two small ones that stood out for me. I greatly admire Miyazaki's detailed observation of human behavior. When Sosuke first sees Ponyo, he kicks off his shoes before wading into the water to pick her up. This still, lacking motion, doesn't do the moment justice, but what caught my attention was how Sosuke was totally focused on what he saw. Sosuke's concentration was portrayed beautifully by not moving his head as he kicked off his shoes.)

(Another thing that struck me was Lisa's pose, below. At this point in the film, her husband has called to say that he will not be coming home and then used light signals in an attempt to make up. Lisa's anger prevents her from accepting his apology. Her despair over the state of their relationship is beautifully captured by her pose on the bed.)

Thursday, August 13, 2009

A Sunshine Makers Mystery

Issue 88 of Alter Ego, a magazine devoted to comic book history, has a lengthy article on Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, an early comic book publisher whose company was taken over and eventually became DC comics.

What's interesting from an animation standpoint was this page from the first issue of New Fun Comics published in 1935. The illustration is credited to Dick Loederer.

When I saw this, I instantly recognized the character from The Sunshine Makers, a 1935 cartoon directed by Ted Eshbaugh that was released by Van Beuren. Here's a poor frame enlargement, but hopefully it makes the resemblance plain.

Both images are from 1935, so it's not obvious which came first. While there is some information about Dick Loederer, it doesn't mention any animation experience. There is no mention of Loederer on Alberto Becattini's index of animators. Neither is there a mention of Loederer in Talking Animals and Other People, Shamus Culhane's autobiography which includes his time at Van Beuren during this time period. While many animation artists also worked in cartoon illustration, I can't tell if Loederer was responsible for both designs, if he originated the design, or if he swiped the design. Swiping was extremely common in early comic books, so that might be the most likely answer. However, it's still interesting that the design made enough of an impression at the time to inspire a swipe.

Can anyone shed any light on Dick Loederer or the origin of this design?

The complete cartoon is included below for your enjoyment.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Bill Plympton in Toronto

Independent animator Bill Plympton will appear at The Royal Theatre (608 College St, 5 blocks west of Bathurst) on Friday, Aug. 14 to screen his latest feature Idiots and Angels. The screening is at 7 p.m. The film, without Plympton, will continue to screen through Aug. 20.

Iron Giant Art Show

Dan Merisanu, proprietor of Labyrinth Books in Toronto, devotes part of his store space to exhibiting art of various kinds. His latest project is inviting people to contribute art inspired by Brad Bird's The Iron Giant, which was released 10 years ago this month. If you'd like to know more about this exhibit, or perhaps contribute, you can find out the details here. You can see sample artwork and follow the progress of the exhibit as it comes together here.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Sheridan Workstations For Sale

I'm posting this for Ken Walker, the technologist of the post-grad CGI program. Here are the details:
Hey All,

Three years have gone by so fast!!! It is time again to sell off all of our current workstations to make room for the new ones for the next 3 years. We are only selling the workstations not the monitors. We are using the Monitors for next year so we can have Dual monitors to work with for all machines in the lab.

Note: These workstations have been very well cared for. They have been cleaned every 6 months. All the dust bunnies blown out. They have been the most reliable equipment we have used to date.

Here is the config of the workstations we are selling: IBM model: 6217-pju

IBM A-PRO series IntelliStation

Nvidia Quadro FX 3450 video card - is open GL and Direct X compatible
(works great with Maya and for playing Games)
4 gigbytes RAM
2 - Dual Core AMD Opteron model 280 @ 2.4 Ghz
80 Gbyte SATA Hard Drive - note the mother board is a server mother board and has RAID built in and has connectors for SCSI, IDE and SATA all built in.
DVD Multiburner - Burns DVD's and CD's - will burn Dual Layer DVD's as well.
Comes with optical mouse, keyboard, powercord and the original OEM disks for device drivers.
Windows XP Pro 64bit editions installed and a valid windows OEM license/serial # for WInXP 64 bit.

The price for a workstation is $995.00 which includes the tax. You get a workstation, keyboard and optical mouse and the OEM device driver disks, Win XP Pro 64bit Edition installed and updated to service pak 2 and the Nvidia video card drivers updated and installed. While suppies last we are also throwing in a RGB monitor.

If there are any questions or you want to make arrangements to buy a workstation just contact me either by email or by phone at 905-845-9430 x8724

Monday, August 10, 2009

Myron Waldman's Eve Reprinted

I wrote about Eve, a 1943 pantomime graphic novel by Fleischer/Famous animator/director Myron Waldman here. It's going to be reprinted in The Comics Journal #299 with an introduction by cartoonist Mark Newgarden. The reprint will be reduced in size compared to the original, but it's great that this hard-to-find work will be in print once again.

The Comics Journal #299 should be in comics shops on August 19 or you can order it here.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

The Past and the Future

Sheridan student Andrew Murray interned this summer at Ireland's Cartoon Saloon. While in Ireland, Andrew saw Bugs Bunny on Broadway, where Warner Bros. cartoons are accompanied by a live orchestra. While this production is not new, Andrew's experiences while watching it caused him to think about the future of drawn animation. Here are his thoughts:
I was in Dublin this weekend and saw Bugs Bunny on Broadway and I just wanted to share my experience regarding it. Because I was blown away by its reception. I wasnt sure what to expect but the show was sold out and litterally every age group was there. Where I was sitting, to my left there were a group of 90 year old women and my right, there was a family whose kids were in their 20s. Smaller kids were there and just adults in their 20s, 30s, 40s were out on dates and of course the single people like me.

But what was amazing was how well received these shorts were. They played Baton Bunny, Feed the Kitty, kill da wabbit ( I cant recall the proper titles of each short), The High Note, even a Bob Clampett short among all the Jones cartoons. But as I looked around, everyone had this HUGE grin on their faces during the show, and people were laughing their heads off. When the March of the Valkrie's started to play you heard the audience mumbling 'Kill Da Wabbit'. and to see that happening it was a real eye opener regarding animation. For the past 4 years I've heard nothing but "where is animation going? what will happen to 2-D?" and last night I was shown that people still really love these shorts. So much so that they came out in droves of all ages to watch them with a live orchestra.

Now Im not going to have the answer as to what the fate will be with 2-D animation but to see the audience react the way they did was amazing and I guess there shouldn't be any concern regarding the fate of Cartoons but perhaps there should be other avenues explored as to how to present them. Those Looney Tunes and MerrieMelodies were really meant to be shown like that with an orchestra. It has such an impact on people.
In a follow up message, Andrew added:
I forgot to mention this before, but as I left, there was a line up to get to the front door and I quote this, because there was a mother asking her son who was about 7ish, how he liked the show and he responded with, "that was the best 2 hours of my life."
I think there are a lot of conclusions to be drawn from this, and not all of them will be popular. The first is that people came out for this because they knew what they would be getting. It was a pre-sold product. While animation professionals and fans have complained about the proliferation of sequels or how The Princess and the Frog looks old fashioned, the fact is that people often like to know what they're buying in advance. A sequel or a straight-down-the-middle Disney feature is a known quantity and these things have a measurable audience.

Nostalgia also plays a part. The Warner Bros. cartoons shown were about 50 years old or more, so for any adult in the audience, it was a chance to revisit a childhood favourite. Just as Disney's Cinderella appealed to adults in 1950 who had seen Snow White as children, The Princess and the Frog will appeal to adults who saw Beauty and the Beast when they were younger.

You could argue that what brought the people to Bugs Bunny on Broadway was the quality of the animation and music. While they are both excellent, I think it misses a larger point. The success of shows like Family Guy and South Park proves that production values are not what audiences primarily respond to. What they respond to is entertainment. Just as one funny person on a bare stage can entertain an audience, so can a good script and soundtrack accompanied by crude visuals.

What distinguishes the Warner Bros. cartoons is their use of funny drawings, funny motion and sophisticated music as their means of communication, but they are not the be-all and end-all of their appeal. The characters, the gags and the dialogue come before anything else and if those things are not working, production values are not going to save them. There are Harman-Ising and Disney shorts that have far more lavish visuals than the Warner Bros. cartoons and music tracks that are the equal of the Warner shorts, but these cartoons are dull and nobody is hiring live orchestras to accompany them.

Animation artists (and especially animation managements) often can't see the forest for the trees. They confuse the motion, the colour, and the music with what entertains audiences. Bugs Bunny on Broadway proves that an audience will still respond to those things when they're in the service of entertaining characters and stories. There's nothing wrong with drawn animation as a medium, so long as film makers understand that entertainment comes first. Craft is no substitute for content.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Walt's People Volume 8 Released

Didier Ghez informs me that the 8th volume of Walt's People, a book series featuring interviews with people who worked with and were associated with Walt Disney, has now been published. Here's a list of the contents:

Foreword: Paula Sigman-Lowery
Dave Smith: Ruth Disney Beecher
Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston: Les Clark
Richard Hubler: Harry Tytle
Milt Gray: James Bodrero
Robin Allan: Theo Halladay about Sylvia Holland
Robin Allan: Retta Scott
Jim Korkis: Retta Davidson
Floyd Norman : Retta Davidson
Steve Hulett: Mark Kirkland about Moe Gollub
Richard Hubler: Ben Sharpsteen
David Tietyen: Lou Debney
David Tietyen: Jim Macdonald
David Tietyen: Charles Wolcott
Richard Hubler: Bill Cottrell
Richard Hubler: Herb Ryman
Richard Hubler: Donn Tatum
Richard Hubler: Card Walker
Richard Hubler: Bob Sherman
Richard Hubler: Dolores Voght
Richard Hubler: Tommie Wilck
Richard Hubler: Welton Becket
John G. West: Bill Anderson
Richard Hubler: Robert Stevenson
Christopher Finch and Linda Rosenkrantz: Don Griffith
Jim Korkis: Floyd Gottfredson
Tony Fischier: Floyd Gottfredson
Jim Korkis: Al Taliaferro
Jim Korkis: Jack Hannah
Jim Fanning: Carl Barks
Paul F. Anderson: Blaine Gibson
Scott Wolf: Harriet Burns
Charles Solomon: Roy E. Disney
Göran Broling: Correspondence with Frank Thomas
Didier Ghez: Bud Hester
Didier Ghez: Ken Southworth
Didier Ghez: Dale Baer

If you are in the United States, you can order this book from Xlibris. The book will be available though Amazon eventually for those who are outside the U.S.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Somebody is Computer Illiterate

I use Google Alerts to see if this blog is referenced elsewhere. Today, I received an email pointing to this link. It appears to be a government of Ontario site, though on the web you can't really be sure. One thing is for sure, whoever or whatever referenced my original did an amazingly poor job. It looks like automatic translation software has taken the original into some other language and then re-translated it back to English. Here's my original paragraph:
The Globe and Mail has an interesting article about the state of the videogame business in Canada, including a detailed look at the Ontario government's actions to bring a game publisher to Toronto.
And here's the government of Ontario version:
The Globe and Mail has an captivating article here the delineate of the videogame guinea-pig in Canada, including a unconditional look at the Ontario government’s actions to in a mangle publisher to Toronto.
For your enjoyment, here's another comparison. The original is from the Globe and Mail article:
Like Ontario today, Quebec in 1996 introduced significant subsidies to spark growth and, with the tax breaks, lured Ubisoft in 1997. Electronic Arts arrived in 2004.
And here's how the government of Ontario relates it:
Like Ontario today, Quebec in 1996 introduced pregnant subsidies to trigger excrescence and, with the charge breaks, lured Ubisoft in 1997. The good of Vancouver in the 1990s attracted admonish absent. Electronic Arts arrived in 2004.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Videogame Production in Canada

The Globe and Mail has an interesting article about the state of the videogame business in Canada, including a detailed look at the Ontario government's actions to bring a game publisher to Toronto.
The Vancouver video game business began organically. Distinctive Software Inc. was founded in the early 1980s and scored success, and in 1991 was bought by Electronic Arts. From this foundation, about 60 companies – employing 6,000 or so people – now call the city home, according to numbers from an industry association report published in March.

Video games aren't a particularly big business, with about $1.7-billion in annual revenue in Canada, a fraction of what Royal Bank of Canada or Research In Motion Ltd. generate. However, the industry captures the imagination of politicians, who see high-paid, high-tech jobs. Ontario has been specifically inspired by the “creative cities” thesis of Richard Florida, a University of Toronto professor and consultant to Queen's Park.

The success of Vancouver in the 1990s attracted attention elsewhere. Like Ontario today, Quebec in 1996 introduced significant subsidies to spark growth and, with the tax breaks, lured Ubisoft in 1997. Electronic Arts arrived in 2004. There are now about 4,400 people working in the business at more than 40 firms in the Montreal area. Quebec City has another 600 people at five companies. Ubisoft, with 2,200 employees in the province, mostly in Montreal, plans to add another 800 in the next four years.

Toronto, even with specialized video game education at colleges like Humber and Seneca, has only about 1,300 people working in the business, though at more companies, 65. A plane ticket to Vancouver, Montreal or California after graduation in Toronto isn't unusual.