Friday, March 26, 2010

How to Train Your Dragon

(No spoilers.)

While I haven't seen all the DreamWorks animated features, I've seen most of them. How to Train Your Dragon is my favorite so far. While I enjoyed Kung Fu Panda, I didn't find Po's transformation from loser to warrior convincing. The arc for Hiccup, the boy pictured above, is better constructed and the plot points are all in place.

The story has elements of E.T. and is pretty predictable, but it is well told and emotionally satisfying. There's a good balance of humour and suspense. The film is built on a father-son relationship that works within the context of the film and resembles Disney's Chicken Little. The dragon designs are nicely balanced between caricature and menace and the Vikings are fun to look at.

There are things that I could criticize in the film, but they don't detract from the overall experience. I saw the film flat, not in 3D, as I was more interested in judging the story elements than I was the technique. I still found the camera moves too busy in the early part of the film and wonder if I would have suffered whiplash had I watched it in 3D. The children, except for the male and female leads, are one dimensional, which often happens with supporting characters in animated films. It's a bit of a stretch to have Vikings talking with Scottish accents, though I guess it is plausible. The relationship of the largest dragon to the others is not clear and probably unscientific. I can't say more without spoiling something.

I couldn't help thinking while watching the film that should it outgross Disney's Bolt (and it deserves to), it will be vindication for director Chris Sanders, who was removed from the Disney film by John Lasseter. Dragon also seems to me to be the DreamWorks film most dominated by it's directors (Sanders and Dean Dublois). With DreamWorks now set on releasing 5 films every two years, I think it would be all to the good for Jeffrey Katzenberg to loosen the reins a little and let directors put their stamp on films.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Miscellaneous Links

Kris Graft of Gamasutra writes that Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment will be opening a gaming studio in Montreal that will gradually grow t0 300 employees by 2015.

Bhob Stewart writes about The Mickey Mouse Theater of the Air, a 1938 radio series which initially featured Walt Disney himself as host and the voice of Mickey Mouse. Stewart provides a player for seven episodes of the series.

Fantagraphics will soon publish the fourth volume of Our Gang comics by Walt Kelly. A complete 14 page story from the book in PDF format can be found here.

Farhad Manjoo of Slate reviews Rework by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier, about creating an online business with minimal start-up costs. You can read excerpts from the book here.

(Gamasutra link via James Caswell.)

The Great Canadian Migration

Two articles in The Globe and Mail caught my eye this week. They clearly point to the future and they have repercussions for Canadian animation.

A survey from Ipsos Reid shows that Canadian viewers are now spending more time on the internet than they are watching TV. The average now is 18 hours a week vs. 17 hours of TV watching. Time spent online has been growing annually, and there is no sign that it will stop.

The other important item was that the Canadian Radio and Television Commission, in charge of regulating TV, has dithered yet again. There's been a battle going on over whether broadcast networks would receive money from cable and satellite companies for their signals. Until now, the cable companies have retransmitted those signals for free. Rather than make a firm decision, the CRTC asked the Court of Appeals to decide whether the CRTC had jurisdiction. Should the court rule that it does, the CRTC says that broadcasters should receive compensation, but declined to say how much. The figure should be negotiated between broadcasters, cable companies and satellite providers.

No one knows how long it will take for the court to rule and if negotiations will produce any results. Everyone's assumption is that cable fees will increase to cover the compensation.

What we're left with is an audience that is walking away from television and a government bureaucracy that is ignoring that fact. The media landscape is changing rapidly and the government can't move faster than a crawl. Even if a decision is made quickly, any increase in cable rates for subscribers is only likely to drive people away from TV that much faster.

Canadian TV is in a death spiral. As the audience leaves, advertising revenues will go down. As revenues drop, so will TV budgets. Cheaper shows will drive more of the audience away, resulting in still lower revenues.

Those working in Canadian TV have never had it easy. Those animation studios depending on Canadian TV for their livelihood would be smart to start diversifying immediately. I'm betting that in five years, we won't recognize what Canadian TV has become and the CRTC will be powerless to stop the changes.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Rare Mickey

Last June, I posted about Michael Sragow's biography, Victor Fleming: American Movie Master. One of the films that Fleming directed was Around the World in 80 Minutes (1931), a documentary starring Douglas Fairbanks. The reason for my post was that the film contained original Disney animation of Mickey Mouse. I was not aware of this and a quick scan of the animation history books on my shelf didn't lead to any information.

Over at Didier Ghez's Disney History site, JB Kaufman was able to provide some information, as he had screened the film at the Library of Congress.

I recently learned that the film is now on DVD from Grapevine Video. I purchased a copy, and below you'll see some extremely rare Mickey animation. I have no idea who animated it, though I might guess Dick Lundy. Enjoy.

Friday, March 12, 2010

ImageMovers Digital to Close

The Wrap is reporting that Disney is closing down ImageMovers Digital, the studio responsible for the production of the motion captured films directed by Bob Zemeckis, including The Polar Express, Beowulf and A Christmas Carol. Disney purchased the studio in 2007. The article implies that Disney is still interested in going ahead with the Yellow Submarine remake, though it's unclear if the closing means that they will subcontract future motion capture or use other techniques instead.

UPDATE: There are some interesting comments from the industry perspective at the Animation Guild Blog.

Copyright and Creators

"What we have now is you can get paid for craft. You don’t get paid for art. You get paid for craft. Every animator that I know, or almost every animator that I know, works at a studio, working on shit. They know it’s shit. They do their best to not think about it, but it’s god-awful commercial shit.

Which is not to say that commercial stuff is bad, I’m not anti-commerce. But it’s devised by some idiot, it’s lowest common denominator, and this is what really talented people do. They do crap work. And it’s not just in animation; it’s at all levels."
The above quote comes from an interview (part 1, part 2) with Nina Paley that covers her personal history and issues revolving around copyright. It's part of a larger roundtable discussion on copyright that can be found here and includes composer Jonathan Newman (who rebuts Paley) and an attorney who summarizes the history of copyright.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Tomm Moore Interview

Tomm Moore, director of the Oscar-nominated The Secret of Kells, is interviewed by Andrew O'Hehir at The interview delves into the historical roots of the film and talks a bit about how production was split up between studios.

There's also an article in the N.Y. Times about Moore and the making of the film and A.O. Scott reviews the film for the Times.
"Brendan’s busy adventures load the film with a bit too much narrative for its brief running time, but the sometimes hectic plot ultimately serves as scaffolding for Mr. Moore’s extraordinary visual brio. Using the vivid colors and delicate lineations of the Book of Kells for inspiration, he establishes a surprising and completely persuasive link between the ancient art of manuscript illumination and the modern practice of animation. Like the crystal lens that is a crucial element of Aidan’s craft — an enchanted eye that refracts and renews his, and then Brendan’s, perception — “The Secret of Kells” discloses strange new vistas that nonetheless seem to have existed since ancient times."
Everyone, including Moore, expects Up to win the award for best animated feature, but this is a case where the Oscars have still done something positive. Up has finished its theatrical run and the bulk of its DVD sales have already occurred. An Oscar will give Pixar a piece of hardware and some bragging rights, but will not materially affect their bottom line. For Cartoon Saloon, the studio behind Kells, the nomination will solidify their reputation and make it easier to finance future projects. In this case, even a loss will be their gain.