Saturday, February 28, 2009

Sita Really Sings

Nina Paley's Sita Sings the Blues is the kind of film that a major studio would never make, and that's exactly why it's so valuable. On the face of it, a film that combines at least four different design styles, Indian mythology, a commentary on that mythology, 1920s jazz, and autobiography is a commercial train wreck. No one in Hollywood would ever give this a green light or even invest in developing it. That's because in a studio setting, the large number of people involved threaten to pull a film apart. Studios seize on the generic because it's the only thing that everyone can agree on; idiosyncracy rarely survives the Hollywood process.

The jumble of elements that make up Sita work because they're all from the mind and hand of one person: Nina Paley. The story is inspired by her own experience of being dumped by a boyfriend, and the parallel mythological story reflects the misfortune that men often judge women by mysterious or impossible standards. The three on-screen commentators relate the mythology while questioning the characters' motivations and actions from a modern perspective. The celebration and heartbreak of romance are portrayed through musical numbers sung by Annette Hanshaw, a jazz vocalist of the 1920s whose natural delivery and sense of swing continue to make her work appealing.

The film is fun. That needs to be said as the subject matter implies a gloominess that isn't there. The bounciness of the music, coupled with an open design style, keeps the tone light. The looseness of Paley's design for her own story also prevents it from being depressing while allowing the disappointment to come through. There's a good amount of visual and verbal wit at work here.

Animated features are slowly crawling out of the family film ghetto. Think about what we've witnessed in the last few years: Persepolis, Waltz with Bashir, Idiots and Angels and now Sita Sings the Blues. There has never been a time with so many personal animated features. Ralph Bakshi pioneered with Heavy Traffic, but nobody followed him until recently.

Paley is taking things a step further, trying a new distribution model as well. She'll be making the film available for free downloads under a Creative Commons license after it airs on March 7 (at 10:45 p.m.) on WNET in New York. She's made Sita merchandise available. She's also taking donations, trying to pay the almost $50,000 she needs to clear the rights to the music so that the film can be exhibited commercially. She's over 15% of the way there.

If you watch the film, why not kick in at least what you would have spent on a DVD rental? After seeing Sita Sings the Blues, my feeling is that the sooner Nine Paley can start her next feature, the better.

Watch Sita Sings the Blues Online

Nancy Beiman and Michael Sporn have posted that the complete Sita Sings the Blues can be watched online at the WNET site. I don't know how long this will be available and since there are still unresolved copyright issues, this film may never be released theatrically or on DVD. Watch it while you can.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Brad Bird and Chuck Jones Podcasts

The Museum of the Moving Image is located in Queens, New York, in a building that was once a working film studio owned by Paramount. During World War II, the building was used by the Signal Corps for the creation of instructional films (many including animation) for the military.

The museum, which I've visited, is definitely worth the trip to Astoria. In addition to the brick and mortar building, the museum has a web presence that features many interesting articles and dozens of podcasts with movie professionals.

There are three interviews that are animation related: two with Chuck Jones (here and here) recorded on successive days in December 1994, when he was once again working for Warner Bros. creating short films, and one from 2005 with Brad Bird, recorded after the release of The Incredibles.

Jones was 82 at the time of these interviews and he tended to ramble. Several familiar Jones tropes are here, such as his quoting Mark Twain and his screeds against producers. While there are no major revelations in these interviews, it was nice to hear his voice again and to spend time with him.

Bird continues to impress me with his stage presence and his thoughtfulness. The interview with him is excellent.

Don't limit yourself to just the animation-related interviews. There is a wealth of material here including interviews with well-known and lesser-known personalities dating as far back as 1989.

Friday, February 20, 2009

It's All In The Timing

Ben Model is a musician who accompanies silent movies as well as a silent film historian. He's done some very interesting work taking silent comedies and demonstrating the difference between the speed at which they were originally projected and being projected at a realistic speed.

It was standard in the silent era for films, and comedies in particular, to be undercranked. What that means is that if the film was going to be projected at 16 frames per second, it would be shot at 12 frames per second so that when projected, the images would be faster than life. The term "undercranking" comes from the fact that cameras were literally cranked by hand.

There was no fixed projection speed during the silent era. Projection ranged anywhere from 16 to more than 24 frames per second. Initially, projectors were also hand cranked, but even when they were motorized, they were controlled by rheostats which could vary the speed within a single film.

What's interesting in Model's examples, is how the actors adjusted their speeds so that they would get the desired result on screen. Here is the boxing sequence from City Lights (1931). At this point in time, film projection had been standardized at 24 fps and cameras were motorized due to the need to synchronize with sound. Chaplin still preferred to shoot with an older camera so that he could continue to use silent comedy timing.

There are differences that Model points out. Characters seem to weigh less when in fast motion. This lends a sense of unreality to the physical knock-about that allows it to be funny. When Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd made sound films in the 1930s, their falls appeared painful because they were accompanied by sounds of impact but also because being timed realistically, they looked like real people hitting the ground and the audience viscerally felt the impact.

The speed itself adds comedy to this fight. In real time, it's leaden, but sped up it has a lot more energy.

One thing that the extra speed required was increased clarity. With gestures faster than normal, it was important to do only one thing at a time so that the audience could read the actions clearly and not get confused. In this Model version of a clip from The Adventurer (1917), pay attention to Chaplin and the empty glass in his hands. When the drink is finished, he licks his fingers, puts his fingers in the empty glass and them licks them again and drinks from the empty glass, hoping to find a final drop. There's the rule of threes in operation; Chaplin performs three actions to show that he wants more, but hasn't any. That's all an anticipation of the gag where he tips another man's glass and steal the liquid from it.

Model has other examples available here, including one from Sherlock Junior (1924), starring Keaton. In Chaplin's last silent, Modern Times (1936), he sang a nonsense song at the end, which forced him to shoot at 24 fps. However, before, during and after the song, he cut in undercranked footage shot with a silent camera. Note how different the speed of people's motions are in the two types of footage. While Chaplin's song is funny, it's like he's stepped into a different world where everything is sluggish by comparison. I should note that this clip contains the last verse of the song, one which Chaplin edited out for re-issues and is missing from the latest DVD release of the film.

The animators and directors of the 1930s and '40s grew up watching silent comedies and absorbed the feeling for fast action. Bobe Cannon's smears in The Dover Boys are 4 frames long. Tex Avery talked about bringing in an object 4 frames before it beaned a character. Rod Scribner's animation has the broad energy of silent comedy. The furious anticipations that animated characters go through before zipping off screen owe a debt to the sense of speed that silent comedy introduced. Animation caricatured it, pushing it even further. Fast is funny, especially when it's been combined with movements that read clearly.

Monday, February 16, 2009

What's Killing the Videogame Business?

(UPDATE: Variety reports that Midway Games, makers of Mortal Kombat, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on Feb. 12.)

has an interesting article on the state of the videogame industry. While sales are rising, budgets are rising faster. That's leading to financial losses and layoffs.

The development cost of a game is now in the area of $40 million, which is the cost of a mid-range animated feature. The gaming industry is pursuing a Hollywood model, hoping that blockbusters make enough money to offset losses on other releases. I'm not sure how smart it is for anyone to raise the stakes in a time of economic uncertainty.

I'd love to know how many artists the gaming industry employs relative to TV and feature animation. It's possible that gaming employs more than the two of them put together. If that's true, I hope that the game producers know what they're doing.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Sita Sings the Blues on NY Television

The N.Y. Times is reporting that Nina Paley's animated feature Sita Sings the Blues will air on the New York PBS station WNET on March 7. It also reports that the copyright fees for the songs have been negotiated to a more reasonable level and that the film may soon be released more widely. I'm looking forward to seeing the complete film.

The Bandmaster Part 3

Above is the complete version of The Bandmaster, directed by Dick Lundy for the Lantz studio. It's available on The Woody Woodpecker and Friends Classic Cartoon Collection.

There are several bits of animation I'd like to talk about. The first is Les Kline's trapeze artist, which is around 3:03 into the cartoon. When we think of animators who create funny movement, we tend to think of people like Rod Scribner or Jim Tyer - animators whose movements are very broad. The shot of the trapeze artist is the opposite; it's a quiet piece of motion that could actually be accomplished with a cut-out. The idea of a cartoon character defying gravity was already old by 1947, yet the way this character moves to the music is somewhat hypnotic and always breaks me up. There is something otherworldly about it; a loopy grace that glides along the clarinet solo. The second shot of her is an anti-climax that breaks the spell. The gag with her hair is not particularly good and the decision to animate her in perspective also breaks the mood. For me, though, that first shot is unforgettable.

Pat Matthews is one of the great unsung animators. Take a look at this 30 frame cycle of the dancing elephants. It's beautiful in many ways. Click to enlarge.

First, there's a lot of action jammed into a second and a quarter. Second, the are great rhythmic lines in many of the poses. Take a look at frames 15, 18 and 22 for example. The paths of action for the body and trunk are also strongly rhythmic and graceful. There's some expert spacing between the drawings. The leap (frames 12-15) is only four frames after a lengthy anticipation. The leg kick on frame 18 really pops relative to the preceding drawings. The spacing between drawings 22 and 23 is also quite large. Of course, all of this synchs well with the music.

This animation is also very efficient in that it is cycled with the characters moving to the right and then it is flopped and re-used as they move to the left. Because each drawing is used at least four times, Matthews could afford the time to make sure that each drawing was attractive and that the animation worked.

Both of these bits of animation are grace notes in what's really not a very good cartoon, but both show the power of movement itself to entertain.

The last piece of animation I want to mention is again by Les Kline. The animation of Andy pushing the tub of water at the climax does a great job of conveying panic and furious action. The posing and movements are broad; the timing is fast. There's a genuine sense of desperation coming from the character. The cartoon hasn't really built up to a climax in terms of content, but Kline's animation pumps energy into the end of the cartoon that really gives it an extra kick. Again, the power of movement to emotionally affect an audience.

A Public Apology to Børge Ring

A few weeks ago, I ran an entry entitled Disney Snobbery. It used an anecdote given to me by Børge Ring, who did not anticipate or endorse how I used it. I've removed the entry to prevent people from stumbling on it in the future and I have apologized to Børge personally. The word "snobbery" was my addition, and any negative impressions of Art Babbitt a reader might have taken from the piece were wholly my fault and do not reflect Børge's opinion of Babbitt in any way.

Saturday, February 07, 2009


(There are no spoilers below.)

Coraline is a catalog of wonders. It has enough imagination for five feature films. Unfortunately, it only has enough story and characterization for a half hour special.

While Henry Selick is a very gifted art director and director, he did himself no favours by writing the script. His understanding of story structure, scene construction and characterization is extremely weak. The plot takes forever to get started; the film relies on a parade of imaginative visual ideas to hold the audiences' attention until that point, but I found myself losing interest.

Once the story does get started, the villain is poorly motivated. While the villain wants something, she has possessed it in the past and repeatedly abandoned it. There is no explanation for her previous loss of interest or why she wants it again. The film's climax, while exciting due to Selick's ability as a director, is contrived. Fantasy films are devilishly hard to do well; in an environment where anything can happen, rules are necessary to keep the story honest. This film is sorely lacking rules. It also lacks logic with regard to certain props.

The relationship between the film's real world and the film's fantasy world is confused. Some in the real world know something about the fantasy world yet others, who directly experience the fantasy world, know nothing. There is no explanation as to why some characters know more than others.

There are two competing strains within each animated film maker. There is the magician who seeks to dazzle the audience with beauty and artistic surprises and the dramatist intent on saying something about the human condition. In Selick, the magician has the upper hand.

Coraline has strong echoes of The Wizard of Oz and Spirited Away, and while it can compete with these films in the area of visual delight, it compares poorly in every other way. There is fantastic work in this film, but it's built on a weak dramatic foundation. With a stronger script, this film would have been an instant classic. Instead, it's just eye candy.

Soho Square

What started out as Michael Sporn trying to identify a boy in a picture has developed (in the comments) into several lengthy reminiscences of the Dick Williams Studio in Soho Square in 1973. Commenters who were there include Greg Duffell, Suzanne Wilson and Børge Ring.

At the time of the photo, Williams had veteran American animators Ken Harris, Grim Natwick and Art Babbitt working at the studio. Babbit spent weeks teaching classes in animation technique to the Williams crew. The people associated with Williams at this time went on to become leaders of British animation and Dick Williams deserves much credit for providing them with such a singular education.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Animation in Brewster's Millions

Thanks to Turner Classic Movies, I've just seen the 1945 version of Brewster's Millions for the first time. I was surprised to find a small animated segment within it.

The producer, Edward Small, was an independent who released this film through United Artists, a distributor that was not affiliated with an animation studio at the time. The moon's voice sounds like Billy Bletcher, voice of the Big Bad Wolf, Peg Leg Pete and other cartoon characters. That leads me to believe that the animation was done on the west coast. I have no idea who was responsible for this animation, which is frankly pretty crude. Does anyone know?

The actor, by the way, is Dennis O'Keefe.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Advice from Joss Whedon

Joss Whedon (creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly) is interviewed on monetizing internet content. The interview concludes with this advice.

"A lot of people sit around and go, "How can I get this made?" The only answer is: By making it. By borrowing someone's camera. By buying a camera. They come cheap and they work well. And if you know where to point them -- and the person that you point them at is saying something interesting -- that's it! That's how it works.

I can't stress enough that I believe the best thing in the world is for everybody who feels like they have a story to tell, to tell it.

If they want to sell it, if they want to make a lot of money, they can do that -- and they can kiss their story goodbye. Because, in general, that's the last they're ever going to see of it, because somebody else will own it and they will either not make it, or make it very differently than that person hoped."

(Link via Cinematech)

The Bandmaster Part 2

I have an odd fascination with the Lantz studio. By all accounts, Lantz himself was a nice man who was pleasant to work for. I've never heard or read a bad thing about him, though Tex Avery and Jack Hannah both complained about the economics of the studio.

While Lantz was a good boss, he didn't influence his cartoons the way other studio heads did. Because the Lantz studio only had one unit in the 1940s, the studio's output changed radically whenever there was a change of director. From Burt Gillett to Alex Lovy to Shamus Culhane to Dick Lundy, there's a wide variety of styles and approaches.

Our impression of the Warner Bros. cartoons is based on the range of directors' styles, but imagine how we'd think of that studio if all the cartoons were directed by Bob Clampett and then later by Friz Freleng. That's a pretty big change, but at Lantz, it was the standard.

Dick Lundy was a talented Disney animator who helped shape Donald Duck and later directed Duck shorts. He was certainly capable of making cartoons that were slickly drawn and timed. His Lantz cartoons may be, overall, the best looking cartoons the studio ever produced, though I'd never claim that they were the most entertaining Lantz cartoons.

Lundy, like Culhane, was saddled with Ben Hardaway as a story man. Hardaway was a gag machine. He never cared much for characters' personalities or building a succession of related gags. If he found a gag funny, he stuck it in whether it fit or not. Lundy worked to make the gags flow smoothly, but he couldn't get them to make sense.

Why is there a two-headed musician? How can Andy fall for so long in scene 18 when the platform looks to be no more than a few feet off the ground? Why are some performers human and the rest animal? How did the drunk get on the high wire? How does the Count, who starts out diving inside the tent, get outside it in scene 50? Nobody at Lantz seemed to care.

The lazy story work is disappointing as this cartoon was made 12 years after The Band Concert. Compare the stories. In the Disney short, there is a well-defined conflict between Mickey the conductor and Donald the heckler. When the storm hits, the musicians struggle to continue to play regardless of the absurd circumstances they find themselves in. That's a simple structure, but it's enough to organize the events and gags in the cartoon so that they make sense. The Bandmaster has no sustained conflict between characters and no large event to organize it. Lundy is left with choreographing the action to the music track, which he does well but which doesn't provide enough structure to save the cartoon. With the exception of Andy Panda himself, the other characters appear or disappear as needed for the random gags.

Had Lantz hired a better writer or if Lundy had a stronger personality as a director, their cartoons would have been better. Instead, they're handsome but generic.

Bakshi Remembers Terrytoons

At Ralph Bakshi's website, there is a podcast where he remembers his time at Terrytoons in the 1950s when the studio was being run by Gene Deitch. Also mentioned are R. O. Blechman, Jules Feiffer, Connie Rasinski, Mannie Davis, Art Bartsch, Dave Tendlar and Jim Tyer. There are photos and artwork to accompany the podcast.