Saturday, March 30, 2013

My Neighbors, The Yamadas and Pom Poko

While I am very familiar with the Studio Ghibli films directed by Hayao Miyazaki, I have to admit that I haven't paid as much attention to Ghibli's other directors.  In the last week, I watched My Neighbors, The Yamadas and Pom Poko, both directed by Isao Takahata.  Both films, though very different, were excellent.  I wish that I'd watched them sooner.

My Neighbors, The Yamadas is basically a sitcom and based on a Japanese comic.  However, there are sitcoms and sitcoms.  Lucille Ball getting her fingers stuck in a bowling ball when Desi Arnaz is bringing home an important business contact for dinner is one kind.  The characters in I Love Lucy are well defined, but shallow.  The pleasure comes from seeing how the characters react in a given situation.  There's real craft to this kind of show, but it's not really about character.

The other kind of sitcom is one where the situations reveal more about the characters' inner workings.  Shows like M*A*S*H or Frasier are not only funny, but also dig deep to reveal their characters' humanity.  For all her talent, Lucille Ball doesn't fit into this kind of show.

On the surface, My Neighbors, The Yamadas is a series of vignettes built around a five person family: mother, father, son, daughter and grandmother.  That's not very promising material; we've seen this kind of thing hundreds of times.  However, while the character designs are far more cartoony than the typical Ghibli production, implying a shallowness to the content, the characterizations are at least as good as anything Ghibli has produced.  The film is quiet and unspectacular, but the characters are so beautifully developed that they have depth that few recent animated characters have.  What is so appealing to me is that these depths aren't revealed through overwrought drama, but through thoroughly mundane daily events.

I've always admired Bakshi's Heavy Traffic for it's combination of cartoony design and emotional depth.  My Neighbors, The Yamadas resembles Bakshi in this way and it stands in stark contrast to the current crop of cgi films that fill the screen with detail while presenting characters who are not nearly as rich.

Pom Poko is radically different film than The Yamadas in terms of design and story, but like it in having so much going on beneath the surface.  The story concerns the expansion of human suburbs destroying the forest home of the tanuki, a species that Disney has labelled racoons in their dub and subtitles, but apparently is a form of badger.  The tanuki have a rich folklore in Japan and are supposed to be shape shifters.

On the surface, this is another ecological fable, something Ghibli has dealt with on several occasions.  However, the various ways the tanuki attempt to deal with the human expansion says more about the plight of aboriginal people than it does about wildlife.  I don't know enough about the Ainu, Japan's aboriginal people, to know how this film relates to their experiences, but Pom Poko could have been written about the natives of North America.  One tanuki contingent wants to violently resist and kill the human interlopers.  There is real death in this film, unusual for a film that seems to be family-friendly.  Another contingent ends up assimilating, using their shape-shifting abilities to live as humans.  The remainder of the tanuki attempt to maintain their way of life under greatly reduced circumstances.

How unusual for a animated film to deal with issues of terrorism, assimilation and the attempt of colonised people to maintain their culture.  Name a North American animated feature that even comes close.

Pom Poko is also unusually frank by North American standards about biology.  The male tanuki are drawn with visible testicles and have no reservation about using them in their transformations as well as singing with pride about them.  Given Disney's skittishness about Song of the South, it's amazing to me that Disney released this DVD.  I can only guess it was due to a contractual obligation rather than a willingness to stand behind the content.  The film is as subversive a family entertainment as I've ever seen though I'm not aware of any flak aimed at Disney as a result.

After watching these films, I will be doing my best to see the rest of Takahata's work.  These two films have placed him high on my list of the most important animation directors.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Sheridan Industry Day Promo 2013

It's that time of year again. As Sheridan Animation's industry day approaches, here's a sneak peak at what some of this year's films look like.

Sheridan College industry Day Commercial 2013 from Elaine Chen on Vimeo.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Who Are the Next Inspirations?

Sheridan College was lucky to host Disney writer-director John Musker last week.  There's some coverage here.  In addition to talking to students about their work, Musker gave a two hour presentation about his career, where he generously included the work of animators.  The names were no surprises: Glen Keane, Eric Goldberg, Mark Henn, etc.

Musker also talked about the early days of his career, particularly his time with Eric Larson and being taught by Jack Hannah.

Listening to Musker and staring at the young students in the audience, I started wondering about the next animators who would serve as inspiration.

Animators were pretty much invisible through the greatest part of what we call the golden age.  Bill Tytla got some publicity in Time magazine at the time of Dumbo's release and many of the Disney crew were anonymously featured in the live action portions of The Reluctant Dragon, but it really wasn't until Disney moved into TV that behind-the-scenes material started to appear.  When Disney was publicizing the initial release of Lady and the Tramp, there were segments with Frank Thomas, Milt Kahl, Woolie Reitherman, etc.  Those shows, and Bob Thomas's book The Art of Animation were really the public's first view of the people who made the characters move.

The TV audience for those shows (as well as Walter Lantz's copycat segments on The Woody Woodpecker Show), was the generation that grew up to enter the animation business in the '70s and '80s.  At the same time they were entering the business, others in their generation were writing about animation history, further publicizing animators, and not only those at Disney.

In the '90s, the TV generation had risen to prominence  in animated features.  Glen Keane, Andreas Deja, Eric Goldberg, etc. were all used to publicize the films on their release and then appeared in DVD extras.  These are the people that the Sheridan students were familiar with and who were featured in John Musker's talk.

But who are the animators who have risen to prominence in animated features in the last 15 years?  I'm not talking about directors (though only Pixar has really publicized them to the point that they have independent reputations).  Since cgi has taken over feature films, are there any cgi animators whose work is known to the general public? The same question can be asked about stop motion animators.

At Sheridan, it's been clear to me for years that the students seem to gravitate more to design than to story or animation.  There are relatively few who have stories they're desperate to tell or characters they want to bring to life.  I wonder if the flood of "Art of" books is responsible for this in some way.  It's one of the few places where animation artists get credited, but the books are mostly pre-production art. 

Whatever the reason, I think that the writing of history and publicity is having an impact on students' career aspirations.  Without animators as examples, there are fewer who aspire to follow that path.  There are fewer "ignition moments," when someone sees an animator bring a character to life and is struck by the desire to do the same thing.

This may be happening at the various online animation schools where students are interacting with working animators.  That's all to the good, but it doesn't reach the same number of people who see a DVD extra or work credited in a book.

In thirty years, when the audience for John Musker's talk is firmly established in animation, will there be any star animators known outside the studios?  While there were always star animators even if the public didn't know about them, I'm convinced that the lack of publicity does impact their number.

If I'm right, then that's something that animators can do to maintain the health of the field.  Animators, publicize yourselves!  What shots have you done?  What moments have you given audiences?  The more that human faces can be attached to performances that audiences remember, the more likely that we'll get more of those performances in the future.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Vimeo on Demand

Here's a potential game changer.  Video hosting site Vimeo has started an on demand service.  You can upload your videos, charge what you want, and keep 90% of the revenue after transaction costs.  That's a better deal than iTunes.  There are no restrictions as to video length or the number of episodes.  You can also sell through Vimeo or on your own site and the videos are viewable on a variety of devices.

This continues the trend of disintermediation, cutting out the middle man between creator and audience.  With alternate means of fundraising such as Kickstarter already in place (and Kickstarter also serves as a marketing tool), the pieces are in place for independents (and studios with foresight!) to start developing their own intellectual property and generating income from it.

The lessons of TV (and before that, radio) are that you want a series.  It's got to be a recognizable genre and needs a definite demographic (whether that's an age group or people who like something specific).  Then add appealing characters and start turning out episodes that appear regularly.  Price the work so that it's an impulse purchase.  On Vimeo, Don Hertzfeldt is selling his feature, It's Such a Beautiful Day, for $2.  At that price, it's cheaper than a cup of coffee and it lasts longer.

The people who can deliver on the above formula will succeed.  They'll get to keep ownership of their work and the lion's share of the revenue.  I hope we can return to a time, like the days of Vaudeville, when creators who can satisfy an audience are free to create without anyone else getting in the way.

I Shill for Wacom

Monday, March 11, 2013

Captain Canuck Web Series

Captain Canuck, a comics character who first appeared in 1975, will star in a web series produced by Toronto's Smiley Guy Studios.  You can read details here.

I'm interested in this on two counts.  The web is increasingly being used to bring properties to the audience on a smaller scale and lower cost than would be possible on TV.  This opens up possibilities for independents to get their work in front of audiences without having to deal with gate keepers.  I would hope that this would lead to more diversity in content.

The other interesting thing about this is that it will be financed through an Indigogo campaign starting on March 28.  Here again, independents are going straight to the audience, this time for production money. 

Angry Birds, the iPhone game, is moving to TV.  Instead of TV being a primary market, it's evolving into an aftermarket.  Independents, with luck and hard work, can maintain ownership of their ideas, develop an audience and then move the property to other media based on its success.  That's a situation where creators have a much better chance for controlling their work and benefiting from it financially.

I wish the Captain Canuck crew much luck on their series.

Saturday, March 09, 2013

Careful! You'll Hurt Disney's Feelings!

Who knew?  The mighty multinational conglomerate that is Disney can't stand to be criticized.

You are probably already aware that Disney has refused permission to use Disney artwork in Amid Amidi's biography of Ward Kimball.  Chronicle Books, the original publisher, has decided against publishing the book as a result.  Amidi is now making other arrangements for publication. (It appears that has de-listed the book or I would provide a link.)

But it doesn't stop there.

Don Rosa was a writer/artist of Disney comics whose work was hugely successful, especially in Europe.  He has written material in a nine volume collection of his work about the creation of his stories.  That is, until he got to the reasons why he retired.  Disney refused to allow that piece of writing to be published.  Perhaps because it highlights the medieval treatment of people who create Disney comics and how they are taken advantage of.  Perhaps because Disney's licensees exploited Rosa's name without compensation, so that he had to copyright his own name so that Disney licensees couldn't use it without his permission.  Rosa decided that he wasn't willing to be muzzled and put his explanation for retiring on the internet.

In a recent podcast, author Sean Howe explained why his book Marvel Comics: The Untold Story contains no images from the comics.  This quote comes from 1:15:43 in the podcast.
"I was going to license about 20 images and I got approvals for captions for those images and everything was typeset, the whole thing was laid out, and then I got the contracts. A price had been agreed on, but when I actually got the paperwork, I was going to have to agree that I would say nothing critical about Marvel Comics in the entire book.  A lot of people have asked me why there are no pictures from the comic books and that's the reason.  If I had used illustrations, I would have had to take out half of the book."
Disney is so sensitive that it cannot tolerate anything that casts aspersions on its behaviour or the behaviour of its subsidiaries or licensees.  And look how absurdly ineffective they are at squelching it.  While they are busy attempting to suppress books, their behaviour is being noted all over the internet.  Amidi's book will eventually be published and I hope that Disney's refusal to grant permission to use images becomes a major talking point in the book's reviews.  Don Rosa's writing would have been limited to Europe, but is now readable by anyone in the world.  Sean Howe wrote the book he wanted to and has a tumblr where he has published more images from Marvel than he ever could have squeezed into his book.

Disney's failure doesn't address the bigger issue.  From this point forward, any book on Disney, Pixar, Marvel, Star Wars or the Muppets that includes copyrighted images is tainted.  The author, rightly or not, will be suspected of compromising the text to satisfy Disney.  The books will be damaged goods.  The use of Disney-owned images will be proof that the book contains nothing critical of Disney.  So while Disney is trying to protect itself from criticism in print, it has essentially neutered any praise it may receive as it is biased.  Meanwhile, on the internet, Disney provides ammunition for those who want to criticize it.  Good thing nobody ever looks at the internet.

Sunday, March 03, 2013

John Carter and the Gods of Hollywood

The perceived failure of Andrew Stanton's John Carter dominates any talk of the film itself.  I say "perceived" because the film was the victim of studio politics and ineptitude.  It was easier to bury studio mistakes and move on than it was for Disney to take responsibility for the debacle.  And while I am not a fan of Andrew Stanton's Wall-E, Stanton is, perhaps, the biggest victim of how the release of the film was handled.

Michael D. Sellers has cataloged all the missteps in his book, John Carter and the Gods of Hollywood.  A fan of the work of Edgar Rice Burroughs, he covers the writing of the original novel, A Princess of Mars, and Burroughs interactions with Hollywood, predominantly on the Tarzan films.

Animator Bob Clampett was the first one to attempt to turn the John Carter stories into film, albeit animated.  While Clampett produced samples, he was unable to find a backer for the series.  At various times, Ray Harryhausen, Disney, and Paramount were interested in the property, but while scripts were written, nothing was produced.

Andrew Stanton first became a fan of John Carter though Marvel's comics adaptations.  When the rights became available, he was working on Wall-E and asked Dick Cook, Disney Studios chief, if could direct it as his next project.  Cook secured the rights.  As Stanton moved onto the project, two questionable decisions were made: setting the budget at $250 million and not casting stars.

Shortly after the budget was set, Dick Cook was out at Disney.  It's common in Hollywood for projects to be orphaned when executives are fired.  In this case, given Stanton's importance, it was impossible to cancel the project, but Cook's replacement, Richard Ross, was not enthusiastic. 

Neither was Robert Iger, who fired Cook.  Iger's pattern is to buy established franchises like Marvel and Lucasfilm rather than spend the money to develop franchises in-house.  In fact, at the time Cook was giving John Carter a green light, Iger was negotiating to buy Marvel, which would give Disney a line-up of characters all better known to the public than John Carter.  And while John Carter was in production, Iger was negotiating with George Lucas for the purchase of the Star Wars franchise, one that would give Disney a much higher profile space adventure than John Carter

While the studio was willing to allocate a standard marketing budget for the film, it was not willing to spend more.  Given the risks associated with the production budget, this could be seen as prudent or foolish.  In addition, once Ross was in place, he hired a new director of marketing, MT Carney, who had no experience marketing films.  What made it worse is that she was fired before John Carter was released, so there was little continuity in the marketing campaign.

Months went by without marketing activity for the film.  The release date was moved from summer to March, which raised questions as to whether the film was strong enough to compete with summer blockbusters.  "Of Mars" was dropped from the title, leaving the very generic sounding John Carter.   The budget began to attract attention, the implication being that costs were out of control. Stanton's interviews implied that he was less comfortable with live action production than animation, which didn't help the perception that the film was over-budget.  In reality he held to the budget, including 18 days of reshoots.

For the March release, the film's main competition would be The Hunger Games.  Sellers shows how that film trounced John Carter in creating audience awareness prior to release. 

The film did not open with enough box office to suggest it would be profitable, but only 10 days into the release, Disney publicly declared the film a failure and indicated that it would write off $200 million on it.  It's unusual for a studio to abandon a film while it is still in release domestically and yet to open all around the world.  Sellers explanation is that Richard Ross made the announcement early so that it would be old news by the time Iger next had to meet with the financial press for the quarterly earnings report.  It also attached the failure to Richard Ross, who Iger was about to replace. In total, the three executives most responsible for producing and marketing the film -- Dick Cook, MT Carney and Richard Ross -- were all fired.  Stanton was sent packing back to Pixar.

Sellers is scrupulous about his statistics and quotes, but less scrupulous when it comes to his own involvement.  While he admits to being a Burroughs fan in the introduction, it isn't until the second half of the book that he reveals that he is the proprietor of, a fan site that collected information about the film prior to its release.  He also cut a fan trailer that received a lot of praise for being better than the official trailers and he met with Disney, hoping to involve himself in the film's marketing but was rebuffed.  While there is no question about the facts surrounding John Carter, Sellers actions do raise questions about his motives for writing the book.  He is not a dispassionate reporter but a spurned fan.  Is the book reportage or revenge?

Ultimately, John Carter fell victim to three problems: a budget that made it difficult for the film to be profitable; source material that seemed old hat after influencing other science fiction projects; and a major changing of the guard and focus at Disney's film studio.

Andrew Stanton brought his first live action film in on budget, a major accomplishment considering the difficult logistics of the project, but the merits of the film couldn't overcome the aforesaid problems.  Sellers has written a textbook for all the things that can go wrong off a movie set that ultimately affect the success of a film.  John Carter isn't unique, just the latest Hollywood film to be mismanaged and cast aside.