Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Kevin Parry is on a Roll

Tim Burton (left) and Kevin Parry (right)

Kevin Parry graduated from Sheridan's animation program last April. His film, The Arctic Circle (watch it at the link), was done in stop motion and Kevin has gotten it into more than a dozen festivals.

Last week, Tim Burton was in Toronto to publicize the show of his art work at the Bell Lightbox and one of the events that Burton was involved in was meeting student film makers from various local schools. Sheridan sent Kevin and his film. You can see video of the event and read Kevin's thoughts about meeting Burton here.

Canadian Animation Resources has posted the first part of a lengthy interview with Kevin about the making of his film and the next installment will cover the Tim Burton event.

Kevin is not only a good filmmaker, he's good at marketing himself. That's a powerful combination and I'm sure we'll be hearing more about Kevin in the future.

Will Eisner: Portrait of a Sequential Artist on DVD

I reviewed this documentary when I saw it in 2008 at a film festival in Toronto. The film is now available on DVD and Blu-ray. I recommend it, not only because it is an excellent film, but also due to the extras, which I'll get to below.

While Will Eisner never worked in animation, his career in comics focused on how to tell stories visually, which makes him relevant to the challenges facing animators. The documentary covers Eisner's career, which broke down into surprisingly well-defined periods. In the 1930s, Eisner was a pioneer in the comic book business, starting in the period before Superman became a massive hit. In addition to writing, drawing and editing comics, Eisner created a factory for turning out pages, a system he admitted was influenced by the Disney studio.

In 1940, Eisner was given the opportunity to create a comic book for newspaper syndication and his creation, The Spirit, provided him with a laboratory for his experiments in layout and panel breakdowns. Because he was addressing the newspaper, and not the younger comic book, audience, he pushed The Spirit into a more mature treatment of the detective genre. The Spirit was also a landmark in a business sense, as Eisner retained ownership of the strip when the standard was for a strip's creator to be employed by a distribution syndicate which held the copyright to the strip.

During World War II, Eisner was involved with using comics to teach equipment maintenance in a magazine called Army Motors. While he continued The Spirit after the war, by the early 1950s, Eisner focused exclusively on comics as a teaching tool, continuing his relationship with the military with P.S. Magazine, showing soldiers visually how to use and maintain their gear.

In the 1960s, Eisner discovered the burgeoning fandom for comics and he allowed The Spirit to be reprinted by several publishers. In the '70s, Eisner was one of the first to explore the idea of original graphic novels with his book A Contract With God. He dedicated the rest of his life to the creation of new works, including several autobiographical novels about growing up in New York and the early days of the comic book business.

The documentary covers all these periods with examples of Eisner's artwork and interviews with cartoonists who are his contemporaries and the later generations he influenced. On camera interviews include Jules Feiffer, Joe Kubert, Gil Kane, Art Spiegelman, Frank Miller, Neil Gaiman, and Scott McCloud.

Late in his career, Eisner interviewed several cartoonists for the purposes of comparing notes on how they approached their stories. These interviews were printed in various magazines devoted to Eisner's work and then collected in a book called Will Eisner's Shop Talk. Those audio interviews with artists such as Harvey Kurtzman, Jack Kirby, Gil Kane, Joe Kubert, Neal Adams and others are extras on this DVD, and for me, they alone are worth the price of the disk.

Whether you're interested in comics history, visual storytelling, or the business side of creating stories, Eisner's life and this documentary have something to offer.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Directing Animation

David Levy's books have consistent strengths. His tone is friendly and conversational. He is willing to admit mistakes he's made in his career, which gives him credibility. He interviews a wide selection of other animation professionals, so the books are not limited to Levy's own viewpoint.

His greatest strength is his concern for the people side of the animation business. Levy always focuses on behaving professionally, communicating clearly and being organized so as not to sabotage a project or one's own career.

All of these strengths are present in his latest book, Directing Animation. It includes chapters on directing indie films, commercials, TV series, features and for the web. Interview subjects include Bill Plympton, Tatiana Rosenthal, Nina Paley, Michael Sporn, PES, Xeth Feinberg, Tom Warburton, Yvette Kaplan and many others. Each of these people relate good and bad experiences they've had directing, giving a rounded view of the job and a host of things to avoid.

However, there is a hole at the center of this book in that Levy says very little about the actual craft of directing. The job of the director is to decide how the story will be told. Depending on the medium and the director, that might entail boarding, designing, cutting an animatic, directing voice talent, drawing character layouts, supervising layouts and backgrounds, timing animation, spotting music and sound effects, mixing sound and doing colour correction. Each of the above has the potential to enhance or detract from a film's effect on the audience, but you won't find any advice as to how these tasks can be used for greater or lesser results. The ultimate value of a director isn't people skills or organization, it's aesthetic. The viewers don't know (or care) if the crew got along or the production ran smoothly. Their only concern is what is on the screen.

Levy chooses not to make aesthetic distinctions. Even without getting specific about certain projects, there is still a wealth of material that could have been written about ways to communicate to an audience.

It is true that the role of the director in animation has been systematically devalued since the dawn of television. The huge amounts of footage that have to be produced for TV force directors to be little more than traffic cops, making sure that the work flows smoothly to the screen. Live action TV is dominated more by writers and producers than directors, and in animation, it's writers, designers and producers who rule the roost. Feature animation, with the exception of independent films, has mostly succumbed to the same disease. Where directors were once hired to realize their own vision, these days they're often executing another person's, lucky to insert a bit of themselves when no one is looking.

What's in this book is important and worth reading, as are Levy's other books. However, anyone interested in the craft of directing animation will find this book incomplete. The nuts and bolts of directing aren't here, let alone the distinction between what produces good and bad results.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

What's Opera, Doc?

Paul DiPierro

Forget Bugs Bunny. Animation is now being used in real operas.
The use of computer animation in opera is a growing trend – it offers a broader artistic palette for set design, and for many companies it is also a savvy cost-cutting move. At the Sacramento Opera, animator Paul DiPierro, 26, is charged with supplying eight to 15 scenic projections for "Orlando."

He will compose images on a digital tablet by using Adobe Photoshop and Autodesk Maya. The images will be projected on a large screen and are the equivalent of matte paintings. The images will not be animations, although animated images may be in the works for Sacramento Opera productions, DiPierro said.

"Down the line that is something that I think we will definitely be doing. The company has shown interest in using them for the 'Magic Flute.' "

DiPierro believes that the possibilities are limitless with computer-animated imagery.

"Imagine performers interacting with a fire-breathing dragon, or caught in the middle of a thundering avalanche."

Although that idea sounds far-fetched, opera companies have been doing just that, including Teatro alla Scala in Milan, Italy, which used an animated sequence of a horse moving in a fog bank for a 2006 production of "Dido and Aeneas."

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

A Toast

Last Leaf

OK Go | Myspace Music Videos

Geoff Mcfetridge used a whole lotta toast (this is at 15 frames per second) and a laser cutter to make this music video for OK Go. This is a new twist on the concept of paperless animation.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Update on The Cobbler and the Thief Documentary

Last June, I wrote about Kevin Schreck, a film student who was raising money to make a documentary on the complicated production history of Richard Williams' The Thief and the Cobbler.

Schreck successfully raised the money for the documentary through Kickstarter.com and has since gone to London, where he recorded 26 hours of interviews with people associated with the film.

Here is his latest update:
The documentary is coming along nicely. We had two terrific interviews up in Toronto back in October from two individuals who worked at the studio in the mid-1970's. At this point, I am mostly editing the project, but there may be a couple more interviews in the near future. I am currently editing the second section of the film (the production history from 1973-1983, or so). I am also trying to collect more archival material (photographs, artwork, audio or visual recordings, documents, etc.) from those who worked at the studio. What I've received so far has been fascinating and extremely informative, but if anyone else has any relevant archival material that they would be willing to share, that would be very helpful.
I'm looking forward to seeing the completed work.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

The Decline and Fall of UPA

Top: Gerald McBoing Boing. Bottom: Dick Tracy.

Darrell Van Citters has completed a four part look at UPA's collapse, filled with details I was unaware of. UPA was the studio that broke with Disney-style graphics in the late '40s and early '50s and became a critical darling with films like Gerald McBoing Boing, Rooty Toot Toot, Unicorn in the Garden and the Mr. Magoo series. UPA's inability to control its costs is well-known but it was also the victim of the collapse of the theatrical shorts market and a large-scale exodus of talent to work on the first version of the Alvin and the Chipmunks TV series. The sale of the company to new owners was the final nail in the coffin, as they lacked any of the artistic ambition of the company's founders.

It's a cautionary tale that could apply to any animation studio, especially now that we're reaching the end of the TV era. Part 1, Part2, Part3 and Part4.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Peet, Dick, Phineas, Ferb, Nick

Ger Apeldoorn reprints some rare Bill Peet illustrations for the Mickey Mouse Club Magazine.

Harvey Deneroff reports that Dick Williams completed a film he started in the 1950s called Circus Drawings and premiered it at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival in Italy.

Fast Company profiles the success of Disney's Phineas and Ferb and provides figures for licensing revenue for various children's TV properties.

The New York Times writes about Cyma Zarghami, the president of Nickelodeon, and how Nick is doing in its competition with the Disney Channel, the Hub, and Cartoon Network.