Sunday, December 21, 2008

Back to Basics

Cartoon Brew pointed to this cartoon by Hans Fischerkoesen, made in Germany in 1943. I think that I became familiar with his three wartime shorts almost 20 years ago, and this is my favourite by far.

There is much about this film that is clunky. The character designs and animation are behind the times; they resemble American cartoons from the mid-1930s. There are other throwbacks, such as imitating Max Fleischer's 3D process, where cels were photographed in front of a model on a turntable.

While it's possible to criticize the drawings and animation in this cartoon (and the version above is slightly truncated at the start and end; if I remember correctly, the film ends with the rabbit wistfully eating the carrot), there are things about this cartoon that exceed what's being done today. There is a high level of invention; the section after the snowman falls through the ice and attempts to hold himself together while melting is wonderful imagery.

What really makes this film for me is the section that takes place in the spring. The cartoon reaches a lyrical height that few animated films aspire to. The shots of the snowman lying among the flowers in the meadow and the finale, where he sings and dances with joy as he dies are heartbreaking and beautiful. The end of this cartoon puts me in mind of the lines from Dylan Thomas's poem Fern Hill: "Time held me green and dying though I sang in my chains like the sea."

There are many films more polished than this, but few of them are as touching. As Keith Lango points out, we shouldn't confuse the core of what we do with the way that we do it. As we enter a year that will probably force us to make do with less, it's a good thing to keep in mind.

Season's greetings everyone and best wishes for 2009.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Laika Lays Off 65; Cancels Film

I'm only posting this as earlier today I said that Laika was perhaps the best positioned of what Fast Company referred to as the "Baby Pixars." An article at states that the studio has laid off 65 people and canceled Jack and Ben's Animated Adventure, a cgi film that was slated to be Laika's second feature after Coraline. Other pictures are in pre-production and the company will announce its plans in the new year.

Starting at the Bottom (And ending where?)

Last week, the NY Times ran an article by Brian Stelter on people who are now earning a living from their postings on YouTube.
For some, like Michael Buckley, the self-taught host of a celebrity chatter show, filming funny videos is now a full-time job.

Mr. Buckley quit his day job in September after his online profits had greatly surpassed his salary as an administrative assistant for a music promotion company. His thrice-a-week online show “is silly,” he said, but it has helped him escape his credit-card debt.

Mr. Buckley, 33, was the part-time host of a weekly show on a Connecticut public access channel in the summer of 2006 when his cousin started posting snippets of the show on YouTube. The comical rants about celebrities attracted online viewers, and before long Mr. Buckley was tailoring his segments, called “What the Buck?” for the Web. Mr. Buckley knew that the show was “only going to go so far on public access....”

Granted, building an audience online takes time. “I was spending 40 hours a week on YouTube for over a year before I made a dime,” Mr. Buckley said — but, at least in some cases, it is paying off.

Cory Williams, 27, a YouTube producer in California, agrees. Mr. Williams, known as smpfilms on YouTube, has been dreaming up online videos since 2005, and he said his big break came in September 2007 with a music video parody called “The Mean Kitty Song.” The video, which introduces Mr. Williams’ evil feline companion, has been viewed more than 15 million times. On a recent day, the video included an advertisement from Coca-Cola.

Mr. Williams, who counts about 180,000 subscribers to his videos, said he was earning $17,000 to $20,000 a month via YouTube. Half of the profits come from YouTube’s advertisements, and the other half come from sponsorships and product placements within his videos, a model that he has borrowed from traditional media.

On YouTube, it is evident that established media entities and the up-and-coming users are learning from each other. The amateur users are creating narrative arcs and once-a-week videos, enticing viewers to visit regularly. Some, like Mr. Williams, are also adding product-placement spots to their videos. Meanwhile, brand-name companies are embedding their videos on other sites, taking cues from users about online promotion. Mr. Walk calls it a subtle “cross-pollination” of ideas.
There are obvious lessons to be learned here, some of them from earlier media. Regular episodes are necessary. It's better to have a brand or niche so that viewers and advertisers can count on predictable content. Audiences respond to continuing characters, or in the case of Michael Buckley, a continuing host. All of the above are the norm in radio and television and have migrated to the web.

The article doesn't say if there are any animation creators making significant money from YouTube. As usual, the slow pace of animation production works against it in the mass media. However, there are ways around that. A collaboration or consortium approach would work. Either a group joins together to create shorts weekly or several get together and each take a month to create a short to be aired in successive weeks. Either approach allows people to have day jobs while getting their projects made.

There's momentum building for individuals and companies to earn significant money online. Scott Kirsner of Cinematech is writing a book about the people who have successfully built their businesses there. Animation will be included, as JibJab will be one of the companies covered.

Jack Shafer has an article in Slate about how digital media are undermining older media.

Perhaps the most prescient of all digital prophets was scholar W. Russell Neuman, whose 1991 book, The Future of the Mass Audience, saw how the Web would overturn the existing order before the public World Wide Web even existed. The media—newspapers, magazines, TV, radio, cable, motion pictures, games, music, books, newsletters—all resided in separate "unique, noncompetitive" analog silos. Translating and transmitting from one format to another was "an expensive, labor-intensive endeavor," Neuman writes.

By introducing these varied—and often monopolistic—media to a "single, universal, multipurpose network," the digital Web destroyed the old barriers and created new competitive pressures. For end users, viewing last night's Dave Letterman monologue or cruising Craigslist or scanning today's headlines or reading one's inbox or listening to the Timbaland/Cornell collaboration now happens inside the same space. In other words, CBS, the Times, Universal Music, Verizon, Blockbuster video, and anybody else who wants your media attention is fighting for your attention (mindshare and dollars) in the same kiosk.
This is why I think that pitching ideas to TV should be a thing of the past. I know from personal experience that the structure of broadcasting works against creators having control of their shows. Now, the economics of TV are getting increasingly bad. If the web is the "single, universal, multipurpose network," why not go there yourself instead of depending on someone else to take you there? That way, you're the one selling to the final customer instead of trying to satisfy gatekeepers who are likely to turn you down or twist your idea out of shape.

As the above articles show, there's no instant payday. It's going to take an investment of time and a certain amount of luck to produce something regularly that attracts an audience. However, those who succeed will own their creations and their audience.

Not only is the web a friendlier place for creators, it's making it harder for independents to sell to older markets without an already successful property. Michael Buckley now has a deal with HBO. What are the chances that would have happened if he had pitched them before his YouTube success? With the economics of older media on shakier ground (even before the current downturn), it's less likely they will take chances on unproven material. If the older media are getting harder to sell to and the economics of the web are getting better, I think creators should be taking the path of least resistance.

Starting at the Top (Ending at the Bottom)

After reading the entry on Delgo's failure, Paul Teolis pointed me to this 2005 article from Fast Company on the "Baby Pixars." The companies profiled are Threshold (Food Fight), Vanguard (Happily N'Ever After, Space Chimps), IDT (Yankee Irving - renamed Everyone's Hero), and Laika (Coraline).

The success of the Pixar and DreamWorks cgi feature started something of a gold rush into feature animation, but as the above list shows, the success rate was disappointing. Food Fight has yet to be released. Happily N'Ever After and Space Chimps opened but neither set the box office on fire. Happily earned approximately $16 million and Space Chimps earned approximately $30 million in North America. Everyone's Hero earned approximately $14 million and IDT sold off their animation business to Liberty Media. Coraline has yet to be released.

While everyone tries to be the new Pixar, not enough people remember that Pixar started off making shorts and TV commercials before their first feature. For reasons that can only be described as pure ego, producers think that they can enter the market at the top. This is the equivalent of a newbie golfer assuming that he can challenge Tiger Woods the first time he tees up or an expansion team in a league sport assuming that it will make the playoffs in its first year. Nobody in professional sports would take either of those situations seriously, yet somehow, people with more money than brains think they can make huge profits the first time they make an animated movie.

The producers of Delgo, Everyone's Hero and Food Fight fall into that category. While John Williams has more experience than they do, he moves to a new studio for each successive feature, never allowing expertise to accumulate. In sports terms, that's the equivalent of firing the entire team at the end of the season and starting from scratch the next year. How many times has that produced a winner?

Of the four companies mentioned in the article, Laika has the best chance of success. Laika is the former Will Vinton Productions. That company made features, TV specials, series and commercials, so the crew has experience working together on large projects. They're also starting with a story by best-selling author Neil Gaiman and it's directed by Henry Selick, who has directed three features.

Within the sports analogy, they're doing it right. You can hire great players, but it's still going to take time to meld them into a team. Along the way, there will be losses and missteps. The problem with hiring a fresh crew to make an animated feature is that those losses and missteps become part of the movie. Happily N'Ever After ended up using multiple studios to finish the film, and there we have a case where the players were never on the field at the same time. That makes it tough to execute plays.

The economics of maintaining an animation crew have always been daunting and they've gotten worse. But we now have evidence that when it comes to animation, you can't start at the top. Few, if any, of the "Baby Pixars" will grow to adulthood. If we see a new large studio emerge (and we may not), most likely it will be a studio that started on small projects, built an organization, and made its mistakes on low risk projects before attempting to compete in features. In other words, an expansion team that loses a lot of games while figuring out how to win.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Delgo Flops

According to Deadline Hollywood Daily, Delgo, an independent cgi-animated feature, opened in 2160 theatres this weekend and grossed $465,000. That means that, on average, each theatre took in less than $216 from Friday through Sunday. Assuming an average admission of $6, since some attendees were children, approximately 36 people saw the movie in each theatre over a three day period. That's 12 people a day.

Two Old Pros

Here's a lovely shot of Al Eugster taken by Harvey Deneroff in 1980 at Kim and Gifford Productions in New York. Al was 71, though he could pass for his fifties as his hair was still brown and he was trim. I knew Al at this time, working with him on a forgotten Saturday morning series called Drawing Power in the summer of 1980. Harvey was interviewing Al, who was a favourite interview subject for many young historians curious to know about the golden age at Fleischer, Iwerks and Disney.
Here is Buster Keaton in 1965 on the set of Film, a movie written by playwright Samuel Beckett and directed by Alan Schneider. Keaton would have been 70 at the time. Alex Robinson's friend's grandfather shot this and other stills (visible here) at the base of the Brooklyn Bridge. The other shots are nice, but this is the keeper.

Neither of these men were doing their best work at the time of these photos, but they were still bringing their talents to whatever projects they could find. Keaton spent time as comedy relief in beach party movies and acting in industrial films; Al was stuck drawing limited animation for TV, doing his own clean-ups and inbetweens. Both preferred to keep busy and stay in the game. Both were professionals through and through, trying to make the best entertainment out of whatever they were handed.

(Keaton link via Mark Evanier.)

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

3D and DreamWorks

Jeffrey Katzenberg was in Toronto last Monday, talking about DreamWorks' commitment to stereoscopic 3D and showing clips from the forthcoming film Monsters vs. Aliens.

Katzenberg believes that in 5-8 years, all movies will be projected in 3D. He stated that there were 10 or 11 films (both live and animated) slated for release in 2009 and two dozen for 2010. All future DreamWorks releases are slated to be 3D, starting with Monsters vs. Aliens. Dreamworks' features currently cost $150 million, and 3D will add an additional $15 million to their price tag.

Bloomberg news reports specifics about what 3D films are coming:
Next year's 3-D releases include a version of the original "Toy Story" from Disney and James Cameron's "Avatar" from News Corp., the director's first feature film since "Titanic" in 1997. Disney plans five 3-D films, the most of any studio. In February, NBC Universal will release "Coraline," based on the book by Neil Gaiman. "Monsters vs. Aliens" is set for March, DreamWorks Animation's only movie of the year.
Katzenberg foresees theatres adding a $5 surcharge over regular admission rates for the 3D experience. There are currently 1000 screens in North America able to project 3D. In 4 months, there will be 2500 and by 2010 there are expected to be 7500. The Bloomberg article implies that the current economic downturn is going to slow the spread of 3D venues.
Cinedigm Digital Cinema Corp., a supplier of software to run digital theaters, had planned to convert as many as 1,500 screens by March 2009. Now, with funds on hold, the company expects 100 to 200, chief executive Bud Mayo said.
While box office grosses have gone up, movie attendance has gone down. The increase in ticket prices is responsible for the increased grosses. The same economic downturn that's slowing down installation of 3D projection may also cut into 3D box office if the theatres charge more for the dimensional versions.

Because not all screens are currently equipped for 3D, DreamWorks will continue to release its films in flat versions to theatres and for home formats such as DVD. Katzenberg acknowledges that films are going to have to be satisfying experiences without 3D and that 3D will be the icing on the cake. He does foresee 3D becoming available at home in the future and expects that its first successful home application will be in gaming.

Katzenberg admitted that it was going to be up to the audience to determine if 3D would become the dominant projection method, but that he was excited about the possibilities since seeing The Polar Express in 3D.

I found the first clip from Monsters vs. Aliens to have some problems, though I'm not sure if it was the clip itself or my need to adjust. 3D imagery contains more information than a standard movie in that the viewer is taking in depth information in addition to everything else. I found the cutting in the first sequence, where the President confronts the alien, to be too fast. I couldn't decipher some shots before they were replaced by others.

However, I found the later two excerpts, the first introducing the monsters and the second a battle on the Golden Gate bridge, worked better for me. I don't know if it was the nature of the direction and cutting in those sequences or if by that time I had seen enough that my brain was more in tune with reading the images.

Certainly, as a society, we take in visual information faster now than in the past. I remember reading an interview with Ward Kimball who talked about having to trim older Disney shorts when they played on television as they were paced too slowly for the TV audience. I don't doubt that with greater exposure to 3D imagery, the audience as a whole will be better at deciphering what's in front of them, but I do think there's a danger of cutting too quickly for the time being.

3D has been tried many times before. Katzenberg said that he felt the move to digital was going to make the difference in terms of audience acceptance. Maybe 3D will be a way for studios to attract more people to theatres in the current economy or maybe bad economic news will prevent that. For now, Hollywood is betting heavily on 3D. Only time will tell if it becomes the new standard or remains an occasional novelty.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Stumbling Around in the Dark

Even before the current economic situation, certain media industries were in trouble. In particular, TV and newspapers had both been losing their audience. The current downturn is probably going to accelerate that.

There is the sense that anything that can be reduced to digital bits has changed in some fundamental ways. Here's Virgina Hefernon of the N.Y. Times on how writing for print is not just writing.
Does anyone still believe that the forms of movies, television, magazines and newspapers might exist independently of their rapidly changing modes of distribution? The thought has become unsustainable. Take magazine writing. In school or on the job, magazine writers never learn anything so broad as to “tell great stories” or “make arresting images.” You don’t study the ancient art of storytelling. You learn to produce certain numbers and styles and forms of words and images. You learn to be succinct when a publication loses ad pages. You learn to dilate when an “article” is understood mostly as a delivery vehicle for pictures of a sexy celebrity. The words stack up under certain kinds of headlines that also adhere to strict conventions as to size and tone, and eventually they appear alongside certain kinds of photos and illustrations with certain kinds of captions on pages of certain dimensions that are often shared with advertisements. Just as shooting film for a Hollywood movie is never just filming and acting in a TV ad is never just acting, writing for a magazine is never just writing.
Chris Anderson, author of The Long Tail, is currently writing a book about the free economy. That's where people and companies give things away but still manage to make money by selling something that relates to the give-away. You can find an entire series of articles by Anderson here.

Kevin Kelly has an essay called "Better Than Free." You can read it here or download an updated pdf of it here. His premise is:
When copies are super abundant, they become worthless.
When copies are super abundant, stuff that can’t be copied becomes scarce and valuable.
When copies are free, you need to sell things that can not be copied.
Well, what can’t be copied?
He lists eight "generatives" that can't be copied: immediacy, personalization, interpretation, authenticity, accessibility, embodiment, patronage, and findability. I don't want to explain them all here, but some of them possibly relate to animation on the web.

Immediacy means that if you have a release that's in demand, you can charge people for the right to see it early before releasing the free version at a later time. It might simply come down to putting it on a password protected site and emailing your paying customers the password before releasing it to the world at large at a later date.

Personalization is what JibJab is doing with their E-cards. By allowing users to put their own photos into the JibJab animation, they are offering something that becomes to unique to each buyer.

Embodiment is selling a higher quality copy of what is available for free. It's the equivalent of putting a low rez version of your animation online and then selling higher quality copies. This would also include merchandise that isn't digital, like T-shirts and coffee mugs.

Patronage is asking people to contribute financially to the creation of your work. It's the digital equivalent of a tip jar, and many websites have buttons inviting users to feed the kitty. Advertising would also fit here, whether the advertiser desires the demographic that you attract or they just want their customers to know that they support something the customers value.

Kevin Kelly is also the author of the article "1000 True Fans" about how a creator might be able to survive economically with just 1000 people willing to financially support his or her work. Not everyone buys into this idea. You can read John Scalzi's rebuttal here. Kelly gives the matter further thought here.

Paul Graham has written an essay saying that technology start-ups are getting so inexpensive that they're no longer courting venture capital companies. They can start with overhead so low that they can move into profit quickly and once they're generating profit, there's no need to sell some of their companies to investors. This is in line with Ralph Bakshi talking about animators having an entire studio in a single computer and that it's far easier now to make an inexpensive film than it was. Lower overhead makes it less risky to try out new ideas, such as attempting to figure out how to work in the free economy.

Bob Jaques, an old friend of mine, visited Sheridan College recently and over dinner we were talking about how everyone expects material online to be free. He talked about how he thought animation was going to shorten to 30 seconds in order to work online. He may have a point. As Hefernon points out above, the medium makes a difference and the web seems to favour short material. The problem, which few have solved so far, is monetizing what you put online.

I don't have the answer. If I did, I'd be doing it. But as more people are investigating the idea of giving things away as the basis for their business, I'm watching closely. Other people are reminding everybody that start-up costs are lower than they used to be. Lots of people think that there's something out there and are trying to describe it, but so far nobody has really pinned it down. I expect the current economic situation to make the problems that some media are experiencing worse, but I also think that it's going to give birth to new business models and I hope at least one of them will work for animation.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

The Final Customer

This isn't a doomsday scenario about there being only one customer left. It's about the fact that while people work for companies and companies work for companies, relatively few of them are the final customer, and that puts everyone at risk.

When you get your hair cut, you are the final customer. You're not getting your hair cut so that you can somehow resell it to someone else. But many of us work for companies whose customers are not the final customer. If you work in animation, your company's customer may be another studio, TV broadcaster, film distributor, or retailer. They are the people who ultimately sell your work to the audience. If any of your customers misread the market, your company will suffer and you may be laid off as a result. The people working in animation production are helpless to control their fates.

The Animation Guild Blog has some quotes from industry veterans. The whole thing is worth reading, but here is the heart of the matter:
What artists in animation don't understand like they should is that companies don't care about them. Artists want to believe that companies do, but it's not the way things are....

It's nothing personal. They're not trying to be mean or cruel. They just have their budget to get down and you're a hindrance to that. So they get rid of you. Nothing personal about it at all.
This is absolutely true, as are the comments about why older artists often become the targets of companies looking to save money.

We know, just from reading the papers, that the people who run companies can be guilty of bad decisions. Large financial institutions like Lehman Bros. have disappeared and we may be watching the death of General Motors. We are trusting our livelihoods and our futures to people who are really no smarter than we are. This being the case, we should trust ourselves more.

There is no sale without a final customer. The longer the supply chain between what you do and the final customer, the more likely that somebody in the middle is going to make a bad decision that is going to affect you. The best position to be in is selling directly to the final customer. That way, you are not at the mercy of the companies in the supply chain.

Ironically, you are at the mercy of your customers, who will probably outnumber the people you are currently selling to. However, because of their number, each final customer has much less power to damage you. Losing one customer or ten when you are selling to final customers will hurt your business, but not as much as losing one company or ten as your clients. The good news is that companies you sell to have enough money to pay you well and to allow you to build your organization. The bad news is if that money is withdrawn, your are unemployed and your company is bankrupt.

Animation artists are too far down the supply chain. We are dependent on too many people between us and the audience. In the next year or two, we are going to see many companies shrinking their workforces and others disappearing all together. Many unemployed artists will struggle to survive until companies start expanding again, at which point they will be happy to return to work. The smart ones will try and figure out a way to sell something to the final customer, because that's the most secure place to be in the long run.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Chuck Jones Next March

I will, of course, remind everyone about this later, but Turner Classic Movies has an entire evening devoted to Chuck Jones next March 24. Included is the new documentary Chuck Jones: Memories of Childhood. You can read more about that documentary over at Cartoon Brew. In addition, they will show The Phantom Tollbooth, the feature that Jones directed based on the book by Norton Juster. Here's the schedule for Eastern time. Note that the last film of the night is 1001 Arabian Nights, the UPA feature starring Mr. Magoo and directed by Jack Kinney.
8:00 PM Chuck Jones: Memories of Childhood (2009)
8:30 PM Night Watchman, The (1938)
8:40 PM Prest-O, Change-O (1939)
8:50 PM Sniffles and the Bookworm (1939)
9:00 PM Elmer's Candid Camera (1940)
9:10 PM Scent-imental Over You (1947)
9:20 PM Haredevil Hare (1948)
9:30 PM Duck Amuck (1953)
9:40 PM One Froggy Evening (1966)
9:50 PM What's Opera Doc (1954)
10:00 PM Dot and the Line, The (1965)
10:15 PM Bear that Wasn't, The (1967)
10:30 PM Chuck Jones: Memories of Childhood (2009)
11:00 PM Phantom Tollbooth, The (1969)
12:30 AM Night Watchman, The (1938)
12:40 AM Prest-O, Change-O (1939)
12:50 AM Sniffles and the Bookworm (1939)
1:00 AM Elmer's Candid Camera (1940)
1:10 AM Scent-imental Over You (1947)
1:20 AM Haredevil Hare (1948)
1:30 AM Duck Amuck (1953)
1:40 AM One Froggy Evening (1966)
1:50 AM What's Opera Doc (1954)
2:00 AM Dot and the Line, The (1965)
2:15 AM Bear that Wasn't, The (1967)
2:30 AM Chuck Jones: Memories of Childhood (2009)
3:00 AM Phantom Tollbooth, The (1969)
4:30 AM 1001 Arabian Nights (1959)

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Fred Moore Centaurettes

(Click any image to enlarge.)

As the semester draws to a close, I'm getting buried with grading, which is why I haven't updated this blog in a while. Without time to really write something, I'm just going to mark time for a bit.

I bought this drawing at Gallery Lainzberg in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in 1979. At the time I was working at a small animation studio in Waterloo, Iowa, and every few months animators Bob Haack, Bill Barder and I would go to the Gallery.

This drawing was obviously fished out of a wastebasket. There are all kinds of notes jotted around the image that have nothing to do with it. It was also folded in half. Clearly, Moore discarded the drawing and then used it for scrap before trashing it. Somebody liked it enough to remove it and take it home.

The same day I bought this, Bill Barder bought a drawing from Avery's Dumb Hounded. I tried to buy it from him multiple times, but Bill wouldn't part with it.

I was pretty sure the centaurette drawing was by Moore but my opinion was corroborated by Chuck Jones. He came out to the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls to do a talk and he toured our studio while he was there. He stared at the drawing, mounted directly in front of my desk, and simply said, "Hmmm. Fred Moore." I figured he'd know better than me.

Here's a photo taken during Jones' visit. From left to right, Bill Barder, Chuck Jones, me, Mike Grove and Bob Haack.

That Moore drawing is still mounted over my board at home. The animation disk was one used on the Dick Williams Raggedy Ann and Andy. I bought it from my friend Murad Gumen, who worked on the film as an inbetweener. The drawings surrounding the centaurettes are others that I acquired over the years. The Mickey and Minnie was drawn by Peter Emslie, who gave it to me as a gift in 1990. On the right are drawings from a Tom and Jerry cartoon and from a Jones Sniffles cartoon. I've forgotten which cartoons they're from and I'm too lazy to look it up. On another wall in the same room, I have a Barney Bear drawing from Goggle Fishing Bear. I'll eventually give everyone a better look at these drawings, but I consider the Moore the prize in my collection of animation art.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Sleeping Beauty Puts Me to Sleep

My sentiments, exactly.

I just watched the new DVD release of Sleeping Beauty. It’s the first time I’ve seen the film in over a decade and maybe two. It has never been one of my favourites, but watching it now I’m struck by how poor the story and characterizations are. If not for the high production values and the presence of artists that I know to be more than capable, I would say that Sleeping Beauty is a poor imitation of a Disney film.

I am not a fan of Eyvind Earle’s artwork. I don’t have any insightful reasons for that; it just leaves me cold. Beyond Earle’s design style, I’m also not one who is impressed by detail. For me, all stories are about people and if the visuals don’t support a worthwhile story and characters, they are wasted. It’s no different than the common refrain that a particular movie isn’t very good, but the special effects are great. If a movie isn’t very good, I don’t care about any of the elements.

The story of Sleeping Beauty is ludicrous. An evil fairy is insulted for not being invited to a party, so she puts a curse on the princess in the cradle. By the sunset of her sixteenth birthday, the princess will prick her finger on a spinning wheel and die. I can’t begin to fathom how absurd this is. If Maleficent is angry enough to kill the child, why not do it on the spot? Why drag out the process for 16 years? And why a spinning wheel? Why not a disease or a fall or choking on food? This may be what the fairy tale original demands, but the Disney studio was never shy about rewriting its source material.

What’s worse is that Maleficent has no motivation to speak of beyond being miffed. Does she have a history with the royal family? Have the three good fairies caused her trouble in the past? Is she unable to have a child of her own? We are told nothing. Furthermore, Maleficent is a dolt. Her henchman search for the princess unsuccessfully for 16 years and she only questions them closely at the end of that time? What’s she been doing all those years? Watching the clock?

The three good fairies are even more empty-headed than Maleficent. They know that the curse will expire at sundown on the princess’s sixteenth birthday. They put away their wands so that their magic will not draw attention to her. Yet with hours to go, they bring out the wands and tip off the bad guys. Their reasons for using magic are also unbelievable. They’ve been living in the woods for 16 years and haven’t figured out how to make clothing or prepare food? Who made the princess’s clothing as she grew? What have they been eating all this time?

This stupidity is compounded by them bringing the princess back to the castle before the sun sets. Instead of leaving her hidden in the woods until the curse expires, they tempt fate by bring her out into the open. Why? The only reason I can think of is because the story artists couldn’t think of anything better. There is no logic to this.

What’s most disappointing is that the good fairies and Maleficent are the most interesting characters in the film. The king and queen have longed to have a child. When they finally do, they are forced to give up all contact with her for 16 years in order to protect her life. In the interim, they have no other children. Imagine the psychological stress these parents would endure and how their loss would colour their entire lives. That’s meaty material, but the film ignores the Queen entirely and the king is barely more fleshed out. When it comes to the climax of the film, the royal family is literally asleep, unable to influence events in any way. When the king and queen are finally reunited with their daughter, the sum total of the emotion displayed is a hug.

The two kings are more poorly developed than the two kings in the Fleischer version of Gulliver’s Travels. It isn’t often you can credit the Fleischers with better character development than Disney, but it is absolutely the case here.

The princess is stuck in the woods for 16 years. Has she had contact with anyone besides the three fairies? Has she ever encountered men? She dreams of romance, so she has to be aware of them. She can see the castle from the woods. Has she never been curious to visit it, just as a tourist? If the princess has any thoughts, the audience is not privy to them. In dramatic terms, she has no motivation; she seeks romance, but only in the most generic way. Unlike later Disney heroines like Ariel, she does nothing to find or sustain her relationship. The prince finds her in the woods and she falls instantly in love. Is it possible to be more passive?

The prince is over-matched by Maleficent if not for the fairies. Every step of the way, they use magic to allow him to escape and battle the dragon. Why don’t they cut out the middle man and just battle Maleficent themselves? What’s worse, they put the inhabitants of the King’s castle to sleep, so why don’t they do the same to the inhabitants of Maleficent’s? That would have saved everyone a lot of effort.

There are many Disney features done while Disney himself was alive that suffer from story structure problems. What was usually present, though, were memorable personalities. Many claim that Sleeping Beauty suffered due to Disney’s interest in Disneyland and the studio’s TV work. That may be so, but the film looks like the studio forgot everything it knew about story and character when it made this film. The fact that nobody could see this or stop it, plus the fact that so much money was spent to finish the film, resulted in major layoffs and marginalized the animation department. While some people celebrate this film, I see it as a self-inflicted wound.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

101 Dalmatians: Part 20A

This is the climax of the film where Cruella and the Baduns attempt to stop the truck carrying the dogs back to London.

While it is an exciting sequence, what strikes me is how little the dogs have to do. They have been active characters before this - searching, fighting and avoiding capture - but there's nothing left for them to do. Except for Perdy catching a pup by the tail as the truck tilts dangerously, the dogs are literally just along for the ride. While the audience has been asked to identify with the dogs as protagonists, now the audience is stuck rooting for a truck driver who has no history with the audience and no idea what's really going on. It's a bit of an odd turn for the film to take.

It's also something of a disappointment that the bad guys are the authors of their own misfortune. Again, after the dogs have worked so hard to rescue the puppies and return home, why not give them the opportunity of striking the final blow? Instead, the bad guys cancel each other out and the dogs ride home to safety.

There are some interesting shots where the backgrounds recede behind the characters riding in vehicles. If they were done as traveling mattes, the matte work is excellent as there are no matte lines visible. Those lines are visible in later films like The Rescuers, so why are the shots here better? Perhaps they were done using the multiplane camera, which would not require matte work as the entire shot would be done in camera. Does anyone know?

This part of the film really belongs to Cruella. While her henchman have done most of the dirty work until now, she is the main villain in the chase. In shot 158, her car crashes through some trees and parts of it get stripped off, the resulting look in shot 160.1 is very much a nod to the California hot rod culture of the 1950s. Big Daddy Roth, anyone?

Prior to those shots, in 149-154, the car lands in a snowbank and instead of animating the snow, someone decided to use the live action footage from the model shoot of the car. The live action images were transferred directly to cels and painted. As a viewer, these shots have always called attention to themselves and taken me out of the story momentarily. For one thing, the texture of the snow in these shots doesn't match any snow in the rest of the film. For another thing, there are registration problems. You can clearly see the live element weaving relative to the painted backgrounds they've been inserted into.

The film leaves Cruella, Horace and Jasper stuck in the snow without a way home. Are the arrested? Horace and Jasper are guilty of burglary. Cruella is guilty of attempted murder of a truck driver. Are they fined? There's no doubt that Cruella has broken the speed limit and driven recklessly. We'll never know.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Richard Williams Interview at Spline Doctors

Richard Williams (left) and Ken Harris

Spline Doctors has an audio interview with Richard Williams where he talks about his experiences with animators Ken Harris and Milt Kahl. Williams also talks about the creation of his new instructional DVD series.

(link via Alan Cook.)

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Emru Townsend

Emru as I remember him.

Emru Townsend passed away last night after a lengthy battle with leukemia.

I can't remember how and when I first "met" Emru. He was probably the one to contact me in the days when the internet was mostly usenet groups and email lists. He approached me to write about the production of Monster By Mistake and I was grateful for the opportunity. He was the editor of fps, a Canadian magazine devoted to animation and my TV special was an early example of an all-cgi half hour. He gave me another chance to publicize the show when it went to series and I continued to write reviews for fps thereafter when it migrated to the web.

Emru and I were also members of Apatoons, a private publication about animation that's been going on longer than The Simpsons.

I only met Emru face to face two or three times, and I think that all the meetings may have taken place at the Ottawa Animation Festival. The one thing that struck me about Emru in person was his great baritone voice, one that was made for radio.

Emru was someone who made things happen. Lots of people have ideas or complain that the world is deficient in some way. Emru turned ideas into reality. Creating a magazine from scratch and getting it distributed is not an easy task, and it doesn't get any easier when the subject matter is animation. Emru attracted people like a magnet and was able to organize them so that there was a tangible result.

That organizational ability served him well during his illness. He used all his media savvy to publicize his situation; he needed a bone marrow transplant and had to find someone who was a match. He and his family (especially his sister Tamu), mounted a campaign that included a website and blog, email lists, newspaper articles and radio interviews, all focused on publicizing the need for people to provide samples for the bone marrow database. His ethnic group, the Afro-Caribbean community, is under-represented and one goal of his crusade was to register more people in that community so that they would have an easier time if they were unfortunate enough to be in Emru's position. For all the work that Emru did with fps, with the Siggraph organization, with the larger animation community, it will probably be dwarfed over time by the work done by him, his friends and family to expand the bone marrow database. We'll never know how many lives that database may save in the future as a result of their efforts.

Emru's illness was not easy or pleasant. In addition to the effects of the disease itself, he suffered with the problems associated with chemotherapy: exhaustion, fuzzy-headedness, and mouth sores. It suppressed his immune system, so he spent time in hospital wards where he could only be visited by people wearing masks and gowns as he was in danger of infection. There were other complications having to do with his heart rate and his legs swelling. Through all the treatments and over 40 transfusions, Emru wrote about his illness. There was no self-pity in those reports; Emru approached his illness like a journalist, documenting everything he went through dispassionately. This is what's known as grace under pressure.

Emru found a match for the transplant and underwent the procedure in September. Unfortunately, it didn't relieve his condition. He knew several weeks ago that there was nothing else doctors could do for him and that it was only a matter of time. Time ran out yesterday evening.

I've lost a friend, animation has lost an advocate, and the Townsend family now has a hole it in that will never be filled up. Emru is survived by his wife Vicky, his son Max, his sister Tamu, and his parents and in-laws. I know something of what they went through and I don't envy them the pain and uncertainty that has dominated their lives since Emru got sick. There's nothing left to say except that I hope that his family can find solace from how much we'll miss him and most especially from the way Emru lived his life. We're richer for having known him.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Joe and Bill Explain It All

Here is a CBC news clip from 1961 where Joe Barbera and Bill Hanna explain the production process for making TV cartoons. It's a shame that the clip is in such poor shape.

One of the interesting things is the casual sexism. "Girls" do ink and paint, but a "man" paints the backgrounds. Welcome to the era of Mad Men and Wilder's The Apartment.

If you can identify any of the artists who appear on screen, please comment.

(Thanks to Chris Walsh for pointing me to this.)

Housekeeping and Items of Interest

I've updated the template to this blog so that "older posts" appears at the bottom of each page. This has also allowed me to add links to the mosaics of 101 Dalmatians and Pinocchio. Previously, only a portion of those entries was accessible through the tags and now all of them are. Thanks to Alan Cook for pointing me in the right direction, even though it took me weeks to finally get to this.

I've also added a category called "Favourite Entries." Right now, the only thing there is the major research paper I wrote for my Masters degree. Other items will eventually be added. I regret that Blogger puts the most recent entries first. If you're interested in following the feature mosaics or my paper, you've got to start at the bottom and work your way to the top.

I've added all my old links and tested them, but if you note any problems with the new set-up, please leave me a comment and I'll do my best to correct them.

Clay Kaytis at The Animation Podcast has added the second part of his interview with Eric Goldberg. Most interesting to me were Eric describing the making of Pocahontas and his feelings about computer animation. All of the interviews that Clay has done are worth listening to. They are a major resource for artists and historians and I wish that this technology had been around in the 1930s and '40s so that we could be listening to Fred Moore, Norm Ferguson, Emery Hawkins, Rod Scribner, etc. As we're now in a period where studios are less interested in publicizing artists than they were in the '90s, we're lucky that Kaytis and others are doing their part to put faces and voices to the work that we see on screen.

Kevin Langley has published some emails that he received from the son of Lantz and UPA animator Pat Matthews. Matthews is one of dozens of animators whose work deserves greater recognition and study. Though his animation is broad and vigorous, his drawings are solid and controlled. He was the Preston Blair of the Lantz studio in that he was the animator the studio turned to whenever sexy girl animation was needed. Matthews' anonymity is due to working for two studios whose work has been under-represented on DVD and his early death. He also worked at studios farther off the beaten path, such as Mexico City, at a time when animation appreciation was even more United States-centric than it is now. Kevin's entry includes embedded videos of the UPA cartoons Robin Hoodlum and Rooty Toot Toot, both of which Matthews animated on, as well as a compilation of Matthews' animation at the Lantz studio.

Will Finn has written an interesting entry on story and the role of villains within them. As a professional story artist himself, he offers some alternate ways to look at the story structures of some very well-known films. We are in a period when far too many studio features are being made according to formula and Will argues that there are possibilities that are being ignored.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Various Links

Over at, there's a review of Madagascar 2 which includes this interesting take on modern family films:
Many know it as the Fox/Dreamworks design, and it goes a little something like this: hire yourself a group of recognizable voice actors, preferably from mediums (TV, music) that provide some conceptual crossover appeal; take your spec screenplay and strip it of anything remotely resembling complicated characterization or narrative; insert multiple examples of lame pop culture quipping, everything from tempered Top 40 hits to fame whore in-joking; offer up a few mindless musical montages; and don’t forget the borderline offensive toilet humor and bodily fluid/noises jokes. Wrap it all up in a ribbon of riot act ridiculousness, a level of ADD inspired attention spanning that will leave the underaged spent and the adult feeling they got their Cineplex-inflated money’s worth, and you’ve got a F/D derivative. And a big fat hit, probably.
At Cinematech, Scott Kirsner wonders why Disney is pushing the Blu-ray version of Sleeping Beauty so hard while not making it available for downloading.
My point: why spend all that marketing money to remind people about the existence of a 50-year old movie if you're not going to offer it in all the formats people might want to watch it in?

Also, Apple said last year that there were 500 million active iTunes users, and about a million new downloads of the software every day. The most optimistic projections about Blu-ray players envision that there will be about ten million of them in use by the end of this year. (And yes, that includes those built in to Sony's PS3 game console.)

So you're going to spend millions of marketing dollars to sell to a potential audience of 10 million instead of 500+ million? I own some Disney stock, and that don't make sense to me as a shareholder.
The New York Times reports on Disney's high end approach to merchandising.

The most expensive piece of clothing sold by the Walt Disney Company six years ago was a $75 sweatshirt embossed with a mug shot of Mickey Mouse. By Magic Kingdom decree, home furnishings were required to exhibit at least one Disney character, leading to children’s play rugs ($65, in Pluto) and nightlights ($9.95, in Winnie the Pooh).

Disney still peddles all those things. But now the company also sells $3,900 designer wedding gowns — no characters in sight — and women’s cashmere sweaters “inspired by Tinker Bell.” Interior design offerings include $2,800 leather club chairs and $6,000 chandeliers patterned after the Art Deco décor in Mr. Disney’s former office. One of the company’s new products: couture soap.

Welcome to Disney, the “lifestyle brand.”

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Animation in 1919

Allan Holtz's blog, Stripper's Guide, dedicated to comic strips, has reprinted a 1919 article by an animator named Bert Green from The Student's Art Magazine, explaining the process of animation as it existed at the time. Among the revelations are:
Cartoons like the “Katzenjammer Kids,” “Happy Hooligan,” “Mutt and Jeff,” etc., that run five hundred feet, require a staff of from fifteen to thirty people, men and women, to produce this amount of animated cartoon a week, with salaries ranging from ten to three hundred dollars per week, so you can readily get some idea of the time and expense involved. Cartoons such as these contain from two thousand to three thousand drawings, and it takes two photographers one solid week working into the nights under pressure to photograph these drawings.
There are references in the article to Winsor McCay and Frank Moser. One other interesting thing is that Green's assistant was a woman referred to as Miss Kelly, with no first name mentioned unfortunately.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Wall-E for Best Picture?

The New York Times is reporting that the Hollywood studios have decided to push box offices success for the Academy Awards this year. With the viewership of the awards telecast falling every year for the past several years, the thinking is that the TV audience has no rooting interest in the independent, small films that the Academy usually honors. The way to higher TV ratings is to nominate films that the audience has actually seen.

Disney will be campaigning for Wall-E in the best picture category.

As early as midsummer Joe Morgenstern, The Wall Street Journal’s film critic, was arguing that “Wall-E” should be considered for best picture. “The time to start the drumbeat is now,” he wrote in a July 12 essay, noting the extreme difficulty animated films, while hugely popular, have faced in vying for the most prestigious Oscar. Only one, Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast,” released in 1991, has ever been nominated for best picture.

“If we didn’t do it, I don’t think we’d be giving the movie its due,” Richard Cook, chairman of Walt Disney Studios, said of the decision to promote “Wall-E” for the top prize, even if that complicates the movie’s simultaneous bid for the more easily won award as best animated feature. One problem is a presumed tendency to split votes. Academy members can vote for a film in both the best picture and best animated feature categories. But they may not be inclined to do that or even know that the rules permit it.
The awards are often a rebuke to mainstream Hollywood, where the creative community gets to place art over business. The big question is whether the Academy membership, whose votes determine the nominees and the winners, will go along with this approach.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Last Hurrah

A rather startling layout from Chuck Jones' Bear Feat. The trees are an animated pan, adding even more interest to the shot.
The latest, and last, Looney Tunes Golden Collection has been released. It's the sixth volume in a series that has delivered over 300 restored Warner Bros. cartoons as well as behind the scenes documentaries and commentaries. This edition contains two live action films of the staff made for Christmas parties in 1939 and 1940, several Captain and the Kids cartoons directed by Friz Freleng at MGM, two TV specials, a documentary on Mel Blanc, a generous selection of early black and white cartoons as well as propaganda cartoons made during World War II. All this in addition to a generous helping of the expected Warner Bros. cartoons.

While Warner Bros. will undoubtedly continue to release cartoons on DVD, this may be the last time we see such elaborate extras and relatively obscure cartoons. My guess (and fear) is that we'll be inundated with no-frills sets devoted to the most famous Warner characters, leaving the lesser-known cartoons to languish in obscurity.

There is much to celebrate in this set. While many have expressed disappointment that a whole disk has been devoted to early Bosko and Buddy cartoons, I'm thrilled to have them (though happier about the Boskos than the Buddys). The early Harman-Ising cartoons run on adrenaline. The enthusiasm that created these cartoons, and the speed and anything goes qualities on screen, are a reminder of how exhilarating animation can be even when it lacks polish. There's more animation in a single Harman-Ising cartoon than there is in a whole season of Family Guy. It's ironic to me that a culture that is obsessed with sports and watches reality shows like Dancing with the Stars somehow thinks that motion is an unnecessary frill in animated cartoons. When did animation become a synonym for stasis?

The youthful energy that propels the Harman-Ising cartoons sometimes resulted in great films. Bosko the Doughboy takes a perverse glee in the murder of cartoon characters. It's total war, stripped of politics or ideology. There's no reason for the chaos on the screen except for the pleasure of doing damage. This cartoon is a nihilist black comedy, fit to be run on the same bill as Dr. Strangelove.

Bosko the Doughboy

The two Christmas party films are live action equivalents of Looney Tunes. They show, without a doubt, that it was the sensibility of the entire staff that was responsible for the humour that ended up on screen. Martha Sigall and Jerry Beck provide commentary, and Sigall is one of the few people living capable of identifying so many of the crew, including the secretary and ink and paint women who normally remain anonymous. It's a real pleasure for me to see footage of animators such as Ken Harris and Bobe Cannon.

Ken Harris

Robert "Bobe" Cannon

Bob Clampett's Russian Rhapsody is both a political satire about the relationship between Hitler and Stalin and a catalogue of caricatures of the Schlesinger staff, identified in the commentary by animator Mark Kausler. You have to turn to South Park for anything similar today, and of course, the quality of the Warner Bros. art and animation is far superior.

All the directors are represented by excellent, though rare works. Besides Russian Rhapsody, Clampett's Horton Hatches the Egg is here, based on the book by Dr. Seuss. Chuck Jones cartoons include Rocket-bye Baby (a favorite of mine with lovely designs by Ernie Nordli), Chow Hound (a black comedy worthy of an E.C. horror comic) and Now Here This (Jones imitating the Zagreb studio). Freleng has Goo Goo Goliath in the UPA mode and Herr Meets Hare, written by Michael Maltese and an obvious precursor to Jones' later What's Opera, Doc? Bob McKimson not only has mainstream work of his like Crowing Pains in this collection, but also two more experimental films, The Hole Idea, which he animated himself, and Bartholomew Versus the Wheel, a modernistic fairy tale written by John Dunn. Tex Avery's Page Miss Glory is here in all its art deco splendor.

Page Miss Glory

There's more than 30 years of Warner Bros. cartoon history here, but even if you're not particularly interested in animation from a historical standpoint, these cartoons are a treasure chest of artistic riches. There's a wide variety of stories and design approaches. There's great animation by Rod Scribner, Bob McKimson, Manny Gould, Ken Harris, Bobe Cannon, Ben Washam, Art Davis, and Virgil Ross. These cartoons are a textbook on how music can accompany animation and how it can be used to propel animation forward. There is more to be learned from a set like this than from any book written about creating animation. And this set is also an inventory of all the animation techniques that the industry has abandoned or forgotten. Sadly, it may also be the last time the Warner Bros. cartoons are collected with this much love and respect. Enjoy the Looney Tunes Golden Collections because we may not see their like again.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Bill Plympton's Idiots and Angels

I've always had mixed feelings about Bill Plympton. He draws beautifully. His short films always provoke a strong audience reaction. He is an inspiration as an entrepreneur, having developed his own market niche where he creates the films he wants to and makes a living at it. Where most independent animators produce shorts, Plympton has directed at least five features.

On the other hand, I think that Plympton's animation is starved for drawings. While I understand the economic necessity of limiting the amount of artwork he produces for a film, the animation and stories often feel padded as a result. While Plympton is a strong draftsman, he has trouble portraying weight and momentum in motion. Perhaps my greatest reservation about him is the shallowness of his characters. This isn't much of a problem in his shorts, which tend to be very gag driven, but becomes a larger problem in his features.

Idiots and Angels is Plympton's latest. I saw it screened at the Toronto After Dark festival where it played to a large audience and got a good response. The story is a morality tale about a thoroughly unlikeable character who sprouts angel wings. The character and the wings battle for control of the character's actions and his soul.

While many people thought that Wall-E was daring for doing without dialogue for forty minutes, Plympton has essentially made a silent feature. For eighty minutes, there is no dialogue and the storytelling doesn't suffer for it. What is lacking, however, is depth in the characterizations. With the exception of the main character, the characters' personalities do not evolve over the course of the film. Plympton is good at communicating who they are, but once their personalities are established, the characters never grow or do anything unexpected. This lack of complexity is the film's weakest point. While eighty minutes is short for a feature, the film still feels padded because the characterizations are static. Plympton adds fantasy sequences and visually interesting direction (he does some marvelous things with match cuts), but all stories are about people, and these people aren't interesting enough to fully hold our attention.

I've seen I Married a Strange Person and Hair High and think that this film is stronger than either of those features. There is no question that Plympton is advancing as a film maker, but I wish that his progress was faster. Economics may prevent him from ever putting more animation into his features, but the scripts could be improved. I wonder what Plympton could do if he had stronger characterizations to work with? Perhaps he should adapt an existing story or collaborate with another writer.

Idiots and Angels is definitely worth seeing. It contains some deft visual storytelling, some excellent gags and an intriguing premise, but I'm still waiting (and hoping) for Bill Plympton to make an animated feature that will banish my mixed feelings.

For a look at the film's trailer, go here.