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.

How Pixar Made Me a Better Photographer

photo by Paul Teolis

Animation artist and photographer Paul Teolis has written  an article called "How Pixar Made Me a Better Photographer."  And it's not in the way you might think.  The article says a lot about career management in a time and industry of uncertainty. 

TAAFI 2014 Part 2

Sunday at TAAFI began for me with a panel called Compelling Character Design featuring Dave Cooper, Jessica Borutski and Stephen Silver and hosted by the Guys with Pencils, Andrew Murray and Adam Hines.
L to R: Andrew Murray, Adam Hines, Dave Cooper, Jessica Borutski, Stephen Silver

Dave Cooper talked about drawing from photos and then doing multiple passes on the drawings, each time pushing the caricature and the shapes farther, as a way of warming up. Silver also agreed that figure drawing was fundamental.

The following panel was called Creating Success and was hosted by Mike Valiquette of Canadian Animation Resources and featured Rob Davies, Dave Cooper, Mike Geiger, Michael Rex and Natasha Allegri.
L to R: Mike Valiquette, Rob Davies, Dave Cooper, Mike Geiger, Michael Rex, Natasha Allegri

Each of these people had sold a show and Valiquette questioned them about the paths they followed. Davies is a partner in Atomic Cartoons and one of the creators of Atomic Betty. Cooper started out as a cartoonist and fine art painter before pitching shows and only after Pig Boat Banana Cricket was rejected by Nickelodeon and gathered an audience online did Nickelodeon reverse itself and pick the show up. Mike Geiger had been creating online animation for years. Michael Rex was a children's book illustrator who created a series of graphic novels starring a barbarian in third grade called Fangbone. Natasha Allegri had been doing online comics since high school and was invited to work on Adventure Time as a result. From there, she created the online series Bee and Puppycat. In every case except for Allegri, the shows had been in development for a period of years before getting the green light. A question I should have asked, but didn't, was whether anyone on the panel retained part ownership of the copyright of their projects and whether they had any share of ancillary rights such as merchandising.
L to R: Steve Wolfhard, Vera Brosgal, Michael Rex, Jason Thompson

Make Comics! featured Steve Wolfhard (Cat Rackham), Vera Brosgal (Anya's Ghost) and Michael Rex (Fangbone) and was moderated by Jason Thompson (The Art of Dad).  All three of the panelists work in animation: Wolfhard on Adventure Time, Brosgal at Laika and Rex on the forthcoming Fangbone series.  For Wolfhard, comics were a way to create personal work away from a day job.  Brosgal talked about how her graphic novel was a way to deal with her experiences as an immigrant and Rex created the graphic novel as part of his day job creating children's books but it got optioned for a series.

My final event of the day was a screening of Student Shorts.  Seven countries were represented, which speaks well for the quality of animation education around the world.  Overboard used a sailing analogy to talk about the production of animated films.  It was directed by Paul Zeke at the Vancouver Film School.  Harald, directed by Moritz Schneider, is a cgi film about a wrestler with a mother/manager from hell. Floating in My Mind is a beautiful film by Hélène Leroux, but I don't know if the baloon metaphor is properly worked out.  Chili Con Carne by Philippe Rolland is funny and ends with a very sick joke.  The Sugar Bugs is an epic by John Kim about bacteria.  There were two films by Sheridan grads: Backwards Cat Goes to the Vet by Tanya Kozak and Bringing up Bigfoot by Edward Coughlin.

EXTRAIT : Philippe Rolland "Chili con carne" from Ecole Emile Cohl on Vimeo.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

TAAFI 2014 Part 1

The third edition of the Toronto Animated Arts Festival International has now finished.  As always, there was more than a single person could attend, so what follows is only a partial review of what occurred.

This year, the opening night film was a French feature, Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart, directed by Stéphane Berla and Mathias Malzieu.  Unfortunately, it could not live up to last year's opening night feature, The Day of the Crows.  While the film had interesting art direction, it was heavily influenced by Tim Burton, reminding me of Edward Scissorhands and the ending echoed Corpse Bride.  The script was extremely talky and the drama was not as developed as it should have been.  Still, I'm always grateful for the opportunity to see an animated feature that isn't available in North America.

Prior to the feature, two shorts were screened.  Gertie the Dinosaur, 100 Years Later, was not, as many of us suspected, a screening of McCay's original film.  It was a wholly original piece taking off on McCay's film and was well received by the audience.  This year's College Animation Challenge, It Happened in a Pub, included contributions from seven Ontario animation programs.  Max the Mutt's contribution was generally acknowledged to be the best.
Dan Povenmire (left) and Jeff "Swampy" Marsh

On Saturday morning, the creators of Phineas and Ferb, Dan Povenmire and Jeff "Swampy" Marsh, critiqued It Happened in a Pub and then gave their keynote speech, going over their careers and how they launched the show.

The next thing I attended was a screening of shorts for kids.   Lightning Larry by Daniel Solomon and Hyun Jun Song, had  being late for school turning into a disaster movie.  Runaway by Susan Huen Sin Yung and Esther Parobek was about an aging refrigerator convinced he was to be replaced by a newer appliance.  A Girl Named Elastika used pushpins and rubber bands to form its characters, a very novel approach to animating.  Warren Brown had three of his Big Block Singsong shorts screened, and while simple were great fun. The Fog of Courage, a cgi Courage the Cowardly Dog short by John Dilworth was incredibly creepy and sent at least one child out of the screening in tears.  The final film, The Dam Keeper by Robert Kondo and Dice Tsutusmi, was a beautifully art directed film bullying and social isolation.

"Courage the Cowardly Dog" (Excerpt) from Acme Filmworks on Vimeo.
A GIRL NAMED ELASTIKA from Guillaume Blanchet I Filmmaker on Vimeo.

I then went to a second screening entitled Straight Up Toons.  Monkey Rag, by Joanna Davidovich is an energetic homage to musical cartoons and was lots of fun.  Yellow Sticky Notes, directed by Jeff Chiba Stearns, was a jam animation about a day in the lives of all the animators.  Crime: The Animated Series, directed by Alix Lambert and Sam Chou, used documentary soundtracks and a range of design approaches to illustrate various perspectives on criminal activity.  Mr. Hublot, which won an Oscar for bets animated short, was an amusing story about a man and his robot dog.

I really looked forward to seeing Stephen Silver at the festival.  Besides admiring his art, I admire his fearlessness.  He is very entrepreneurial and has no hesitation to move forward on any idea he has for marketing his artwork and earning a living with it.  His talk was entitled "How Not to Get Screwed" and was about behaving in a professional manner and watching out for people who have no hesitation to take advantage of artists.
Stephen Silver

My final event for Saturday was Bill Plympton's latest feature Cheatin'.  I have very mixed feelings about Plympton.  On the one hand, he's certainly a good artist and I admire the way he's created a unique career for himself.  On the other hand, I find that his features are all lacking in the areas of story and structure.  Cheatin' is about a husband who is given a photo implying that his wife has cheated on him.  The problem is that the evidence showing that she is innocent is in the same photo, but the husband never looks closely enough to notice.  Furthermore, the husband never confronts his wife about her supposed infidelity.  The audience spends the entire film knowing that the wife is innocent and wondering how long it's going to take for the husband to figure it out.  The story could have been told in 20 minutes but made for a very dull feature.  I noted three people who left while the film was in progress.

Plympton doesn't need advice from me, but I wish that he would work with a writer.  He's complained that it's difficult to get distributors to take on his films because they don't conform to the family audience, but in this case, I think the film is its own worst enemy.  Everyone knows that sex sells, yet his film built entirely around illicit sex is far from compelling.  There's nothing wrong with Plympton's ideas, but they need more structure, less padding (there are endless shots of characters traveling) and better dramatic development.
Cheatin' Trailer from Bill Plympton on Vimeo.

To be continued.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Book Review: Genius Animated: The Cartoon Art of Alex Toth

This is the third volume by Dean Mullaney and Bruce Canwell chronicalling the life and career of Alex Toth.  Toth spent the bulk of his career illustrating comic books but spent a significant portion of his life designing animation for TV.

The earlier two volumes focused on Toth's work in comics and included a fair amount of biographical material from Toth's co-workers and family.  This volume is entirely about his work in animation, though the text is sparse and frankly not very valuable.  The interviewees, including Mike Kazaleh and Robert Alvarez, never worked with Toth.  The bulk of the book are designs, model sheets and presentation art that Toth created for TV cartoons.

Toth was a master of composition and design.  His cropping is unusual and he constantly tried to strip down his drawings to their essentials.  His use of blacks, patterns and textures went far beyond what most other artists in comics or animation concerned themselves with.  His influences included Noel Sickles, Milt Caniff, and Jesse Marsh.

 His initial foray into animation was Space Angel, and in many ways it sums up the issues surrounding Toth's animation design.  Toth's drawings for the show are excellent, but the drawings don't move.  The lip synch was done by photographic real mouths and superimposing them on the drawings.  While the graphics are very sophisticated, the motion is primitive. 

While Toth simplified his work for later animated shows he designed for Hanna Barbera, there was always a considerable gap between the quality of the designs and the style of motion.  Joe Barbera used Toth's work in his sales pitches to networks, but it was all smoke and mirrors and everyone agreed to ignore the truth.  The artists at Hanna-Barbera couldn't draw as well as Toth and there was never a hope that there would be a consistency between the style of drawing and the style of motion.  The network executives knew that the shows would never look as good as Toth's presentation art, but the limited profits for Saturday morning cartoons were not enough to cause them to bother about it.

While Toth groused about the quality of the comic book scripts he was given, they were far better than the animation that resulted from his work.  People forget how truly terrible TV animation was in the 1960s and '70s.  Toth designed the first TV version of Marvel's Fantastic Four.  Take a look at how poor the show's opening credits are.

There are people who are nostalgic for shows Toth designed like Space Ghost or The Herculoids. Toth may have improved the quality of the designs, but the shows never rose to the level of his work.

There are a lot of great drawings in this book.  All three volumes are valuable for showing Toth's evolution as an artist and demonstrating what's possible in visual storytelling.  The third volume leaves an important question unanswered, though.  Are Toth's drawings, as good as they are, appropriate designs for animation at all?  Given the realities of the marketplace, are the designs functional? Perhaps Bruce Timm and company came closest to answering the question, but even their shows feel compromised in terms of motion to me.

Many have commented that Toth is an artist without a monument.  He has no work universally acknowledged as great or remembered by the audience.  That's the tragedy of his career, but it doesn't negate the quality of his drawings or design.  Every Toth drawing is an education, and that alone makes this book, and the preceding volumes, worth having.

Friday, June 06, 2014

Art Babbitt, Gunther Lessing, and the Disney Strike

Jake Friedman is working on an authorized biography of animator Art Babbitt.  He also has a blog where he has been publishing various Babbitt-related documents and footage.  His latest entry is below, chronicling the relationship between Babbitt and Gunther Lessing, attorney for the Disney studio.  I wish that it had been uploaded at a higher resolution, so that the documents on screen would be clearer.

The Disney strike is one of those seismic events that continued to be influential long after it was over.  It caused people to leave Disney, others to be fired, and many of those people moved to other studios, spreading the knowledge they gained at Disney.  It also created animosities that continued for decades.

If the Disney studio had negotiated a contract with the Federation of Screen Cartoonists and blocked the entry of IATSE, would the strike have occurred?  The history of the Disney studio and unionism in animation might have been significantly different, but the opportunity was missed.