Monday, January 20, 2014

Remembering Michael Sporn

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I cannot remember exactly when I first met Michael Sporn.  In the mid-1970s I began attending events given by ASIFA-East, and I’m sure that’s where I met Michael, but I couldn’t name the event or the year.

Certainly, I knew him by the time he was working on Raggedy Ann and Andy in 1976.  I began working in the animation business that year.  Michael was 8 years my senior and while farther along in his career, he was close enough to my age to be accessible.  His love for animation was obvious from the first time I met him and he was always happy to share his knowledge.

While American animation was born in New York, its survival there was tenuous from the 1930s onwards.  The Fleischer studio left for Miami and later returned under new ownership.  The Van Beuren studio went out of business.  Paul Terry left the city proper for the suburb of New Rochelle.  As theatrical cartoons died in the 1950s and ‘60s, New York survived on TV commercials with longer projects appearing only occasionally.  The artists in N.Y. animation were older, pretty much all veterans of the theatrical studios.  Some had entered the industry as early as the 1920s and others as late as the 1950s, but the industry wasn’t steady enough to entice newcomers except for those who loved animation deeply.  There were many better ways to earn a living as an artist in New York when Michael entered the business.

By the time of Raggedy Ann, Michael had already worked for John Hubley, someone who influenced Michael deeply.  Hubley was a pioneer in breaking the monopoly of the Disney design style, which he continued to do at UPA and at his own studio.  He also gravitated to projects that were far from typical in animation.  His films with his wife Faith dealt with childhood from a child’s point of view and with the politics of nationalism and the arms race.  Michael continued the Hubley tradition of eclectic design and films that were socially aware.

I think the two best words to describe Michael were courage and determination.  It took both to brave the uncertainty of New York animation and to make films that he felt a personal connection to.  The majority of N.Y. studios were content to do service work and satisfied if they could keep their doors open.  Michael, from the beginning, sought out projects that were off the beaten track and that he could invest in emotionally.  At the same time, Michael was always aware of the audience.  While many artists succumb to self-indulgence, Michael was always interested in being heard.  His films were always accessible.

Many of the New York studios were prejudiced against younger artists.  Many of them also ignored the better veteran animators who were available.  Michael embraced both.  He was constantly giving young artists opportunities, many of whom went on to productive careers in and out of animation.  Animation lovers owe Michael a debt of gratitude for keeping the late Tissa David busy and giving her opportunities like The Marzipan Pig, a half hour special she animated in its entirety for him.  Other veterans such as Dante Barbetta also found work with Michael.

Like many young animators, I left New York after a few years in search of work, but I always kept in touch with Michael and visited him whenever I was in New York.  Michael threw me a lifeline in 1989 for a few years as I worked on many of his TV specials from Toronto.  The one I contributed the most to was Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, animating about a quarter of the film.  Looking back on my career, my work for Michael is easily some of my favorite.  He was a hands-off director, giving me more freedom as an animator than most other studios, and yet the resulting films always bore his stamp. 

Michael’s budgets were always low.  The animation I did for him had to be on three’s in order to stay within the budget.  Working for cable channels or PBS, it was a given that budgets would not be as high as those from the networks.  However, the freedom these outlets provided allowed Michael to make films that he cared about.  The Red Shoes, Happy to be Nappy and Whitewash all dealt with race.  The Little Match Girl dealt with urban poverty.  Abel’s Island, based on a book by William Steig, dealt with loneliness and the power of art.  That film and other Steig adaptations, Dr. Desoto and The Amazing Bone, are far more faithful to Steig’s work than DreamWorks was.

Michael always wanted to make a feature.  He came close several times.  His final project, based on Edgar Allen Poe, was plagued by problems; first the death of Tissa David and now Michael’s own.  It's ironic that Michael passed away on January 19, Poe's birthday.  At a time when animated features are proliferating, it’s a crime that Michael never had the opportunity to make one.  His uncanny ability to stretch a dollar meant that he could have made a feature for under $5 million, but because he stuck with drawn animation and because his taste was considered too different from typical animation, he never got the chance.

For all the box office and ratings success that animation has enjoyed recently in North America, I would not call this a fertile time.  Too many films and TV shows are imitating past successes.  Michael never gave in, though it probably would have been to his economic advantage to do so.  He managed to keep his studio going, always looking for projects he could love despite their tight budgets.  He stayed in New York, he stayed true to his own vision, and he provided opportunities for artists that nobody else would.  He took advantage of New York’s cultural scene by hiring actors and musicians from the theatre for his projects, tapping a talent pool that Hollywood has mostly ignored.  He made good films.  My favourite is Abel’s Island, though they all are worth watching.

Michael’s lack of profile with the general public will make his loss seem less than it is.  Make no mistake: we’ve lost a great film maker who managed to create art with the sparsest of resources.  Animation needs creators like Michael if it’s ever going to explore the full range of human experience. 

Those who knew and worked with him know what we’ve lost.  I’m sorry for those who aren’t aware of Michael’s work, but while they can correct that, they missed the chance to know a great animation artist and a generous friend.

Rest in Peace Michael Sporn

Michael Sporn has died.  Michael Barrier and John Canemaker have put together an obituary for him.  I've known Michael for close to 40 years and this is a great loss.  I'll write more when I can collect my thoughts.

Thursday, January 09, 2014

Monday, January 06, 2014

Motion Capture for Home Use

I'm no expert when it comes to motion capture, but I'm aware of some of the technical challenges.  In the past, body suits with potentiometers at the joints sent angle information to rigged characters.  Later, multiple cameras were able to triangulate reference points pasted onto body suits to figure out where the points were in 3D space.  Facial capture usually meant wearing headgear with an attached camera pointed at the performer's face, which had dots drawn on it for reference points.

In each case, specialized hardware was necessary and somebody had to write software to translate the raw data into usable positions or angles that could drive a character.

All in all, not something the average person could do at home.

Technology has a habit of taking things that were once difficult and expensive and making them simple for anyone to use.  It's now happening to motion capture.

What you're seeing here is a home motion capture system to work with a webcam and allow a person to drive an animation-style character in real time.  I can't tell if the headphones are part of the necessary hardware or just headphones, but in any case, the system couldn't be much simpler for an average user.  Admittedly, it isn't perfect and the lip synch is probably the weakest part, but like all applications, it will improve in future versions.

This is being built by a team of Romanian software developers and they're raising money on Indiegogo.  The most basic package can be had for $5 U.S. and they've already reached their financial goal.

Technology has put a lot of people out of business and reduced the viability of various fields.  Good luck finding a typesetter and there are fewer graphic designers than there once were now that software has enabled anybody to do it.  True, a good designer brings experience and taste to a project that an amateur will not, but the tools are in reach for anyone who wants them.  And with templates available for blogs, websites, documents and presentations, the bread and butter work that used to cover a graphic designer's overhead has pretty much vanished.

I'm wondering if we're not witnessing something very similar happening to the role of the animator and possibly the role of the storyboard artist as well.

Motion capture isn't animation, but it can look like animation.  The general audience cares less about technique than about being entertained.  Knowing how to act for motion capture can be learned, the same way that comedians in silent films or mimes developed styles of movement that met their needs.  While undoubtedly there will be a lot of junk produced, the democratization of the tools will result in motion captured films that attempt to resemble animation from the major studios.

There's an indie film world where live action features are sometimes made for as little as $100,000.  The evolution of motion capture tools like FaceRig may make "animated" features possible at the same budget level.  Animators would not be necessary.

Possibly neither would storyboard artists.  The board exists to nail down the presentation of the visuals, but many live action directors don't use them.  If you can direct your characters in real time, boards are not as necessary.  In addition, once the performance exists in the virtual 3D world, you're free to direct the film after the performances are captured by placing the camera and deciding when to cut.  It will be easier than ever for people who know how to entertain an audience and communicate a story visually to create a film inexpensively.

Will this affect the animation industry as we know it or is it just a toy?  I don't know.  But I am amazed at how far motion capture has come technologically, when $5 can buy you a facial capture system and a bunch of avatars.  After seeing what happened to record companies and newspapers when technology upended them, the one thing I know is that we should not be complacent.

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Richard Williams Documentary in Toronto


Kevin Schreck's documentary on the making of Richard Williams' The Cobbler and the Thief, Persistence of Vision, will be playing several times at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema in January.  Schreck will be appearing at several screenings via Skype and two artists who worked on the film, Greg Duffell and Tara Donovan, will be present in person.

The film first screened in Toronto last August as part of TAAFI.  I reviewed it here.  I highly recommend the film and the opportunity to hear from Schreck, Duffell and Donovan, all of whom also accompanied the TAAFI screening. 

Here are the dates:

Fri, Jan 10 6:30 PM*
Sat, Jan 11 1:00 PM*
Sun, Jan 12 3:30 PM*
Mon, Jan 13 6:30 PM
Wed, Jan 15 4:00 PM
Thu, Jan 16 3:45 PM 


The asterisks indicate which screenings that Schreck, Duffell and Donovan will appear.

No Honour in His Own Country

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Frederic Back died on December 24.  I first heard of it on Jerry Beck's Animation Scoop website and then found an obituary in the L.A. Times.  Turning to Canada's media, there was nothing.  Eventually, CBC radio's As It Happens aired a segment with Normand Roger, composer for Back's best films, remembering Back.

Now, over one week later, the two national papers, The Globe and Mail and the National Post, have yet to run any kind of obituary for the two-time Oscar winner and member of the Order of Canada.  CTV and The Canadian Press have both done perfunctory obituaries.  Only the French language Le Devoir has any kind of lengthy coverage.

There is no question that Back was the greatest living Canadian animator.  Now that he is gone, I would be hard pressed to suggest a successor who is even close to Back's accomplishments.  Not only was Back a brilliant artist and animator, he was a dedicated environmentalist whose films celebrated Quebec's landscape and culture. It's a crime that no one who regularly writes about art or film in English-speaking Canada has seen fit to comment on Back's death or his accomplishments.

The Globe and Mail did publish an obituary for Al Goldstein on December 19.  It's disheartening to know that the paper feels that an American pornographer merits more coverage than an award winning Canadian animator.

Update: The Globe and Mail finally published an obituary one month and two days after Back's death. As of January 26, the National Post has still done nothing.