Sunday, March 30, 2008

Mr. Fun Is In The House

Disney and Pixar veteran story man Floyd Norman (a.k.a. Mr. Fun) has started to blog. I've added Floyd's link to the list on the right and will visit it often.

101 Dalmatians: Part 1

Movie credits were once just a formality. If you look at early film credits, the title card contains an enormous amount of information.

Until the 1950s, title sequences might contain a background graphic beneath the type that would place the movie into a particular genre or style, but the credits were generally static and were something to get over quickly in order to get the movie started.

In the 1950s, things began to change. At the time, movies were fighting a popularity battle with television. Instead of being something purely obligatory, titles were looked at as potentially entertaining. Saul Bass became famous for his animated graphics in movie titles, starting with Carmen Jones (1955). In 1956, Bass designed the end titles for Around the World in Eighty Days, produced by Mike Todd and which featured cameo appearances by many Hollywood stars. The titles were directed by Bill Hurtz for Shamus Culhane Productions (see below).

The artists at the Disney studio had to be aware of Bass's work on this film. With Dalmatians, they had the opportunity to jump on the bandwagon and create a title sequence that set the tone for the film while entertaining audiences. Just as Bass used a graphic motif of a circular vortex for the titles of Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958), the Disney artists built the titles of a film about spotted dogs around the motif of spots.

(I'm not an expert on the Disney live action features of the time, but I'm sure that some of them, possibly predating Dalmatians, also had Bass-like titles. Can anyone cite examples in the comments?)

Another influence on the titles may have been Orson Welles end credits for The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). While those credits are spoken by Welles, when he credits the cinematographer, the visual on screen is a camera. The rest of the technical credits are done in the same way, so the credits are an explanation of the movie-making process. In the Dalmatians credits, the graphics demonstrate the craft of animation production. The spots become musical notes for the composer credits. Bill Peet's credit as writer is hand-written, fitting for a storyboard artist, while Dodie Smith's credit is typewritten and accompanied by the sounds of a typewriter. The animator credits are accompanied by moving dogs. The effects animator credits have pulsating letters.The layout credits are shown over line drawings of backgrounds and when the background artist credit appears, the line drawings are coloured in.

The above mosiac doesn't do justice to the title sequence because the most interesting parts are the transitions between title cards, animated by Carleton "Jack" Boyd. Les Clark provided the character animation that was mixed in with Boyd's graphics.

The titles themselves are very interesting. The phrase "With the talents of" was a catch-all for people who provided voices but who also provided live action reference. Mary Wickes is credited, but her contribution is only indirectly on screen as she acted out Cruella's motions unless she provided a voice that I'm not aware of.

There are two other things that are interesting about these credits. The directing animators have their names zoom up, a not so subtle bid for attention and a declaration of their importance to the animated features of the 1960s. The other interesting thing is that Woolie Reitherman receives top billing as director, even though he's the new kid on the block compared to Gerry Geronimi and Ham Luske. It's also interesting that the directors names start big and then recede, the opposite of the directing animators. Again, this may be an unintended comment on the shifting power within the animation department. There's no question that animation dominated direction in the '60s Disney features, to the detriment of the films.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Yeagle's Gremlins

Fans of Dean Yeagle will be happy to know that his new comic, Return of the Gremlins, is now available. Written by Mike Richardson with art by Dean, backgrounds by Nelson Rhodes and colour by Dan Jackson, this is the first of a three issue series.

The comic is based on characters created by children's book author Roald Dahl (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) and they were originally created for an animated Disney film that never got produced. Dark Horse previously reprinted a storybook done by the Disney studio featuring the characters.

The comic can be ordered here or can be found at comics shops.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Truth, Justice, and the American Way

Sometimes the good guys win. It just takes an awfully long time.

In 1938, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster sold the first Superman story for publication. They were paid ten dollars per page for a grand total of $130. At that moment, they handed the publisher the ownership of one of the twentieth century's most popular and profitable characters. For the first few years, they were well compensated by being paid to continue to produce Superman. But as the character's popularity spread to radio, newspapers, movies and animated cartoons, Siegel and Shuster realized that they were not sharing in the wealth.

In the 1940's, they sued to regain the copyright and lost. They dropped their claim in exchange for a cash settlement. In the 1970s, when the first Christopher Reeve Superman movie was being made, a concerted publicity campaign by cartoonists on behalf of Siegel and Shuster shamed Warner Bros, who had bought Superman's publisher, into providing an annual pension for the character's creators.

Under a provision of the copyright law, the original owners of a property have the ability to regain their copyright. Both Siegel and Shuster are dead, but Siegel's widow and daughter have taken Warner Bros. to court and gotten a decision which restores a portion of Superman's copyright to them.

There is much that still must be negotiated and undoubtedly there will be more time spent in court. However, one of the great pop culture miscarriages of justice has been rectified. You can read about the decision here and here.

Siegel and Shuster's history should be taught in every art and animation school in the world. No creator should ever sign away ownership of a property without receiving a binding, ongoing financial interest in all the revenue that the property generates. Creators should think long and hard before giving control of their characters to corporate interests, regardless of the financial deal offered. If J.K. Rowling had sold Harry Potter as a spec movie script, she would not own the characters and would be considerably less wealthy than she is today. It was her good fortune that she created Harry Potter as a book, where it is routine for authors to own their copyrights.

Don't trust to fortune. It took 70 years for Siegel and Shuster to receive justice and neither lived long enough to savor it. Be smarter than they were.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

101 Dalmatians: An Introduction

As I did with Pinocchio, I'm going to do a mosaic for the film One Hundred and One Dalmatians. Before starting, I have to thank Hans Perk, who has generously provided the studio documentation for this and many other Disney films on his website. The mosaic to come would not be possible without Hans' collection.

I also want to talk a bit about the film before getting into the details of each shot. My own career and interests are focused on direction, story and animation, so those are the things that I'll be concentrating on. I know that Dalmatians was a major design change for Disney features in terms of art direction, colour styling and the use of Xerox to transfer the animators' drawings to cels. However, there are people who are far more qualified than I to talk about those aspects of the film and I can only hope that somebody else will write on those subjects.

Dalmatians is popular with audiences and well thought of by critics. It has comedy, suspense, and excitement and it moves at a very brisk pace. In addition, the personalities in the film are memorable; each of them is specific, consistent and compelling. The film is lighthearted entertainment that succeeds on many levels.

Two levels where the film does fall short are character and theme. Character, as opposed to personality, has to do with depth and change. The personalities of Dalmatians are all on the surface. There are no hidden qualities that are revealed as a result of the events of the film. The personalities end the film identical to how they started it. Unlike many other Disney films, such as Pinocchio, Dumbo and Bambi, the characters do not grow; they do not see the world differently as a result of what they've experienced.

Part of this has to do with the nature of kidnapping stories. Dalmatians was the first use of this idea as the basis of an entire animated Disney feature, but it was not the last time that Disney used it. The Aristocats and The Rescuers are also built around this motif. Other studios have also used it: Dick Williams' Raggedy Ann and Andy as well as Pixar's Toy Story films and Finding Nemo.

One aspect to these stories is that there's a perfect world that is disrupted by the kidnapping. The victims are rescued and they, as well as additional characters, are returned to the perfect world. It can be a very conservative form because, in some ways, it's a return to the womb. That's almost explicit in Raggedy Ann and Andy, but it's also the case in Dalmatians. Because the world is perfect to start with and perfection is regained, there can't be any growth and it's hard for the story to add up to a theme.

Pixar's handling of this is more sophisticated than Disney's. Finding Nemo starts and ends in the world of the reef, but both Marlin and Nemo change over the course of the film and their relationship changes as well. Nemo is forced to be more self-reliant and Marlin realizes that risk is unavoidable and that parents must leave emotional room for their children to grow away from them. There is nothing like this in the parent-child relationships in Dalmatians.

Dalmatians completes a transition from focusing on children in a hostile world in the earliest Disney features and children as members of a bored middle class in the films of the '50s. In the '60's films, the characters with the most potential for growth -- the children -- are ignored in favor of the adults who supervise them. I've written that it's probably a result of the artists getting older and getting farther away from a child's viewpoint, but all the children of the animated Disney 60's films (the puppies, Wart, Mowgli, the kittens) are the focus of adult agendas rather than growing to create agendas of their own, as do Pinocchio, Dumbo and Bambi.

One Hundred and One Dalmatians has just been re-released on DVD, so this seems like a good time to examine the film more closely. Let the mosaics begin.

Friday, March 21, 2008

You Can Be a Hero!

I avoid putting personal material on this blog. For one thing, I'm a private person. For another, I assume that readers come here for a discussion relating to animation, not about what I had for breakfast.

This really isn't about me, except as background material. My mother died last summer from Hodgkins Lymphoma. My father currently has pancreatic cancer. I've spent a fair amount of time at Memorial Sloan Kettering, the cancer hospital in New York City where both my parents received treatment. Sitting in the waiting rooms and walking through the hallways, it's astounding how many people are being treated for cancer. While some of these people may have engaged in behavior or occupations that put them at risk, the majority are just unlucky. Cancer doesn't discriminate much in terms of age, sex or ethnicity.

I went to school briefly with Glenn McQueen, the Pixar supervising animator who passed away several years ago from cancer. Recently, two people I admire, musician Jeff Healey and artist Dave Stevens, both died of cancer at relatively young ages.

Since my mother became ill, I've lost my innocence. Cancer was something exotic that didn't touch my life. Now, the damned thing is everywhere. Another friend, Emru Townsend, is battling leukemia and a condition called monosomy 7, which complicates his treatment.

You may know fps. It started as a print magazine about animation and has become a website. Emru is the founder and runs it. He's also worked as a technical writer for animation software companies, so if you're in the business, you may have read some of his words. He's using his media savvy to publicize his situation, hoping that print and the internet will help his cause. The best thing about it is that no matter what happens, his campaign will definitely help others.

Emru needs a bone marrow transplant. The tough part is finding somebody who is a genetic match. All it takes for a potential donor to be tested is a saliva swab or a blood sample. The odds of you being the person who matches Emru are, frankly, pretty low. But the odds of you matching somebody needing a transplant are higher. Emru is urging people to provide samples to the world-wide database. With every additional sample, the odds for Emru and those with similar needs get better.

If you have encountered cancer, you know how tough the treatment is and how stressful it is to contemplate an uncertain future. Anything that offers hope is a valuable gift. You may offer someone that gift by providing a sample. The terrible irony is that someday you may need that gift and Emru's campaign may provide it for you.

Visit for more details and click the graphic above to learn more about how and where to provide a sample.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Picture Books Into Animated Features

Animated features have often been based on pre-existing stories, whether fairy tales like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs or books like Pinocchio. In recent years, there's been a trend to create animated features from picture books. I recently watched Meet the Robinsons and was curious to see how the film compared to the book. I was quite surprised to see that the book had little narrative or conflict and next to no characterization. Its appeal comes from William Joyce's illustrations of a parade of eccentric characters and environments.

It's not hard to see why the book was attractive to Disney, but in many ways the book was a trap. The structural and dramatic requirements for a feature film are completely missing from the book. In fact, I found the weakest part of the film to be the second act, and that was the part of the film most closely based on the book.

The problem isn't limited to Meet the Robinsons. I've also recently looked at the book and film versions of The Polar Express. Chris Van Allsburg's art is impressive, but the pictures are almost entirely long shots. That's great for portraying evocative environments, but like A Day With Wilbur Robinson, The Polar Express is almost entirely lacking in characterization or dramatic tension. The film version relies heavily on spectacle and on sequences -- like the boy attempting to recover the girl's ticket -- that really serve no dramatic purpose within the larger narrative except to provide false suspense and fill screen time.

We're Back by Hudson Talbot contains the strong image of real dinosaurs getting mixed up with the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade and taking refuge in The Museum of Natural History. The film version (which I haven't seen in years) was forced (like Meet the Robinsons) to invent a villain in order to create stronger dramatic tension.

All of the above books are too thin to support feature films without being augmented by new material that pulls the stories away from their origins.

Shrek is another book that doesn't really lend itself to a feature. Within William Steig's book, there is no suspense. Shrek meets a witch on page 5 who tells his fortune. The rest of the book works out exactly as she foretells with few surprises. The appeal comes from Steig's language, drawings and the upside-down notion of a character who is gross and ugly and loves it. At least the character of Shrek is a strong one, which gave DreamWorks something to start with. Shrek, as a character, is far stronger than any character in other books I've discussed.

In choosing projects, animation studios have to be careful not to be seduced by nice illustrations or novel environments. Shrek shows that it's good to have a strong character to start with, but it's even better to have a well structured dramatic conflict.

The Beauty of Simplicity

I came across this article by Chris Baker at about a videogame called Crayon Physics Deluxe. I was very taken with the video below for a variety of reasons. While the game is far from slick, it is ingenious. The player has enormous freedom to create and to plot strategies in attempting to win the game. The fact that it includes drawing doesn't hurt either.

Reading about Petri Purho, the inventor of Crayon Physics Deluxe, was even more inspiring. He works under some basic, simple rules for creating his games.
  • Each game must be made in less than seven days.
  • Each game must be made by exactly one person.
  • Each game must be based around a common theme, i.e., "gravity," "vegetation," "swarms," etc.
The beauty of this rapid prototyping is that not all ideas are good ones. Rather than commit large amounts of time, money and effort to an idea that turns out to be a failure, there is enormous appeal in working simply and quickly to discover the worth of an idea. As Crayon Physics Deluxe proves, an audience doesn't require visual sophistication if the idea is a good one.

There's an obvious analogy here to the animation field. Features and TV series have grown increasingly complex and expensive, and as a result the high risk of a failure distorts the creative process. Projects are forced to conform to what's already been successful and spontaneity is in short supply. If animation is to be revitalized and if independents and small companies have any hope of competing with multinational corporations, the kind of elegant simplicity found in Crayon Physics Deluxe points to an approach that should be taken seriously.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Frédéric Back at the Bloor Cinema

I had the pleasure of attending the Frédéric Back screening at the Bloor Cinema on March 15. Back himself was present and was interviewed on stage after a showing of Tout Rien, Crac!, The Mighty River and The Man Who Planted Trees.

It was interesting to see Back's films all together (though they were run somewhat out of order; The Mighty River was made after The Man Who Planted Trees). Certain themes in his work are obvious: his love of nature and his romantic and nostalgic view of the past. However, seeing his films together, I could trace certain changes in his work.

Tout Rien is a fable about humans who are envious of other creatures and a deity who attempts to placate them. Crac! is a history of rural Quebec seen through the eyes of a rocking chair. These earlier films include humor and the characters are designed in a frankly cartoony style. Both films are wholly pantomime accompanied by music. Of the two, Crac! is the more innocent, as change is seen as something inevitable, if regrettable. Just as children grow up and leave their parents, the landscape becomes more urban. People gather around television sets instead of fireplaces. The past continues to exist, if only in memory, even if most people are oblivious to what's been lost.

Back's approach changed substantially in The Man Who Planted Trees. The designs are more realistic. Humor has vanished. The story still contains no dialogue but does rely on a narrator. The film contrasts the work of the shepherd, who single-handedly creates a forest over decades, with the work of governments, which destroy the landscape through war or are clueless as to how to manage it. Where change in Crac! just seems to happen, Back makes it very clear in this film that people are at the root of change and that human choices have a profound impact on the world.

The Mighty River is an animated documentary, closer in tone to The Man Who Planted Trees than any of Back's earlier films. There are no central characters; here Back charts how the mass of humanity has altered the St. Lawrence river. The film resembles Robert Crumb's comic strip, "A Short History of America" in some ways, though Crumb focuses purely on landscape and Back goes beyond landscape to include wildlife. The film is nothing less than an indictment of humanity's lack of respect for natural resources; the river is something to be plundered, not protected.

Back's love of the natural world and his pain at humanity's treatment of it are constant thoughout all his films. However, his mood has darkened over the course of his career. The films have become more serious, probably because Back sees humanity blindly heading for a precipice. At the Bloor, Back talked about his website and how he was making large amounts of his artwork and ecological material available in the hope of inspiring people to be creative and most importantly to participate -- to work towards improving things rather than simply allowing things to happen. In this way, he himself is like The Man Who Planted Trees, going his solitary way focusing on what he believes to be important; calling attention to the natural world and by his example urging others to involve themselves in its preservation.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Great Canadian Animators in Canada?

I attended the opening of the exhibit of Frédéric Back at the Alliance Française de Toronto last night. I highly recommend it to anyone who can attend. Back's artwork is exquisite and I was surprised at how small and delicate much of it is. Many scenes were animated with characters fitting into a 5 field or 6 field. It takes great control (and courage) to work that small knowing that the art will eventually fill a theatre screen. You can find details here on the various Back exhibits currently in Toronto.

It also got me to thinking about the nature of animation in Canada. Are there many animators born and educated in Canada who did their most successful work here? During the glory years of the NFB (the 1940s-'70s), a great many NFB artists were immigrants to Canada: Norman McLaren, Kaj Pindal, Caroline Leaf, Ishu Patel, Lotte Reiniger, etc. During those decades, there was no animation education available that I'm aware of.

Since the '70s, there has been animation training available and certainly there has been a thriving commercial business. However, there has yet to be a break-out hit animated feature or TV series to originate in Canada. Dozens, and probably hundreds, of Canadian artists have worked on successful and award winning films made in the U.S.

So my question (and it's not rhetorical) is whether there are any Canadian animators who have done their most successful work while in Canada. Grant Munro of the NFB is one possible answer. I'd be curious to know if there are others.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Kirby, King of Comics

Mark Evanier's biography of Jack Kirby, entitled Kirby, King of Comics, has been published by Abrams. The book is a retrospective of Kirby's career as an artist, starting with boyhood drawings and covering his lengthy career in the comic book industry. Evanier's text is a biography of Kirby.

I like this book a lot and anyone who loves Kirby's work won't need my recommendation to buy it. However, while Evanier's text does a good job of delineating Kirby's background, personality and work ethic, and while Evanier's love for Kirby as a person and a subject comes through, it doesn't begin to do justice to Kirby as an artist. Evanier has stated in an interview that, "I'm very happy that it came out from a very prestigious art book publisher. They're the same people who publish Picasso's work -- and I think that Jack deserves to be on the same shelf as Picasso." As much as I love Kirby, I don't know if I would agree with that. One thing I know, however, is that a book on Picasso would examine his artistic innovations and his place in the larger art world. This book doesn't do that for Kirby.

You can't write about D.W. Griffith at Biograph without talking about how his use of the camera and editing changed the way that movies communicated to an audience. Similarly, Kirby's dynamic figures, his tilted compositions and his page designs had a huge impact on how stories were told in early comic books. Kirby's treatment of the figure continued to evolve over the course of his career and surely the representation of the human figure is a topic of importance in the art world.

There are also sociological aspects to Kirby that are ignored. One of the most curious sides of Kirby's career is that he and partner Joe Simon created the genre of romance comics. I would be hard pressed to name a comic book artist who I think is less suited to romance, yet the books were immensely successful in the late 1940s. Gil Kane once remarked that Kirby's repressed anger showed up in his superhero costumes, which were covered with straps, buckles, and other types of restraints. Kirby's love comics are full of huge, operatic emotions and fit the zeitgeist of the time that produced film noir. I doubt they would have succeeded in any other time period. By the time the domesticated '50s rolled around, romance comics had degenerated into tearful women pining for Mr. Right, something alien to Kirby's sensibility.

Evanier's status as a comics professional is both a blessing and a curse for him as an author. It provided him with first-hand knowledge of Kirby and his contemporaries and access to many people who contributed Kirby artwork for the book. However, his life-long exposure to Kirby blinds him to the aspects of Kirby's drawing that someone new to Kirby would struggle to understand.

Furthermore, Evanier's friendship and professional relationship with Stan Lee restricts him to acknowledging Kirby's problems with Lee but he refuses to take sides. Lee is an immensely charming person with media smarts, but the fact remains that Lee's two most important collaborators, Kirby and Steve Ditko, both broke with him and that Lee became wealthy based on those collaborations while his collaborators did not. Instead, they had to fight for acknowledgment. That does not speak well for Lee, even if Evanier refuses to criticize him.

Mark Evanier is working on a more detailed Kirby biography that won't appear for several years. When that book is published, I will buy it and can already predict that I will enjoy it. Jack Kirby is fortunate to have a champion in Mark Evanier and would have been thrilled to see this book. However, Kirby needs other champions. While the specifics of Kirby's life are important, it's his art that is his main claim on our imaginations. Kirby's qualities as a draftsman and designer are too important to ignore. While anyone writing about Kirby is most likely affected by nostalgia for the man or his work, I believe that Kirby needs an unemotional re-evaluation. There's more to say about Kirby's art than is in the text of this book.

Abe Levitow

A Levitow-animated scene from Rabbit Seasoning.

Via Michael Sporn's Splog, I learned of a new site dedicated to the late Abe Levitow, animator and director. Levitow was a fixture of the Chuck Jones unit at Warner Bros. and MGM in the '50s and '60s and also contributed to UPA, working on their features 1001 Arabian Nights, Gay Purr-ee and the TV special Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol.

There is an abundance of lovely artwork here, and not all of it is by Levitow. There are colour pieces by Bob Inman, Victor Haboush and Corny Cole, for example. There are also great photos of Levitow and the people he worked in the animation business, as well as with Judy Garland and Robert Goulet, who supplied voices for Gay Purr-ee. Dig deep into this site and you'll be rewarded.

In this photo, Levitow is wearing the light shirt at the center of the image and Dick Williams is the right-most person. The others are unidentified. I may be wrong, but I think that the man standing on the left, who appears to be wearing a tuxedo, is Shamus Culhane. Can anyone confirm that?

I'm pretty sure the unidentified person at left is John Culhane. The others, identified on the Levitow site, are, from left to right, Dick Williams, Vincent Price and Abe Levitow.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Frédéric Back

As Frédéric Back will be in Toronto later this week, where his artwork will be exhibited and his films screened, I thought it would be good to reprint this 20-year-old article from The Globe and Mail, written just before The Man Who Planted Trees won the Oscar for Best Animated Short.

You can read details about the exhibitions and screenings here.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Steve Stanchfield Interview

Steve Stanchfield, whose company Thunderbean releases rare and obscure animation, is interviewed at the Matinee at the Bijou blog.

Two Toronto Animation Events

On Thursday, March 6, something called The Toronto Animation Industry Night will take place at Veritas, 234 King Street East. The doors open at 6:30. I will probably be attending, though I have to admit I have no idea who is behind this or if the evening has any sort of agenda.

Frédéric Back is a giant of the Canadian animation world. He has won Oscars and other major awards. The artwork in his films is stunning and will be on display at three separate galleries in Toronto from March 14 to 21.

Work from Crac! and Tout-Rien will be at the Alliance Française de Toronto, 24 Spadina Road. Their hours are Monday to Wednesday, 9:30 to 6:30 and on Thursday from 2:00 to 6:30. On Friday March 14, this exhibit will open from 6:00 to 9:00 p.m. with Frédéric Back being present.

Work from The Man Who Planted Trees will be at the Centre Francophone de Toronto, 20 Lower Spadina Avenue. Their hours are Monday to Friday, 9:00 to 4:30 and on Saturday from 11:00 to 3:00.

Art from The Mighty River will be exhibited at the Bluffs Gallery, Scarborough Arts Council, 1859 Kingston Road in Scarborough. Hours there are Monday to Friday, 9:00 to 5:00 and on Saturday from 11:00 to 4:00.

In addition, there will be a free screening of Back's films Tout-Rien, Crac!, The Mighty River and The Man Who Planted Trees in 35mm at the Bloor Cinema, 506 Bloor Street West (near Bathurst Station) on Saturday, March 15 at 4 p.m. There will also be a video screening of his earlier films at Alliance Française de Toronto on Monday, March 17 at 7.

Working with Walt

I have not read this new book by Don Peri, but the line-up of interview subjects has certainly caught my attention. The interviews include Ken Anderson, Les Clark, Larry Clemmons, Jack Cutting, Don Duckwall, Marcellite Garner, Harper Goff, Floyd Gottfredson, Dick Huemer, Wilfred Jackson, Eric Larson, Clarence Nash, Ken O'Connor, Herb Ryman and Ben Sharpsteen.

You can read more about the book here, including ordering information. The hardcover is $50 and the paperback is $22. Both figures in U.S. funds.

1000 True Fans

Kevin Kelly writes an interesting essay on artists developing a core audience as a way to finance their work. The problem for animators is always how long it takes to produce something new. It's far easier to build a fan base if you're releasing material weekly or monthly than if your new film is an annual event.

In any case, I think that this model has potential and there are people who have worked in animation (such as Dean Yeagle or Michel Gagne) who have built up fan bases that enable them to produce personal projects. It would be great to see somebody managing to finance actual films (no matter how short) this way.

(Kelly link via The Comics Reporter.)

Why Producers Can't Direct

Jaime Weinman has an interesting essay on why good producers often make poor directors. While the essay doesn't deal with animation, there's been no shortage of animation producers who haven't taken the director title on a film but have dominated it. It's worth reading.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Gordan Sheehan Part 4

(This is the conclusion of an interview with Gordon Sheehan conducted by Harry Arnold and Dave Daruszka and printed around 1976 in Zoetrope, a trade publication. You can read part 1 here, part 2 here and part 3 here.)

Zoetrope: What brought you to Chicago?

Sheehan: Wilding's studio on Argyle Streeet, which was one of the oldest studios in the industry. They used to produce the old Charlie Chaplin, Gloria Swanson, Wallace Beery and William S. Hart films. Wildings had a sizeable animation staff in those days. They made me a very lucrative offer to come out and join their staff, and that's what brought me to Chicago. Wildings did mostly technical animation. They made films for many large companies like Ford and General Motors.

After a while I decided to start my own studio, and found a little place down at State and Grand, in the old Graphic Arts Building. I did all types of animation. An animator had to take about anything that came along in those days to make a living. This was in the early fifties.

Zoetrope: How active was the animation community in Chicago at the time?

Sheehan: There were only four or five places doing animation in the city at that time, and this was mostly commercial stuff. The trouble was, and I think it still is the trouble, ad agencies were taking the lush television spots either to New York or to Hollywood, usually to Hollywood. When they had a big budget to spend for a spot, the account executive would take it out to Hollywood where he would be wined and dined and enjoy a wonderful junket even though it was costing quite a bit more money. Not much ad-money was being spent in Chicago. About the only things I got were films with a rush deadline or ones that couldn't afford Hollywood prices.

Zoetrope: Then there was more talent located in Hollywood or New York than in Chicago?

Sheehan: Most of the animation talent was in California or New York. Animation was a very limited field; a character animator had to work for one of the five or six studios that furnished animated cartoons for a major company like Twentieth Century Fox, Paramount, MGM, or Warner Brothers. If you didn't work for them, there wasn't much work available, that is, until television came into its own. Then of course small animation studios sprung up all over the country.

Zoetrope: How long did you keep your own studio in Chicago?

Sheehan: For five or six years. I realized that it was a difficult business here in Chicago. There was a lot of work originating in Chicago in television cartoons but it was going to New York or Hollywood. I got an opportunity to go out to California. It was a very lucrative offer; a year's guaranty of work plus moving expenses. I always wanted to get out to the West Coast, so I accepted. I as out in California for about ten years. I had my own studio there for a while too. I did quite a bit of animation work, mostly television spots. After about ten years of California, I had the opportunity to come back to Chicago with Coronet Films, an educational film producer.

I had done freelance work for Coronet while I was in Chicago, before I went to California. A lot of things were happening in those days; President Kennedy was elected, and started a tremendous educational program throughout the country. There were very generous government grants given for educational material. The educational film business really boomed along with other ranches of the educational profession. That was when Coronet came into its own. Coronet decided to start their own animation department, instead of giving out freelance as they had been doing. So I came back to Chicago to organize a small staff for them, and I stayed with this company up until the time I retired.

Zoetrope: Have you done anything since retirement?

Sheehan: I've done a few little projects, but I like plenty of free time, because my wife and I enjoy traveling. Also I get quite a bit of pleasure out of painting. I've always been fond of painting watercolors, and now I have the time to do it.

Zoetrope: What do you think about animation today?

Sheehan: My opinion of animation today is not a very high one. I don't want to run the business down, because I know the reasons why it is not what I would like it to be. Animation is an expensive process, it always has been. Producers just can't pay the kind of money it takes to put out the kind of animation that was done twenty or thirty years ago. The salaries then were lower, the equipment was much lower...everything seems to be so much more expensive these days. Naturally animation is suffering because of that. Producers have had to find limited ways of making things move on the screen and they just limit animation too much in my opinion.