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.