Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Bob Jaques

In this 1982 photo, that's Bob Jaques in the center. Behind him on the left is Dan Haskett and to the right is Chris Armstrong.

I'm late mentioning this, but I wanted to dig up a visual to go with talking about Bob's new blog. I met Bob at Nelvana in Toronto in 1980 or '81. While I had come from New York and had worked in the New York animation industry, I was far more enamored of animation that had been made in L.A. To be honest, I looked down my nose at a lot of the people working in N.Y. animation.

My only excuse is that I was young and stupid. I came to realize that the difference between N.Y. and L.A. had more to do with opportunity than with talent. One of the people who wised me up was Bob.

Bob had stared at the Fleischer and Famous cartoons long and hard. Comparing what he saw on the screen with the sparse animator credits on those cartoons, he had methodically figured out how to recognize the styles of just about every animator. Bob was the one who opened my eyes to the brilliance of John Gentilella, an animator whose work was as good as anybody in California and done under much less friendly conditions.

Bob now has a blog dedicated to identifying the animators on the Popeye cartoons. As these cartoons are finally becoming available on DVD, his timing couldn't be better. (Bob has also done some audio commentaries for future Popeye DVD releases). New York animators never received the attention of their L.A. counterparts and were rarely interviewed. It's great that Bob is sharing his knowledge, filling in gaps in our understanding of the Fleischer/Famous animators.

Pinocchio Part 31B

Click to enlarge.
Will Finn published a rough of what he says is an early version Pinocchio as a real boy. I've placed it next to a frame from the film that seems to be the closest to the pose. The differences are not all that striking. The shape of the nose is definitely different, as are the pupils. The cheek and jaw line in the rough is softer and more appealing than in the final frame.

Beyond that, though, there's not much difference outside of what a clean-up artist would normally do to a rough. Will mentions how doughy the hands look in the rough, but except for getting rid of fingernails and slimming down the right thumb, the finished frame doesn't change the hands significantly.

There's not a lot more to say about this, but I do think the direct visual comparison is interesting.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Guy Delisle

As someone with a life-long interest in comics, I make sure to keep fairly up to date with what's going on in the field of graphic novels. When I started Pyongyang by Guy Delisle, I had no idea it was written by someone who was working in North Korea as an animation supervisor for a Western production. I've just finished Shenzhen by Delisle, about his time in the Chinese city supervising another animated TV series.

Both books are far more travelogues than than they are concerned with animation. They fall into the genre of visitors to new environments who document how life differs from what they are used to. Delisle is an entertaining guide to the two cities. As as he spent months working and living in each, the reader gets a fuller appreciation for the locales than if he was just a tourist who dropped in for a week.

Still, there is interesting material about how animation production proceeds under these circumstances. As I've never worked in Asia, I have no idea how typical Delisle's experiences are but I can't help regretting how TV animation is produced. I can only imagine, based on Delisle's cultural dislocation, how it must be for Asians to be working on Western projects, dealing with languages and cultures they're not familiar with, having to take orders from a foreign boss who can't communicate with them directly and answering to someone who has no understanding of their lives.

Has anyone from Asia written about the experience of working on Western TV animation? If so, can someone please let me know?

If Delisle's writings are accurate, they are proof that animation made for television is created under such broken conditions that an animated performance is an impossibility.

Excerpted from Shenzhen (Click to enlarge)

Friday, October 26, 2007

Pinocchio Part 31A

Pinocchio has successfully rescued Geppetto from inside the whale, but has seemingly died in the attempt. Since Pinocchio is physically whole, how can he be dead when he is able to breathe underwater? The film speeds past this, hoping the audience won't notice.

As in Snow White, the main character appears to be dead and the supporting characters cry over the body. I wonder if the story crew considered how similar the endings of the two films are? Later animated features made during Disney's lifetime would avoid the appearance of good guys dying at the climax except for Lady and the Tramp and The Jungle Book, and in those cases Trusty and Baloo were supporting characters, not the stars of the picture.

The Blue Fairy recedes as the picture progresses. We see her twice early in the film, but she disappears after freeing Pinocchio from Stromboli's birdcage. Her dove delivers the message about Geppetto and Monstro and her voice alone revives Pinocchio. Was this decision based on story concerns? Once Pinocchio starts taking positive action, would her presence detract from the danger and undercut Pinocchio's accomplishments? Perhaps it was simply done for economic reasons; losing a realistic character is a good way to save money.

When Pinocchio awakes, Geppetto once again deflates the potential sentimentality with humorous behavior in a Chaplinesque fashion. Inside Monstro, Geppetto kisses a tuna instead of Pinocchio. Here, he insists that Pinocchio is dead and must lie down before realizing the truth.

Pinocchio's transformation puts some distance between us and the character. Like the end of Disney's Beauty and the Beast, we've spent the whole film identifying with someone who is visually odd by the standards of his world but is accepted by us. Once the character becomes "normal" at the end, he's no longer someone we recognize. The character gains, but the audiences loses. Luckily, both films end very soon after the transformation occurs. Pinocchio, as a boy, appears in only 8 shots and the end of the film is given over to Jiminy and the wishing star, taking the film full circle.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Copyright Confusion

Over at, Tim Wu has written one of the best articles on copyright that I've ever read, showing how it's not working for even the major media conglomerates whose lobbyists influence the writing of the law.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Ed Catmull on Successful Companies

"Why do successful companies fail?" "What's more important, good people or good ideas?"

Here, courtesy of the Thinking Animation blog and Alan Cook, is a January 2007 speech by Pixar President Ed Catmull on why companies succeed and fail. It's lengthy (54 minutes) and will be more interesting to professionals than to students, mainly because professionals have all worked at companies that haven't lived up to their potential. Pixar is doing something right and Catmull is perceptive, thoughtful and articulate about what he sees as necessary for successful companies and the dangers that they face. Listen to it here.

Marjane Satrapi at the New York Film Festival

These are clips from a press conference after the screening of Perspeolis at the New York Film Festival. If you only watch one clip, make it the first where Satrapi talks about choosing animation over live action in order to increase audience identification with the characters.

Digital Distribution and Marketing

Scott Kirsner of the Cinematech blog hosted a workshop at the Film Arts Foundation in San Francisco on the subject of Digital Distribution and Marketing. Below is a slide show of Kirsner's presentation, including some dollar figures.

Hogan's Alley

The new issue of Hogan's Alley (#15) is out and as usual it has several articles that relate to animation. Noted animation historian Jim Korkis writes an extensive article about Disney's never-made feature based on Roald Dahl's Gremlins. Buck Biggers, one of the founders of Total TeleVision, the studio that produced Underdog and Tennessee Tuxedo, is interviewed by Mark Arnold. Craig Shutt writes about Little Lulu and her appearances in many media, including animation for theatres and television.

Check out your local comics shop for this issue or order online here.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Pinocchio Part 30C

We've all seen chase sequences. One of the things that makes them work is recognizable geography. One party in the chase goes past an identifiable landmark and then a shot or two later, the other party passes the same landmark. It's a way for the audience to know who is in front and how much space is between the two parties.

One of the most interesting things about the whale chase is that there is almost no recognizable geography. Until the end, when Pinocchio swims towards a gap in the rocky shoreline, all we've got is water and sky. There are rocks that go by in the foreground to add depth to shots, but these rocks are fairly generic. We're not using them as landmarks to measure the relative positions of the characters.

In a situation like this, screen direction becomes the only tool to communicate location to the audience. It's one of the reasons I'm so impressed with this sequence and the credit goes to sequence director Bill Roberts and layout supervisor Al Zinnen. In the hands of lesser film makers, a chase on the open ocean could be confusing; the audience could easily lose its bearings. Roberts and Zinnen make sure that we always understand where the characters are relative to each other and they do it with screen direction.

As the sequence starts, Pinocchio and Geppetto are pushing their raft screen left, trying to get past Monstro's teeth. Monstro sneezes them out and then on his inhale, begins to pull them back towards screen right. We can easily tell by their direction whether they're getting farther or closer to Monstro.

Monstro then starts to chase them towards screen left and dives below the water. When he rises below the raft in shot 12, he's still heading towards screen left as the raft is lifted and Geppetto and Pinocchio bounce along Monstro's back. This shot always astounds me. For one thing, the use of scale contrasts the fragility of Geppetto and Pinocchio relative to Monstro's bulk. For another, this shot trumps any in John Huston's version of Moby Dick. Here is animation doing something that live action could not duplicate until the advent of cgi.

Geppetto and Pinocchio fall into the water and then there is a clear shot of Monstro turning around and swimming towards screen right. There's no ambiguity here as to where Monstro is going next. Geppetto and Pinocchio climb back on the raft and start to paddle towards screen right. When Monstro catches up with them and looms over them, they reverse direction and paddle screen left. Monstro's tail descends and smashes the raft before he continues under water off screen towards the right.

Pinocchio swims to save Geppetto and Monstro emerges from the water now heading screen left towards the pair. Pinocchio looks screen right and sees Monstro approaching. Then he looks screen left and sees the gap in the rocks at the shoreline. He starts swimming towards screen left, pulling Geppetto behind him, while Monstro pursues.

When Pinocchio has reached the rocks, we get a point of view shot where Monstro is swimming towards the camera. Monstro leaps over some rocks heading screen left. Pinocchio frantically tries to swim into the gap screen left. Monstro leaps towards the camera in shot 39, almost devouring the audience in the most dramatic shot of the sequence.

(And I wonder if there was a debate as to how close to bring Monstro to the camera. After the criticism that Snow White was too scary for young children, did they cut this shot before Monstro's mouth enveloped the camera? My modern sensibility wishes that they'd let Monstro get closer before cutting.)

Monstro then smashes into the rocks going screen left and beyond the rocks, the tide moving screen left washes up Geppetto and then follows by washing up Figaro and Cleo in a terribly unbelievable coincidence. A close examination of the sequence shows that Figaro and Cleo disappear in shot 12 and are definitely not on the raft in shot 15 when Pinocchio and Geppetto climb back on. I've often wondered why there wasn't a shot of Geppetto putting them into the trunk on the raft and have the trunk wash up onto shore. It's not a perfect solution, but better than the one that was chosen.

Forgetting about Figaro and Cleo, there is never a moment where the audience is confused about the relative locations of the characters. That allows the audience to concentrate on the danger and as a result the suspense never lets up. The storytelling here is exquisitely clear in a difficult setting for a chase.

Friday, October 12, 2007

"Weenie Villains"

Will Finn made a comment about weenie villains that got me thinking about the interplay between Disney villains and the threat of death.

Except for Snow White, the early Disney features didn't have single villains. Pinocchio has Stromboli, Honest John, the Coachman and Monstro. Dumbo has the elephants, the circus patrons, the clowns and the ringmaster. Bambi has the hunters, their dogs, their fire, but also winter and male rivals. I think that this kind of villainy is in line with the complexity of the Depression. There was general frustration that there was nobody to blame or hold accountable for the economic collapse. It was a multifaceted problem, and so audiences of the time were able to deal with the idea that obstacles and threats come from many sources.

Once World War II arrived, you've got individuals who are singled out as the root causes of the problem: Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo. In the post-war world, Stalin, Kruschev and Mao take their places. Once Disney got back to full length animated features with Cinderella, only three of the films through the retirement of the nine old men had multiple sources of conflict and not single villains.

Alice in Wonderland is more of a road movie than one where the Queen of Hearts is the source of conflict. Lady and the Tramp is very situational, with Lady having to deal with the repercussions of a new baby in the family. If there's a villain in the film, it's the rat, but the rat doesn't drive the film the way that Cinderella's stepmother or Captain Hook drive theirs. The other film that is somewhat situational is The Sword in the Stone, where the medieval society prevents Wart from realizing his potential and only a miracle can free him from serfdom. There is Madam Mim, but like the rat in Lady and the Tramp, she hardly motivates the majority of Wart's troubles.

Cinderella, Peter Pan, Sleeping Beauty, One Hundred and One Dalmatians, The Jungle Book, The Aristocats, Robin Hood and The Rescuers are all driven by villains. However, here is where the "weenie" part comes in. Prior to Peter Pan, no Disney villains in features had bumbling sidekicks. (Honest John has Gideon in Pinocchio, but Honest John himself is not the threat; it's where he takes Pinocchio that's the problem.) Comic sidekicks for villains are also present in Dalmatians, Robin Hood and The Rescuers. In some films, like Pan, Dalmatians, The Jungle Book, The Aristocats, Robin Hood and The Rescuers, the villains are treated comically themselves.

This is why death doesn't seem as threatening in the later Disney features. It may be present, but there's so much comedy surrounding the villains or the climaxes (Baloo is tossing off one-liners while Shere Khan is attacking), that the films are winking at the audience, reassuring them not to get too worried.

There is no winking in early Disney features. The conflicts and obstacles facing the characters are not funny, which is why the threat of death is taken seriously.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Pinocchio Part 30B

One of the things I find fascinating about the early Disney features is how much the characters are threatened by death. Snow White goes into a coma and if not for the dwarfs emotional inability to say goodbye to her would be buried alive. Pinocchio dies and has to be resurrected by the Blue Fairy. Dumbo falls from a dangerous height as he grapples with losing the magic feather. Fantasia's "Night on Bald Mountain" has the dead rising from their graves. Bambi's mother dies and Bambi has to survive hunters, dogs and a forest fire, any of which are capable of killing him.

While the Disney shorts play with death, whether it's The Skeleton Dance or The Goddess of Spring, nothing in the shorts comes close to the threats that the early feature characters regularly encounter. Considering that Disney films were always considered family films, why is death such a major part of them?

I suspect that the Depression, the looming second world war and the instability of the Disney studio in the 1930's all contributed to the feeling that life was precarious. The audiences had been through a lot in their own lives, so they had a gut understanding of how quickly someone's well-being could be threatened or destroyed. Of course, as tough as the Disney characters had it, they were saved at the end. The ultimate happy ending is to cheat death and additionally get what you've struggled for, whether it's a prince, humanity, status, or just the ability to live out your life.

What's interesting is this focus on death didn't survive the early features. Perhaps the audience was exhausted after the war or the generation that lived through it and the depression didn't want to upset their own children in the 1950's. Perhaps because the Disney studio was on firmer footing after Cinderella and Disneyland, the threat of collapse was not as strong. In any case, while death is alluded to in films like Peter Pan or Lady and the Tramp, it's not nearly as compelling as it is in the early features. By the time Woolie Reitherman took over direction, death wasn't taken seriously. Baloo's "death" in The Jungle Book is a momentary tug at the heart en route to some baggy pants comedy.

The whale chase in Pinocchio is exciting for many reasons. It's beautifully laid out and cut. The action and effects animation are done well. Monstro is imposing in terms of his size and strength. But it is the life and death nature of the chase that gives it most of its power. Geppetto and Pinocchio are overmatched against Monstro. They are literally swimming for their lives, not hoping to best Monstro in any way, just to avoid his wrath. The threat of death, convincingly portrayed by the artists, means that we fear for the characters and that emotional connection is what makes our hearts race.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Michael Sporn Retrospective

Michael Sporn has posted the program for his retrospective at New York's Museum of Modern Art. It takes place November 9-12 and I recommend you attend if you'll be in the New York area on those dates.

The films showcase Michael's interest in New York, social problems, children's literature and show the range of his eclectic design approach. In addition, the films include excellent animation by Tissa David (The Red Shoes, The Marzipan Pig), John Dilworth (Lyle, Lyle Crocodile) and Dante Barbetta (Ira Sleeps Over).

Several works by William Steig are adapted including Abel's Island (for my money, Mike's masterpiece, pictured above), the Oscar nominated Dr. DeSoto and The Amazing Bone. If your only knowledge of Steig is Shrek, see what Steig looks like when his books are faithfully adapted for animation.

Michael will be appearing on stage for an interview conducted by John Canemaker and Joshua Siegel on November 12 at 7 p.m.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Pinocchio Part 30A

There are animation studios that are dominated by producers and animation studios that are dominated by directors. It's true today and it was true in the past as well. Disney was a studio heavily dominated by the producer, Walt Disney. His presence in story meetings and approving all the steps of the process mean that nothing got on the screen without his okay. Directors, regardless of their own points of view, were there to serve Walt Disney.

As a result, we don't really have much of a handle on many of the Disney directors. Those we can take the best measure of are those who directed shorts after the features became Walt Disney's main interest. When his interest in shorts declined, it left openings for directors like Jack Kinney and Jack Hannah to express more of themselves in their work.

However, there are some directors who never got out from under Disney's shadow. What are we to make of them? Which brings us back to the whale chase in Pinocchio and the sequence director Bill Roberts.

Not a lot has been written about Roberts. Shamus Culhane probably wrote the most in Talking Animals and Other People. When Culhane started animating at Disney, he was assigned to do corrections for Roberts, who at the time was a Pluto animator. What we learn from Culhane was that Roberts wasn't very talkative, struggled with his drawing, disdained the cuteness creeping into Disney cartoons but was sincerely interested in the work that he and Culhane were putting on the screen. Jack Kinney, in Walt Disney and Assorted Other Characters, says that Roberts went into real estate and construction after Disney and reportedly became wealthy. Those comments are like bookends on Roberts' career, but the middle part (which is the most interesting) is a blank.

No doubt that the story sketches and the layout team under Al Zinnen contributed many ideas to the whale chase, but Roberts was the director. He's got to deserve some of the credit but how much? Roberts also directed the "Rite of Spring" segment of Fantasia, yet another action sequence with Woolie Reitherman animating, as well as "Mickey and the Beanstalk" in Fun and Fancy Free, another cartoon with a strong bent for adventure. Roberts sequence directed on Dumbo, Bambi, Saludos Amigos, and The Three Caballeros, but I have no idea which sequences he was responsible for.

While Alberto Becattini has Roberts working in the animation business as early as 1919, I have no idea when he was born or died. It appears that he left Disney in the late 1940's, but did he quit or was he caught in one of the post-war layoffs? By now, even his children (if he had any) may have passed on. So we've got a name and a few reminiscences, but no real way to judge a director who worked on some of the most important animated films in history.