Friday, December 26, 2014

Song of the Sea

Song of the Sea is director Tomm Moore's follow-up to his first feature, The Secret of Kells.  Once again, he delves into Irish culture for his subject, this time with the legends of Selkies, humans who are able to turn into seals. 

Song of the Sea is one of the most beautiful animated features ever made.  While the recent flood of cgi features all start with brilliant pre-production artwork seen in dozens of "The Art of" books, the films themselves homogenize that art into a faux--'50s Disney style.  Because the techniques used to create pre-production art for Song of the Sea are consistent with the techniques used to make the final images on screen, the film is able to take advantage of its foundational art in ways that cgi features either can't or won't.  Each shot of Song of the Sea is worthy of framing.

The story resembles The Tale of Princess Kaguya in many ways.  Both films are about mystical creatures living in human families and the members of those families are insensitive,  thinking they know best for everyone else.  In both films, the conflict arises from people's blindness rather than from stock villains.

The Irish mythology is a little thick.  It may be that the writers took in this mythology with mother's milk and it's second nature to them, but the film's two main stories are not tied together as clearly as they might be.  One story is that of a family where the youngest child is a Selkie.  The other is a tale of character who steals her son's emotions and those of others, turning them to stone, so as to relieve them of the emotional pain they feel.  The Selkie's song is the key to fixing this situation, but it's something of a distraction from solving the Selkie's own situation.

It is refreshing to see a film true to the filmmaker's ethnic roots, as opposed to American films like like Aladdin or Kung Fu Panda, which appropriates other people's roots.  And Moore and art director Adrien Merigeau are to be commended for the look of the film and for maintaining consistency though production occurred at studios in several countries.

Any year that has given audiences The Tale of Princess Kaguya and Song of the Sea has to be counted as a good one.  Forget all the upcoming awards that will probably overlook these two films beyond the nomination stage, assuming they are recognized at all.  These are the ones to see.  They are both deeply felt and personal to the filmmakers.  I've grown increasingly bored with North American feature animation in the areas of design and story and it's satisfying to see that the rest of the world is willing to go its own way.

Friday, December 05, 2014

CTN vs. TCAF and Zen Pencils

I attended CTN for the first time this year, representing Sheridan College.  Because of that, I was pretty much tied to Sheridan's table in the exhibition hall.  I didn't attend any of the presentations or screenings, though I did get to walk around the exhibition hall several times.  The observations that follow all relate to that.

There were hardware and software vendors there, like Wacom and Zbrush.  There were schools of various types offering formal and informal education.  There were book dealers like Focal Press and Stuart Ng.  However, the vast majority of exhibitors were artists selling their work in the form of prints, sketchbooks and collections.

The quality of work was exceptionally high and the love of drawing was visible everywhere.  It would have been easy to spend thousands of dollars on artwork and have years of inspiration as a result.

However, it struck me that the exhibition hall was like a farmer's market where the only people buying were other farmers.  It puzzled me that the exhibiting artists were not creating work that would appeal to a wider audience than just other artists.

I regularly attend the Toronto Comic Arts Festival (TCAF).  The people exhibiting there sell comics and graphic novels.  Their audience certainly includes artists, but the majority of people who attend are the general public.  The work there is something that average people, not people in the art field, might buy for themselves or purchase as a gift.

This is the case even though the average quality of the artwork is below what I saw at CTN.

Similarly, I've just found the Zen Pencils site.  Gavin Aung Than illustrates quotes from other people about various aspects of life.  While I admire his work, once again it's fair to say that his draftsmanship is below the CTN standard.

Yet at TCAF and Zen Pencils, the artists are reaching a broader audience.  The reason is that they are creating content, not simply demonstrating craft.  There's a difference between designing a character and creating a character.  While the CTN folks are great at design, a sketchbook or print lacks the narrative structure that an audience is looking for.

The artists at CTN love drawing and are good at it.  But in only talking to other artists, they're limiting their sales.  Why aren't they creating childrens books, comics, graphic novels and greeting cards that would show off their art as effectively as their sketchbooks, but also sell to a general audience?

Zen Pencils shows that you don't even have to be able to write, just recognize writing that has a meaningful perspective on life.  It also shows that cartooning, not just realistic illustration, can deal with subject matter that's relevant to adult lives.

I don't doubt that the artists at CTN would love to see drawn animation come back.  By just selling to other artists, they're doing nothing to make that happen.  Only when a property catches with the larger audience will producers take note.  Only when the audience is surrounded by drawings that entertain and enlighten them will there be a demand for drawn animated features.

As Chuck Jones once said, "All of us must eventually do what the matador does: go out and face not only the bull but the crowd."  The talent at CTN should seek out the crowd.

Cartoon Carnival: A Documentary on Silent Era Animation

Silent animation is esoteric, even to people who love animation.  Not much of it is shown anymore and animation has evolved so much from the silent period that these films seem ancient, when they are really only a hundred years old.

Tom Stathes has devoted himself to collecting and researching the animation from this period.  He's appeared on Turner Classic Movies to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Bray studio, the first animation company in the U.S.  He's now collaborating with Andrew T. Smith in a Kickstarter campaign to make a documentary about the silent animation era.

Pioneers like Winsor McCay, Max Fleischer, J.R. Bray, Paul Terry, Earl Hurd, Raoul Barre, Bill Nolan and Otto Messmer laid the groundwork for everything that came after.  Without them, there would have been no Walt Disney, and without Disney the animation we watch today would not exist.

This documentary is an opportunity for the animation world to explore its roots.  I've contributed to the campaign and I hope that the campaign reaches its goal.

Van Beuren Cartoons on TCM Dec. 7

Steve Stanchfield (right) with Robert Osborne
Due to a snafu last October 6, TCM didn't run its scheduled program of Van Beuren cartoons, with guest Steve Stanchfield of Thunderbean.

That program has been rescheduled to this Sunday, December 7 at midnight, Eastern Time.

Steve wrote about the cartoons to be shown here.

I've known Steve for several years and have nothing but admiration for him.  Besides working as an animator and animation teacher, he also puts out fabulous DVD and Blu-ray sets of vintage animation, lavishing far more care on restoration and extras than higher profile companies do.  In addition, he writes a regular Thursday column for Jerry Beck's Cartoon Research site, where he showcases historical treasures and updates Thunderbean's release plans.

I look forward to finally seeing this show on TCM.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Torill Kove's Me and My Moulton

On Dec. 2nd and 3rd, the National Film Board of Canada is making Torill Kove's latest film, Me and My Moulton, available for free.  You can watch it here.

It's a droll story about growing up with unconventional parents and how being different can lead to being uncomfortable.

In the event you see this entry after the free period expires, here is the film's trailer.

Sunday, November 16, 2014


I'll be at CTN on behalf of Sheridan College's animation program.  Fellow faculty member James Caswell and I will be at the Sheridan table for the duration.  If you're going to be there, stop by and say hello.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

25 Years of Ghibli Music

Joe Hisaishi is as closely associated with Studio Ghibli's musical scores as Carl Stalling was with Warner Bros. cartoon scores.  Here is a two hour concert featuring his music from Nausicaa, Princess Mononoke, Kiki's Delivery Service, Ponyo, Castle in the Sky, Porco Rosso, Howl's Moving Castle, Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro.

If you want links to specific selections in the video, go here.

At 1:36:40, there is a brief clip of Miyazaki and John Lasseter singing together.

(link via Boing Boing)

Friday, October 31, 2014

Canadian TV is Dying. Does Animation Know it?

Over the last year, Rogers and Shaw, the two largest cable TV suppliers in Canada, have lost a total of 200,000 subscribers.  That has enormous repercussions for TV producers, including animation studios.

YTV is one of the major outlets for Canadian TV animation.  It is part of the basic cable package, which means that everyone who has cable TV in Canada automatically receives YTV.  YTV receives money for each cable TV subscriber, and it has lost the fee from 200,000 people in the last year.  In addition, it earns money from advertising and its ratings must have suffered by some amount, as some of those 200,000 people must have watched YTV.

Teletoon is part of a cable bundle, but surely some of those 200,000 people were paying for Teletoon.  As Teletoon also sells advertising, the smaller audience has cost Teletoon income on two fronts.

The cable companies are rapidly diversifying away from TV.  Rogers and Shaw have partnered in Shomi, a Netflix-like service that makes content available on demand.  Rogers has now partnered with Vice, which will produce content for them.  The money quote that justifies the deal is that there is a “dramatic shift in Canada’s media landscape which sees young people increasingly consuming news and entertainment from their mobile and digital devices.”

Bell Media is creating its own streaming service.

What are the repercussions for Canadian animation?  It means that broadcasters such as YTV, Teletoon, and Family Channel will have less money to spend on new programming.  Either they will buy less or buy the same amount but provide less money for each.  Either way, the TV market for Canadian animation is going to get tougher.  The future is online and the cable companies know it.  The animation studios that grasp this are the ones most likely to survive.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Tale of Princess Kaguya

Isao Takahata's The Tale of Princess Kaguya is a thematically rich and artistically beautiful film.  As it may be the director's final feature and the last feature to come from Studio Ghibli,  the studio exits on a high note.  This film and Miyazaki's The Wind Rises are both landmark films that challenge accepted notions of what an animated film should be.  Only time will tell if they serve as inspiration for other artists or remain outliers.

It is impossible to talk about Princess Kaguya without discussing key story points below.

A poor bamboo cutter discovers a child within a tree.  She grows unnaturally fast.  The bamboo cutter later discovers gold and fine fabrics in a similar manner and takes it to mean that heaven wishes the girl to be brought up as a princess.  His wife is obedient to his wishes, but more sensitive to the child than he is.

The child revels in living in the woods, playing with other poor children and being surrounded by nature.  However, her father and mother move her to the capital, where she may no longer act as she likes but must conform to society's expectations for a young woman of nobility.  She respects the wishes of her parents, but as she gets increasingly immersed in the society's ways, she becomes more unhappy.  She is desired by high status suitors, including the king.  She is able, by her wits and some magic to elude marriage.  She seeks to escape back to her childhood environment, but the world has moved on and she realizes that her chance for happiness is over.  She is called back to heaven against her will, regretting missed opportunities and sad at what she must leave behind.  Her father finally realizes his mistake as he loses her.

The central question of the film is what constitutes happiness.  For the bamboo cutter, it is being able to give his child what society says are advantages.  For her suitors, it is taking a special wife to add to their status.  For the princess, it is obeying her parents.  All of them are wrong.

The bamboo cutter learns that the advantages he has showered on the princess have gone against her  nature.  The suitors are unable to keep their pledges to the princess in order to win her hand.  Two face embarrassment, one the loss of wealth, one the loss of his illusions, and two have their lives endangered, all for a woman whose face they have never seen.  The princess learns that the natural world is superior to life in the capital and that acting according to her own wishes is more satisfying than obedience to her parents, especially when the result is to reduce her to a mere ornament. 

All of these characters are burdened with regrets due to poor choices and paths not taken.  When heaven comes to reclaim the princess, a clear metaphor for death, there is much pain for the characters who can no longer avoid acknowledging their mistakes.

Social class is a great divider in this film.  When the princess and her mother spend time in the mansion kitchen and garden as an escape from the rigid behaviour expected of them, the father cannot understand why.  When the princess journeys to the countryside to see the cherry blossoms, a young child, as excited by the sight as she is, bumps into her.  Instead of them being able to share their happiness, the child is snatched away by its mother, who prostrates herself in front of the princess and begs forgiveness.  Sharing joy is forbidden across class lines.  When one of the princess's childhood friends is caught stealing a chicken, he is brutally beaten, but when one of her suitors fails to pay some artisans, he escapes without punishment.

The characters in this film don't understand where happiness lies.  Society has created divisions and rules that stifle people while claiming to exalt them.  Nature is more beautiful than anything people have created, yet people choose to leave nature behind.  People are blind to each others' needs.  Awareness comes only in retrospect, when it is too late to correct poor choices.  In short, the characters are fully human, doing what they think is best but unable to see their mistakes.

The artwork, especially for the scenes in the countryside, is exquisite.  The animation varies somewhat; early scenes with the bamboo cutter and the children seem to be the strongest overall, but Takahata's direction is capable of getting dramatic impact from minimal movement in some later scenes.  The softness of the linework and the watercolour backgrounds are refreshing after so many years of computer animation.  The hands of the artists are visible everywhere, not just in the pre-production artwork.

The Tale of Princess Kaguya, like The Wind Rises, is more dramatically sophisticated than animated films made for North America.  The willingness to embrace characters who are flawed and to acknowledge the existence of tragedy separates these films from the feelgood fantasies churned out by Hollywood.  The term "family film" really means "we won't do anything to upset your children."  By limiting itself to this genre, North American feature animation has neutered itself, spending fortunes to divert audiences from real life instead of helping to illuminate it.

I am deeply grateful for Studio Ghibli's existence.  While the level of craft in their films doesn't always conform to what North American audiences expect, the intelligence in them surpasses anything animated that Hollywood offers.  Ghibli's films, in particular The Wind Rises and The Tale of Princess Kaguya, set a standard that Hollywood will most likely ignore.  But if feature animation has a future beyond amusing parents while babysitting their children, it doesn't have to look any further than what Miyazaki and Takahata have accomplished.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

New from Nina Paley

Nina Paley, the creator of the animated feature Sita Sings the Blues, has released another segment from her current production Seder Masochism.  Music is by The Duke of Uke and His Novelty Orchestra with sound effects by Greg Sextro.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Exaggerate the Essentials

Al Hirschfeld in life and caricature

I teach animation to students in the second year of a four year program.  They are just getting beyond bouncing balls and flour sacks and beginning to engage with human movement.  This year, I'm noticing that more students are shooting live action reference for their assignments.  Live action has its uses, but it's critical that an animator knows what he or she is looking at.  Live action has to be analyzed to understand how the movement communicates to an audience.

The skill of caricature is to see past unnecessary detail to the underlying shapes of a face.  It is the process of analyzing and editing.  What is essential to a likeness and what is not?

This same process is at the core of life drawing.  Someone looking at a posed model is using knowledge of anatomy, perspective, composition and design to reduce a three dimensional figure to a two dimensional representation.  What detail is necessary to communicate the gesture and what can be ignored?  An untrained artist can trace a photograph of the same pose and while it may superficially resemble the figure, the lack of underlying knowledge will be obvious.  There is no analysis or editing, there is only imitation.

Human movement communicates.  From infancy, we develop the skill to read body language and facial expressions in order to understand what is happening in another human mind.  Because we do this intuitively, we are not aware of the analysis we are doing.  We don't consciously realize that some movements and expressions communicate more than others, the same way that some facial detail defines a person's appearance more in a caricature.

Using live reference without understanding how the body uses weight, balance, momentum and time is useless.  Using live reference before knowing what movements communicate and what movements can be ignored leads to a result no better than tracing a photograph and calling it a life drawing. 

Analysis and editing are essential.  Exaggerating what's left after you have eliminated the unnecessary makes the communication more vivid for an audience.  We see people moving every day.  Acting is a heightened version of daily movement; it's a way of communicating thoughts and emotions more directly than we see in normal life.

Live action reference can suggest things to a knowledgeable animator; it can help the animator analyze how a movement communicates.  But without the underlying knowledge, an animator cannot discriminate between what helps an audience understand and what distracts from understanding.

There is a difference between imitation and communication.  Until a student understands this, live action reference is simply a faster way to imitate human movement.  If the movement is no more insightful than what we see in life, animating it is unnecessary.  What we want is movement that communicates more precisely than real life.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Boxtrolls

The Boxtrolls is a visually elaborate fantasy that is built on an extremely weak foundation.  While the art direction, cinematography and animation are excellent, the story is deeply flawed and the direction isn't able to overcome the holes in the story.

There are spoilers coming, so be warned.

The town of Cheesebridge has a class system indicated by the colour of a person's hat.  While the hat is hardly a great idea, I'll let it go as it's a convenient way of visually establishing status.  The problem is that a class system only has dramatic weight when it's clear how low status affects a person's life; the lower class needs to be treated poorly by the upper class in order to motivate the film's villain.   What do we see as the difference between classes besides the colour of hats?  The privilege of tasting cheese.  I have not read the source book, Here Be Monsters by Alan Snow, but even if this idea is from the book, it is flimsy at best and too reminiscent of Wallace and Gromit.

The boxtrolls themselves are also unmotivated.  They eat bugs, so their physical survival is guaranteed from a nutrition standpoint.  But they spend the nights foraging in people's trash bins for various mechanical bits.  Why?  While their home cavern is full of mechanical doodads, they don't seem essential to the boxtrolls' existence.  If this is what they do, why not make it necessary for their way of life?

While fantasies require a leap of faith, it still helps to be as consistent as possible within the rules of the world.  Unfortunately, the film falls short here as well.  Why would the boy raised by the boxtrolls speak a human language instead of theirs when he has no contact with humans?  The boxtrolls are naked beneath their boxes.  Why is the boy wearing clothes and a too-small box?  The villain has a food allergy that causes his face to swell to grotesque proportions.  How could he not be aware of this when it happens repeatedly? 

The villain's plan to demonize the boxtrolls and then eliminate them seems enormously complicated and takes a decade to enact.  Surely, there had to be a better and faster way to raise himself into the upper class.  Why should the townspeople believe that he's destroyed all the boxtrolls just because he dumps a pile of crushed boxes in front of them?  If they do believe it, why is it necessary for the villain to kill the last boxtroll in public?  Why does the villain need the large machine he rides in for the climax?  What motivates the villain to be a cross dresser?  Or is that just a result of Laika being praised for the gay character in Paranorman?

With the exception of a girl character, the film has no other females developed to any degree.  That includes the boxtrolls, who seem to be asexual.  Does a boxstork deliver them?

The film ends and ends and ends and ends.  Instead of wrapping things up neatly, the film makers don't know when to get off the stage.  

I have seen all three of Laika's films and this is definitely a step down from Paranorman.  While this film has potentially strong themes of class, race and even genocide, it treats them so superficially that they are missed opportunities.  The film is visually inventive and, truth be told, the stop motion is so slick it might as well be cgi.  But the artists at Laika fell in love too quickly with the visual possibilities of the story without nailing the dramatic backbone.

I know that there is a bias against scripts in feature animation.  The conventional wisdom says that stories should be drawn, not written.  However, there's a lot to be said for working on an outline to structure the story, work out the plot points and clarify the motivations before any designs are done.  Drawing is sometimes a distraction; the appeal of a good design can sometimes draw attention away from holes in the story.

While all of Laika's films have been visually attractive, they have yet to have a major hit.  My limited knowledge of their income leads me to believe that if it wasn't for the Knight millions (or is that billions?), the studio would have gone bankrupt by now.  Laika has a deal for another three features so it isn't going away anytime soon, but I'm sure everyone would be happier if a future film would gross Pixar-like numbers.  Without serious attention to their stories, it's never going to happen.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Sunday, October 05, 2014

100 Years of Norman McLaren

2014 is the 100th anniversary of Norman McLaren's birth.  McLaren was the pioneering experimental animator at the National Film Board of Canada.  One of the many events to mark the occasion was a documentary on his work created by Amir Avni for TAAFI, the Toronto Animated Arts Festival International, which occurred last June.

TAAFI has now put the documentary online and in addition to several McLaren films, it includes interviews with National Film Board alumni who knew McLaren: Kaj Pindal, Gerald Potterton and Bob Verrall.

Friday, October 03, 2014

Animation on Turner Classic Movies

Robert Osborne (left) with John Canemaker

Steve Stanchfield

Tom Stathes
On Monday, October 6, starting at 8 p.m. Eastern time, TCM will be running three specials featuring animation historians John Canemaker, Steve Stanchfield and Tom Stathes.  Canemaker will be talking about Winsor McCay, Stanchfield will be talking about the Van Beuren studio and Stathes will be talking about the Bray studio.  All three programs focus on animation done in New York and contain many examples.

This is the 100th anniversary of McCay's Gertie the Dinosaur as well as the 100th anniversary of the start of the Bray studio.

You can read about the Van Beuren cartoons that will be screened here and read about the Bray cartoons here.

If you have any interest in animation history or just want to see cartoons that you've never seen before, I highly recommend these programs.  Each of these people is an expert in the field.  John Canemaker is an Oscar-winning animator and author of many animation related books.  His most recent are The Lost Notebook: Herman Schultheiss & the Secrets of Walt Disney's Movie Magic and Magic, Color, Flair: The World of Mary Blair.  Steve Stanchfield is the proprietor of Thunderbean Animation, a production company that also produces restored DVDs and Blu-rays of classic animation.  Tom Stathes runs film screenings in the New York area.

Later the same night, TCM will screen Lotte Reineger's The Adventures of Prince Achmed, Max and Dave Fleischer's Gulliver's Travels, Akira Daikubara's Magic Boy, and Chuck Jones' The Phantom Tollbooth.  That's ten solid hours of animation.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

James Wood

Friend and former co-worker James Wood has a blog where he's showing off work and talking about his evolving process. James is multi-talented, working as both a cgi animator and illustrator, and is developing a graphic novel called The Unspeakable. I've added his blog link to the sidebar, but you might also be interested in his website.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Knock Knock

While the story is nothing new, the technique is inventive. My hat is off for conceiving this and managing to execute it in a single take.

You can read about the production of this here.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Jack Kirby Makes Disney and Marvel Blink

Next Monday, the Supreme Court of the United States was to announce whether it would hear an appeal from the Jack Kirby estate over the estate's copyright claims.

Today, Marvel and the Kirby estate jointly announced that they have reached a settlement.

“Marvel and the family of Jack Kirby have amicably resolved their legal disputes, and are looking forward to advancing their shared goal of honoring Mr. Kirby’s significant role in Marvel’s history.” 

I hope that more details emerge.  From my perspective, I hope that Jack Kirby receives co-creator credit on the various comics he spearheaded with Stan Lee.  Furthermore, I hope that the estate receives royalties on Kirby reprints, Kirby designed merchandise and the flood of superhero movies that are being made using characters that Kirby designed and co-created.

There are people who are constantly commenting on various news sites that Kirby's children and grandchildren had nothing to do with creating the work and so don't deserve anything.  My response is that Robert Iger and the stockholders of the Walt Disney company had nothing to do with it either, yet they're making money from it.  Why do their rights trump Kirby's family?

I congratulate the Kirby family for their persistence.  If Jack and Roz Kirby were alive, they would be very proud that their family stood up to one of the largest entertainment conglomerates on the planet and made them acknowledge the value of Jack Kirby's work. 

It's nice to get a happy ending.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Book Review: The Webcomics Handbook

While comics are not animation, there is a great deal of overlap, both in terms of artists as well as how artists are marketing their work these days.  In this way, animation artists who are interested in using the web as a revenue source, or are interested in self publishing or exhibiting at conventions can find a wealth of advice from Brad Guigar's The Webcomics Handbook.

Guigar has been doing webcomics since 2000 and is the founder of, an online site dedicated to sharing knowledge with artists who are marketing and selling their work online.  He is the co-author of How to Make Webcomics, a book I plugged earlier.

The value of Guigar's latest book is how incredibly specific it is.  If you're looking to create a website with earning potential, Guigar will talk about various hosting sites and their relative advantages and disadvantages.  He lists the various approaches to securing advertising for sites.  He even has tips for speeding up page loading.

Guigar talks about the pitfalls of collaborating and how to avoid them.  He has a chapter devoted to self-publishing, including information on print-on-demand vs offset.  He has a chapter devoted to conventions and how to best present yourself at them as well as the economics of attending shows.

Other topics include copyright, contracts, insurance, search engine optimization, collectives, merchandise, and booth barnacles (fans who hang around your table at cons and monopolize your time without buying anything).

I have never seen a book about artists using the online world with as much practical advice.  My only complaint is that the book lacks an index.  However, that is a small complaint.  If you have ever considered using the web as a revenue source, there is something in this book that will help you. 

Sunday, September 14, 2014

A Challenge to Studios Taking Pitches

The Ottawa International Animation Festival starts on September 17 and studios will be there to recruit.  As well, Nickelodeon will be there soliciting pitches for preschool shows.  I'd like to issue a challenge to Nickelodeon and any studio that takes pitches, though I'm confident that this challenge will be completely ignored.

I'd like studios that are looking for pitches to make their minimum deal public.  How much of the copyright, if any, will the creator get to keep?  What screen credit will the creator be guaranteed?  How much will the creator get per episode that's produced?  What guaranteed employment will the creator get on the project?  What percentage of online, merchandising, publishing and home video revenues will the creator get?

While I have no confidence that companies like Viacom, Disney, Warner Bros. or Fox will take this challenge, it presents an enormous opportunity for smaller studios looking to own intellectual property.  Imagine a studio that offers to let the creator keep half of the copyright and half the profits from all revenue streams.  Creators with confidence in their ideas would be fools not to take their work to that studio first.  Imagine if a studio agreed that if the project wasn't viable after a limited time, the creator could recover 100% of the copyright in exchange for reimbursing the studio for it's production and marketing costs.

We're in a transitional period.  What we think of as TV is shrinking and the online world of Netflix-like and YouTube-like entities are expanding.  Before the online world solidifies, as it inevitably will, a studio able to attract the best content because it offers the best deal would have a competitive advantage.

It would obviously benefit creators, but the point is that it would be good business all around.

Media companies hate bidding wars.  As early as 1909, Biograph was trying to suppress the names of their performers, afraid that they would ask for more money.  However, Carl Laemmle hired Florence Lawrence and Mary Pickford away from Biograph and publicized them in order to increase demand for his films.  As much as media companies would prefer it otherwise, the business is based on talent.  If a studio is taking pitches, what will it publicly guarantee to the talent?

And if you're a creator, do you have the nerve to demand to know the deal before you make the pitch?

Friday, September 05, 2014

Goodbye Canadian Content?

UPDATE: Those of you interested in what's happening to TV in Canada should read this article in The Globe and Mail.  It's a good summary of all the potential changes that are coming and how it might change the production landscape.  The reader comments show the level of animosity towards the cable companies and broadcasters.  You can't hold an audience with regulations, only by giving them something they want to watch.

There's an alternate TV universe developing in Canada.  It looks a lot like the old TV universe.  In fact the majority of the programming comes from the old TV universe, but there's an important difference: it comes via the internet and not cable channels.

So what?  Well, you can impose Canadian content quotas on cable, because no service gets on cable unless the Canadian Radio and Television Commission approves it.  And the CRTC always imposes conditions on any license it grants.

However, the CRTC has decided to keep its hands off the internet, precisely because it can't stop anyone from using the internet to distribute content.

There are huge repercussions from this.  First, when there were limited channels available and they had to run Canadian content, there was a demand (even it if was mandated demand and not audience demand) that had to be filled.  Second, when the public paid for cable TV and when the cable channels earned money from advertising, a percentage of the money was put into the Canadian Media Fund, which provided money for the production of Canadian content, including animation.

The problem started when Netflix came to Canada.  It allowed viewers to pay a flat monthly subscription rate to watch anything on the service.   As Netflix arrives via the internet, it has no legal obligation to put money into the Canadian Media Fund or to use Canadian content.  When a generation of young adults who have declined to have cable TV combines with disgruntled viewers who cut their cable to lower their bills, the cable companies panic.  Their billing is dropping and the shrinking audience will force advertising revenues downwards as well.  That's a one-two punch aimed at Canadian content.

Shaw and Rogers, the two largest cable TV providers, are fighting back.  They're collaborating to create Shomi (pronounced "show me") to compete with Netflix.  That's like Coke and Pepsi collaborating on a new soft drink, a move that could only be driven by desperation.  Bell Media has just purchased a library of older shows from HBO for their own version of video on demand.  Suddenly, the cable TV business has the cooties and everyone is running away from it.  Because these new services are on the internet, there's no obligation to run Canadian content and none of the subscription money goes to the Canadian Media Fund.

This will make it harder to produce original animation in Canada.  With lower ad rates, less money in the Canadian Media Fund and the audience abandoning cable, there will be less demand for Canadian content and it will be harder to finance.  For better or worse, studios interested in creating shows will have to compete with the rest of the world, without the government carving out a protected space for them.

There will still be service work, but that doesn't bode well for the future of Canadian animation.  Service work is sensitive to currency fluctuations.  The Canadian dollar has ranged as low as 63 cents and as high as 1.03 compared to the U.S. dollar over the last decade or so.  In addition, there is the volatility of tax credits and government subsidies.  The new government in Quebec has cut their tax credits due to their deficit.  Any deficit-ridden government (which is all of them at the moment) will be looking hard at expenditures.  Service work is great for cash flow, but the flow stops when the job is delivered.  There are no residuals and no money from merchandising.  Studios doing service work are always just a few months away from a potential bankruptcy.

This could be a great opportunity for Canadian studios, forcing them to cut the government's apron strings and grow up, but I'm doubtful.  History hasn't demonstrated that Canadian studios are eager for that challenge.  In the last 35 years, no studio has walked away from government protection or money to stand on its own.

While Canadian animation is booming right now, the future is uncertain at best.  The entire notion of Canadian content quotas may disappear quickly, not through government decree, but through cable TV erosion.  While Canadian studios have worked hard to satisfy the regulations, now it's time for them to focus on satisfying the audience if they want a healthy future.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Is Canadian TV Animation Heading for a Cliff?

The TV animation business in Canada is on a roll right now.  There's a lot of work out there, as a glance at the job board at Canadian Animation Resources confirms.  While animation in Canada includes visual effects, features and videogames, TV still makes up the greatest proportion of production in terms of employment and the amount of material produced.

However, there are trends in several areas that make TV animation vulnerable.  The ground is already shifting and there are more shifts to come.

Television in Canada is regulated by the Canadian Radio and Television Commission.  This government body determines which new channels will be allowed to exist, sets quotas for Canadian content and determines how much money from cable fees will be set aside for Canadian production.

The CRTC is aware of the effect that the internet and internet TV providers such as Netflix are having on the market and have been holding hearings to determine how regulations should change.  There are several possibilities being considered.  One is unbundling. 

The CRTC has declared that certain channels such as YTV, a major Canadian animation market, are part of the basic cable package.  In other words, everyone who has cable is forced to pay money towards YTV.  Other channels featuring animation, such as Teletoon and Family Channel, are part of packages.  You cannot buy these channels on their own.  There are customers who don't care at all about animation who are contributing money towards these channels by purchasing the package they're included in.

Should the CRTC unbundle, allowing viewers to purchase only those channels they want, no one can predict how this might effect the demand for animation channels.  The number of cable channels using animation has expanded to include Nickelodeon, Teletoon Retro, Cartoon Network Canada, Disney XD, Disney Junior and Treehouse.  Can the Canadian market support all of these channels in an a la carte world?  Can studios survive if the number of Canadian buyers goes down?

There is an entire generation that has replaced TV with the internet.  The term "cord cutting" is used to describe people who give up cable TV, but there are many young adults who haven't had cable TV since leaving their parents' homes.  Walking in Toronto, I see children in strollers playing with iPads.  In a world of on-demand entertainment, does the concept of a broadcast schedule have a hope of surviving?

The shrinking audience is affecting even mainstream programming.  W5, a 60 Minutes-like news show has just cut production on the number of episodes for the coming season and laid off staff due to shrinking ad revenues. 

Many in Canada subscribe to Netflix instead of cable.  No money spent on Netflix is re-routed towards Canadian production as it is with cable bills.  This means that the Canada Media Fund, which funnels money towards various productions, has less to work with.

Finally, there is the issue of tax credits.  Ontario just had a provincial election, so the government will be stable for the next four years, but it is trying to eliminate a deficit. No poll of the general public has ever put tax credits for media production high on the list of priorities.  As a result, I would not be surprised to see the tax credits frozen at best and I anticipate some amount of claw back.  Certainly, they won't increase, which means that if another jurisdiction surpasses Ontario's tax credits, work will leave Ontario.

While content quotas, bundling and tax credits have their place, especially for new enterprises, they turn into an addiction.  Ultimately, animation has to please the public if it is to survive.  Instead, too many studios have focused on satisfying regulations that generate money rather than on creating viable entertainment.  I fear that they have built their enterprises on a foundation of sand.  I have seen contractions in the Canadian animation industry in the past and they're not pretty.  I hope that studios are preparing for changes that may destroy their current business model.

To learn more about this, read Michael Geist and listen to this Canadaland podcast.

Friday, August 08, 2014

Guys with Pencils Down to Stubs

Andrew (left) and Adam
Andrew Murray and Adam Hines, the hosts of the Guys with Pencils podcast, have decided to pack it in after a few more episodes.  The podcast has featured people from animation, comics and games, giving the audience a chance to learn more about each of those fields and the careers of dozens of working artists.

The podcasts will remain available for awhile, but if you're not familiar with them, now's your chance to cherry pick the 172 episodes (so far) for whatever artists or fields you are interested in.

As somebody who has appeared on the podcast multiple times, I'd like to publicly thank Adam and Andrew for the opportunity to air my views on things like creator rights and for providing the animation community with such an informative resource.

I'm sure we haven't heard the last of these two.  I've watched them go from students to working professionals and I look forward to seeing what they'll accomplish in the future.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Profits Over Product

A couple of business stories have come to my attention that point up the conflict between those who value profits over product and those who value product over profits.  Neither is an absolute.  Those who value profit need something that customers are willing to buy and those who value product need to make enough money to keep going.  But there is usually a clear emphasis in most companies.

Cartoon Brew reports a story that YouTube is changing the rules on how they pay contributors money from advertising.  If I read things correctly, it was previously based on views.  Now, it's being based on the amount of time viewers spend watching a contributor's video and frequency of uploads.  This puts animators at a disadvantage as animation takes more time than live action to produce, so animated films are shorter and contributors upload less frequently than live action producers.

This is the same situation that faced J.R. Bray and Max Fleischer in the 1910s and '20s.  At the time, distributors paid film producers by the foot.  Film was treated like bolts of cloth or lumber.  It didn't matter what was on the film, simply how long it was.  While it might take as much time and money (or more) to do a 1000 foot animated film than a 2000 foot live action comedy, the animated film was only going to get paid half as much.  The distributors were looking to fill up screen time.  With fixed admission prices, the cost of a show had to be less than the box office take for that show, or there was no profit.  A clear case of profit over product.

Like the distributors of the past, YouTube is not creating the content, only distributing it.  Unlike the distributors, their customers are not the public.  YouTube's customers are the advertisers.  Therefore, they have to keep the advertisers happy and buying ads in order to pay for all the bandwidth and servers that keep YouTube running.

YouTube is blind to content.  It doesn't care what is uploaded in terms of subject or quality.  There's so much content there, that there is no question that there is material that advertisers will be interested in.  YouTube's only interest is matching advertisers to videos in the most efficient way possible, because that's where the money is.  Advertisers want viewers who spend a lot of time looking at something and who return on a regular basis, so that's what YouTube favours.

While this looks like bad news for animators, there are options.  I don't know if it's against YouTube's terms of service, but animators could go out and find their own sponsors and put 10 second ads at the head of their films.  Or they could super "sponsored by..." over their films.  Or they could seek out product placement.  There are also competing video hosting sites.  Animators are free to note their audience sizes and incomes and approach rival sites to see if they can get a better deal.  If enough animators try this, maybe one of the rival sites will realize that there's a way to boost their audience size while hurting YouTube at the same time.  Would YouTube react if suddenly their animation content dropped significantly?

Comics are not animation and the story of Kitchen Sink Press is different than YouTube, but it exposes the same tension between profits and product.  Denis Kitchen, publisher of Kitchen Sink, gave a long interview to John Cooke, editor of Comic Book Creator.  A large portion of that interview is available in a free .pdf download.

Kitchen started out as an underground comics publisher who eventually branched out into other comics related work, such as The Crow, Cadillacs and Dinosaurs and reprinting Will Eisner, Harvey Kurtzman and Al Capp.  At one point, he was approached by Kevin Eastman, co-creator of the Ninja Turtles, to have Kitchen Sink take over Eastman's publishing company Tundra.  In exchange for his financial investment, Eastman got 51% of Kitchen Sink.

Eastman, like Kitchen, valued product over profit.  The problem was that Eastman was a poor businessman who was losing money on several fronts, which threatened the existence of Kitchen Sink.  Eastman brought in Ocean Capital, an investment group, which took 90% ownership in exchange for supplying the money to keep the company going.  Ocean Capital's plan was to grow the company and take it public.  While Kitchen's focus had always been on product, Ocean Capital's focus was on getting profits high enough to launch the public offering.  Unfortunately, the comics business underwent one of it's periodic declines and after two years of falling profits, Ocean Capital wanted to sell Kitchen Sink or liquidate it to get out from under.

Enter Fred Seibert, known to the animation community from his association with Hanna Barbera and now shows like Adventure Time and Bee and Puppycat.  Seibert bought the company in a fire sale from Ocean Capital, but a turf war broke out between Kitchen and a consultant named Don Todrin.  Both tried to convince Seibert of the right way forward and Seibert, worried about his investment, sided with Todrin.  Kitchen was fired from the company he created in much the same way that animators Will Vinton and Phil Roman were.  A year later, Kitchen's former company was bankrupt.

Denis Kitchen valued product over profit, but some business decisions that backfired put the company he created into the hands of people who valued profit over product.  It's a familiar story.  Walt Disney valued product but Robert Iger values profit.  Iger ignored the enormous concentration of talent within the Disney company and instead spent money to acquire Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm.  The emphasis on profit has contaminated Pixar, which now produces more sequels than originals and watches Disney rip it off with the Planes franchise.

Surviving in business is difficult, but when the emphasis shifts from product to profit, it rarely shifts back.  Investors, as a rule, are more interested in a return than how the return is achieved.  People who value product have to remain vigilant.  YouTube will change its policies to suit itself and investors will demand control in exchange for their money.  If somebody else controls your work, either through ownership or distribution, you're at their mercy.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Studio Ghibli Closing?

There's this. Then there's this.

Animation on TCM

Turner Classic Movies will be featuring animation in the immediate and near future.

On Tuesday, Aug 5 at 4:30 a.m Eastern Time, they'll run Gay Purr-ee, a feature made by UPA in 1962, starring the voices of Judy Garland and Robert Goulet.  The songs are by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg, the team behind the songs in The Wizard of Oz, though these songs are not as memorable.

The crew is a polyglot of Hollywood animation veterans from many studios.  It was directed by Abe Levitow and written by Chuck and Dorothy Jones.  Designers and art directors include Corny Cole, Ernie Nordli and Victor Haboush.  Animators include Ken Harris, Irv Spence, Ben Washam, Ray Patterson, Grant Simmons, Volus Jones, Harvey Toombs, Don Lusk and Hal Ambro.  The studios that those animators worked at include Warner Bros, MGM, Lantz and Disney.

On October 6 (and I'll post a reminder closer to the date), TCM will run 10 hours of continuous animation.  Starting at 8 p.m. Eastern Time, the films of Winsor McCay, with eminent animation historian and McCay biographer John Canemaker as guest.  At 9:45, it's the 100th anniversary of the Bray studio, with guest Tom Stathes, who has emerged as a leading historian of silent animation.  At 11, cartoons from the Van Beuren studio, with guest Steve Stanchfield.

Stanchfield has become one of the premiere home video producers for animation.  While companies like Warner Bros. are retreating from home video formats, Stanchfield is upping the output of his company Thunderbean Animation.  His latest release is Technicolor Dreams and Black and White Nightmares, which includes a color copy of the first three strip Technicolor cartoon, Ted Eshbaugh's The Wizard of Oz.

The balance of TCM's night consists of four animated features.   Lotte Reineger's The Adventures of Prince Achmed is on at 12:15 a.m, Max and Dave Fleischer's Gulliver's Travels is on at 1:30, Toei Animation's Magic Boy is on at 3 and Chuck Jones' The Phantom Tollbooth is on at 4:30.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Book Review: Miyazaki's Turning Point: 1997-2008

Turning Point is the second collection in English of interviews and writings by Hayao Miyazaki.  It covers the period from Princess Mononoke to the pre-production of Ponyo.

The breadth and depth of Miyazaki's interests are on display here.  Where North American animators talk about the craft and the history of animation, perhaps also speaking of live action films, Miyazaki ranges much farther afield.  His interests include literature, Japanese history, social class, gender roles, consumer capitalism, geography, nature, environmentalism, economics, child rearing, mythology, religion and comparative religion. 

Miyazaki is conscious of his need for knowledge.  "It's up to the individual whether one reads books while a student, but the penalty for not reading will eventually come around for the individual. Increasing numbers of people think knowledge and cultivation are not strengths, but ignorance is, after all, ignorance.  No matter how good-natured and diligent you are, if you don't know about the world around you it means you don't know where you are.  Especially in our age, when each of us has to think about where we are going, there will be a heavy price to pay for ignorance about past history."

Miyazaki reflects on the people who enter the animation industry.  "We animators are involved in this occupation because we have things that were left undone in our childhood.  Those who enjoyed their childhood to the fullest don't go into this line of work.  Those who fully graduated from their childhood leave it behind."

The people who talk to Miyazki are not just reporters.  They include authors, academics and scientists.  It is a sign of the respect for Miyazaki and his films that he is not considered just an entertainer, but a social commentator with important things to say. 

It is Miyazaki's curiosity and wide-ranging knowledge that makes his films so satisfying.  He's not focusing on the box office or on story formulas.  He uses his films to try to figure things out and the uncertainty as to whether characters or events are good or bad lends a complexity to his films that is completely lacking in North American animation.  He says that American films "seem too manipulative, so I hate to give into that and get all excited.  And with splatter films, as soon as the music starts warning us about what's coming up, well, they just make me want to leave the theater."

"[People] delude themselves into thinking films are all about identifying with something and finding momentary relief in a virtual world.  But in the old days, people went to see films to learn about life.  Nowadays, when you go into a supermarket, you're presented with a dizzying array of choices, and, similarly, people think of the audiences for film as consumers who just grumble, or complain about things being too expensive or not tasting good.  But I'm not creating something just to be consumed.  I'm creating and watching films that will make me a slightly better person than I was before."

The seeds of future work are revealed in some of these interviews.  In an interview about cities made at the time of Mononoke, Miyazaki says, "I would like to see an expansion of workplaces for [older people] rather than insisting they have a comfortable old age.  A town where everyone, from children to the elderly, has self-awareness and a role as a member of the community is a town full of energy."  He's describing one of the main themes of his yet-to-be-produced feature Ponyo.

In writing about the 1937 book How Will Young People Live by Genzaburo Yoshino, Miyazaki reveals concerns that he dealt with in The Wind Rises.  Both are set in the Showa period leading up to the second World War. "When Yoshino poses the question of 'How will you live?' he means we should go on living, despite all our problems.  He isn't saying that if we live in a specific way that the problems will disappear and everything will be fine.  He is saying that we must think seriously about things and that, while enduring all sorts of difficulties, we must continue to live, even if ultimately to die in vain.  Even if to die in vain.  Yoshino was unable to write directly about the violence of his times, so all he could tell us to do when such times arrive is to keep living without giving up our humanity.  Genzaburo Yoshino-san knew that was all he could do."

I have one disappointment with this book.  The period of articles that date from the period when Howl's Moving Castle was produced do not cover that film at all.  It is a problematical film for me, and I was hoping that there would be a clue as to Miyazaki's thoughts that would serve as a key to that film.  At the time, Miyazaki was also involved in the creation of the Ghibli Museum and the day care centre for Ghibli employees.  Did these distract him from Howl?  Unfortunately, this book gives no indication.

I sincerely hope that there is a third volume, as I am interesting in reading what Miyazaki has to say about The Wind Rises.  In any case, this volume, and the earlier Starting Point, are essential reading for anyone interested in animation and particularly for those in the field.  Miyazaki's erudition shames us.  While many of us call for North American animation to break free of genre conventions, it will take more than wishes for it to happen.  It will only happen when animation artists engage more with the world as it is and let that be reflected in their work.

(For more Miyazaki quotes, please see my review of Starting Point.)

Friday, July 18, 2014

Pixar's Pivotal Moment?

In my experience, the hardest thing to cultivate in a studio and the easiest thing to destroy is enthusiasm.  When the staff feels that the studio is dedicated to turning out good films and is providing the crew with opportunities to do their best work, the employees give extra effort.  When management says one thing while doing another, cynicism quickly sets in and every move or statement by management is viewed with suspicion.

The recent revelations that Ed Catmull was a willing conspirator to hold down wages and limit employment opportunities destroys his credibility as a manager.  While his contributions to the development of computer animation technology are untouched by this, his leadership credentials now lie in ruins.  While his book Creativity, Inc. has been praised by reviewers, my friend James Caswell says that it should be shelved in the fiction section.

Pixar has been very effective in keeping their internal workings from the public.  There aren't Pixar employees contributing to message boards or commenting on blogs.  Even those people with reason to complain, like Jan Pinkava and Brenda Chapman, have been circumspect.  Perhaps that's because the field is so small they didn't wish to burn bridges or perhaps there were settlements paid with silence as a condition.

But within Pixar, what's the mood?  Can any statement or policy from Catmull be treated as genuine now when the staff knows that he has been picking their pockets and limiting their prospects?  Has his authority been neutered?  Will Robert Iger ease him out as a way of reassuring the staff, or worse, leave him where he is and act as if nothing is wrong?

And what about John Lasseter?  What did he know and when did he know it?  Are there emails that implicate him as well?  Did he ever disagree with the policy or did he just accept it?  Regardless, he has profited from it.  Pixar's profits have increased the dividends and the price of Disney stock, making Lasseter richer.  Pixar's employees have paid for a portion of his winery.

Will this hasten people to leave the company?  Will it cause animation artists and students to think twice before applying to Pixar or the other studios involved in the conspiracy?  Will this push some employees or former employees to go public with their grievances?

As we don't know what's going on in Pixar, this may be a tipping point or the staff may just ignore it and keep working.  However, in the 1930s when the world was celebrating Walt Disney, conditions in his studio were deteriorating, eventually resulting in the strike that changed the company forever.

We may have to wait years until some Pixar employees retire or leave the field before we get a sense of how this was received within the company, but eventually the truth will come out.  The media love to build people up and then tear them down.  I'm guessing that it's just a matter of time before Pixar is in their sights.  Certainly the company has given them ample reason to take aim.

Monday, July 07, 2014

Submarine Patrol

(For my regular readers, I couldn't resist taking part in this multi-blog discussion of John Ford films.  I'll return to animation with my next entry.  For those of you wondering why an animation blog is writing about Ford, I've been interested in him for 40 years.  I've seen 80 of his films and TV shows, most of them multiple times, and I count 27 books on Ford on my shelf.  You are not in the hands of a dabbler.)

Anyone interested in Ford knows that starting with his 1939 releases, he made a series of masterpieces.  What is surprising is that immediately preceding that amazing run, his 1938 releases are so little known.  Regarding Four Men and a Prayer, Ford told Peter Bogdanovich that "I just didn't like the story, or anything else about it, so it was a job of work."  The DVD release of the film in the Ford at Fox collection has not prompted anyone to champion the film.

For reasons that I don't understand, Ford's other 1938 release, Submarine Patrol, was omitted from the Ford at Fox collection.  Submarine Patrol can almost be considered a lost Ford film.  It's never legally been available on VHS or DVD.  John McElwee, of the essential blog Greenbriar Picture Shows, doesn't believe the film has run on the Fox Movie Channel and says that the film lost $132,000 on it's initial release, so it was never particularly popular.

I wouldn't say that Submarine Patrol is first- or even second-tier Ford, but it is unmistakeably his work.  It looks back to films like Men Without Women, Seas Beneath and Up the River and looks forward to They Were Expendable, When Willie Comes Marching Home and Donovan's Reef.  Anyone familiar with Ford would immediately recognize it as his work from the supporting cast and the style of humour.  While it doesn't come together into anything you could call great, Ford's themes and approach are strong throughout the film.  While Four Men and a Prayer may have been an obligation to the studio, Submarine Patrol was a film that Ford was interested in making.  By 1938, Ford was already in the U.S. Naval reserve, and one of the freighters in the film, the Maria Ann, sails out of Portland Maine, Ford's home town.

I will recount the plot simply because the film is so little known.  During World War I, a rich socialite named Perry Townsend, played by Richard Greene, joins the Navy expecting to be assigned to an impressive ship.  Instead, he's assigned to be chief engineer on a 110 foot wooden submarine chaser manned by a crew of recruits who lack discipline.  Lt. John Drake, played by Preston Foster, was responsible for letting a destroyer run onto the rocks while on watch and was court-martialed for it.  Now, he's assigned to the same submarine chaser and has the job of getting the crew into shape.

Townsend meets Susan Leeds (Nancy Kelly), daughter of a freighter captain (George Bancroft), and falls in love with her.  The captain thinks his intentions are dishonourable in the parlance of the time and is against their relationship.  Susan's resistance to her father foreshadows Mary Kate Danaher's resistance to her family and husband in The Quiet Man.

Through various plot twists, Townsend, Drake and the captain all end up on the sub chaser when they go on a mission to sink a German submarine.  Drake is commended for the action, and the captain approves of Townsend's marriage to his daughter, but the necessities of war prevent it.  Duty comes first, though Susan pledges to wait. 

The plot elements are hardly novel.  The disgraced officer who regains respect and the rich kid who learns discipline to become a team player were not new even in 1938.  The same plot elements would be used in many movies made during World War II just a few years later.

Ford doesn't do much to add depth to either of these plots, and I suspect it's due to the actors he's working with.  The best performances in Ford films come from actors who are capable of expressing their thoughts through their facial expressions.  Think of Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath preparing to leave her homestead for the last time.  Ford consciously pushed his actors in this direction.  In Stagecoach,  he changed John Wayne from someone who spouted expository dialogue in B movies to a performer silently exposing his innermost thoughts through his reactions.

While Ford had worked with Preston Foster in The Informer and The Plough and the Stars, Foster was an actor whose emotions don't go very deep.  There's no complexity or subtext to his performances.  Richard Greene is even worse.  His dialogue delivery is all at the same pitch and the same tempo; there's little modulation in how he delivers his lines.  While he is handsome, his eyes are not expressive.   There are shots towards the end of the film where Greene and Bancroft are both in the engine room of the sub chaser while it is traveling through a minefield.  The contrast in their performances is striking.  Ford gives extended close-ups to Bancroft because Bancroft's love for his daughter and the danger of his situation read clearly on his face.  Greene's face reveals no comparable emotion.

Knowing that he couldn't add depth to the main stories, Ford concentrated on the supporting cast to add comedy and Fordian grace notes.  That's where the value of this film lies.  The supporting cast is full of Ford's stock company of the time.  John Carradine, Ward Bond, J. Farrell MacDonald, Jack Pennick, Slim Summerville, Warren Hymer, Harry Tenbrook and Harry Strang had all been in previous Ford films.  Charles Trowbridge would appear again in later Ford films.  Elisha Cook, Jr. might have become a Ford regular but for an accident during filming that upset Ford.  Cook's bandaged left thumb can be seen towards the end of the film.

Ford's comedy is broad and knockabout.  There are gags about sea sickness, Navy food, malapropisms, slot machines, drinking and "The Monkey's Have No Tails in Zamboanga" is sung as in many of Ford's Navy films.  J. Farrell MacDonald, 63 years old at the time, leads the men in calisthenics, jumps a rope railing and knocks out a complaining seaman.  A subplot with Maxie Rosenbloom has him stealing Richard Greene's initial girlfriend and winning a slot machine jackpot, a gag later used in Donovan's Reef.  Slim Summerville is the main comic relief, playing a sad sack Navy cook, who claims everything he serves is lamb stew and is so dumb he throws garbage into the wind.  Henry Armetta plays an over emotional waiter who cries when he's happy or sad.  Everyone except the lead characters adds humour to the film, and often just a facial expression is enough to provoke a laugh.

There are two sequences where Ford evokes melancholy emotions.  When the sub chaser leaves New York to head out to sea, the crew stares at the shore, remembering parts of their past lives and aware that they may be saying goodbye permanently.  Later, when the sub chaser successfully destroys a German sub, a sailor asks Jack Pennick if they should cheer or something.  Pennick says no and salutes his fallen opponents.  Ford previously had Germans salute a fallen American in Seas Beneath.  Even in victory there is loss, and loss is a recurring theme in Ford's work. As in They Were Expendable, the enemy is never demonized; death is something to be respected, not celebrated.

Submarine Patrol deserves to be better known.  It's a pleasant film for casual viewers and full of Fordian moments and humour for fans of the director's work.  Let's hope that Fox releases it on DVD or at least runs it on their movie channel.

(For those interested in reading more of the Ford Blogathon, Krell Laboratories is the central hub.  You can find the entries for day one here.)

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

TAAFI 2014 Part 3

The final day of TAAFI was devoted to industry panels.  It started with DreamWorks supervising animator Rex Grignon recapping his career.
L to R: Shari Cohen, Mark Jones, George Elliot, Laura Clooney, Juan Lopez, Michelle Melanson, Brian Simpson

This was followed by The State of the Industry panel.  While I understand that TAAFI has to keep good relations with its sponsors and the industry, this panel could better be called The Conventional Wisdom panel.  Rather than discuss the real state of the industry, it deals with what everyone thinks the world looks like at this particular point.  Nobody talks about the challenges that Canadian animation is facing or challenges the direction that the industry is going.

George Elliot made the point that in the past, the industry was more about service work and didn't pay much attention to building brands.  Now, there is less service work and studios are working harder to build brands.  While this is accurate (and not to dump on George, who is one of the more successful independent studio owners), it ignores the myopia of Canadian studios for the last 25 years.  While American studios were building worldwide franchises around shows like Dora the Explorer, Spongebob Squarepants, and The Powerpuff Girls, Canadian studios focused on working the tax credits and Canadian content rules to get shows on the air.  Once the show it 52 or 65 episodes, it was retired.  Instead of continuing to build a franchise to the point where it could support merchandising, studios walked away from shows.

As viewers are abandoning broadcast and cable TV, Canadian content rules are becoming less and less useful.  Now the Canadian animation industry is heavily dependent on the existence of tax credits to fund production.   There is no guarantee that those tax credits will survive or won't be superseded by larger tax credits in other countries.  As usual, the Canadian industry is always using a crutch to stay in business.  Rather than using the crutch as a way to get strong enough to survive without government regulation or largesse, the industry is addicted to the government propping it up in one way or another.  So long as the short term is covered, Canadian producers are satisfied.  Are there any studios strong enough to weather the withdrawal of government support?

Would TAAFI be able to stage a real discussion or debate about the state of the industry?

Vera Brosgal
Vera Brosgal presented a panel called The BoxTrolls: A Case Study.  The talk was actually more about Coraline and Paranorman, but was still a very enjoyable look behind the scenes at Laika.  Brosgal showed some of her storyboards as well as images of the various departments at Laika.

Ayah Norris of Indiegogo gave an excellent talk about crowdfunding and the best way to orchestrate a crowdfunded campaign.  She revealed that Indiegogo takes 7% as their cut for projects that fulfill their goals and talked about how it is best to know you can quickly get to 30% of your goal before launching the campaign.  The best perks are those that can be delivered digitally, as they are the most cost efficient, and she stressed that the cost of the perks should be calculated before the goal is set.

She mentioned that any dispute, say for non-delivery, was between the contributor and the project.  Indiegogo takes no responsibility for projects that don't deliver.  This is the Achilles' heel of crowdfunding.  While the amounts donated are generally low, they are a 100% risk.  I've donated to several crowdfunded campaigns that have not delivered their promised perks or did not get completed.

That was my TAAFI for this year.  There were many panels and screenings that I did not attend, so others may have very different opinions.

I think TAAFI is still trying to figure out who its audience is.  There are events for fans, students, and professionals.  The Animarket is a case in point.  It was free, which was an excellent move, but I suspect that artists looking to sell their work were disappointed relative to their experiences at Anime North or Fan Expo.  The studios there to recruit and the hardware/software vendors were probably pleased with the response they got.  I'm sure that the TAAFI management will be evaluating the Animarket results and adjusting accordingly.

Here are some suggestions for future TAAFIs.  While the venue was good, being located on Lake Ontario at Corus and George Brown College, the food choices were severely limited.  I hope that if TAAFI continues in this location that they do something about this.  The industry panels should be moved to a weekend day so that people would not have to lose a day of work to attend them.  There should be a separate pass for just the industry panels and also a separate pass for just the screenings.

While TAAFI is still suffering some growing pains, it is an excellent festival and one of the few events that unite the Toronto industry.  I look forward to future editions and I'm confident that it will continue to improve.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Supreme Court to Rule on Jack Kirby Case?

Updated at the bottom.

Readers of this blog know of my interest in creator rights and the work of Jack Kirby.  Kirby was one of the most prolific comic book artists of the 20th century.  It's not just that he turned out an enormous amount of work, it's that he created more characters - both heroes and villains - than anyone else.

At the time he did his work, the comic book business was run by people with questionable ethics and business practices.  As a result, Marvel does not have a clear title to the characters Kirby created and Kirby's children have fought in court to recover the copyrights to their father's work.  So far, the courts have ruled in Marvel's favour.  However, the issue is not yet resolved and the Supreme Court of the United States will soon decide whether to hear the latest appeal.  In the corporatist time we live in, I'm skeptical that the court will rule against Marvel and Disney, but there is still a chance.

The Hollywood Reporter has the latest on this case and it is worth reading.

If you create material that you pitch to broadcasters or studios, you own the copyright to your work.  While the thrill of a sale can be overwhelming, don't lose your copyright without fully understanding the repercussions.  It is the single most valuable part of your creation.  If Jack Kirby owned the copyright to his characters, his life would have been very different and each of his four children would be multimillionaires.  Instead, Disney is not paying the estate when they reprint Kirby's work or when they make blockbuster movies featuring Kirby's characters.

Creative people need to understand what happened to Jack Kirby (and Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, and Bill Finger) in order to prevent it from happening to them.  Educate yourself.

Update: The Hollywood Reporter says that the actors, writers and directors unions are filing briefs in support of the Kirby case being taken up by the Supreme Court.  The article points out that the case could have repercussions for the music industry as well.