Saturday, May 30, 2009


(Mild spoilers below.)

I was beginning to worry that Pixar had passed its peak. Cars and Wall-E were both, in my opinion, weaker than their directors' previous films. As so many animation directors seem to do their best work early on and then repeat themselves to lesser effect, I wondered if Pete Docter would fall into the same pattern. That isn't the case. It's nice to see that Brad Bird is not the only director at Pixar who is at the top of his game.

Carl Fredricksen and Charles Muntz have both have made commitments to the past. Both are trying to do something they failed to do in their youth. Muntz is trying to prove his discovery of a giant bird and Carl wishes to follow in Muntz's footsteps, exploring a remote area of South America. Carl is the only one of the two to realize that the present is more important than the past and that opening himself up to others is more satisfying than pursuing a solitary goal.

Carl is introduced as a child and a lovely sequence takes us through his married life with Ellie, a girl he meets when both are young and both fans of Muntz. It's essential for showing us that Carl's state of mind after Ellie's death is justified but that he is capable of more. Over the course of the film, he wakes up to the truth.

Charles Muntz is fixated on revenge for being branded a charlatan by the scientific establishment. While he seems to be a scientific genius, his choice is not to engage the world until he can reassert his prominence. He has apparently resorted to murder to prevent others from stealing the glory he feels he is owed. His megalomania never waivers; anyone with the potential to upset his plans becomes an enemy.

Carl's marriage is the basis for the rest of the film. People are at their best when they take others into consideration. Carl forgets this after his wife dies, but learns it anew during the events that follow.

The film beautifully balances humour, adventure and emotion. It has echoes of Winsor McCay's The Flying House and The Wizard of Oz. Unlike Wall-E, it doesn't raise issues that it can't, or won't, resolve. Up has a statement to make and makes it without pulling the film out of shape.

Do I have nits to pick? A few. I wish that Russell had been a girl. Ellie is a wonderful character, but when she leaves the film, there isn't another female in sight except for the bird. Even the dogs are all male. As an exercise, Pixar should start a story off with nothing but female characters and only make them male if the story demands it. That may be the only way there will ever be more than one memorable female in each Pixar film.

I wonder if this film could have been done without a villain? King Vidor said, “You know, villains are few and far between. The drama of life is not dependent on villains. They don’t have to be present to have a story. Divorce, tragedy, sadness, and illness are not dependent on villains.” Miyazaki has made films without villains such as My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki's Delivery Service. Up may have been more difficult to write without the convenience of a villain, but it might have been stronger for it.

Charles Muntz's age is treated pretty cavalierly. He's got to be at least 93, and the Teddy Roosevelt reference would make him a minimum of 108. Carl Fredricksen also does some unbelievable things for a 78 year old who uses a cane and who can't climb stairs. We should all be so spry at their ages.

It may be a while before I like a Pixar film as much as this one. While I'm trying to keep an open mind on Toy Story 3, I'm afraid that it's driven more by business than by a story demanding to be told. Cars 2 will be the first Pixar film that I won't bother to see. I can't imagine anything done with those characters that would convince me to give up two hours of my life. For now, Up is enough and it will have to sustain me until somebody can make an animated film as good. It may be a long wait.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Vendor Client Relationship

If you have ever worked in production, you'll understand this video. And if you've never worked in production, you may be surprised to learn that this is how business is done.

The teacher in me wants to explain things about this video and why something that looks ridiculous is actually just about economic leverage.

All of the above examples are from the world of retail. There are several important things to realize about this. First, items are relatively inexpensive. I don't know how much that meal or hair styling cost, but let's say $100 or less. Second, the market of potential customers is large. These two things give the retailer the right to tell a customer to take a hike. There are lots of other customers and the loss of a sale of a $20 CD or a $100 meal is not going to make much of a difference to the bottom line.

Let's amp it up a notch and talk about kitchen renovators. A reno is going to cost $10,000 and up. If the reno company is in a fairly large city (500,000 plus), there's no shortage of customers so they can still afford to tell a customer to take a hike. However, the length of time it takes to do a reno means that a company can only do so many in a year. This is fundamentally different than retail. A restaurant or hair stylist is capable of doing dozens of transactions in a single day, so time is not really an economic constraint for them.

Let's say the renovation company is able to do 20 renovations in a year and they need 15 to break even. It's now December and they've only done 14. They've got a possible client, but the client refuses to pay the price and wants a healthy discount. The reno company is faced with taking a loss or taking a smaller loss, so the cheap client has leverage and the reno company is likely to give in.

When you get to the film and television business, the clients have even more leverage. People with money to finance a project are rare. Each job represents a large chunk of money and your facility can only handle so many projects a year. Since clients are rare and each job is worth a lot of money, you can't afford to offend anyone. Losing a client in a retail situation is a petty annoyance. Losing a rare client client with an expensive job can be the difference between life and death for a company. Taking a hard line with those clients often means that the client won't come back. Both the client and vendor know it, and the client takes ruthless advantage of that fact.

While the video above looks ridiculous at the retail level, it makes economic sense based on supply and demand. There's a huge supply of retail customers, but there's a short supply of film and television customers. In film and television, production company demand for jobs outstrips producer supply. When the equation is so uneven, the scarce side inevitably takes advantage.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Canadian Business

In my post about Pixar opening in Vancouver, I spent some time talking about the nature of Canadian business. Today's Globe and Mail has an article about Canada's problems with innovation and productivity. Here is a quote that elaborates on what I'd written earlier, dealing with the small national market and the branch plant mentality that is satisfied to make things that are created elsewhere, as the forthcoming Vancouver Pixar shorts will be.

Canadian businesses just don't innovate enough. Too many don't have an internal culture of innovation. The domestic market is small and fragmented; not enough firms think internationally. International, for many, means the U.S., period, a rather dangerous myopia since that country is going to be economically crippled for a long time.

The report doesn't say so directly, but foreign ownership is a drag. Yes, a few Canadian branch plants get “world-product” mandates from head offices for certain products, but most don't. It's a scandal - and the blame is on the Canadian business class, too many members of which dream of getting rich by selling out to foreigners - that most mining companies are foreign-owned, the brewing business is gone, high-technology firms such as Cognos and Newbridge were swallowed up, and so on.

UPDATE: And further emphasizing the branch plant mentality, only in Canada would a government invest $23 million tax dollars in an American company that's going to make a film based on an idea from Britain and consider it a win for Ontario industry. I'm glad for the additional jobs, but this is not the way to strengthen Canadian animation in the long run. It's just more of the same.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Pete Docter Podcast

The Museum of the Moving Image, as part of its Pinewood Dialogues, has posted an interview with Up's director Pete Docter.

(I earlier pointed to interviews on their site with Chuck Jones and Brad Bird. You can find out about those interviews here.)

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

List of Films for the Bloor Screening

For those of you in Toronto, here's a list of the Sheridan student films that will be screened at the Bloor on June 9 at 7 p.m. and again on June 10 at 9:30 p.m. It's open to the public and admission is $5. You can see a trailer I cut together here. The one line descriptions are mine, not the film makers.

Higher Education – A mean teacher faces the Last Judgment. A film by Hernando Bahamon, Zélie Bérubé, Christian Camaroschi, Sheng-han Chang, Mélanie Daigle, Amber Holowaychuk, Angela Kim, Alex Kung, Henry Lidstone, Michelle Moger.

Smores – A day in the life of a chocolate man in a graham cracker world. A film by Inigo Ahedo.

El Cacto – When a desert town runs out of water, who ya gonna call? A film by Garrett Hanna.

Hopetown – Hope springs eternal for a stuffed bunny. A film by Will Postma.

Lobster Boy – The story of an underwater outcast. A film by Tracy Qiu.

Homework Hydra – So much homework, but so many distractions. A film by Ben Hu.

Monkey and the Moon – Based on a Chinese folk take, a monkey tries to rescue the moon. A film by Yajun Wang.

Nanu - Two animals battle for a meal. A film by Alex Donald.

Sneaks on a Plane – It gets lonely in the desert. A film by Serena Leigh

Process – Do not go gently into that recycling plant. A film by Jake Fullerton.

Coned – A dog struggles with a cone collar. A film by Terri Sajecki.

Ama – An animation student searches for a subject. A film by Chih Kuang Jack Yu.

Creatures of the Night – Don’t poke the zombie. A film by Kieran McKay.

The Magic Cauldron – A cauldron that doubles its contents. A film by Andy Zeng.

My Hero – The perils of hero worship. A film by Nael Al Hamwi, Amir Avni, Adam Black, Lee Ann Dufour, Adam Hines, Wayne-Michael Lee, Sopheak Meak, Marvin Mugabi, Allesandro Piedimonte, Samantha Smith Mark Stanleigh.

Kitty Kitchka – A lesson in feline agriculture. A film by Cheng Long.

Junko Jango – A boy is caught between bullies and a junkyard dog. A film by Rachel Chalk.

The Missing Sock – Guess where it went? A film by Jason Teeuwissen.

Humpty Dumpty Scrambled - What happens when a weapon has a mind of its own? A film by Yuriy Sivers.

The Bacteria That Could – If at first you don’t succeed... A film by Jordan Benning.

Hog Wild – This little piggy went to market. A film by Michael Alcock, Markus Bajin, Tanguy Barker, Weiran Ji, Sun Lee, Chris MacDonald, Boris Maras, Clayton Tsang, Carla Veldman, Andrew Wilson, Di Yao Amanca Zima.

Princess Story – A fairy princess awaits her prince. A film by Kayla McIlwaine.

The Ballad of Amelia Von Earl – A little girl has an unusual hobby. A film by Tapan Gandhi.

Space Chase – A mad scientist gets madder. A film by Behram Khoshroo.

Foxy Hotmamma – An homage to the Blaxploitation films of the 1970s. A film by Justin Salgado

Just Desserts – Sweets revenge. A film by Jonathan Coit, Lawrence, Lam, Kyu-Bum Lee, Kaming Mak, Andrew Murray, Braden Poirier, Linval Smith, Ben Thomas, Chris Thompson, Junghoon Yeo.

Tang – A monkey struggles to stay warm. A film by Han ung Lee.

Ooh aaah oouch – A recliner with an attitude. A film by Manish Thorat.

The Chronicles of Turghot and Dragam – An urbanized barbarian yearns for the good old days. A film by Kelly Turnbull.

The Peasant and the Root – A peasant covets the amazing power of the mandrake root. A film by Brock Gallagher.

Electropolis – A walk sign seeks to break the monotony. A film by Amanda Stocker, Hank Choi, Adam Pockaj, Jason Walmsley, Dimas Mohammad, Adam Trout, Dan Seddon, Griogio Mavrigianakis, Ki Eun Suh, Debbie Yu, Dawnson Chen, Allison Neil, Kevin McCullough.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Abe Levitow Notes on Animating

Abe Levitow was one of the main animators in Chuck Jones unit in the 1950's. He later became a co-director with Jones at Warners and a director for Jones at MGM. In addition, he directed Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol for UPA.

I can't remember when I got these notes, though I'm guessing it was the late '70's. I also have no idea who Levitow wrote them for. Was it for a project he was directing? Was it for students somewhere? In any case, while the information in the notes has been covered elsewhere, it is presented in a clear, concise manner and you can never be reminded of fundamentals often enough.

(At the time I first posted this, the site devoted to Abe Levitow had been hacked. It has now been restored and is very much worth your time. You can find it here.)

Friday, May 15, 2009

Upcoming Screening at the Bloor in Toronto

Here's a trailer I put together for the Student Animation Showcase, featuring the work of Sheridan College students. It's June 9 at 7 p.m. and again on June 10 at 9:30 at the Bloor Cinema, located at Bloor and Bathurst in Toronto. Admission is $5.

(If you're a Sheridan student, all the films in the trailer are in the screening, but there are additional films that are not in the trailer for various reasons. I'll be emailing everybody the list of films to be screened in the next few days.)

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Sheridan College Industry Day 2009 Part 3

An article from the National Post. The student on the right is Tapan Gandhi.

Pixar in Vancouver Continued or The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

I've been quite surprised by the absolute glee that has resulted from the announcement that Pixar will be opening a studio in Vancouver. It is, of course, a good thing. However, I hope that the people celebrating are not blinded by the Pixar dust in their eyes. It is a good thing, but not a great thing. There are limitations relating to Disney, Pixar, general corporate behaviour and the nature of Canadian industry.

The good things are fairly straightforward. It's always good when there's an increase in employment opportunities, especially in the current economy. There will undoubtedly be educational benefits. Pixar will bring their rigs, their pipeline and their software tools and more people will have the opportunity to use them. While they are proprietary, the nature of software is such that once something exists, it is relatively easy to imitate. Just as Disney knowledge spread into the larger animation industry at the time of the 1941 strike, Pixar's approach will spread into Canada.

The Pixar name will enhance people's resumes and job opportunities. A commenter in the previous post seemed to believe I was endorsing Pixar by praising them "for being THE place." I was not praising them so much as pointing out a Canadian reality.

To date, Canada has no animation studios that can compete with Pixar, Disney, DreamWorks, Blue Sky, etc. Canadian studios have yet to produce an animated feature that grossed $100 million or attracted the same kind of critical attention. Furthermore, those features that have come out of Canada are based on scripts and stories that originated outside the country (Pinocchio 3000, The Wild, Everyone's Hero, 9, etc.) so even if any of those films had done well at the box office, it would have been a mixed endorsement of Canadian studios at best.

Canadian studios are aware of this. Therefore, when they see a resume with a big name studio on it, they see it as a mark of excellence. A studio better than a Canadian studio has seen fit to hire this person, therefore, they have no reason to question the person's skills. This attitude is not unique to Canadian animation. Many people go to Harvard for the opportunity to have it on their resume and many employers are happy to welcome Harvard graduates.

This does not mean that all graduates of Harvard or all former big studio employees are uniformly excellent. It also doesn't mean that people who came from other places are unworthy. However, when the hiring is being done by someone who is unqualified to judge someone's skills -- and that person might be from Human Resources or be a producer -- or if a company is in a hurry to fill a position, the right name on a resume is a shortcut to a solution. This is not fair, but it is a fact of life. Those people who work at Pixar Vancouver will be taken more seriously than those who work at other Canadian studios.

The last bit of good news will be determined by the quality of films that come out of Pixar Vancouver. If they are good, then the people who work on them will have the pride and pleasure of doing good work in an industry where that is rarer than it should be.

Now, on to the bad. The following quote comes from an email list I'm on. The author is a Pixar animator who has given me permission to reprint the quote but has asked to remain anonymous.
There are some factual errors in this article (big surprise). The Vancouver studio will only be producing ancillary work with legacy characters, like Cars and Toy Story. All the stuff that Pixar doesn't have the time or money to do to keep the franchises alive. The original shorts and DVD shorts will still be done in Emeryville. As I understand it, Pixar will still generate all the stories for the ancillary work, and the Vancouver studio will be strictly for production.
In other words, Pixar Vancouver is for outsourcing. It will be owned by Disney and not a service facility bidding on work, but will still be treated like a subcontractor. In essence, it will do the work that Pixar doesn't consider important enough to bother with itself. The article referenced above also states "John Lasseter, chief creative officer at both Pixar and Disney Animation, is not expected to spend much time at the Vancouver studio." That's because his time is too valuable to waste on what will be produced in Vancouver. I don't doubt that Lasseter will make an early appearance to give the staff a pep talk about what great work they're going to produce, but with the budgets, concepts and stories being worked out in Emeryville, Lasseter has no need to spend time in Vancouver. Should Vancouver not produce sufficiently good work, the Vancouver managers will be called to account in Emeryville. Lasseter's appearances in Vancouver will be more for morale and publicity purposes than for making creative or managerial decisions.

Now we get to the ugly, and I'm sorry to say that it relates more to Canada than it does to Pixar. While I've lived in Canada since 1980, I was born and raised in New York City. As a result, I've got a dual perspective on Canada. There is much about this country that I love; I feel more comfortable politically here than I did in the U.S. I value ethnic and cultural diversity and living in Toronto I am surrounded by people from all around the world.

However, Canada suffers from two major problems. The first is colonialism and the second is a small population. Canada never fought for its independence and has historically seen itself as a junior partner to a larger, protector nation. Canada entered World War II in 1939 when the British entered the war, even though Canada itself was not attacked. Since the war, Canada has seen itself as depending on the economic and defense largesse of the U.S. While Canada has not marched in lockstep with the U.S. (Viet Nam and Iraq being two examples), no political decision is ever made in Ottawa without first thinking about U.S. reaction. I don't doubt that if the U.S. was not so vehement about its war on drugs that marijuana would be legal in Canada.

Canada's population is 1/10 the size of the U.S. population. It is easier for U.S. companies to expand their products or services by 10% to take advantage of the Canadian market than it is for a Canadian company to grow by 1000% to compete in the U.S. market. Besides logistical problems, there is also the problem of securing the necessary capital.

Canada's economy can be roughly divided into three parts: natural resources, branch plants and protected industries (primarily culture and communications). The presence of resources is just a matter of luck. Because Canadian companies have difficulty competing with American companies 10 times their size, it has been easier to open branch plants of American companies than to create Canadian companies. For instance, many countries have their own car companies. The U.S., Japan, Korea, England, Germany, Italy, etc. all have cars identified with their countries. Canada has many auto manufacturing plants, but there is no Canadian car.

Entertainment falls in the area of protected industries and this is an area of particular annoyance to me. Canadians don't create markets. They wait until someone else creates a viable market and then Canadians go to the government and ask for protection in order to participate in the market. It's easy for American studios to dump TV shows in Canada for less money than it costs Canadians to create original programming. For the Americans, the money is pure gravy. On the face of it, it makes sense that the government should carve out a percentage of TV air time for Canadian programs and then figure out a way to fund them.

The danger of not doing this can be seen in the film industry. The U.S. walked into Canada in the 1920's and owned all the movie theaters. They treated Canada as part of the U.S. domestic market and the Canadian box office is still considered part of the U.S. domestic gross. Furthermore, on average only 3% of screen time in Canada is devoted to Canadian films. As low as that number seems, it's actually lower because the percentage is higher in Quebec due to language differences. So in English speaking Canada, the percentage of Canadian films is actually less than 3%. The government, not wanting this pattern to repeat in other aspects of popular culture, instituted various quotas and then fought to have culture exempt from the free trade agreement and it's successor, NAFTA.

While this works in theory, the reality is another story. What happens is that the companies who are protected under the quota spend more time working the system than creating work that would allow them to compete. As in most democracies, profitable companies make political contributions to protect their interests and are happy to hire former government officials to lobby for them at salaries higher than those people made in government. So while Canadian television has benefited from government intervention in ways that Canadian film has not, it has not done a significantly better job of creating popular work because the companies have been too busy protecting their profits.

Name a Canadian animated character who is a worldwide success. If you managed to name one (and I'd be surprised if you could), I'll bet that it was based on a children's book and was not an original character. The branch plant mentality combined with government protectionism has killed risk-taking in Canada and creative Canadians know this. That's why so many of them head to the U.S.

The problem is not the talent, the problem is the management. I can personally name dozens of Canadians who have worked at ILM, PDI, Disney, Pixar, DreamWorks, Sony, etc. and have done well at those studios. The U.S. welcomes people with ability while Canada is content to let them leave. There are no Canadian animation managements with the guts, brains and resources to create original material that entertains a worldwide audience.

That's why when a company like Pixar opens in Canada, people are so gleeful. Maybe here is an opportunity to go beyond the run of the mill Canadian product. Unfortunately, it's not going to happen. What comes out of Pixar Vancouver is going to be the equivalent of the direct-to-DVD Tinkerbell features. Those films make money for Disney, but nobody takes them seriously. They are there to bolster the bottom line, not to win awards, not to inspire critical essays, and are only known by parents with young daughters. With all due respect to the people who work on them, they are conceived as filler and they fulfill their corporate duty.

People in Vancouver have a right to be happy over Pixar's arrival, but keep it in perspective. The problems of Canadian animation (and entertainment generally) are still there and still awaiting solutions. When Canada produces its own Aardman or Ghibli, then no one will be cheering louder than me.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Pixar in Vancouver

The Vancouver Sun is reporting that Pixar will be opening a studio in Vancouver.
The studio will hire 75 to 100 people, most of them Canadians, and will make all of Pixar’s three-dimensional, computer-animated short films, which usually run three to five minutes. All Pixar theatrical features will continue to be made at its main studio in Emeryville, Calif., which employs almost 900.
This is not the first time that Disney (which owns Pixar) has set up in Canada. Earlier, Disney opened two studios, one in Vancouver and one in Toronto, to produce direct to DVD sequels. Those studios were both closed during the period when Disney was shedding studios (in Florida, Japan, France and Australia) at a dizzying pace.

At present, anything that increases employment opportunities is a good thing. However, past experience shows that satellite studios tend to stay satellites. Rather than regard the satellites as minor league teams, where talent is developed and then moved up to the majors, the satellites are walled-off as facilities for lower budget work. Disney already has two studios turning out cgi features and there's no shortage of cgi family films. Furthermore, with rumours that John Lasseter is treating Pixar's studio more favorably than Disney's, it's unlikely that a Vancouver studio will be allowed to compete on a level playing field.

The reason for the new studio is convenience and cost. Vancouver is fortunate to be located in Pixar's time zone, but the other incentives are the cheaper Canadian dollar and various tax incentives.

No doubt that the people hired will have opportunities to learn techniques and sharpen their skills. They'll also have a credit that will improve their future job prospects. However, no one should apply to the Vancouver studio with the hope that it will be doing features. Where many artists see Pixar as their ultimate destination, Vancouver, at best, will be a way station.

(See further commentary by me here.)

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Sheridan College Industry Day 2009 Part 2

Courtesy of student Frank Macchia, who uploaded it, here's a TV news report from CHCH in Hamilton on Sheridan's industry day. Laura Friesen and Frank are featured as students. Other people visible include instructors Scott Caple and Jim Caswell (1:11-1:15), instructor Tony Tarantini, and student Brent Dienst (1:34).

Monday, May 04, 2009

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Mouse Part 1

Watch Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Mouse - Tom and Jerry in Animation  |  View More Free Videos Online at

This cartoon is available on the DVD Tom and Jerry Spotlight Collection Volume 2. Mark Kausler's animator identifications come from his blog.

Garage Sale

For those of you in the Toronto area, Steve Schnier is having a garage sale on May 9 that includes some animation equipment. Details here.