Thursday, July 28, 2011

Kirby Estate Loses Copyright Battle

I am sure that this judgment will be appealed, but a Federal court has ruled that the work Jack Kirby did for Marvel was "work-for-hire." This is despite the fact that the legal term was not part of the copyright law at the time Kirby co-created characters such as The Fantastic Four, The Hulk, The Silver Surfer, Thor, etc.

Here's the Associated Press story and here is Deadline Hollywood's.

While I am sure that there is a celebration occurring in the Disney and Marvel boardrooms as a result of this ruling, it's a questionable victory. When the artists at Marvel realized that the company was not going to compensate them beyond paying them by the page, they simply stopped creating new characters. Image Comics exists because a group of artists realized they would never be fairly compensated for their work at Marvel and so they formed their own company. Marvel's treatment of their artists has been consistently bad. See this article on the recently deceased Gene Colan.

Corporate copyright is strangling creativity, not promoting it.

Kirby's case and the ongoing litigation regarding the Superman copyright are just more evidence that anyone who creates something without securing ownership is a chump. It's one thing to be hired onto an ongoing project or series to make a contribution, but quite another to originate an idea and only be paid a regular salary or a flat price.

Stop giving your ideas to corporations. Own them and control them. Or else there will be more Jack Kirbys, Jerry Siegels, Joe Shusters, and Gene Colans ad infinitum.

Why in hell should stockholders and executives who weren't born when the work was created be profiting from it when the people who created it and their heirs get nothing?

(For my earlier take on the benefits of ownership, go here. For Heidi MacDonald, a comics news columnist, on the Kirby decision go here. It's worth quoting her conclusion: "Don’t ever create characters for work for hire, no matter how much “back end” you’re promised. In this day and age there is NO excuse for giving up your creations. We may never see another Jack Kirby among us, but let his lessons stand, both the triumphs and the sadness." )

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Steven Spielberg Needs His Eyes Examined

"According to [Spielberg], the biggest challenge was 'getting it to look like the drawings in the Hergé books. We love the art so much that we used animation to get it as close to the art as we can.'"
Full story here.

Robert Rodrigues to Remake Bakshi's Fire and Ice

As you'll see in the above clip, Robert Rodriguez is going to remake Fire and Ice using the approach he used for Sin City. Frank Frazetta was a designer and producer on the original film and Ralph Bakshi directed it.

Rodriguez feels that he can now get closer to the look of Frazetta's art than was possible in 1983. That's probably true. However, I think it's a waste of time.

Frazetta was certainly a strong draftsman and painter. His images are striking due to his sense of composition and colour. In addition, there's a healthy dose of sex present in most of his work. However, while Frazetta worked in comics before his career as a painter, he wasn't really known for his narratives. His paintings are striking images, but they are no more than moments. His themes are limited and his worldview is that of a hormonally-drenched fourteen year old male. While that might make him the perfect source for current Hollywood movies, I doubt that Rodriguez will be able to bring anything to the film that isn't already present in Frazetta's paintings.

I understand the urge to adapt. When you love something, you want to be able to immerse yourself in it and somehow connect yourself to it more strongly. Everyone creative is influenced by existing work and many can recall "ignition moments" when they encountered something that crystallized an urge to do work of a certain kind.

Jack Kirby used to laugh when comics artists said they were going to work on characters he created "in the Kirby tradition." His response was that the Kirby tradition was to do something new. I think Kirby had it right.

When adapting a novel, a director at least brings visuals to a story. But when a director adapts something from an already visual medium, such as Rodriguez will do here, I think he's fighting a losing battle. Rodriguez may nail Frazetta's look (and I admit to being skeptical), but he'll fail to add anything to an appreciation or understanding of Frazetta's work.

For the record, here's what Bakshi and Frazetta did with Fire and Ice.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Oh Bother!

"Sixth place? YOU'RE FIRED!"

It's noon on Saturday as I write this, but Deadline Hollywood is estimating that the Winnie the Pooh film will finish sixth for the weekend with a gross of $8 million. No sane person expected the Pooh film to outgross the Harry Potter finale, but it's interesting that films two through five are hold overs. Pooh couldn't outgross Transformers 3, Horrible Bosses, Zookeeper or Cars 2. Cars 2 is in it's 4th week and may still outgross the Pooh film. That's bad as both are aimed at similar audiences of young children.

The final domestic gross for the Pooh film should be somewhere between $20 and $32 million, depending on how it holds up. That will undoubtedly put downward pressure on the budgets of any future drawn films to come out of Disney as neither Pooh nor The Princess and the Frog have gotten close to the grosses for cgi films. I would be the last to blame the grosses on the fact that the films are drawn -- both films are retreads of what audiences have seen too many times before -- but from a business perspective there isn't much justification for Disney making drawn films.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Ward Kimball Biography Coming in 2012

Caricature of Ward Kimball by Walt Kelly

Didier Ghez's Disney History site has details of Amid Amidi's biography of Ward Kimball to come out in the latter half of 2012.
"The Kimball family has generously granted me access to all of Ward's personal files, photos and diaries, and I've combined this with new research and interviews to present a thorough celebration of his life that acknowledges his impact on the art form."
This is a book I very much look forward to reading.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Elements of a Scene: Suspense and Surprise

This is the seventh and last in a series analyzing a scene from The Grapes of Wrath. This entry is about suspense and surprise.

When people think of suspense in movies, they tend to think of film makers like Alfred Hitchcock or big set pieces where you're on the edge of your seat wondering what will happen. All sporting events are built around suspense. Who will win? Will there be any memorable plays or blunders? Game shows and competitions are the same. Who will be voted off the island or eliminated? While the above are certainly good examples of suspense, suspense is actually at the root of any kind of storytelling. Suspense is anything that makes you wonder what will happen next.

If you've ever watched a story and guessed early on how it comes out, it's boring to sit through. Why bother to watch if you know what's going to happen? Audiences want to know what will happen, but not too soon. The audience is counting on the storyteller to keep it in suspense until the story's resolution.

Hollywood conventions usually mean that the audience knows in advance how the film will end, but doesn't know how the story will get there. Does anyone think that the bad guys will actually win in a Hollywood film? Who expects James Bond, Batman, Luke Skywalker or Harry Potter to fail at the end of a story? Who expects that the lovers won't get together or that the characters' problems will get worse? Unless the film is billed as a tragedy or based on a historical event known to the audience, these things don't happen.

How the good guys win, the lovers unite, and the problems are solved are up in the air and that's why the audience watches. Without being curious about what happens next, there's no reason to stick around.

The above scene is a small example of how suspense operates even in a scene that lacks overt drama. Pa Joad tries to buy bread. Will he get it or will the waitress kick him out? As the audience is invested in the survival of the Joad family, it cares about about what happens and waits to see if Pa will succeed. There is other suspense in that the truck drivers are totally silent during the encounter. What are they thinking? What will they do? The audience knows how Pa, the waitress and the cook feel about the situation, but what about those truckers?

Surprise is another quality that is attractive to audiences. Like suspense, surprises work against predictability. However, surprises have to be logical and fit into the world of the story. As David Mamet, playwright, screenwriter and director, says, "Make them wonder. Answer their question in a way both surprising and inevitable."

If a genii appeared in the above scene and made Pa Joad a rich man, it would be surprising, but not inevitable. It would violate the world of the story, where poverty and hunger are real and where there are no obvious solutions. A surprise has to be believable in the context of the story, or it alienates the audience instead of satisfying it.

In the scene above, it appears that the waitress is pressured into selling the bread by the cook. She bows to his wishes. The surprise comes when she sells the candy so cheaply. She's reached a point where she doesn't want to disappoint the children and while she's been penny conscious, refusing to sell a 15 cent loaf for 10 cents, resulting in a nickel loss, she now sells ten cents worth of candy for a penny, a 9 cent loss! She's gone further than we ever expected.

The other surprise is the truck drivers walking out without their change. As I said above, they are silent during the encounter and when one of the drivers calls the waitress on the price of the candy, he sounds gruff, not understanding. When they validate what she's done by leaving money to make up the shortfall, it's a surprise to both the waitress and the audience.

The elements I've talked about in this series are in every good scene and story. I don't claim they are all that's necessary, but they're a handy list: setting, personality, objective, motive, conflict, obstacles, resolution, business, arc, suspense and surprise. If any of them are missing, it's worth re-examining the story. The above scene is just three minutes long, the same length as many animated shorts. If screenwriter Nunnally Johnson can fit them into three minutes, animation creators have no excuse to leave them out.

Kim Deitch Continued

Kim Deitch's memoir continues at The Comics Journal. Part 4 covers rock and roll, but includes comments by animator Tony Eastman that supply information about his parents, both of whom worked at Disney on the early features, and what he's up to currently.

Monday, July 04, 2011

Growth, Maturity and Decline

I haven't seen Cars 2 (and won't), but the critical drubbing it took and Pixar's move into sequels has me wondering about the bigger picture.

Companies, like individuals, go through a life cycle. They grow, they mature and eventually they decline. The only difference between companies and individuals is that because companies can outlive individuals or change their personnel, they sometimes revive.

Growth is a phase where companies get larger but also expand their skills and discover their point of view. If we look at the Disney studio during Walt Disney's lifetime, we can see growth from 1923 to 1942. We can argue the exact dates or films, but the overall pattern is clear. During that time period, the skills and what exactly a Disney cartoon was supposed to be continued to evolve.

After Bambi, the studio was mature. A Disney cartoon was a particular, identifiable thing . When the studio deviated from that, in The Three Caballeros or Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom, it was imitating Tex Avery and UPA respectively. It wasn't breaking new ground, it was trying to stay current with other studios that were in growth mode.

For me, Disney's decline takes place when Woolie Reitherman was the sole director of the films. The narrative energy was dissipated, budgets were cramped, and there were significant amounts of re-used footage.

None of these stages is without variation. There are better and worse films in every stage and there's always room for differences of opinion. In broad terms, though, I think these descriptions work for Disney.

You can apply the same categories to individuals. If we take Chaplin as an example, his growth is roughly 1914-1917, the years at Keystone, Essanay and Mutual (where he perfected his art in shorts). His maturity is 1918 to 1940, the years of his best known features: The Kid, The Gold Rush, City Lights, Modern Times and The Great Dictator. His decline is 1947 to 1967, the years from Monsieur Verdoux to A Countess from Hong Kong. There are critics who find much valuable work in those later films and I agree with them, but there's no question that Chaplin's popularity was waning and that the films lack consistency.

Which brings us to Pixar. We now know what a Pixar film is like and what it isn't. That's a sign of a mature studio. The firing of various directors says that they were not capable of producing a Pixar film. We're also seeing less artistic growth. The preponderance of sequels proves that. What's going to be the ratio of sequels to original films? Two to one? Three to one?

The larger question is how long will Pixar's maturity last? Are the reviews of Cars 2 a sign that the studio is tipping into decline? If the film is a relative failure at the box office (acknowledging that the merchandising will more than make up for it), is that also an indication of decline? Did the studio actually reach maturity with Monsters, Inc. or Finding Nemo and it's maturity phase is now ending?

It may be too soon to get answers to these questions, but the pattern is inescapable. Disney revived and entered a new growth phase for a while in the years following The Great Mouse Detective. There's no reason that a declining Pixar couldn't revive as well, but it usually takes new management and a new creative team. There's no indication that's about to happen at Pixar, and it may be years before Pixar enters an indisputable decline. However, I sense that the studio is on the cusp and I'm curious to see if the next few films confirm my suspicions.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

John Celestri Blog

Animator and friend John Celestri (Rock and Rule, Space Ace) now has a blog. John made some contributions to this blog early on, so it's nice to see that he's set up a blog of his own. I've added his link to my list of links.

Kim Deitch Remembers

Cartoonist Kim Deitch, son of animator Gene Deitch, is writing a series of reminiscences at The Comics Journal site. The first two (one, two) are mostly about jazz (but include some jazz related art by Gene), and the third is about early television and includes material about Gene, UPA and Tony Eastman. The series is ongoing.