Saturday, March 31, 2007

The Web as a Funding Source

Here's an interesting article in Variety by Scott Kirsner about filmmakers who are trying to raise money for their projects on the web.

Friday, March 30, 2007


People who work in animation know that there has to be consistency between designs and motion. If your character looks like Snow White, it has to move in a more realistic fashion than if your character looks like Dora the Explorer. If Snow White moves like Dora or if Dora moves like Snow White, the results are ludicrous.

I think that the quality of animation since the coming of cgi is getting more subtle. Having done both drawn and computer animation myself, I'm aware of the process of layering motion. In stop motion, you've got to conceptualize everything about your animation before you start as you're going straight ahead. In drawn animation, you have the ability to alter your timing after the fact, but it still takes effort to change details like hands or faces. With cgi, each moving item has it's own timeline and graph, so it's relatively easy to add motion on top of motion or change the timing of one aspect of a character while leaving the rest of the motion unchanged. What we see on screen, at least in features, is motion that's been refined to a high degree.

However, just as there has to be consistency between design and motion, there has to be consistency between acting and character. While the acting has become more complex, the characters have not. What we get in a lot of cgi acting is unjustified subtlety. The acting is too dense for what the character needs to communicate.

The solution is either to simplify the acting or to add complexity to the characters. Unfortunately, animation has a history of refining form while ignoring content, so I expect that the gap between acting and characters will continue to increase.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

JibJab in Washington

I received an email from Evan Spiridellis, one of the founders of JibJab, saying that they've done a new 2 minute piece satirizing the news media that will be premiered at the TV and Radio Correspondence Dinner in Washington on Wednesday night. The attendees include the major broadcast and cable news personalities in addition to various politicians, including the President.

The dinner will be carried live on CSPAN and their short will also show Wednesday night on The Tonight Show immediately after Jay Leno's monologue. Anyone registered at JibJab can access a behind the scenes production blog on the making of the film (though I don't see a link; perhaps it will go up on Wednesday).

Monday, March 26, 2007

Lethem on Copyright

Here's an interesting interview with novelist Jonathan Lethem about his views on copyright.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Cock Robin Mosaic

Perhaps I've started a trend. I certainly hope so. Over at Michael Barrier's site, Barrier and Jeff Watson have contributed a commentary and mosaic respectively for the Disney Silly Symphony Who Killed Cock Robin.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Crunch Time Again

Postings may be less frequent for the next 6-8 weeks. As the school year ends, I've got grading to take care of. In addition to that, my thesis is crawling towards the finish line. I've got revisions to do on it and an eventual defense. Another item is family business that must be taken care of in mid-April, so I'm trying to move everything forward at the same time.

You have my solemn pledge, however, that the Pinocchio mosaic will be finished, though it may be slow going for a while. Maybe I'll be surprised and things will go more smoothly than I expect, but just in case, this is a warning.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Pinocchio Part 4A

First, I want to address a definite omission in the draft and a probable omission. The scene between 20 and 33 is not listed in the draft. It's possible that the Jiminy animation is by Don Towsley, who did the preceding two Jiminy shots, but immediately after the mystery shot we have Jiminy done by Bernie Wolf, John Elliotte and Ward Kimball. As the mystery shot doesn't hook up at its head or tail with other shots, it could be animated by any of the above. It is likely that Cornett Wood animated the snapping violin string.

The probable omission is scene 38. George Rowley is listed twice for scenes such as scene 36, and I'm guessing it's because he handled the clock characters as well as the shadow animation. Scene 38 is the only scene with the clock characters where Rowley isn't credited and I suspect that's an omission. Kimball was too valuable to assign to mechanically moving characters and there is no reason why scene 38 should be different than the surrounding scenes.

We have three sequences in a row where Pinocchio is basically a blank slate. In the first, he comes to life. In this sequence, his relationship with Jiminy is solidified. In the next sequence, Pinocchio finally meets Gepetto. The problem, as has been pointed out by Michael Barrier, is that Pinocchio is a completely passive character and that reduces the dramatic interest. Pinocchio isn't in conflict with anything or anybody because he has no opinions and there is no threat to him, except for playing with fire in the next sequence.

Disney commented during the making of Snow White that they had to spend the time so that the audience could get to know the characters. This is what's happening here as well. The whole first act of the film is spent introducing the characters and their relationships. The dramatic conflict doesn't enter into the film until the second act.

As I go through the draft, my admiration for the lesser-known animators keeps on increasing. I always assumed that Kimball was responsible for Jiminy's song here, but Don Towsley does Jiminy's scenes on the violin and Bernie Wolf handles a particularly goofy Jiminy in scene 33. John Elliotte starts Jiminy's lecture to Pinocchio and contributes one shot to the song. All of them have the ability to create poses that are as pleasing as Kimball's and their work is really not distinguishable from his in terms of drawing or timing. Thanks to the draft, we can finally appreciate their work.

Pinocchio doesn't have a lot to do here, but he is very appealingly drawn by Ollie Johnston. There's a pudginess to Pinocchio's face and a tilt to his eyes that make him an attractive looking character. While Milt Kahl designed Pinocchio, when I compare Johnston's drawings to Kahl's in the previous sequence, I much prefer Johnston's. His proportions are more pleasing. Harvey Toombs handles a couple of shots of Pinocchio trying to whistle. Kahl takes the final shot of the sequence, which he handles beautifully, contrasting Pinocchio's confident march with his clumsy, off-balance fall after getting tangled up in the paint pots.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Pinocchio Storyboard

Michael Sporn has started posting the storyboard to Pinocchio, supplied to him by animation historian (and Oscar winning animator) John Canemaker. There is no question that Pinocchio is one of the most important animated features ever made, so the attention it's now getting from bloggers like Hans Perk, Sporn and myself is very welcome.

In a previous comments section, the spectre asked what the Pinocchio layout artists did. Comparing the board to the finished film is the best way to understand it. The boards do not contain the same level of design and detail in the backgrounds and the camera angles are only approximate. The layout artists are responsible for nailing down the camera angles, composing the shots and designing the backgrounds. My assumption is that the credited layout artist for a sequence was drawing as well as supervising the work of other artists.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Clash of the Morons

Viacom is suing YouTube for $1 billion dollars for copyright infringement. This lawsuit demonstrates stupidity on both sides.

YouTube is not funneling any of the revenue it makes back to the people posting videos or the copyright holders. Many other video sites already have functioning payment plans. Scott Kirsner has put together a list available here. It's not like YouTube has to invent things from scratch. They can easily see what's available in the marketplace and craft a plan based on what others have done.

Viacom is trying to hold back the future. The Hollywood studios tried to strangle TV and home video in the cradle. Not only did they fail, they soon turned around and embraced both of them as major revenue streams.

And Viacom is hurting itself. With no Viacom content on YouTube, people watching online video will be satisfied to watch somebody else's content. What kind of business model withholds a product from customers and encourages them to move to the competition?

I support the idea of copyright. I believe that a creator (or the company that finances a creator) has the right to profit from work. No argument there. However, I see copyright in different terms than it currently exists.

In a digital world, you cannot control copying. Why devote time and money to fighting it? Better to acknowledge that copying will occur and figure out a system where every time content is copied or viewed, the copyright holder makes money. That way, rather than fight copying you can encourage it and profit from it at the same time.

The only way to protect a secret is to not tell anyone. Once one other person knows it, you've lost control of the content. You cannot guarantee that the other person won't spread the information around. That's how it is now with digital copying. Once you've made your work available to the public, you cannot stop it from spreading around. You can copy a file with as little effort as whispering to a friend. When the cost to reproduce something is that low, there's no effective barrier to prevent it.

It's not going to be easy to set up a compensation system and I suspect that initially there's going to be disappointment over the amount of money that digital copying generates. Rather than these two giant companies wasting resources fighting over an antiquated law, they should be lobbying the government to adapt the copyright law to unlimited copying for the digital age.

Just like the studios eventually made peace with TV and the VCR, they're going to make peace with online video. Even a moron can see that. Why not skip the lawsuits and just get on with it?

Monday, March 12, 2007

Marketing Tips

Scott Kirsner has a list of marketing tips that have come up at the South By Southwest Film Festival that are worth reading.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Pinocchio Part 3A

The Blue Fairy is a Deus ex Machina, or machine of the gods. Gepetto has expressed his wish for Pinocchio to be a real boy, but the only way the story can move forward is through supernatural intervention.

The fairy says, "Good Gepetto, you have given so much happiness to others, you deserve to have your wish come true." Throughout the film, however, we never see Gepetto interact with a single human being until Pinocchio is made flesh and blood. We don't know it yet, but Gepetto is a recluse and I can only assume that his carvings are what have given others happiness.

This sequence is almost completely exposition. The conditions for success are laid down ("Prove yourself brave, truthful and unselfish...") and Pinocchio accepts them. Jiminy is bound to Pinocchio. The sequence is more necessity than entertainment.

It's no surprise that this sequence was directed by Ham Luske, who supervised the live action for the character of Snow White, and that the Blue Fairy was animated by Jack Campbell, who animated Snow White under Luske's direction. Where Snow White was about 5 heads high, necessitating redrawing the character over the live action, the Blue Fairy is completely human in her proportions. She looks traced from live action. Marge Belcher, who played Snow White for the camera, here plays the fairy. Given how little screen time the fairy has and given how unchallenging the acting is, one can only wonder why Disney decided to go with this design and with rotoscoping for the character.

Jiminy is mainly handled by Bernie Wolf in this sequence. Many of the shots are simply reactions where Jiminy comments to the audience. However, there are two stand-out scenes. The first is 37, where Jiminy gets so exasperated with Pinocchio's ignorance that he breaks out of hiding and interrupts. You can clearly see Jiminy's rising impatience. The other scene is 50 where Jiminy bargains for a badge. His excitement and enthusiasm are palpable.

Ollie Johnston and Milt Kahl handle Pinocchio. Johnston gets the scene of Pinocchio coming to life. The pose where he covers his mouth with his hands emphasizes the fleshiness of Pinocchio's cheeks, a sharp contrast to the inflexible shapes of his puppet self.
Pinocchio comes across as naive and pleasant in this sequence, but he really has nothing to do except ask questions. Certainly Johnston and Kahl make the character visually appealing, but there are limited acting opportunities here.

One name conspicuously absent from the draft is Oskar Fischinger's. Reportedly, he was responsible for the squiggley line effect that emanates from the fairy's wand when she appears and disappears and when she taps Pinocchio and Pinocchio comes to life. George Rowley is credited for the effects in all those scenes. Perhaps Fischinger's name was removed when he left the studio or perhaps he only developed the effect and Rowley is the one who did the scene-specific drawings.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Pinocchio Part 3

I strongly suspect that there are inaccuracies in the draft for this sequence. It surprises me that Art Babbitt would be credited with the Blue Fairy for scene 21 and that Berny Wolf would be credited for her in scene 45. I would guess those scenes would be by Campbell, but maybe I'm wrong.

The scene between 26 and 26-10 isn't in the draft and Jiminy in scene 26-10 is credited to Jack Campbell, whose only animation in this sequence so far has been on the Blue Fairy. It's far more likely that Campbell did the unnumbered scene and that Ollie Johnston did 26-10, though it's possible that 26-10 is by Kahl.

More commentary on this section to follow.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Jones Against the Tide

Courtesy of Paul Spector (son of animator Irv Spector), here is a really interesting article by Chuck Jones from 1964. I don't believe it's ever been reprinted. Certainly, it was unknown to me. The article comes from program notes for a screening sponsored by ASIFA.

The article is worth reading for Jones' view on the state of the industry during a major transition. This was the second big industrial transition for the business (the first being the introduction of sound) and for most of the veteran animation personnel of the time, it was the first big shift in the business since they joined it.

We've been through a lot of transitions in the last 15 years (the collapse of drawn animation, the growth of cgi, the introduction of 2D software like Flash, increased globalization, etc.), so it's interesting to see how Jones viewed 1964. He fought a losing battle, first trying to reinvigorate theatrical shorts at MGM and then retreating to TV, but fighting to work for prime time with its higher budgets rather than for Saturday mornings.

While he justifiably casts stones at UPA and Hanna-Barbera, the irony is that Jones didn't do much with the opportunities that he found for himself. His timing and posing became increasingly mannered and his TV work became dominated by dialogue. While he cursed the darkness, the candles he lit didn't burn very brightly. He obviously had hopes for the future, but the truth is that his best films were already behind him, just as they were for UPA and Hanna-Barbera.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Pinocchio Part 2A

This sequence, on the surface, is fairly mundane. But it is a critical sequence in that it introduces the main characters and gives us a chance to get to know them in a relaxed way. It's also a very complicated sequence in terms of staging. There are many shots with three characters done by three separate animators. Getting them to work together and not upstage each other is a major logistical problem.

It's no surprise that this sequence was given to Wilfred Jackson. The Disney directors of the 1930's and of the features are not discussed much. That's probably because they served Walt Disney's point of view more than their own, so their personalities are never allowed to dominate. Still, Jackson was known for his meticulous attention to detail, including timing. He was the director of The Band Concert, a short that had to match an intricate musical score and also had many threads to be woven together.

Here, Jackson makes the sequence look effortless. We never lose track of where the characters are or what they're feeling about the various events. Figaro and Cleo are successful comic relief characters, but Gepetto is critical to the success of the film as the relationship between him and Pinocchio is the centerpiece of the story. That relationship is what allows both characters to grow.

Jackson also juggles a large crew: Gepetto is animated by Babbitt, Moore and Thomas; Jiminy by Towsley, Anthony and Elliotte; Figaro by Larson, Bradbury and Calonious; Cleo by Larson, Lusk, and Karp. The animators are mostly cast by character, but there are still several animators per character whose work has to be coordinated and the resulting performances are seamless. You can see subtle differences when you know who animated a particular scene, but without the draft I'd never have noticed.

I think that Babbitt's Gepetto is his masterpiece, but that's probably because I prefer warmer characters. to cold ones like Babbitt's Queen in Snow White. Christian Rub's voice for Gepetto is great and Babbitt builds on it to make Gepetto a very grandfatherly figure, full of enthusiasm and a sense of fun. Moore's two Gepetto scenes are somewhat livelier than Babbitt's and are well placed in the sequence. Frank Thomas's Gepetto is an afterthought in his scenes, which are all about introducing Pinocchio as a puppet. Thomas has the unenviable task of animating a dead character and still make the motion appealing, something that he succeeds in doing. However, I think that the film missed a bet here. Gepetto is literally an animator, bringing Pinocchio to life, and rather than focus on Pinocchio it would have been nice to see Gepetto’s pleasure at watching Pinocchio move. Perhaps that was a little too self-referential for the studio.

One of the most impressive things about this sequence is Disney's bench strength. Don Towsley is not talked about much, but his handling of Jiminy here is excellent. He retains the character's charm from the first sequence and the reaction shots keep him in the picture even though he's reduced to an observer for most of the time. Scene 3.1 is a beautiful piece of action animation as Jiminy launches himself away from Pinocchio. The gag in 33.1, where Jiminy pretends to be a mechanical figure on the music box to escape detection is lifted from Chaplin's The Circus, if anyone cares. Towsley's no slouch in the acting department, either. His reaction shots and shots commenting on the action are all convincingly in character.

The Jiminy scenes taken by Dick Anthony or John Elliotte are equally well done. Anthony's gag with Jiminy's hand on a woman figurine's rump has very strong poses. Elliotte's animation in 19.1, reacting to the stern-looking pipe, contains wonderful contrast in facial expressions. We always associate Jiminy with Ward Kimball, but Kimball is completely absent from this sequence and we don't feel his loss.

Eric Larson creates a great character in Figaro. The cat is cute, but has definite dislikes and is easily annoyed, giving him a well-rounded personality. Frank Thomas contributes some good scenes of Figaro interacting with the Pinocchio puppet.

Jack Bradbury is another unsung animator who is probably better known for his comic book work than for his animation. Yet scene 81, where Figaro opens the window, is by Bradbury and it's a great piece of physical action that's completely believable with no cheats.

Don Patterson does all the clocks and their gags. It's one of the few times you'd be complimenting an animator by describing his work as mechanical.

I'm not qualified to talk about colour and backgrounds, but I do want to point out how theatrical the set lighting is. Looking at a scene like 2.1, 25 or 85, you can see how the backgrounds have been lit as if with spotlights, creating staging areas for the characters to operate in.

From the standpoint of story, Pinocchio is without life in this sequence except for what Gepetto imparts. We care about him due to his design, courtesy of Milt Kahl, but also due to the care that Gepetto takes in crafting Pinocchio. Gepetto's clocks are more evidence of his abilities and played for laughs, but remember them because they're a key to his character and I'll be saying more about them in the future.

Note also that Gepetto uses Pinocchio to kick the cat. That small piece of vicarious cruelty never reoccurs, but it's another clue to Gepetto's background.

There's an expressionistic shot where a camera move links up the wishing star outside Gepetto's window and Gepetto in bed (scene 83), reinforcing the scene from the first sequence where the camera cranes down from the star to Gepetto's workshop. As the blue fairy will soon arrive, this reminder of the connection of heavenly power and Gepetto sets up what will follow in the next sequence.