Friday, June 20, 2008


This blog won't be updated until at least June 30. See you then.

Animating for the Concert Hall

(The following came to me from Børge Ring.)

At Toonder's Amsterdam Studios during the 70s, we made an animated film for the famous British rock band that called themselves Pink Floyd. We delivered the film in a silent version, and the Floyds ran it on the concert stage. Hidden behind the film screen, where they too could see the film, the Floyds performed the whole soundtrack in a live performance.

The film was written and designed by a well known London artist named Allan Aldridge. At that time Winsor McCay, the founding father of American animation, had not yet been rediscovered, excavated and repositioned on his rightful throne. McCay was practically unknown outside a small circle of comic page archeologists.

Allan Aldridge knew about McCay .He dug up one of Winsor's virtuoso newspaper comics of yore. Winsor's story (about a small boy) was named Little Nemo in Slumberland. Allan redrew it in his own drawing style and added ideas of his own, so as to bring the story on film length. Little Nemo dreams that his bed has long, long legs and gallops with him through Manhattan in the night.

Pink Floyd liked the story. Their backer sent it to us to be animated and everybody loved the finished film.

Some of you might call this artistic theft. But the majority of the highest regarded live action films - produced during Hollywood's golden years - were "based on" somebody's theatre play or novel or were a remake of an older successful film.

The name of Winsor McCay was not mentioned on the titles of the Floyd cartoon.

Their backer considered Little Nemo in Slumberland to be a grave find in the public domain.

To the lovers of rock music, Winsor's name was as familiar as Sutton Ho.

Eric Goldberg Book

This is shaping up to be a banner year for animation instruction. Hot on the heels of the announcement of the Dick Williams DVD set, comes word that Eric Goldberg's instructional book will be published this summer. Goldberg has been working in animation since the 1970s and is the animator of the Genii in Disney's Aladdin as well as the director of the "Rhapsody in Blue" sequence of Fantasia 2000 and the animation director of Looney Tunes: Back in Action.

Copies of animation notes by Goldberg have been circulating for years. Those notes leave no doubt that this will be a major contribution to the animation instruction bookshelf. Here's the link at and at

(info via Cooked Art)

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Animation and Theatre

I'm visiting family in New York and last night I had the pleasure of seeing The Bully Pulpit, a play based on the life of Theodore Roosevelt, written and performed by Michael O. Smith. In animation, as our work appears on screens, it seems natural to look to movies for inspiration. However, there's a lot to be said for learning from performers on a stage. Let's not forget that the first animated hit, Gertie the Dinosaur, was based on vaudeville animal acts.

Smith's play has a single set and he is the only performer in it. Roosevelt, on the occasion of his 60th birthday, relates the story of his life to the audience. Along the way, he evokes his parents, wives, children, friends and political contemporaries.

The play has a 10 minute intermission, but for roughly 45 minutes in each act, Smith has to hold the audience's attention for the play to succeed. The vast majority of animated shots are less than 15 seconds long. Imagine the challenge of maintaining a character for 45 minutes without the benefit of camera placement, cutting or editing. How can this possibly work?

It works because of shared experiences. We don't live in Roosevelt's time and the specifics of the bric-a-brac that surrounds him are increasingly alien to us. However, we all have family, we all fall in love, we all have ambition, successes, failures, friends and enemies. By concentrating on Roosevelt's emotional responses to these things, we are able to understand him. We might not respond as Roosevelt does, but his responses are believable based on our own experience of the world.

This emotional arc is what we respond to. It's the difference between drama and a dull recitation of facts (and one reason why students often find history boring). A performance, live or animated, needs to arise from a character's emotional responses. Character consistency comes from the responses expressing a particular point of view, which adds up to what we call "personality."

A one-performer, one-set play is about as stripped down as you can get, forcing the performer to rely on the foundation of what storytelling is all about: people. We have a fundamental need to share our thoughts and experiences and are curious to compare them to the thoughts and experiences of others. It's why we're social animals. An isolated person (a prisoner, a shut-in) is doubly isolated because whatever the person experiences can't be shared.

Movies often confuse genre with subject. Movies think they're about adventure or suspense or romance. Within animation, we're bombarded with the mantra "story, story, story." Yet all genres and stories are about one thing - people - and we often allow ourselves as creators and audience members to be distracted from the only thing that really matters.

A camera and editing are tools to dress things up, but the one-performer play proves that they're not necessary. An actor on a stage is all that's needed to hold an audience's attention. If you can, see a one-performer play live and marvel at what an actor is capable of in the most austere circumstances. Then ask yourself how many animated performances live up to what you've just witnessed.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

101 Dalmatians: Part 12A

This sequence is mostly exposition. Pongo and Perdita learn that there's news of their puppies. They meet the Great Dane and learn that Cruella was responsible for kidnapping the pups, then they travel to rescue their children.

The dogs are faced with various hazards on the journey, several of which will play a part on the return trip. They have to dodge a truck (and a truck will later take them back to London) and there is falling snow (which will end up revealing them to Cruella near the film's climax). They also have to swim through icy water.

It's interesting that writer Bill Peet decided to establish the length and dangers of the journey only briefly. Rather than dwell on the details, the sequence is short so that the story can get back to the happenings at Hell Hall.

Once again, sequence director Woolie Reitherman relies heavily on re-use, though it's not very obvious. Shots 3.1, 3.3, 12, 12.1, 12.2, 14 and 14.2 all use animation from earlier in the film.

The best parts of this sequence are the layouts, supervised by Basil Davidovich, and the backgrounds. A great deal of this sequence is done in long shot, marking the shifting environment and the distance between London and the countryside as the dogs travel to their puppies.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

101 Dalmatians: Part 11A

Story wise, this piece belongs to Tibbs. He finds the pups and becomes Jasper's target. Jasper's violence toward Tibbs, throwing a dart and a bottle at him, are a way of hinting at the violence that the pups might eventually face. By attacking Tibbs, a resourceful adult character, the point is made without yet threatening the helpless pups.

While there is good animation in this sequence, the assignment of shots is very broken up. Nobody gets control of a character and there are few instances where an animator can put together a succession of shots. Cliff Nordberg does some nice Tibbs. Amby Paliwoda does some nice Horace and Jasper. Jasper in this sequence is very much like Bud Abbott of Abbott and Costello. He's teamed with a dumber partner and doesn't hesitate to treat his partner poorly for his own amusement and selfish ends.

Nobody does weak animation here, but the sequence is very much a jigsaw puzzle of different animators' shots. They assemble well, but none of the animators really dominates.

Note the paint mistake on the Colonel's beard in shot 76. There's also a slight continuity error with Horace in shot 99. He enters with two sandwiches. When Jasper slaps him on the belly, one drops to the floor and then vanishes from the film. As Roly later steals the contents of the remaining sandwich, maybe there were shots of Roly eating the first that were cut.

There is quite a bit of re-used footage in this part of the film. Tibbs at the window in shots 78.1 and 78.4 are at least partially lifted from Eric Larson's Figaro animation in Pinocchio. Tibbs wiping the window is lifted from production #2396. As Hans Perk's list of production numbers does not include it, it doesn't appear to come from a full-length feature. The same is true for 86.1. Perhaps these lifts came from the compilation features of the 1940s or perhaps from a short. 86.1 reminds me of Goofy. Perhaps it's a scene that Reitherman animated himself and remembered it for use here.

There is lots of puppy re-use from earlier in the film. Shots 84, 85, 90, 110, 111, 113, 118, 118.1, and 119.1 are all from earlier shots in whole or in part. Many of these shots are from sequence 004 where the pups are watching Thunderbolt and Dirty Dawson on TV. What the pups are watching in this sequence is Springtime, a Silly Symphony from 1929.

There are many shots in this sequence where two animators are credited for a single character. For instance, on shot 91, featuring only Tibbs, both Cliff Nordberg and Hal King get credit. I don't know how the work would be broken down. Would Nordberg have posed out the shot with King doing the animation? Would Nordberg have done the first pass and King do the revisions? It's a mystery to me.

I want to point out a couple of links that relate to earlier sequences. Peter Emslie has done a post about animals as human types and has used the characters of the Captain, the Colonel and Tibbs as examples.

Julius Svendsen is the animator of the horse in the barn known as the Captain, as well as other characters in this film. He is one of the many mostly anonymous animators who contributed to Disney features for years but who receive little attention. Michael Sporn has posted a children's book (part one and part two) based on So Dear to My Heart, lent by John Canemaker. The art is by Svendsen and provides a rare opportunity to see some of his work outside Disney's animated films.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Animator's Survival Kit DVD Set

You have probably seen the pencil test for the opening for Richard Williams DVD set of The Animator's Survival Kit over at Cartoon Brew. The website for this set has been updated with a promo that shows a more finished version interspersed with shots of Williams lecturing at Blue Sky. There are additional clips of Williams explaining things here and on succeeding pages (click on the images for motion).

The set, consisting of 16 DVDs, is not cheap. Price information can be found here. At today's conversion rates, the set will cost $990.70 in the U.S. and $1,011.88 in Canada. After November 17, the price is 20% higher.

(link via The Thief)

Monday, June 09, 2008

An Alternate Feature Production Model

Animated features originate under two sets of circumstances today. One set of features comes from ongoing studios such as Pixar, DreamWorks, and Blue Sky. They are characterized by large staffs and high overhead, which result in films with high budgets and the need for massive success at the box office. Budgets are routinely $75 million and up.

The danger of this model comes from a box office failure. Should a film flop, the loss is enormous. Pixar and Blue Sky are owned by larger corporate entities (Disney and Fox respectively), while DreamWorks is independent. While Pixar and Blue Sky might be better positioned to survive failures, Disney (which shut down drawn animation) and Fox (which closed down Don Bluth's Arizona studio) have both proved that corporate parents are not always forgiving.

The benefits of the Pixar-type model is continuity. Mistakes and breakthroughs that occur on a project increase the corporate knowledge base, improving the quality of each successive film.

The other type of animated feature comes from producers who assemble teams or find subcontractors for single films. These films are lower budget, perhaps as low as $15 million, so they don't need to gross as much at the box office in order to make a profit. Generally, when a film of this type is complete, the crew is laid off or the subcontracting studio left to fend for itself. The next time the producer gets a film underway, a new crew is assembled or a new subcontractor is found. Even if the same subcontractor is hired, the odds are that their crew has turned over unless the subcontractor was lucky enough to find a constant flow of work in the interim.

These producers, frequently struggling to find financing, often put their productions in whatever location offers the best financial incentives, such as direct investment or tax breaks. John Williams produced three features, Valiant, Everyone's Hero and Space Chimps, in three different cities with three entirely different crews.

These two approaches result in an increasing gap in production values (and often in scripts as well). While Pixar, DreamWorks and Blue Sky raise the bar with every new production, the one-off features are figuring out the basics for every film. While they are busy re-inventing the wheel, the larger studios are inventing teleportation devices.

I think that there's an alternative model that falls between the two. The strength of the larger studios is skill and knowledge continuity and the strength of the independent producers is low overhead. A combination of the two would raise costs somewhat, but would also allow a producer to make increasingly better films.

A producer could assemble a small team of fewer than 20 people who would be permanent employees. These people would be the equivalent of department heads. They would need to be experienced and flexible. For each project, these people would do prototyping, figuring out how to solve production problems, building a pipeline and setting the style for the film. They would take sample shots to completion, so that every stage of the production could be tested on a small scale. Once they have workable solutions, the production could then seek out subcontracting studios.

The department heads would have to relocate to wherever the subcontractors were. Their job would be to work directly with the crew, educating them as to how the production should be accomplished. They should also work with the crew individually, learning everyone's strengths and weaknesses. Too often with subcontractors, studios only have contact with supervisors and so are ignorant of the talents of the crew. Casting talent is one of the most important and powerful tools a production has to put quality work on the screen.

Because the department heads will have first-hand knowledge as to how the film should be produced, subcontractors should be able to work efficiently. Inevitably, new problems will arise during production, but because the department heads are physically present, they can contribute to the solutions and take the knowledge back with them to the parent company once the production is complete.

The producer has to find the money to keep the core team together. Without it, the result is the John Williams model of starting over with every film. Ideally, budgets can be kept low enough with this system to allow for sufficient profits to make this possible. Of course, this assumes that a producer is interested in a better product rather than a quick profit.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

The Pixar Touch

David A. Price's book, The Pixar Touch: The Making of a Company, is a readable history of today's leading animation studio. It's also clearly shows that the company, especially in its early days, was far more than John Lasseter.

Within animation circles, discussions of Pixar naturally revolve around Lasseter, but Price establishes the importance of Ed Catmull to the existence of the company. It was Catmull's vision to create movies with computers and it was Catmull who assembled the team of software engineers at the New York Institute of Technology that started to make them a reality. Once Catmull understood the limitations of Alexander Schure, the head of NYIT, he migrated his team to George Lucas's Industrial Light and Magic.

Catmull's contributions came in several areas. As a software engineer himself, he not only wrote code but had an intimate understanding of the problems that needed to be solved. In addition, he was a natural at management. He not only assembled a stellar team, he created working conditions that kept the team together. He also maintained the company's vision while dealing with the competing visions of George Lucas and Steve Jobs, both of whom owned the company at various times. Lucas never understood Pixar's potential and Jobs only came to realize it gradually after pushing the company into the manufacture of hardware. In fact, Jobs was actively trying to sell Pixar during the production of Toy Story. Finally, Catmull hired Lasseter, someone who saw beyond technical challenges and brought storytelling to computer graphics. Catmull gave him enough autonomy on the creative side of the company to build a team of artists as impressive as the technical team.

Those familiar with animation history know the importance of Walt Disney's brother Roy to the success of the Disney company. Catmull's contributions to Pixar are greater than Roy Disney's, as this book makes plain. Without Catmull, Pixar would not exist and the history of computer animation would be significantly different.

Luxo, Jr. established Lasseter's importance to the Pixar team. The software developers could supply tools and solve the technical problems, but Lasseter could use those tools to entertain an audience. When Tin Toy won the Oscar, Pixar still wasn't out of the financial woods but at least it had proved the viability of the company's vision.

Price is at his best in the period before Toy Story's success. The book is more intimate and has more twists and turns. Once the company is successful, there's far less suspense and the films themselves receive fairly shallow treatment. For instance, the chapter on Monsters, Inc. dwells more on court cases where Pixar was accused of lifting material from other sources than it does on the film itself. The book also brushes past various contentious issues, such as employee unhappiness over stock options or removing directors from projects.

In addition to charting the business history and profiling the people involved, Price does a good job of explaining the technical challenges facing computer animation. His descriptions of texture maps, anti-aliasing and other cgi techniques are understandable, regardless of the reader's previous knowledge.

Artists and fans tend to ignore or misunderstand the business side of the movies. As a result, their expectations are unrealistic and their disappointments are many. They should read this book to understand how precarious Pixar's history was before the success of Toy Story and how it took the right combination of people and an awful lot of luck to get the company on a solid footing.

Producers should also read this book and pay attention to the material dealing with Alexander Schure and NYIT. While he was willing to spend large amounts of money and hire the best people he could find, the resulting film, Tubby the Tuba, lacked entertainment value and box office success. While the business end has to be taken care of, ultimately, a film has to please an audience. Just because people run a company, doesn't mean that they have a clue as to what an audience wants or how to tell a story. Schure's experience is not unique. It was repeated at least as recently as Everyone's Hero.

The Pixar Touch is a solid history and business book that goes beyond public relations to take a clear-eyed look at the early days of computer animation. I'm sure that Pixar will continue to inspire investigations into its history and success, but Price has provided an insightful and even-handed starting point for anyone wishing to learn more about the company.

Monday, June 02, 2008

101 Dalmatians: Part 10A

The first part of sequence 8 is really just exposition. The news of the stolen puppies finally ends up with the Colonel and Tibbs. What exists is suspense: where are the puppies? At the end of this part, we're know they've been located when Hell Hall is revealed as the DeVil place.

The strength of this sequence, however, is that we're introduced to five new characters and they are all distinctive. In relatively little screen time, we understand the personalities of the various characters as well as their relationships. They feel like well-rounded individuals with real lives, not just characters stuck in to carry story points.

I would point out that with the exception of John Lounsbery on the Colonel, none of the other nine old men have animation here. More evidence, if it was needed, that lesser-known Disney animators were fully capable of doing the job. Eric Cleworth and Don Lusk create good interaction between Towser the bloodhound and Lucy the goose (who's voiced by Martha Wentworth, who also does Nanny). Lusk's goose is nicely energetic and flighty in contrast to the more staid Towser. Julius Svendsen's best shot of the horse is 16.1, where the horse whinnys. Cliff Nordberg's Tibbs comes across as the loyal adjutant, tolerant of the aged Colonel's diminishing powers out of respect for his position.

Lounsbery's Colonel is a great character, voiced by J. Pat O'Malley, the same actor who voices Jasper. He catches the character's stuffiness and befuddlement wonderfully. The choice of a sheepdog, with his eyes covered by fur, is a good choice for a character who is never quite sure what is going on. Lounsbery has fun playing peek-a-boo with the Colonel's eyes, teeth and tongue, occasionally popping through all the fur. The fur itself is animated beautifully, working as a follow-through element as well as flaring during the exertion of barking. Lounsbery occasionally animates the jaw to the side or gives the character an under bite when speaking, providing a distinctive style for the Colonel's dialogue.

This sequence is directed by Woolie Reitherman, the king of re-use. It will become more apparent in the latter part of this sequence, but there is a large amount of animation lifted from elsewhere in this film and from other films as well. Shots 23 and 25, with the Colonel and Tibbs, re-uses animation from production #2079, though I don't know what that is. Lady and the Tramp, perhaps? Shot 45.1. is a repeat of shot 33 and 45.2 is a repeat of 34. Shot 67 has animation lifted from production #2084. Is the horse's head nod lifted from Sleeping Beauty?