Wednesday, April 27, 2011

100 Animated Feature Films

One of the curious things about this book by Andrew Osmond is the lack of an adjective in the title. It's not the "100 Best," or "100 Ground-breaking," or even "100 Favourite." The lack of an adjective is evident in the films selected. Osmond has decidedly mixed reactions to Happy Feet, yet it is included. The introduction states that, "the selection is shaped by [the author's] taste, as the entries make clear, but I hope it is not wholly capricious." Try as I might, I found it hard to discern a point of view in these entries. I value Osmond's inclusion of films from all parts of the world and look forward to seeing some of the films that I'm not familiar with, but this isn't so much a book as a collection of unrelated essays. The only thing that holds them together is that they add up to 100 and that they are all about animated features.

I don't insist on agreeing with an author's point of view, but I value the presence of one. Reading these essays, I occasionally picked up some new information, but whether I liked or disliked a film, there was little that challenged my opinion or made me reconsider a film.

Perhaps the format is to blame. One hundred is a nice, round number, but not necessarily a good choice for animated features. Twenty years ago, it would have been hard to assemble a book of 100 animated features and now, perhaps, it's hard to assemble a book of 100 good ones. In addition, as each essay is forced into a standard length of a page and a half, some films are shortchanged and others are given more attention than they deserve. I enjoyed Osmond's book on Spirited Away, but the short length of these pieces does not provide him with the same opportunities to discuss a film.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

No Thanks

I will not be getting one of these tattoos.

(link via Boing Boing)

The Elements of a Scene: Objective and Motive

This is the third in a series analyzing a scene from The Grapes of Wrath. For this entry, I want to talk about the concepts of objective and motive.

These two things are the motor behind every actor in every scene. An objective is a concrete thing that a character wants to accomplish. The motive is the reason the objective is important. The objective is the what and the motive is the why.

The example I always give my students is that if the classroom is on fire, our objective is to get out the door. Our motive is to stay alive. In the scene above, Pa Joad's objective is to buy bread. His motive is the well-being of his family members. That same motive is what causes him to ask about the candy and then to purchase some for this children.

The waitress's objective is to sit down next to the truck driver and hear a dirty joke. Her motive is pleasure. The cook's objective is to cook whatever is ordered. His motive is to earn a living so that he can survive. The truck drivers' objective is to eat. Their motive is to keep going so that they can also earn a living and survive.

It's important to understand that a single motive can lead to a variety of objectives. If a character is motivated by the desire to get rich, the character could get a gun and rob people, study hard and become a brain surgeon, marry somebody rich, or buy lottery tickets. Each of these objectives might satisfy the character's motive, but we would judge the character differently based on his or her objective. Someone who works hard and benefits others, such as a brain surgeon, is more admirable than someone who robs people or takes no action beyond buying lottery tickets. As F. Scott Fitzgerald said, "action is character," meaning that what characters do to satisfy their motives determines who they are.

I often refer to Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs as a good tool regarding motive. If you're writing a character or trying to understand a character that you're performing, the hierarchy is a way of determining a motivation. Those items lower on the pyramid have to be in place before a person can worry about things higher on it. In addition, the things lower on the pyramid are common to every person alive, regardless of location or circumstances. It's one of the reasons that Chaplin's tramp character was so popular with audiences; anyone could understand his need for food, shelter, security (from the police), and love.

The Grapes of Wrath is dominated by the lower three rungs of the pyramid. The family has been evicted from their farm and they have to struggle to find food and shelter. They are victimized by police and by big agriculture and all these things are a threat to the survival of the family. Their motive is to stay alive and together. Their objective is to get to California, where they hope they will find work to allow them to do that.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Preview Trailer - The Cobbler and the Thief Documentary

I've written before about Kevin Schreck, a student at Bard College in upstate New York. He's working on a documentary on the making of Richard Williams' The Cobbler and the Thief and he used Kickstarter in order to finance the project. It's now complete for his course and the preview trailer is above.

Kevin will continue to refine the film. As I am an investor ($25), I'll be receiving a DVD when it is finished and will be reviewing it here.

(I recognize Greg Duffell at 1:33 in the trailer, but not the other interview subjects. If you know who they are, please identify them in the comments.)

Friday, April 22, 2011

Animation Art Auction

Pinocchio concept art by Gustav Tenggren
Milt Kahl thumbnails from The Rescuers
Back in the '90s, animation art was all the rage. Sotheby's and Christie's both staged multiple auctions that featured animation art from the 1930s to the present. Animation art is no longer as prominent for a variety of reasons. The current economy doesn't leave people with a lot of extra money to spend but probably more important is the fact that digital films don't generate much art on paper or canvas. The art that is created, being digital, is not one of a kind. It can be copied endlessly with no loss of quality, which destroys the whole concept of owning an original.

Profiles in History will be having an auction featuring much animation art on May 14. Even if you're not in a position to buy, you might be interested in a copy of the catalog, which can be downloaded for free. Hans Perk has been talking about some of this art and publishing better reproductions than are in the catalog. You can see his posts here.

Besides Disney art, the auction also features work from Warner Bros, Fleischer, MGM, Lantz, Mintz, Iwerks, Hanna-Barbera, UPA and Bill Melendez. In addition to drawings, cels and background paintings, there are also posters, maquettes, autographs and correspondence. The back of the catalog contains various memorabilia from live action films but starting at page 325 is material from The Nightmare Before Christmas, James and the Giant Peach and The Corpse Bride.

The animation portion of this is a very nice collection and the equivalent of many animation art books that cost significant amounts of money. Grab your free copy while you can.

Friday, April 15, 2011

The Elements of a Scene: Personality

This is the second in a series analyzing the elements in a scene from The Grapes of Wrath. For this entry, I want to talk about personality and how it affects the scene's action.

The act of buying a loaf of bread is not particularly dramatic; it's not the kind of scene that performers fight to do. Yet, we learn an awful lot about Pa Joad, played by Russell Simpson, through his attempt. First, he is polite. While his conversation is with a waitress, not a profession high on the social scale, he always ends his sentences with "Ma'am." He never raises his voice to her, even when she doesn't cooperate. He is also persistent. While the waitress keeps throwing roadblocks in his way, he doesn't give up. He explains the reasons for his actions and provides as much detail as is necessary to move things forward.

While he is quiet and deferential, he is also proud. When the waitress tries to get 15 cents out of him for the loaf and he can't afford it, he asks her to cut off 10 cents worth. When Bert, the fry cook, tells him to take the whole thing, Pa raises his voice for the only time in the scene. "No sir! We only want 10 cents worth." While he is poor and struggling, he doesn't want charity. He wants to pay his way.

The last thing to say about Pa Joad is that he is altruistic. He is not buying the bread for himself, but for his mother-in-law, who has no teeth. Later in the scene, though we know he's counting every penny, he spends a penny on his children. While he has spent considerable effort in the diner, none of it has been on his own behalf.

The waitress is a very interesting character. She knows the truck drivers by name and sits next to Bill. Her question, "Heard any good etchings lately, Bill?" requires some explanation. In the early 20th century, if a man invited a woman up to see his etchings, it was an invitation for sex. In this scene, screenwriter Nunnally Johnson has used the audience's familiarity with the use of the word "etchings" to have the waitress ask the truck driver if he's heard any dirty jokes lately. The construction is clumsy, though; how can anybody "hear" etchings? Johnson couldn't have her ask about dirty jokes directly as the censors in the Hays office would have cut the line. By using a euphemism, Johnson could count on the adults in the audience picking up the meaning without saying anything explicit that the censors could object to.

The line is important as it marks the waitress as somewhat vulgar and low class.The audience doesn't have high expectations of her and her subsequent actions confirm the audience's opinion. When Pa Joad makes his request, she has multiple reasons why she can't give him what he wants. When Bert says to give Pa the bread, she objects to Bert, too, saying that they'll run out before the bread truck comes. When she gets up to go get the bread around 1:01 in the clip, she is clearly not happy. When she returns with the bread, she's still trying to get full price for it. She is stubborn and clearly doesn't care about Pa Joad's problems.

Only at 1:38 in the clip, after Pa and Bert have tussled, does the waitress give in. Interestingly, she says, "Bert says to take it." She won't take responsibility for what's happening. She only takes ownership of a charitable act when Pa inquires about the candy. When she's called on it by the the truck driver, her response is a surly, "What's it to you?" She doesn't want to appear soft. Only after the truck drivers don't take their change, does she warm to the idea of people helping others.

The truck drivers say nothing while Pa Joad is present. However, director John Ford does keep them in the action. The truck driver near the cash register swallows uncomfortably when he looks at the children's poor attire and their hungry stares at the candy. The drivers exchange knowing looks when the waitress says that the candies are two for a penny. Bill calls the waitress on her charity in an accusing manner, but the drivers are clearly sympathetic to Pa Joad's plight as they endorse the waitress's actions by leaving extra money.

Imagine this scene if these personalities were different. If Pa Joad became frustrated and started yelling, I doubt that the truck drivers would sit passively during the confrontation. If the waitress responded sympathetically to the information about the old lady with no teeth, Pa Joad would have gotten the bread a lot sooner. Given the waitress's attraction to Bill, what would have happened if Pa Joad flattered the waitress and flirted with her? Would she warm up to him or be repulsed by him? How would the scene play out if the fry cook agreed with the waitress that they couldn't spare the bread? How would everyone react if the children were bratty and made demands for the candy, rather than looking at it silently?

If you change the personality of any of these characters, you have a different scene. The actions that occur are the direct result of the characters' personalities. If you're in story or in animation, you've got to know who the characters are if you're going to have a scene that makes sense.

Addendum: For contrast, here's another diner scene with an uncooperative waitress. It's from Five Easy Pieces. Jack Nicholson is as persistent as Pa Joad, but as you'll see, not nearly as polite. These two clips are good examples of the term "character driven." The personalities of the characters determine the outcomes of the scenes.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Elements of a Scene: Setting

I'm going to do something different for several entries. What's above is a scene from The Grapes of Wrath, based on the novel by John Steinbeck, screenplay by Nunnally Johnson and directed by John Ford. The scene is only 3 minutes long and not central to the plot of the film. However, it is like a one act play that has all the necessary elements for drama.

I became aware as an animator that a good performance depends very much on the script. Good actors with a bad script are fighting an uphill battle. There are many elements that have to be present in order for a performance to work. I eventually composed a list of these elements that can be summarized with the clumsy acronym spomcorbass, and I want to examine this scene in light of these elements. They are:

In the past, I didn't pay much attention to setting, but I've come to realize how critical it is. Too many animated films use setting as the basis for the background visuals, but ignore its other aspects. Setting is not only time and place, important though they are, it is also a social hierarchy and the expectations of the characters. Setting isn't merely a geographical location, it is a cultural context as well.

The above scene is set in a roadside diner off Route 66 in New Mexico. Based on the waitress's familiarity with the truck drivers, they are regulars. This scene is all about food and money, and practically every shot has a signboard in the background advertising something to eat and its price. In animation terms, the layouts never let us forget where we are or what the scene is about.

Culture is both invisible and arbitrary. It is invisible to those living within a culture as it is simply the way things are done. It's what's considered normal. However, as soon as a person confronts a different culture, the arbitrariness becomes apparent. There is more than one way for people to organize their lives.

While I'll talk about business in a later post, everybody, with the exception of Pa Joad and his children, is behaving in way consistent with the cultural nature of a roadside diner. The waitress is clearing tables, the cook is cooking and the truck drivers are eating. The invisible expectation is that the customers will only order what's on the menu and that they will pay the stated price. Pa Joad can't fit the culture's expectation of how to behave in a restaurant for economic reasons. He needs groceries, not a prepared item, and he can't afford to pay for the whole item. While this is a working class establishment, his request clearly marks him as someone beneath them. His request breaks the accepted pattern of behaviour associated with the setting, which creates the conflict that drives the scene.

While the scene is not central to the plot, it is central to the film's theme. What's more important, the system or the people within it? If people are suffering, shouldn't the system change? In this scene, there are hints that people can support each other in spite of the system, something that's developed later in the film.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Sheridan Alumni Event

The Sheridan Alumni Association is holding a reception and screening on Wednesday, April 6 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, 350 King Street West in Toronto. There is a reception with food and drink starting at 6 p.m, followed by a screening of The Best of the Ottawa International Animation Festival 2010 and Sheridan student films that have won awards from the Toronto International Film Festival. That screening starts at 7 p.m.

Tickets for the event can be purchased at the Lightbox or online for $20. You have to RSVP in advance for the reception, and details for that can be found on this page.