Friday, November 20, 2009

Patterns of Motion

I've always been fascinated by Disney's Woodland Cafe (1937) and this scene in particular. Like Mother Goose Goes Hollywood a year later, this cartoon looks both forward and backward in its animation style. There are some scenes that could have been done as early as 1933 or '34 and others, like the above, that point towards the 1940s. The cartoon concludes with an upbeat jazz number, "Everybody's Truckin,'" played by a band of grasshoppers who are drawn to resemble the black jazz bands of the time. The shot above is from the song.

This shot has always been the highlight of the film for me. While the surrounding animation is full of energy, this shot just explodes off the screen. This shot is animated by Ward Kimball and I thank David Nethery (see comment below) for confirming that.

I wanted to know why this shot stands out for me, so I took a closer look. You can click the images below to enlarge them.

The shot is 56 frames long, entirely on ones. That's three and a half feet of 35mm film, or two and a third seconds. Given how short the shot is, the animator could have gotten away with a cycle, but there are no repeat drawings in this shot.

After the first slap, which we pick up in progress, everything is animated on a 7 beat, meaning that every 7 frames, the bass gets slapped. The spacing between the sixth and seventh drawings in the pattern (for instance frames 5 and 6 or 12 and 13) is wide, resulting in an accent where the bass gets slapped hard. The right hand and arm are foreshortened and exaggerated in their slapping motion.

There are major and minor slaps alternating, mirroring the ONE two THREE four of the musical rhythm. The right arm, the tapping right foot and the bouncing body are all in synch, which is no surprise. What is a surprise is that the character's head and the bass, while still on a 7 beat, are actually delayed 2 frames. So the hand slaps the base on frame 20 but the head and the bass don't hit their extreme drawings until frame 22.

This is something that probably shouldn't work. It's out of synch! And yet, besides the fact that it does work, it actually adds energy and interest to the shot by breaking up the rhythm so that not everything is hitting the beat at the same time. How did the animator figure this out? Had the character been broken into levels (or if it was done today with cgi), it would be easy to experiment by shifting some elements forward or backward in time, but the character is done as a single drawing, so this delay had to be thought out in advance. This knowledge may have been commonplace at Disney at the time, as they had animated so much to music, but it's hardly common knowledge today.

There's still more movement, as the character tilts towards screen right until frame 27 and then starts tilting back towards screen left. It's this tilt that prevents the possibility of using any cycles in this shot, as the character is never in the same position twice. Nothing on the character ever stops moving and the background adds more optical excitement by changing colours.

In many ways, this shot is optical overload, but it is justified by the tempo of the music and the shot's placement at the climax of the cartoon. It points to possibilities that were later explored by animators like Rod Scribner.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Cordell Barker's Runaway

The saying goes that comedy is a man in trouble. There is no shortage of trouble in Cordell Barker's films. In The Cat Came Back and Strange Invaders, a character arrives who is first welcome and then is revealed to be a source of chaos, destroying the lives of those around it. Both films end with the trouble-making character multiplying. In the first film, the main character accidentally kills himself while trying to get rid of the cat, and is then haunted by 9 feline ghosts. In Strange Invaders, the alien child calls down more of his brethren after destroying the home and marriage of the main characters. While it turns out to be a dream, the woman is pregnant with multiple children who resemble the alien child.

These films are structurally very similar and both keep the chaos localized. The main characters are unfortunate victims, but their problems are not typical. While we can identify with their frustrations, the films say little about our own lives.

With Runaway, Barker has expanded his view to encompass the whole of human civilization. The runaway train is carrying all of us and we're doomed. This is the blackest of comedies and far more biting than his previous films. While the forces of nature initiate the chaos, it becomes fatal due to the human follies of vanity, sex, greed and technology.

The train consists of four cars. The engine is manned by the Captain, a pompous, vain individual who is more interested in women than in his responsibilities. He is a stand-in for those who lead us. His fireman is the bureaucracy that allows leaders to function. The next car is the capitalist class, all wearing stovepipe hats, sipping drinks and playing billiards. This car contains a woman and her small dog. The next car consists of the lumpen proletariat, guzzling beer, dancing and wearing paper party hats. The caboose contains more bureaucrats, all asleep.

The dog runs into the engine. The woman follows it to reclaim it and the Captain leaves his post in order to flirt with her. The dog bites him and the woman, though meaning well, drags him off to take care of the bite. The driverless train then hits a cow walking on the tracks, hurling the fireman into the absurdly complex machinery, itself a comment on the technology our survival depends on. As he rights himself, he accidentally pulls a lever which causes the train to increase it's speed. The train is now out of control.

The first casualties are those in the caboose. As the train makes a turn, the caboose is flung into space with the inhabitants oblivious to what has happened. As the train attempts to climb a hill, the fireman runs out of coal and tells the passengers that they aren't going to make it.

Here's where the film gets interesting. The capitalists offer money to the proletariat in exchange for things to fuel the engine. Though the proles were completely happy before this, money warps their values and they are quick to give up everything they've got, even selling the clothes off their backs. The capitalists, having nothing left to buy from them, cut the proles' car loose from the rest of the train and steal back the money before the proles hurtle to their doom. Capitalist exploitation doesn't get much more explicit than this.

The engine still needs more fuel and the fireman informs the capitalists that he doesn't think they're going to make it. Only when their own survival is at stake do they finally panic (and never consider using their own possessions for fuel!). At this point, the train is precariously balanced at the top of a steep hill, threatening to fall backwards. The Captain and the woman emerge from a bathroom where she has tended to his wounds, and as the Captain walks back towards the engine, the balance is tipped and the train once more goes forward.

But when the captain returns to the engine, he turns his attention to the woman once more, ignoring his responsibilities. The train hurtles into the air and crash lands, killing all the people. The only survivors in the film are the cow and the small dog. Nature, it seems, will survive human folly. That is the only hope that the film allows.

Having concluded that human endeavors are doomed to self-destruct, is there anything left for Barker to say? Will he be limited to variations on this theme? At the rate he makes films, it will be another decade before we find out. In the meantime, though, we have a film whose laughs are marinated in pessimism. Runaway would fit nicely on a double bill with Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove.

Friday, November 13, 2009

So Long Sally

Thanks to my friend, the noted animation historian Jim Korkis, I was alerted to this page. Sally Holmes was a Disney employee and when she left the studio, the artists she knew drew personalized farewells in her copy of the book on Fantasia.

Besides the fact that these drawings are great, they include work from lesser known Disney artists such as Cliff Nordberg (pictured above), Hal King, Jesse Marsh, Judge Whitaker, Marvin Woodward, George Kreisl as well as artists whose names weren't known to me. Of course, there are drawings by some of the heavyweights like Ward Kimball, Fred Moore, Eric Larson, Milt Kahl and Marc Davis.

Take a minute to look at some fun artwork and envy whoever it was who purchased the book recently on Ebay.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Germans in the Woods

Germans in the Woods from Rauch Brothers on Vimeo.

In time for Veterans Day (in Canada, called Remembrance Day), here is a film from the Rauch Brothers. Quoting from an email I received from Mike Rauch:
In honor of tomorrow, Veterans Day, Rauch Brothers Animation has posted "Germans in the Woods" to the web. In this animated documentary, 86-year-old World War II veteran Joseph Robertson remembers a German soldier he killed at the Battle of the Bulge. Produced in collaboration with national oral history project StoryCorps. Created with pencil on paper, Photoshop, and AfterEffects.
I think one of the more interesting developments in animation has been the creation of animated documentaries. Animators routinely interpret audio tracks, looking to find the emotional core of a person's speech. Shifting that skill from fictional to real dialogue extends what animators do while providing an opportunity to visualize events beyond the reach of a camera.

I'd like to thank Mike and Tim Rauch for the opportunity to share this film.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Clarity, Logic and Entertainment

Last week, the 4th year students at Sheridan had a screening of their story reels. I mentor 10 of those students, out of 108 this year.

I've been looking at my students' reels as they developed since September, but it's always different seeing work with an audience. It struck me that there are three stages the students have to tackle in order to make a successful film, and various films were already at different stages.

The first is clarity. Can an audience understand what's happening on screen? I've asked students to explain something I don't understand about their films and their explanations make sense, but what's in their heads hasn't been communicated on the screen. Things, often important things, get left out. Clarity is pretty easy to achieve once a storyboard or story reel is shown to a few people, as they inevitably ask questions about things they don't understand.

Logic is a bit tougher. Getting the events of a film and the characters' behavior to be consistent and logical takes some doing. Some films have problems with tone; they signal to the audience that they're one type of film and then become another. That could potentially work in a longer film, but it's tough to get an audience to make a sharp emotional turn in less than two minutes. Other times, a film starts off with a theme and then contradicts itself by the end. Sometimes, there's a lack of consistency in terms of plot or character; events don't make sense based on what an audience would expect.

Logic is harder to fix than clarity. It sometimes means tearing up a story and rebuilding it, which can be a lot of work. It also means sacrificing something that the film maker probably wants to keep and getting a student to give something up is often a difficult task.

The toughest problem is entertainment, and you're never really sure what you've got until you get an audience reaction. I had a couple of students doing films that built up to punchlines. While they were clear and logical, the punchlines didn't get the expected response. Reworking the endings to evoke a laugh is going to be difficult as entertainment isn't as clear cut as clarity or logic.

If I could wish for anything for animation artists, it would be for more audience contact. Stand-up comics get good by constantly honing their material based on audience reaction. Actors or directors who start out in theatre do the same. Even bands that play bars get feedback.

Animators (especially those working in TV or games) exist in a vacuum. Feature animators have it a little better but still have to wait years to learn whether what they've done is successful or not. Animation people as different as Walt Disney and Bob Clampett viewed their films with audiences on a regular basis, measuring their intentions against the results. It took both of them years to solidify their ability to entertain, as it did Chuck Jones, Tex Avery and Friz Freleng.

People with the ability to entertain an audience are the ones most in demand. While some people may have a flair for it, I believe it's like any other skill and can be honed through practice. The problem for animation artists is that they have so few opportunities for audience feedback.

The Sheridan students now have their own experience of watching their films with an audience as well as feedback from friends and instructors. The films generally get better between the story reels and the final films as the students continue to polish their work. However, I wonder how much better the films would be if the students had more experience with audience reactions and I wonder the same about the whole animation business.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Mary and Max in Toronto

Adam Elliot's stop motion feature Mary and Max will have its Toronto premiere at the Bloor Cinema from November 20 to 25. It will screen on Nov. 20 at 7 p.m, Nov. 21 at 9:15 p.m, Nov. 22 at 7 p.m, Nov. 23 at 4:15 p.m. and 9:30 p.m, Nov. 24 at 9:30 p.m, and Nov. 25 at 4:15.

The film is paired with Cordell Barker's new NFB short, Runaway.

Elliot's earlier film, Harvie Krumpet (2003), won the Oscar for Best Animated Short.

The Bloor Cinema is located at 506 Bloor Street West at Bathurst.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Wild Life

The new issue of Flip is out, featuring an interview with Howard Baker, a director who does straight-to-DVD features for budgets as low as $3 million. That's an area that's very interesting to me and one that I think has potential for different kinds of films. However, the real surprise was his reel. At 7:50, you can see a clip from the canceled Disney feature Wild Life. I have no idea how much of this feature actually exists, but this may be all you're ever likely to see of it.

Pitch Bibles

As a follow up to my review of David Levy's book Animation Development From Pitch to Production, I'd like to point out a blog that Steve Schnier, creator of Freaky Stories, has assembled from his own pitch bibles. If you are thinking about pitching, you'll see some good examples of the kinds of materials you'll need at Steve's blog.