Sunday, April 27, 2008

101 Dalmatians: Part 5A

Social mores of the time make this a very curious sequence by modern standards. Perdita is giving birth while Anita and Nanny attend, but they are kept almost completely off-screen. This kind of birth scene dates back at least as far as Stagecoach (1939), where the camera concentrates on those waiting rather than on the woman. That approach is consistent with how I Love Lucy or The Flintstones handled birth, concentrating on the comic aspects of the expectant father rather than on what the mother is going through.

This film is slightly different as Roger revives one of the pups. In effect, female effort is invisible while male effort is highlighted. Female effort is just nature taking its course while male effort requires ingenuity. While I'm sure that Bill Peet did not intend any slight, when I consider this sequence and how poorly developed Anita's character is, I see a subtle devaluing of women.

(I know that Roger's actions are from Dodie Smith's original novel, but in the novel, the Anita character is more present during the birth than she is here. Undoubtedly, Smith's ability to write about birth without making it visually explicit gave her the edge over Peet.)

Anita is almost invisible in this sequence, and where she is present she has weak attitudes and next to nothing to do. She is saddled with exposition and to provide Cruella with someone to talk to. "That's right Cruella. They'll have their spots in a few weeks." "Well I'm sure we'll get along." "Well Cruella, he seems..." Try putting an emotional performance behind lines like that. Why wasn't Anita the one to perform some of Nanny's business? Why wasn't Anita given more backbone to stand up to Cruella? Since this scene severs their relationship, why not have Anita oppose Cruella forcefully instead of letting Roger do all the work? Roger gets to save the puppies twice. What does Anita get to do except admire Roger's actions?

The staging in this sequence is simple but effective. We're practically looking at a stage set with all the action playing in a single plane from left to right. The characters are often isolated by the camera, but there is never any confusion as to where they are relative to the other characters.

There's a bit of odd geography in this sequence. We know that the characters live in a row house, so the kitchen door is not accessible from the street. Yet Cruella comes in through that door, so somehow she got into the yard.

The identification between dogs and owners is continued here, ironically through Cruella's actions. When she can't get her pen to write, she splashes ink all over Roger, making him as spotted as Pongo. It's appropriate that he look so dog-like just before he acts on the puppies' behalf by denying Cruella the chance to buy them.

Ollie Johnston handles Nanny for the most part. In contrast to Anita, she has things to do and is enough of a caricature to give an animator something to work with. Milt Kahl continues excellent work with Roger. Roger waiting tensely for the birth, his celebrating by dancing with Pongo, and his refusal to Cruella are all vivid. Frank Thomas handles the revivial of the puppy including Pongo's reaction shots. Thomas gets Pongo's reaction shots to Cruella and the final conversation between Pongo and Perdita. Thomas always gets the shots with a clear, strong emotional through-line.

Marc Davis continues his bravura performance of Cruella. She dominates the sequence by her aggressiveness. Her disgust at the puppy's lack of spots, her contemptuous laughter at Roger's economic prospects, her annoyance at her pen and her full-out anger when she's refused are all communicated with great exuberance.

Blaine Gibson really knew how to move a dog believably. He never seems to get scenes with real acting in them, but whenever there's a scene of a dog moving from one place to another, it seems to fall to Gibson. Here, he gets the scenes where Pongo barks at the exiting Cruella and when he goes to join Perdy in the basement.

Poor Les Clark was capable of better animation than they've given him to do with Anita here. Anita's standing in this movie and Clark's standing in the animation department are, sadly, analogous.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Industry Day at Sheridan College

In this neck of the woods, there are two times of the year where there's something resembling a gathering of the clans: the Ottawa International Animation Festival and Sheridan's annual Industry Day, where the graduating students screen their films for studios looking to hire. Lots of friends can be counted on to show up for the screening and this year I had the pleasure of seeing former students who are now working and who came to recruit for their companies.

Several people from the industry told me that they felt this was a very strong year. My own thought is that there were some excellent films and the overall batting average was pretty high. I'm sure that many of these films will show up in festivals and eventually on YouTube and other video sites.

I've got to acknowledge Tony Tarantini as the faculty member who has organized this event for the last two years. Tony has to invite people from all over North America, create printed material to explain procedures and list films, arrange award presentations for the students and make sure that there's enough food and drink to keep everybody happy. Industry Day takes as much preparation as a wedding and Tony makes it look easy.

Finally, congratulations and best wishes to the graduating class of 2008. I hope that the industry provides opportunities for them to grow as artists and to realize their ambitions. If that happens, we can look forward to some wonderful animated films.

Below are some photos of the event.

In the four pictures above, some of the students from the B.A. program display their work for the industry.
Above, the students in the post-graduate cgi program host the industry in their lab space.
Above, Marilyn Friedman of DreamWorks is interviewed for a local newscast.
Above, Director Larry Jacobs is under the rabbit ears and Steve Schnier, whose independent live action film Pubic Lice is nearing completion, stands next to him.
Above at left, Tom Knott of Laika speaks to Evan Spiridellis of JibJab.
Above at left, animator Stephen Barnes listens to cgi program coordinator Mark Simon
Above at left, animator Charlie Bonifacio speaks to retiring instructor Vivien Ludlow. Vivien will return part-time in the fall to help mentor 4th year students during the making of their films.
Above, a display of the set and characters from the stop motion film Crema Suprema by Elenora Ventura. Sheridan will be starting a regular stop motion class starting in September, taught by Chris Walsh, who missed industry day due to the arrival of this little fellow:

Finally, Brock Gallagher, a third year student, has cut together a highlight reel of the films from his year. These films are group projects, made by teams of about a dozen students. Next year, they'll all be making individual films and I'm looking forward to seeing them.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

101 Dalmatians: Part 5

I should point out that Hans Perk has posted Bill Peet's entire script for this film in two parts, here and here.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

101 Dalmatians: Part 4A

This sequence introduces Cruella, but it does a couple of other very interesting things as well with parallel behavior and with geography.

The preceding sequence uses the joke that owners resemble their dogs. The parallel between dogs and humans is taken further in this sequence, starting with shot 1 by Les Clark depicting the marriage of Roger and Anita while Pongo and Perdita take their vows in the foreground. The composition reinforces the fact that the dogs, not the humans, are the main characters.

Shot 2 establishes Roger in the attic and the dogs on the main floor. We also see the front door with its glass window. The geography of the house is very important to this sequence.

The sequence proper begins and ends with the two dogs animated by Ollie Johnston, creating both a symmetry and a reversal. In the opening shots, Pongo is nervous and Perdita calms him by licking his nose. In the final shots, it is Perdita who is nervous and Pongo calms her by licking her face. Their tongues have to substitute for hands as a way for the characters to touch and reassure each other.

It isn't just dog noses that come into play in this sequence. Noses are something of a motif. Milt Kahl has Roger place his finger on Anita's nose in shot 22 and Roger and Anita rub noses twice, in shots 22 and 94. Roger puts his fingers on Pongo's nose in shot 30 animated by Johnston. Anita holds her nose at Cruella's cigarette smoke in shot 42 by Kahl and Pongo snorts at the smoke in an uncredited shot between 43 and 46. In this sequence, noses (a logical choice in a film about dogs) are used to demonstrate both emotional closeness and distance between characters.

The geography of this sequence is split into three vertical levels. Roger is in the attic, Anita occupies the main floor and Pongo is close to the floor. The height of the camera specifies whose point of view we are getting at any given time. Roger is blasting away in the attic, trying to drive Cruella way with his noise. Anita is attempting to be polite, offering refreshments and distracting Cruella in shot 55 when it looks like Pongo might actually attack Cruella. Pongo is clearly unhappy, almost being trampled twice, subjected to acrid smoke, being approached against his will and hiding behind furniture. While Cruella is the centerpiece of this sequence, it economically communicates a range of responses to her by isolating the other characters in their separate spaces.

Roger's position off screen seems to be a cheat. In shot 16, we can see that Roger is farther back than the door to the attic. His piano seems to be against the back wall of the house. Yet when Cruella and Pongo look up to the attic, they look towards the front of the house. While it is technically wrong, it makes for clearer storytelling as both Pongo and Cruella are looking away from Anita in shots 59 and 63. There is no mistake who they are reacting to in these shots.

Cruella gets a great entrance. First, her car is heard offscreen. Then her car careens into view and parks in front of the house. Then her silhouette can be seen, framed twice within the door: once by the rectangular frame of the glass and once by the oval glass insert. When the door opens in shot 38, it literally explodes open, crushing Nanny against the wall. This, by the way, is the last we see of Nanny in the sequence. One can only assume she left to visit the nearest emergency room.

Cruella is flamboyant and aggressive, charging through the house in search of the unborn puppies. We know right away that she is selfish. She drives as if she owns the road and she visits as if she owns the house. She laughs at Anita's simple lifestyle and Roger's career, which only amplifies her rudeness.

Cruella is very much based on Tallulah Bankhead, the stage, screen and radio star who got her start in the 1920s and was famous for her way of flamboyant way of speaking and acting, which included chain smoking, a fondness for bourbon and conversations in the nude. She's perhaps best known today for her role in Hitchcock's Lifeboat (1944) and her standard greeting was "Hello Darling." Cruella's first words are "Anita darling" and her next line begins with "Miserable darling."

There's no question that Marc Davis's Cruella animation is memorable. She has the star part; the part that all the other characters revolve around and react to. Cruella's cigarette holder (didn't Marc Davis also use one?) provides lots of comic business, whether it's blowing smoke or putting out the cigarette in the pastry.

If this sequence has a weakness, it is Anita. Roger gets to do his sarcastic Cruella imitation once she leaves. Anita has nothing to do besides showing how demure she is relative to Cruella; she never gets more than slightly miffed through this sequence. Anita and Cruella are old school friends, but what is the attraction? Why, besides politeness, does Anita put up with Cruella? We never find out what keeps this unlikely pair in touch with each other and it's a missed opportunity. Unfortunately, there are no other scenes that give us insight into Anita either.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Brad Bird and Management

I've come to the conclusion that the hardest job to do well is management. Managing your career - figuring out which jobs to take, when to leave a studio, whether to relocate - is difficult and made more difficult if you're in a relationship, have children, etc. These are the decisions that keep people up at night.

Managing a staff is also difficult. In the animation business, the people who end up supervising are good at their craft, but what knowledge do they have about keeping people happy and productive while still hitting the deadline and the budget? In every industry there are managers who have lousy people skills or the wrong priorities and end up with cost overruns, shoddy quality and a high staff turnover as a result. Anyone who has ever had a job knows what I'm talking about.

So here's a really interesting interview with Brad Bird, conducted for McKinsey & Company, a corporate consultant that specializes in innovation. Unfortunately, you're going to have to register to read it (Rick May suggests the username and password 142), but the interview is excellent because it asks Bird about things that other interviewers would never think to ask, such as how Pixar stays innovative and how Bird works with his crew and gets things on the screen.
"When I directed The Iron Giant, I inherited a team that was totally broken—a bunch of miserable people who had just gone through a horrific experience on a previous film that had bombed. When the time came for animators to start showing me their work, I got everybody in a room. This was different from what the previous guy had done; he had reviewed the work in private, generated notes, and sent them to the person.

"For my reviews, I got a video projector and had an animator’s scenes projected onto a dry-erase board. I could freeze a frame and take a marker and show where I thought things should be versus where they were. I said, “Look, this is a young team. As individual animators, we all have different strengths and weaknesses, but if we can interconnect all our strengths, we are collectively the greatest animator on earth. So I want you guys to speak up and drop your drawers. We’re going to look at your scenes in front of everybody. Everyone will get humiliated and encouraged together. If there is a solution, I want everyone to hear the solution, so everyone adds it to their tool kit. I’m going to take my shot at what I think will improve a scene, but if you see something different, go ahead and disagree. I don’t know all the answers.”

"So I started in: “I think the elbow needs to come up higher here so that we feel the thrust of this action.” “I’m not seeing the thought process on the character here.” “Does anybody disagree? Come on, speak up.” The room was silent because with the previous director, anyone who dared to say anything got their head chopped off.

"For two months, I pushed and analyzed each person’s work in front of everybody. And they didn’t speak up. One day, I did my thing, and one of the guys sighed. I shouted, “What was that?” And he said, “Nothing man, it’s OK.” And I said, “No, you sighed. Clearly, you disagree with something I did there. Show me what you’re thinking. I might not have it right. You might. Show me.” So he came up, and I handed him the dry-erase marker. He erased what I did. Then he did something different and explained why he thought it ought to be that way. I said, “That’s better than what I did. Great.” Everybody saw that he didn’t get his head chopped off. And our learning curve went straight up. By the end of the film, that animation team was much stronger than at the beginning, because we had all learned from each other’s strengths. But it took two months for people to feel safe enough to speak up."

"In my experience, the thing that has the most significant impact on a movie’s budget—but never shows up in a budget—is morale. If you have low morale, for every $1 you spend, you get about 25 cents of value. If you have high morale, for every $1 you spend, you get about $3 of value. Companies should pay much more attention to morale.

"Before I got the chance to make films myself, I worked on a number of badly run productions and learned how not to make a film. I saw directors systematically restricting people’s input and ignoring any effort to bring up problems. As a result, people didn’t feel invested in their work, and their productivity went down. As their productivity fell, the number of hours of overtime would increase, and the film became a money pit."

(I want to thank friend and storyboard artist Jim Caswell for pointing me to this interview. One of the ironies of Jim's life is that he works at home, so he doesn't have to deal with the day-to-day nonsense of office life, yet he reads more books about business and management than any other artist I know.)

101 Dalmatians: Part 4

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Mystique of the Nine

While publicity has fixed the nine old men in the publics' consciousness, I think that it's important to realize that the "nine old men" was something of an arbitrary title. That's not to cast aspersions on any of the nine, but the title was as much a result of studio politics as it was a testament to their abilities.

There were important animators at Disney before the nine rose to prominence. They include Ub Iwerks, Fred Moore, Ham Luske, Bill Tytla, Dick Lundy, Norm Ferguson, Dick Huemer, Grim Natwick and Art Babbitt. There were other excellent animators during the early feature years including Ken Muse, Don Towsley, Marvin Woodward, Don Lusk, Preston Blair, Bill Roberts, Berny Wolf and John Sibley.

There were several things that separated the nine from the rest, and not all of them had to do with art. All nine started their animation careers at Disney, so they had no other studio as a frame of reference; as a result they didn't question Walt Disney's artistic or managerial style. All of the nine stayed loyal during the strike and stayed with the company until their retirements. What Walt Disney had in the nine, besides fantastic animation chops, was confidence that they would execute his vision without arguing with him or abandoning the company.

While Disney no doubt valued their artistic ability, he himself was willing to break up the team. He moved Ward Kimball and Les Clark into directing for TV and he took Marc Davis away from animation for good after 101 Dalmatians to work on the theme park. By the time The Jungle Book was in production, only five of the nine were still animating. While the nine may have been running the animation department, their association was more managerial than artistic.

I am sorry about Ollie Johnston's death. He did great work and deserves to be remembered. I'm sorry about the eight who preceded him in death. Every animation artist who passes away diminishes the field to some degree by his or her absence. But I believe that artists needs to have their work judged and appreciated as individuals. Walt Disney's decision to tag nine artists with a nickname was as much a political and corporate decision as an artistic one, and as a result those animators who failed to fit into Disney's comfort zone for whatever reason have been cheated of attention they deserve.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Farewell Ollie

Jenny Lerew reports that Ollie Johnston has passed away. Rest in peace.

Update: Peter Emslie has written a personal reminiscence of Ollie Johnston and included a great letter from Ollie.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

101 Dalmatians: Part 3A

This section of the film re-uses animation very heavily. You can tell that the people behind this film are doing everything they can to hold down the costs. As sequence director Gerry Geronimi got his start in silent animation, where re-use was a standard tool, it's no surprise.

Shots 54 and 57 by Ollie Johnston use the same drawings of Pongo. Shots 52 and 66 by Johnston use the same drawings of Pongo. Shots 81 and 88 by Marc Davis use the same drawings of Anita, though 88 is 81 in reverse. Shots 50,56 and 69 by Milt Kahl use the same drawings of Roger. The Roger scenes are a repeating gag, with him about to light his pipe and failing because Pongo's leash pulls on his arm, but the gag could have been put across without resorting to re-use.

In addition, Hal Ambro's animation of Anita in 111.4 and 113 has always looked to me like it relied very heavily on live action. There is something about Anita's proportions and timing when she laughs that have the look of rotoscope to me. Shot 62, where Roger zigzags along a path, is also credited to Ambro and also suggests rotoscope, though not as strongly as the Anita scenes.

There is a continuity error regarding Roger's hat. In shot 93, the hat is clearly left on the bench as Pongo pulls Roger towards Anita, yet in shot 94, the hat is back on Roger's head.

While some corners have been cut, there are some amazing scenes here. Shots 79, 83 and 85 are Pongo romping with Roger's hat in his mouth, animated by Milt Kahl. All I can say is that Kahl seems to be showing off as much as Pongo. Kahl revels in his ability to draw Pongo's dog anatomy from odd angles. Take a look at these:

(Click any image to enlarge.)

This is what it looks like when an animator brags.

Frank Thomas's shots of Perdy and Pongo in 114.1 and 115.1 are (the pun is unavoidable) unusually frank. Perdy's smile is saying "yes" to a tryst. Pongo actually licks his lips in anticipation of what's to come. While the sexual content of these shots goes unnoticed by children, there's no question their parents read the shots as intended. What's really funny is that the next sequence starts off with the dogs getting "married," so their lust is okay as it has been sanctified by clergy.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

101 Dalmatians: Part 2A

The opening to this film is its own mini-movie. While I haven't gotten to the "meet cute" portion in the mosaic yet, the opening of the film is really a complete short. We're introduced to Pongo and Roger. We learn Pongo's objective (to find a mate for himself and Roger) as a remedy for his boredom. After rejecting several possible mates, Pongo spots one he's interested in and manipulates Roger into taking him to the park so that they all can meet. In the next mosaic to come, Pongo manipulates the two humans into physical contact and then waits breathlessly as what looks like a disaster dissolves into humour and success.

While we learn things about Roger in this sequence, we really learn that Pongo is the protagonist. He doesn't settle for the status quo. He sets his goal and then pursues it. Later, when the puppies are stolen and the humans fail to recover them, it is Pongo who suggests using the twilight bark and who runs away with Perdita to find their puppies. That's all believable to us because we have already seen Pongo bend events to his will.

It's interesting that the film starts with a voice over by one of the characters. Pongo isn't an omniscient narrator and his voice-over disappears once Cruella enters the film. There are good reasons for that. The voice-over puts the events of the film in the past, and the fact that Pongo is narrating tells us that he, at least, survived what we're about to see. The existence of narration removes the audience from the immediacy of the drama, so when the main plot finally kicks in, the voice over has to vanish.

Besides introducing us to Pongo and Roger, the opening features some excellent animation. The women walking their dogs are textbook examples of expressive walks. Michael Sporn has broken down the art student's walk here. There are several notable things about this walk. First is the shape of her spine. When she walks, she leads with her hips. Her body is depicted as an 'S' curve. That curve stretches and squashes with every step. Furthermore, her shoulder moves along a path of action that's a sideways figure eight, or the sign for infinity (∞). The art student walks on a 16 beat, meaning one step every 16 frames of film.

By contrast, the French girl and her poodle walk on an 8 beat, or twice as quickly. Pace alone says a lot about the character. Her posture is upright and her nose is in the air. There's almost no spinal stretch and squash here. One of the most interesting things to me about this walk is the delineation of the hips.

When I looked at stills of Bagheera in The Jungle Book, I was amazed at how flat some of them looked. Because there's no interior detail within the outline and the character is painted a flat colour, the drawings hardly look dimensional. However, when Bagheera moves, his shoulder blades, ribcage and pelvis all exist dimensionally. The Disney artists figured out that if they understood structure and how it moved, they could define it with very few lines. The French girl's hips are an example of this, though it may not be obvious from the small reproduction below. Two lines, the front and back edges, are all that's available in the design, yet because the animator understands the shape of the hips in three dimensions, we see the hips as they turn in space.

Both Frank Thomas and Blaine Gibson are credited in the draft, so I'm not sure who actually animated this walk. I might be tempted to give Thomas the credit, but Gibson was a sculptor so he undoubtedly had the necessary knowledge.

(This is my first attempt at using video with blogger, so apologies for any problems. I'm using Firefox on an iMac, and I can't figure out how to get this to cycle. Anybody have a suggestion?)

One more note on the pace of walks. The art student and the French girl have dogs that walk at the same rate as they do. The buxom woman is walking on a 10 beat and her dog is walking on a 6 beat. That means that for every three steps the woman takes, the dog takes five, something that takes a fair amount of planning to pull off when they both cover the same distance while walking at different rates. A 10 beat and a 5 beat would have been a lot easier to plan.

We feel we know something about these women purely from their walk cycles. Their designs, postures and paces communicate with very few drawings. In some ways, they are just throw-away gags about how owners resemble their dogs, but the animators' skill level was so high at this point in time that even a throw-away is packed with attitude and information.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Creators and Entertainment Economics

Steven Grant, a professional comics writer, writes a regular Wednesday column for Comic Book Resources where he discusses a range of things including the comics industry, politics and the wider world. This week, in discussing the Superman copyright case, he talks about a larger truth about the nature of entertainment economics.
Look at it this way: money is how we measure value in our society. With media properties, it's often difficult to determine value up front, and if value were determined up front there would be almost nothing put into production in any medium, because full payment of possible value would be almost prohibitive. Look at the money machine STAR WARS turned into; nobody guessed that in advance, which is why it had no notable stars (except for Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing, and neither were exactly the king of Hollywood at the time) and a relatively low production budget. If George Lucas had known what revenues the property would eventually generate and had asked for all those up front, it never would have gotten made because no one could have afforded to meet the price.

So in media the initial payment isn't the total payment (though it sometimes ends up that way), it's the down payment. Publishers and producers don't "buy" properties so much as place their bets; they secure the cooperation of talent. "Value" isn't determined in advance, but as it accrues, and as the established value of a property increases, so does the amount paid to those who generate it, according to whatever contract is in place. There is the common belief, for whatever reason, that the publisher/producer is the one taking the risk and therefore the rightful end point of all profits. But by choosing to work with them, and the operations they represent, we take a risk too. We are risking that they will make the right decisions along the way to public release, that they will be able to intelligently and fully exploit the property for the fullest short-and-long term profitability. And you know what? More often than not, they don't, even though that's their job.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Unfiltered: The Complete Ralph Bakshi

What's short and blurry but still intriguing? This YouTube peak inside the new book on Ralph Bakshi.

101 Dalmatians: Part 2

This is not all of sequence 001, which runs through Roger and Anita getting soaked. The rest will follow after some commentary on this part of the sequence.

Attention Bob Clampett Fans

Barrier: Just when did you become a director at Warners?

Clampett: At the end of 1936. Leon gave me a color cartoon sequence in a Joe E. Brown feature picture called When's Your Birthday? It featured all the signs of the zodiac as cartoon characters.
The above quote comes from Mike Barrier's interview with Bob Clampett from Funnyworld #12. On Wednesday, April 2, at 7:15 a.m. Eastern time, Turner Classic Movies will be running When's Your Birthday? and I'm looking forward to seeing it for the first time.