Saturday, September 30, 2006

The Man Who Walked Between the Towers

I'm writing about this film not only because I thought it was one of the best I saw at the Ottawa festival, but also because I think the film is a metaphor for Mike Sporn's career and what animation needs to be.

The film is based on a book by Mordicai Gerstein, which is based on a factual event. Philippe Petit was an aerialist who managed to string a cable between the towers of the World Trade Center and walk across the gap, eluding police on the tops of both towers until he decided his experience was complete and gave himself up.

Our impression of the towers was changed forever on September 11, 2001, but the truth is that the buildings were never loved all that much by New Yorkers. Architecturally they were boring, with none of the style of the Empire State building, the Chrysler building, Rockefeller Center or the Flatiron building. Until the towers became a target, Petit's walk was perhaps the most notable thing about them. Where New Yorkers just saw two overly large rectangular boxes, Petit saw the potential for art.

The relationship between art and life is a theme that runs through several of Michael Sporn's films. It's perhaps strongest in Abel's Island, a personal favorite, where art becomes a way of dealing with loss and loneliness. In The Man Who Walked Between the Towers, it's about transforming the mundane into the extraordinary. Petit's walk not only satisfies his own artistic needs, his achievement captures the imagination of everyone on the ground.

While the film is obviously rooted in true events, it also functions on other levels. The towers are the two poles of commercialism and self-expression. Commercialism at its most extreme is the soulless pursuit of money. Self-expression at its most extreme is self-indulgence. Neither, at their extremes, satisfies an audience. The sweet spot is between the poles, though the path is precarious. Those standing at each pole attempt to validate their position by trying to capture those in the middle. The tightrope walker is assailed from all sides, but is at peace if he can maintain his balance.

Michael Sporn has been doing his balancing act for many years. He's never been considered commercial enough to rate a major budget or get a feature financed because he's interested in real, rather than superficial, emotion. He values narrative, pacing, characterization and acting too much to be embraced by the experimentalists. He manages to suspend himself between them, satisfying himself and his audience at the same time. Having known Mike for over 30 years, I know that maintaining his studio while doing meaningful work hasn't been easy. Defying gravity never is.

But what other choice does he have? And the rest of us have to recognize when our pockets are being picked or when the conversation is really a monologue. The more we do and the more we act on it, the easier it will be for those on the highwire to keep their balance.

Orestes Calpini

Orestes Calpini was an animator who got his start at the Fleischer studio and continued working at Famous Studios until the late '40's. He was also a comic book artist in the '40's, working on Hillman's Punch and Judy Comics for editor Ed Cronin, himself a former Fleischer artist.

The Willard Bowsky-Orestes Calpini Popeyes are some of the most vigorous and nicely drawn of the series. Titles include Let's Get Movin' , Hold the Wire, The Paneless Window Washer, Organ Grinder's Swing, I Never Changes My Altitude, Plumbin' is a Pipe, A Date to Skate and Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba and His Forty Thieves.

The latest issue of The Comics Journal (#278) has an article on Calpini's comic book work by Jim Vadeboncoeur, Jr, a leading comics historian, and reprints 35 pages of Calpini's comics in colour.

Thursday, September 28, 2006


For those in attendence, I only saw competitions 3, 4 and 5. Three of the prize winners came from the opening competition screening, so perhaps I was just unlucky.

It's impossible to know if the selection was a true cross section of what's being done today or a reflection of the tastes of the people selecting the films, but I found the films in competition to be a major disappointment. The films were far more interested in design and concept than they were in character or acting. They had no sense of pace, most being horribly slow. Humor was in short supply and a lot of the humor was based on cruelty. There was a lot of violence directed towards animals and it wasn't cartoon violence; it was death and dismemberment.

I tried to imagine what type of person would get up in the morning and be happy to work on some of these films. I found them difficult to sit through and couldn't imagine spending weeks or months creating them.

Two of the areas where the films were strongest were the films made for children and films made for the web. The children's films were more upbeat, more entertaining and better paced than the films in the regular competition. The exceptions in the children's films were the ones made for American TV. The soundtracks were loud and unrelenting. Their pacing was terrible. It's clear that they were overwritten, but the scripts were deemed to precious to cut.

The makers of internet shorts have the advantage of knowing how often their films are viewed. I think this has resulted in a healthy respect for the audience. The films communicate clearly and humorously and don't let their designs overwhelm their content.

There are screenings known as showcases, where the films screen out of competition. I would love to know how the films are categorized, because the showcase films were generally superior. The international showcase included shorts by Disney and DreamWorks. Why were they quarantined? Were their budgets too high? Were they too entertaining? Was the jury too impressionable?

At the 2004 Ottawa festival, an animator friend of mine said that the trick to attending Ottawa was to go to all the retrospectives and showcases and avoid the competition screenings. I'd amend that to include watching the children's and web films, but my friend wasn't far wrong. Next time, I think I'll follow his advice.

Evolving Business Models and Other Stuff

I'm linking to a lot to material that Scott Kirsner points out on his Cinematech blog. CustomFlix is a branch of that will help you get your digital content listed on Amazon. Amazon is now offering digital downloads and CustomFlix announced that they will support that service. The good thing about this is that Amazon doesn't exclude anybody, regardless of how small they are, which means that independent film makers will be able to sell downloads there. That's about as low cost distribution as you can get. The only thing cheaper is hosting the download yourself, but you miss out on being part of Amazon's search and recommendation engines.

Over at The Beat, a comics news blog, there's a link to an interview with Todd Allen about various business models being used by comics artists on the web. Much of what's discussed is also relevant to independent animators. Comics creation costs less and takes less time than animation, so comics creators got to the web first and figured out business models. Animators should take advantage of that by learning from them.

Keith Lango has posted an article about the increasing slickness of CGI and how he thinks it's a bad thing. I'd add that animation always seems to fall into the trap of refining surfaces. It gets slicker, but not deeper. Personally, I'm hungrier for good content than I am for eye candy.

David Nethery has posted an introduction and some images of Ottawa, including many from the recent animation festival.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Control Freaks

Here are two interesting articles that talk about how big media is attempting to maintain control over content and audiences. Cory Doctorow writes about High Def and how the media is forcing electronics manufacturers to bend to its will.

Jeff Jarvis gave the keynote address at the Video on the Net conference, talking about how the media landscape is changing. Here's a sample:
"We debated for decades in media whether content or distribution was king. Turns out, neither is. Conversation is the kingdom. Trust is king. You can’t own all the content. You can’t control all the distribution. It turns out that trying to do either is extremely expensive – and, in our post-scarcity media universe, ultimately futile. In the old, closed world of media, owning content or distribution gave you the advantage. It gave you control. Now it just gives you an unbearable cost structure that millions of new competitors – us – are not burdened with. So what should media’s relationship with all of us be? Are we competitors? Or are we partners? If conversation is king, then we must be partners. For the big guys are not in control of the conversation anymore. We are."
And he offers an example of how the Net trumps traditional distribution:
"When Jon Stewart went on CNN’s Crossfire to kill it, bless his heart, he got, according to the head of the network, about 150,000 viewers that day. The next day, of course, it went up on iFilm, where it has been viewed 3.8 million times. Figures double that on Bittorrent et al. So compare: 150,000 on CNN versus 10 million on the network no one owns, our internet – and to a far younger demographic, by the way.

And, of course, YouTube is serving 100 million videos a day now.

The result: The old network is dying."

Back Again

I'm back from Ottawa, still trying to digest my experience of the festival. You can find a list of the winners here, though I have to say that I found the people I spent time with far more satisfying than the films this year. There are several things I want to say about the festival, but I'll need some time to gather my thoughts before putting them down.

I'll take this opportunity to say how nice it was to see old friends like Jerry Beck, Amid Amidi, Mike Sporn, Tom Knott, Mark Langer, Emru and Tamu Townsend, and Bill Perkins. I also got the opportunity to meet people for the first time that I've known through the internet, such as Steve and Mary Stanchfield, Larry Tremblay, Ward Jenkins and David Nethery.

Steve Stanchfield is an animation renaissance man as an animation teacher, a producer-director-animator and a film collector/historian/DVD producer. It was great to meet him and I love all the DVDs he's put out.

I finally got to meet Mike Fukushima of the NFB, after hearing about him for years. I got to talk again very briefly with Evan Spiridellis of Jibjab, whose presentation on independent creators was well attended and enthusiastically received.

Of course there were lots of Toronto friends who came up for the festival as well, some of whom I'm more likely to see in Ottawa than in Toronto.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Off to Ottawa

I'm leaving for Ottawa to attend the Ottawa International Animation Festival and won't be getting back until late Sunday. As I have a full day of teaching on Monday, there won't be any new entries here until Monday night and maybe beyond. It depends on how sleep deprived I am.

If you are attending the Ottawa festival and spot me, feel free to introduce yourself. In any case, have a good weekend.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

More Berny Wolf

Berny Wolf's daughter, Lauren Wolf-Purcell, was kind enough to send these photos of her father and some panel cartoons that he created. Click on any image to see an enlargement.

Berny Wolf is on the left at the drawing board and Bud Swift is wearing the Jiminy Cricket hat. Based on the calendar in the background, this picture was taken in May of 1939.

Lauren writes, "The photo in the oval type frame is from the time period he did the work for the MGM Grand Hotel in Vegas and it was used as the photo for the Lowery Gallery brochure that went along with the book, with other animators included, i.e. Ward Kimball, Ken O'Connor, Joe Grant, Frank Thomas, Thor Putnam, Don Lusk, and Ollie Johnston."

Berny Wolf on his 94th birthday.

Lauren writes, "The cartoon panels are ones that he worked on and we could not get syndicated. That is so upsetting to me as he deserved a chance and I promised him, I would try and get him published. So someday, I will find a way, even if it is using his panels in another format."

Woe Canada

Quick! Name three all-cgi theatrical features that had their visuals made predominantly in Canada. Can't do it? You live in Canada and you still can't do it?

The films I'm thinking of are Pinocchio 3000, The Wild and Everyone's Hero. If you couldn't name them, one reason might be because all three films were flops. Pinocchio 3000 barely got released in Canada. The Wild and Everyone's Hero got wide releases, but neither set the world on fire. Everyone's Hero is still in theaters, but with an opening weekend gross of $6.2 million, it's a safe bet that this film won't be breaking any box office records.

It would take a book to detail Canada's relationship to the U.S. entertainment industry. Canada has content quotas in place in television to prevent U.S. imports from swamping local productions. There are no quotas in place for movies, so in English-speaking Canada, Canadian films get about 3% of screen time. Imagine how odd it would be to have 97% of the movies available to you come from a foreign country. That's Canada.

Canada's track record in animated features is not good. Nelvana has turned out many, but except for Rock and Rule they basically took TV properties and goosed the budgets a little. The theatrical runs were short and the films main audience was on video.

The three films mentioned above were attempts to compete head to head in the feature business, but they all suffer from the view of Canada as a low wage country. Pinocchio 3000 was a Canada-France co-production (Spain was involved in some way as well), but the script came from France. The Wild and Everyone's Hero both had their scripts come from the U.S. Canada's role was to be less-expensive Americans, taking care of the visuals.

The failure of these films is not doing Canada any good. Producers are less likely to bring feature projects to Canada when there's no history of box office success. The problem is that Canada pays for everybody else's sins. If you look at any high end feature studio, you'll find Canadians. They're at Pixar, DreamWorks, Disney, ILM, Sony, and Blue Sky, so the problem is not the quality of Canadian talent. The problem is studio management that won't let the talent in Canada do the job. Canadian studios are shackled to poor scripts and inefficient producers who ride herd on talent that knows it's making bad films.

There's no easy solution. The Canadian film industry is a low budget and low profile affair. It's tough to sit in on a high stakes poker game when you've only got enough chips for one hand. If you don't win the pot, you're out of the game. And if you're an inexperienced player, it's hard to learn the ropes in just one hand.

The deck is currently stacked against home grown Canadian animated features. While there are many low budget live features made for under $10 million, that budget level is a tough one for an animated feature that has to compete with Pixar. Sylvain Chomet avoided that and made a personal animated feature with The Triplets of Belleville, but he's decamped to Scotland.

It may be that Canada may never be a successful player in the animated feature field. There are no artist/entrepreneurs who can get projects off the ground (Canadian animation is hardly creator-friendly) and most Canadian producers are understandably scared of big investments. That leaves us at the mercy of people from other places with money. I just wish that they were smarter.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Lost Income or Lost Opportunity?

Scott Kirsner has an open letter to media companies about turning copyright violations into income streams.

Right now copyright is the right to control making copies. In a digital world, this right is impossible to enforce. Copyright has to morph into the right to make money from anybody who copies your work. Artists and corporations have to give up control (which they've already lost, though they won't admit it) in exchange for income (which they're currently losing because they're not willing to adapt).

Kirsner's solutions are not necessarily the ones that will be implemented, but something's got to give.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

The Road is Still Rocky

This is a follow-up to a 25 year old article that I posted here.

Some of the conditions from 25 years ago have changed. There's now a lot more coverage of animation in print than there was. Whatever your opinion of Animation Magazine, it has survived far longer than any fan effort. There's also Kidscreen, not devoted strictly to animation but giving it lots of coverage. The problem with both these magazines is that they're trade publications and trades make their money from advertising. What generally happens is that companies that take out ads get coverage. What the advertisers want to read about is what makes them money. That's product, not artists.

Of course, the web has proven a bonanza for animation news, criticism and history. It serves the animation community in ways that fanzines never could. It's far more immediate and democratic than print publishing could ever be.

Another thing that's changed is revivals. We all grew up loving something in animation and there was the urge to try and recreate what we loved the way Jim Steranko could do his version of Captain America. In the last 25 years, we've seen revivals of many Disney, Warner, Lantz, Famous and Fleischer characters. The results have been mixed, however. It's rare that a revival manages to capture the feel of the original. Attempts to update the original often lose whatever made it appealing in the first place. Personally, I've lost interest in revivals and generally think that they're a waste of time.

The separation between mainstream animation and independent animation is still there. If anything, mainstream animation is more commercial than it's ever been. The costs are so high that producers are afraid to take chances, so we get rehashes of anything that's made money.

The comics field developed the graphic novel as an alternative to super-hero comics and the importation of manga has blown the comics business wide open. What used to be the mainstream is now just one stream of many. I wish that something similar would happen in the animation business and I have (remote?) hopes that the web may provide a viable market for animated alternatives.

And that brings me to my main complaint of the last 25 years. Animation as an industry is not particularly creator-friendly. There was a time in the '90's when it looked like creator driven animation was making gains in features and TV, but the successful creators of that time period are not dominating the business now and neither is anybody else. Pixar's directors have inherited the position held by Disney's directors in the '90's, but it seems to me that directors at other studios (with the possible exception of Blue Sky) are not dominating their films in the same way. In TV, there are generally fewer hits (a consequence of the long tail) and there are no TV animation creators who have a major buzz.

I've been close enough to the TV industry to see that it's a closed system run by producers and broadcasters. Many people jump from one side to the other repeatedly. The audience is only visible as a rating and creators are simply raw material to be mined until the vein taps out.

The generation that entered the business in the '70's and '80's is closing in on the end of its professional road. They've had major accomplishments. Full animation came back. Animated features became profitable and multiplied. Some TV series helped shape the culture. But the generation failed to establish a beach head for artists. Where are animation's versions of Martin Scorcese, Spike Lee, John Sayles, etc? Where are writers who are the equivalent of Robert Towne, Charlie Kaufman or Paul Haggis? Where is the American/Canadian/European Miyazaki? Good personal animated films have been made, but they haven't changed the field like graphic novels have changed comics or independent films have changed live action. That's a tragedy.

I'm not blaming the artists. I know first-hand that the structure of the animation business is unyielding. I merely point out that while many things have changed in the last 25 years, the most important things have not.

Jack Kinney, Tex Avery and Joe Barbera

Børge Ring, creator of Anna and Bella, was good enough to send me this anecdote, the story of a missed opportunity:
Disney's Goofy director Jack Kinney was my penpal for years and once told me that Joe Barbera had contacted him and Tex Avery to come out of retirement and work as a team for him. Jack wrote, "I like to start a cartoon calmly, pick up in the middle and have the last 30 feet frantic. When I told Joe this he said, 'I want you to start out frantic and go on from there.'

So Tex and I said, 'No thank you.'"

Friday, September 15, 2006

Clash of the Titans

According to this article, Universal Music Group is contemplating suing MySpace and YouTube for copyright violation. Frankly, I hope it happens. I'd like nothing better than to see the media conglomerates bleed each other dry in court. That's the only way they'll realize the need to amend the copyright law so that it makes sense in the digital age.

Berny Wolf

Animator Berny Wolf passed away recently at the age of 95. Information and tributes to him are now popping up in various places. Unfortunately, I have nothing to add but I do want to point out where you can read the information.

Over at Cartoon Brew, Mark Kausler has contributed a biography of Wolf. Mark Evanier has contributed some personal memories of Wolf from the TV animation era. Mark's entry includes a link to the Fleischer Betty Boop cartoon The Old Man of the Mountain. On the ASIFA-Hollywood Animation Archive, Stephen Worth has written about Wolf, posted some model sheets that Wolf worked on at the Iwerks studio and put up a quicktime of the Betty Boop cartoon Minnie the Moocher, where Wolf was responsible for rotoscoping Cab Calloway and turning him into a walrus.

Alberto Becattini's listing for Wolf claims that Wolf was a puppeteer on the Howdy Doody television series. Nobody else is mentioning this, but Wolf's career was so varied that it's very possible.

Ray Pointer's DVD compilation of Fleischer Out of the Inkwell cartoons includes some interview footage with Wolf.

There's some more personal reminiscences of Wolf on this thread at Animation Nation.

UPDATE: John Cawley has written some memories of Berny Wolf during Wolf's time at Film Roman. See John's entry for September 15.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Animation: The Rocky Road for Fans and Pros

I wrote this in 1980 and it appeared in The Comics Journal #63 in the spring of 1981. I'm reprinting it because I find it interesting that some things have changed signficantly and other things not at all. I'll be coming back to this in a future entry to talk about how things look 25 years after this article appeared.

It is interesting that in the period when comics have spawned a large, enthusiastic, and prolific fandom, animation has done no such thing. Perhaps super-heroes have a more direct link to one's wish fulfillment than Bugs Bunny, or perhaps it's easier to write and draw your own comic (even a bad one) than it is to animate a cartoon. But I think the real reason is the relative health of the comics industry and the ease with which young talent can enter and rise to a position where it can express itself.

It is now an accepted procedure for fan artists and writers to enter professional comics. If they are unable to or don't choose to, there is the world of underground comics, ground level comics, and fanzines, all of which provide an outlet for talent and an audience to appreciate it. The young animation fan today faces a very different story. Animation's fan press consists entirely of Funnyworld and Mindrot. There is not a single professional animation trade publication in the U.S. The unions on each coast publish monthly newsletters, with an obviously restricted point of view, and regular film trade publications cover animation only sporadically and never very perceptively.

So the young animation fan is disadvantaged in reading about his field, and the young animator is more disadvantaged in displaying his work. Where an underground comic may not sell a large number of copies, it costs only a dollar or two and is available to anyone anywhere in the country. Films or videotapes cannot be sold as cheaply, and film festivals are not as widespread as they might be. The young animator must labor to produce the film and then must labor for it to get any kind of exhibition.

He we come to a curious parting of the ways between comics and animation. Someone like Robert Crumb or Wendy Pini can develop a strong following and an economic success outside comics' mainstream publishing. But they will be read by the same people who might read Spider-Man or Green Lantern. There are some independent animators who have been able to build critical reputations and get distribution for their films (George Griffin, Kathy Rose, Dennie Pies, etc.), but their audience is vastly different from the one that watches Bugs Bunny and these artists prefer it that way. They have a fine arts orientation, often taking their aesthetic from painting or graphic design, rather than a narrative orientation, where they would tell a conventional story.

Where does this leave the young animator who admires the animation of the '30s, '40s and '50s? In a very tough spot, it appears. The majority of animation in the U.S. is for Saturday morning cartoons. By anyone's standards, they are a pale shadow of what American animation once was. It is, however, the easiest entry point into the business. Other production consists of feature films, TV specials, and commercials. Unfortunately, these have been tainted by the low standards set by Saturday morning animation. Good animation is not a water faucet you can turn on or off at will. Full animation is incredibly hard to do and takes years of practice. If you don't get that practice to begin with, or you avoid practice too long, you cannot animate well. America is filled with animators who have never learned their craft and veterans who have not practiced enough in the last 20 to 30 years.

In the '50s and early '60s, before made-for-television animation, the only cartoons shown were those made for theaters. Watching TV in New York as a child, I saw animation from many American studios: Disney, Warners, MGM, Lantz, Terry, Fleischer, Famous, and even relatively obscure studios like Iwerks, Van Beuren, and Mintz. I didn't know it at the time, but I was getting a crash course in American animation; how the studios differed and how each studio changed over the years. These cartoons inpired a whole generation of animation fans, many of whom have tried to break into the business and learn the type of animation that America excelled at. But the opportunities just aren't there. Jim Steranko could read Captain America as a boy and then do an excellent version of the character as an adult. There are no young animators who are doing excellent versions of Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, or their equivalents.

If you eliminate the Disney studio, always a special case, there are damned few places an animator can flourish. I know several young people who worked on Raggedy Ann and Andy in New York in 1976. Seven were particularly serious about animation and all were assistant animators or inbetweeners. Of the seven, one is now working in London. Five of the seven tried California and three of those five have tried New York again, and have also worked in or gotten work from Canada. One is beginning to produce, but is not yet able to produce personal films. I myself have worked in New York and the Midwest. The common goal was initially to animate; to shape a scene, take a character and bring it to life so that it could entertain an audience. But when we became animators, the real problems became evident. You need a well-thought-out film and an interesting character before an animator can really go to work. And as bad as American animation has become, the films that house that animation are much worse. People have developed such low expectations that a dull cartoon does not surprise them. And those expectations are constantly reinforced.

Animation, like comics, is based on an emotional appeal. The first comic books may have been crude, but their appeal was undeniable. The animated film, no matter how crude, must examine itself and try to figure out what makes it appealing. And finding that, it must then seek to polish and refine it if animation is ever to gain its old ability to hold an audience. In the meantime, young animators are struggling day by day to learn their craft and to find more interesting projects. If the project on their their board now is dull and crude, I hope that they can learn from it so when an opportunity arises, they can overcome all the cynicism and neglect that has attached itself to animation and reach an audience.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Ottawa Animation Festival

I'll be arriving in Ottawa for the animation festival on Friday afternoon, Sept. 22, and leaving on Sunday afternoon. I've stuck my picture on this page so people will know what I look like. If you spot me in Ottawa, feel free to say 'hi.' I'd love to know who's reading this blog and what type of entries are favorites.

Scott McCloud and Making Comics

I hope that everybody who's interested in animation has read Scott McCloud's book Understanding Comics. While it's obviously not about animation, it is about visual storytelling. McCloud is excellent at taking things apart and seeing how they work. When reading Understanding Comics, I found myself always relating his insights to animation.

McCloud has a new book out called Making Comics. Like the earlier volume, the book is in comics form and is just as valuable for animation people. There are things within the book that can be applied to script writing, design, storyboarding and animation posing. Furthermore, he has an interesting theory on artists falling into four basic categories. I first read McCloud on this subject in The Education of a Comics Artist edited by Michael Dooley and Steven Heller. Here, McCloud deals with the categories in visual terms.

McCloud's categories are classicists, animists, formalists and iconoclasts. The classicists are those artists who embrace craft and beauty. The animists are the storytellers, more concerned with content than displays of virtuosity. The formalists are concerned with the nature of the medium they're working in and the iconoclasts are interested in honesty and authenticity.

The lines between these categories are not hard and fast, but you may find yourself mostly in one category. Personally, I'm an animist. I've always cared about content, which is the root of my frustration with the animation business.

Looking at better-known people in animation, I'd put early Disney and Bluth in the classicist category, Miyazaki in the animist category, Norman McLaren in the formalist category and early Ralph Bakshi in the iconoclast category.

McCloud also talks about clarity coming from six choices: moment (in film terms, what story elements to include in a scene), frame (composition), image (character and set design), word (dialogue) and flow (camera movement and cutting).

Other chapters deal with facial expressions and body language, the relationship of words and pictures, world building, drawing tools, manga's visual communication strategy, and the nature of being a comics professional.

There's a lot to chew on here. You can learn from McCloud just by seeing how he uses visuals to put his ideas across. If you're looking to shake up your own approach to animation, I guarantee you that this book will force you to think hard about it whether you agree with McCloud or not.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Donald's Lucky Day Part 3

Let's look at the animation in this cartoon. Ed Love takes care of the set-up with the bad guys animated in silhouette. He's makes things work in profile so they read clearly for the audience. If you watch closely, there's sloppy clean-up and assistant work on these characters. Since they're painted black, I'm sure that the studio didn't waste any of their best assistants on these scenes. Love's animation here is adequate, but he really isn't given much to work with.

Jack Hannah's Donald is very appealingly drawn and somewhat streamlined for the times. He doesn't go overboard with wrinkles in clothing, which is fairly common in '30's Disney, or lots of scalloping of Donald's feathers.

If you compare Hannah's scenes with Johnny Cannon's, which follow, you'll see what I mean. Cannon does some nice finger popping and rhythmic walking, but I find his drawings of Donald too busy. The detail detracts from the motion.

Hannah returns with some strong acting as Donald reacts to the radio's warnings about Friday the 13th. Then Hannah animates Donald crashing through a mirror and smashing into an applecart, after which he searches for his package. The applecart scene is just excellent. The action is well-staged and the acting that follows is marked by some great contrasts in timing.

Paul Allen's animation of Donald trying to get around the black cat is well-choreographed, but it isn't as strong as it would be a year later in Mr. Duck Steps Out.

One of the reasons I decided to do a mosaic of this cartoon was because it featured animation by Al Eugster. I had the pleasure of knowing Al and working with him when I was starting out. While I knew he worked on this cartoon, I wasn't sure which scenes he did. I should have looked more closely. The takes Donald does in scenes 50 and 54 are very similar to the takes Al used for Donald in Clock Cleaners. He also does some perspective animation of the background in scene 55, fairly rare at this point in the 1930's. Al's drawings of Donald resembles Jack Hannah's in their lack of extraneous detail and solid draftsmanship.

Don Towsley is another Disney animator who doesn't get mentioned much, but he was a key Duck man in the 1930's. His work here is very solid, though the re-use annoys me. His is the only sequence where Donald really interacts with another character in an extended way and he handles it well.

Dick Lundy's Donald looks like a throwback to an earlier design. Lundy was important in the development of the Duck's personality and later directed Donald Duck cartoons, but his work here on Donald is fairly basic. However, the scene where the cat wrestles with the bomb is a small classic of straight-ahead animation. It's ironic that the cat is as belligerent as Donald usually is; in this cartoon Donald is pretty sedate. It didn't occur to me until just now how out of character Donald is in this cartoon. That's another strike against the story.

The end of the cartoon is a duck's breakfast of different animators that depends more on gags than on acting. As I mentioned last entry, the end leaves a lot of story elements hanging and the gag isn't strong enough to compensate for that.

This isn't a classic by any means. If you compare it to the work coming out of other studios at the time, it is far more slickly done. However, the story construction and acting in this cartoon, especially coming after Snow White, is disappointing.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Disney in 1959

John McElwee's blog Greenbriar Picture Shows always has something interesting about Hollywood film history. He's done a two part entry on Disney's releases in 1959, looking at the films from the point of view of theater owners and box office revenue.

I hadn't remembered that Disney released Sleeping Beauty as a road show. That kind of release meant higher ticket prices and a very slow roll-out. Sleeping Beauty was released in January and didn't make it to North Carolina, where McElwee lived, until August. That's quite a difference from how films are released these days. It may also account for Sleeping Beauty's poor box office performance. The higher prices alienated many theater owners and the slow release dissipated any buzz that Disney created for the film on his TV show.

You can read part 1 here and part 2 here.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Donald's Lucky Day Part 2

According to Hans Perk, this cartoon was written by Carl Barks, Jack Hannah and Harry Reeves. After Barks left Disney, he went on to write and draw decades worth of Donald Duck comic books which are held in the highest regard.

There are at least four elements in this cartoon that are common in Barks' comic book work. The gangsters that motivate the plot are similar to the Beagle Boys, enemies of Scrooge McDuck. Barks had Donald attempting to succeed at various occupations numerous times in his comics. The black cat in this cartoon is similar to many trouble-making animals in Barks' comic book work. Finally, the topic of luck plays a large part in Barks' stories, though Donald usually has bad luck compared to Gladstone Gander, whose effortless good luck drives Donald crazy.

It's impossible to know if these elements in this cartoon originated with Barks. It's quite possible that Barks drew on his experience at Disney and re-used ideas and themes that worked, regardless of who created them.

For all the Barks-like elements in this cartoon, the story is something of a mess. There's no comic justice in this film and many story elements are left hanging. The gangsters who motivate the story are pure exposition. I suspect that they were done in silhouette because they disappear from the cartoon after setting up the story; by keeping the characters in the dark, the audience can't get involved enough with them to care that they're gone.

It would have been relatively easy for the bomb to go off in a way that damaged the gangsters or exposed them to the police. That would have brought them back at the climax and created the potential for more comedy.

Donald's efforts are not what save him. He's a passive observer of the climax. All the effort he's expended to deliver the package or get rid of it does no good whatsoever. I guess that's where luck comes in, but he would have been luckier if he lost the package immediately and saved himself a lot of effort.

Finally, the black cat who is the instrument of Donald's salvation never gets thanked or rewarded. The cat vanishes from the film once the bomb goes off, even though showering Donald with fish presented a good opportunity to reward the cat. The gang of cats that swarms Donald doesn't relate to anything and is just a gag tacked-on for the fade-out.

Jack King was not a director with a good head for story. He should have sent this one back for more work.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Donald's Lucky Day Part 1

This cartoon is available on the DVD set The Chronological Donald Volume 1. More about it in future entries.

Monday, September 04, 2006


I don't have a MySpace account and know little about it, but this article caught my attention. MySpace is going to give its users the ability to sell their original music on the site by the end of the year. Because MySpace is a social networking site, the problems of marketing content are reduced somewhat. Once you accumulate "friends," you've got a ready-made audience for anything you release. MySpace will be doing a copyright check before allowing the music to be available so that they'll avoid legal problems.

There are already video sites that allow users to upload content and sell it. This mode of retailing is going to become more widespread in the next year or two and has potential for people who are making animated shorts

The pieces are slowly coming into place. Distribution and exhibition are no longer the problem. In the past, both were limited resources. There were only so many movie theaters or broadcasters. Now, the distribution pipeline is infinitely big and every computer in the world is a potential movie screen. MySpace may prove to be a good marketing tool. The last piece of the puzzle is financing and return on investment. Once we have some examples of real numbers generated by animated shorts, we'll know what's possible.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Bill Melendez and Floyd Norman

I had a wonderful time watching this DVD from ASIFA-Hollywood. In 1996, Tom Sito sat down with Bill Melendez and Floyd Norman and got them both to talk about their experiences in the animation business in front of an audience.

Melendez talks about his time at Disney, Warners and UPA, telling stories about Walt Disney, Leon Schlesinger, Fred Quimby, Rudy Zamora and Charles M. Schulz. Norman talks about Disney, Tom Carter Productions, and Hanna-Barbera, telling stories about Milt Kahl, Vance Gerry, Bill Hanna and Walt Disney.

It's impossible to tell from the DVD how large an audience was present for each talk, but it was an industry audience and everyone was relaxed and having a good time. It has the typical feel of animation folks getting together to talk shop and swap stories. If you're in the business, you know what I mean. If you're not, here's an opportunity to spend some time with animation people letting their hair down, not trying to impress anybody or hype their latest projects.

The production values are not slick. There's some questionable camera work and the sound recording could be better, but so what? You can find slickness on the extras for the typical feature DVD, but you won't get the same honesty or informality. With each of these interviews running more than an hour, you really get a feel for Bill Melendez and Floyd Norman.

I don't know how many other video interviews ASIFA-Hollywood has in its archives, but I hope that they put out more of them on DVD. This series has a lot of potential and should be supported. You can order the DVD ($15 + $5 for shipping to the U.S. and Canada) here, where you can also see a sample clip of Bill Melendez telling a great story about Leon Schlesinger.