Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Happy 90th Ray Harryhausen

Today is Ray Harryhausen's 90th birthday. In his honor, let's all duel with skeletons.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Thief and Cobbler Documentary Funded

In case you haven't noticed, Kevin Schreck's proposed documentary on Richard Williams The Thief and the Cobbler is now fully funded.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Dumbo Part 10

Another frustrating entry, due to the lack of credits in the second half.

While Woolie Reitherman and Fred Moore have long been credited for their work on Timothy, here we have Milt Neil doing an excellent job. His Timothy is more flexible than Reitherman's and also is timed more quickly. Is Neil responsible for Timothy whispering into the ringmaster's ear? The animation does not suffer compared to either Reitherman or Moore, so if it is Neil it is evidence of another great performer brushed under the carpet.

In particular, I'd love to know who animated Timothy in shot 30. The shape of the character under the sheet doesn't resemble Timothy at all; the body shape is different and the muzzle has disappeared. It's only at the end of the shot, when Timothy's rump and tail are visible, that the character's model is taken into account.

And what about Walt Kelly? Kelly, in his post-Disney comic book and comic strip work (Pogo being the most famous) was one of the greatest cartoonists of the 20th century. (For a look at his rare adventure strip Peter Wheat, go here.) Kelly's work at Disney had a major impact on his drawing style, yet his work at Disney has received relatively little attention because so few of his shots were known for certain. Here, Kelly animates the ringmaster in silhouette, but does he do the ringmaster in bed?

My impression, based on Kelly's animation in cartoons like The Nifty Nineties, is that Disney contributed to Kelly's development far more than Kelly contributed to Disney's, but without a comprehensive knowledge of Kelly's Disney work, that judgment has to remain tentative.

Once again, I have to praise Ed Brophy's voice work as Timothy. I would also point out that his reference to "your subconscious mind" is a fairly early reference to Freud in film. Hitchcock's Spellbound wasn't until 1946. Freud died in September of 1939, so it is possible that obituaries influenced this story point.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

DreamWorks: The Men Who Would Be King

I've read a fair number of business books about the film industry and this is a good one. Author Nicole Laporte does an excellent job of portraying the three partners, Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen, who formed DreamWorks.

What's clear from the book is that the company and partnership were always tenuously held together. The partners each had very different personalities and more important than that, very different goals. It's this area where the structural flaws in the company eventually caused problems.

Most companies start small and if they're lucky and well-managed, grow larger. The two words that best define DreamWorks are grandiose and hubris. DreamWorks started out large with large expectations and then systematically shrank over time. The expectations of the partners, the investment community and the public were too large and the partners, for all their money and skills, failed to live up to them.

Those interested in the animation side of DreamWorks will learn relatively little. Shrek and Sinbad, the most and least successful of the animated features, are the only ones covered in much detail. Anyone who has followed Katzenberg's career since his Disney days will have a sense of his micromanagement style and his taste in content. What surprised me is that in this book, Katzenberg comes off the best of the three partners.

David Geffen used his wealth as a weapon to intimidate others with and seemed to have a pathological need for an enemy to conspire against, whether it was Michael Ovitz, Michael Eisner, Sumner Redstone or Brad Grey.

Steven Spielberg comes off as consistently selfish, always making sure that he came out of any arrangement with what he wanted, regardless of whether it was good for DreamWorks or not. For example, on Minority Report, Spielberg made $70 million while DreamWorks only made $20 million. Spielberg was upset with Geffen for selling DreamWorks to Paramount, but had Spielberg directed more films for DreamWorks (he directed several films for other companies while a DreamWorks partner) or worried more about the company's bottom line, the sale would not have been necessary at all.

Each of the three partners also brought their own people into the company, and those people were often at odds, more concerned with protecting their relationships with their patrons than the good of the company as a whole.

In DreamWorks' defense, the media business underwent massive changes during the life of the company. In particular, Disney's purchase of ABC was the death knell for the TV division, both live and animated. However, the three large egos at the head of the company never came together on the specifics and their different agendas made it almost inevitable that the company would fracture as it did.

While this book may frustrate those only interested in the animation side of DreamWorks, The Men Who Would Be King is an excellent primer as to how politics within and between companies determine what ends up on movie screens. Unfortunately, Hollywood is a cross between high school and The Godfather, and while it can be fun to observe from a distance, I find the incessant maneuvering for status and money exhausting.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Matt Williames

Two interesting posts from animator Matt Williames. The first is a collection of his pencil tests from The Princess and the Frog. The second contains his thoughts on working at Disney.

(Link via On Animation.)

Management and Innovation

I exchanged email with a former student who told me about two other former students who were interning at an animation studio. The two interns, in combination with other interns, did a test film that impressed the studio management, including people in other divisions who thought that the project had potential to generate some profits for the company. The two interns were then moved into regular production.

On the face of it, this is a success story, right? A couple of interns impress the higher-ups and get to work on a real film, getting a resume credit and if they're lucky, a screen credit. However, there's another way to look at this.

Google tells its employees to spend 20% of their work time on personal projects. Google is not doing this because it is generous; this is a pragmatic move. Google knows that it hires smart, clever people and that left alone, these people are likely to come up with ideas with profit potential. Not all of the ideas will pan out, but enough of them will to justify the time the employees spend on their personal projects.

Contrast this to what happened to the interns. They did work that looked to have profit potential, but instead of leaving the interns alone to continue developing the property, they were taken off it.

Many animation studios are hand to mouth operations because they're small or doing service work on tight margins. However, there are animation studios and animation broadcasters who have been profitable for years, but they would never think of paying their highly creative employees to create something other than what management dictates. What typically happens is that management develops a project, hires artists to work on single functions, and then lays them off when the project is complete.

This is the equivalent of buying an iPad and only using it to read email. The potential is much greater.

As Bob Lefsetz says, "Why do the best ideas have to come from the top? Just because that guy’s paid the most? Maybe the kid on the bottom is more in touch with the street!" Once upon a time, Disney couldn't see the potential in Tim Burton or John Lasseter. It cost the company a lot of money to get those guys back.

I'm convinced that the successful companies of the future, inside or outside of animation, are going to be the managements that free their staffs to follow their own interests for a percentage of the time. Reducing human potential to a single, narrow function is not only stifling, it's money-losing. Google will never run out of ideas. Animation is in danger of doing so.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Grillo's Photos

Oscar Grillo is posting photos of himself with various people from animation. Unfortunately, he's not captioning many of the photos, leaving the viewer to figure out who he is with. I see photos with Børge Ring (above), Marc Davis, Eric Goldberg, Chuck Jones, Bill Plympton, Dick Williams, Pete Docter and Peter Lord. Here's a link to many of the photo entries.

The Thief and the Cobbler Documentary

Kevin Schreck is a film student who is working on a documentary about Dick Williams' The Thief and the Cobbler. I have to admit being very ambivalent about Williams. He's a brilliant draftsman and technician, but I have serious doubts about him as a screenwriter and director. Considering the film a "lost animated masterpiece" is, in my opinion, going too far.

However, I think that a documentary on the film is a worthy project and so I'm doing my bit to publicize Schreck's attempt to raise money. You can read more about the project and see a promotional trailer for the documentary here.

(For the record, I pledged $25.)

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Happy Birthday Michael Barrier

Cartoon Brew is reporting that today is Michael Barrier's 70th birthday. I have no idea if this is the case. I would not have guessed that Mike is that old. However, Mike is certainly deserving of Amid's praise and I'd like to add some of my own.

I first discovered Funnyworld, the magazine Mike edited devoted to animation and comics, at a Phil Seuling comic convention in New York in the early '70s. I must admit that I bought issue #13 because it printed several model sheets by Chuck Jones. When I got home and read through it, I was flabbergasted. The issue included interviews with Jones and Carl Stalling and a two page article "Chuck Jones: From Night Watchman to Phantom Tollbooth" that was a critical survey of Jones' career that also talked intelligently about what animation directors did and how their styles differed as a result. Funnyworld treated animation with the same seriousness that the film magazines I was beginning to read treated live action films and directors.

I managed to come up with a copy of issue 12 from the late Ed Aprill, an early fanzine dealer and publisher. That issue contained the long and controversial interview with Bob Clampett and I was hooked on Funnyworld for good. I bought each succeeding issue as it appeared (unfortunately at too long intervals) until Mike ceased his involvement with it.

Funnyworld was also responsible for introducing me to the work of Carl Barks. While I had read some Disney comic books as a child, I had moved on to DC and Marvel. If a writer of Mike's perceptiveness thought Carl Barks' work was worthwhile, I had better check it out. I soon realized that while the stories starred funny animals, they were more mature and better written than the superhero comics I was rapidly outgrowing.

After that, the wait was on for what everyone in animation fandom referred to as "the Barrier book" and what was eventually titled Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in its Golden Age. Mike had started interviewing animation artists with Milt Gray in the late '60s and had amassed an archive of animation information second to none. The book took years to complete but was worth the wait. The book is essential reading for anyone seriously interested in the history of American animation.

Mike has his detractors. Many feel he is too opinionated or too demanding in his standards, but as animation remains mired in formula work both on TV and in features, I'd say that the rest of us haven't been demanding enough.

Mike has continued to author books. His biography of Walt Disney, The Animated Man, is historically accurate and free from hagiography, portraying Disney as a believable human being. His other books include A Smithsonian Book of Comic Book Comics (with Martin Williams) and Carl Barks and the Art of the Comic Book. More books are on the way.

To date, I can't think of a single person who has done more to uncover animation history or to shape my view of it. It's been a pleasure for me to swap emails with Mike and to meet him very occasionally, so assuming that Amid is correct, Happy 70th Birthday!

Dumbo Part 9

This really is Woolie Reitherman's section. He animates practically everything. Ed Brophy, the voice of Timothy, gives an excellent reading, alternating between coaxing, thinking out loud, cheerleading and puzzlement. Reitherman catches all those emotions in his animation. Between Brophy and Reitherman, we get a good understanding of Timothy, a character who is warm-hearted, considerate and intelligent.

Reitherman's posing is broad and has a strong line of action, though he's fairly conservative when it comes to changing the character's shapes. As I mentioned in the last section, Reitherman's Timothy is more structural than Fred Moore's.

The sound effects in shot 10, when Dumbo vacuums the peanut away from Timothy and spits out the shells, is very funny.

The pan in shot 24.1 is on twos, another indication of the corner cutting in this low budget film. Generally, pan backgrounds are shot on ones, as twos work less well for moving backgrounds than for characters. The reason to pan on twos is to save the work of putting the animation on ones to match a smoother pan.

(In an interview in Hogan's Alley, story artist Bill Peet claimed that he redrew an entire Bill Tytla scene, making it acceptable to Walt Disney. Michael Sporn offers his thoughts on Peet's claims.)

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Dumbo Part 8

This sequence begins with Mrs. Jumbo and Dumbo both sadly swaying to the music. Though separated by space, their mirror actions show that their feelings are the same; they are depressed due to their separation.

While Bill Tytla is justifiably celebrated for certain scenes in this film, particularly Dumbo's bath and the "Baby Mine" section, he doesn't receive enough attention for the other elephants. Within this film, he shows an enormous range of acting, portraying both heroes and villains, innocence and repulsiveness. The four antagonist elephants are self-righteous, insensitive and cruel. Tytla works both sides of the street, so to speak, stressing Dumbo's appeal while also showing how repellent the other elephants are. It's this combination that creates the film's emotional impact.

Because Dumbo is unjustly vilified, we immediately like Timothy for sticking up for him. His scaring the elephants is emotionally satisfying as it deflates their pride and superiority. The fact that someone so small can triumph over others so large is a foreshadowing of Dumbo's eventual success.

Timothy is voiced by Ed Brophy, an actor whose film career spanned 1920 to 1960. The earliest film I've seen him in is Buster Keaton's The Cameraman (1928) and the latest is John Ford's The Last Hurrah (1958). Brophy typically played urban wise-guys or detectives. Timothy is a different kind of role for Brophy, as it is warm and sentimental, not his typical persona.

It's interesting that Disney repeatedly used some voices over the years (Verna Felton and Sterling Holloway in this film went on to do many others) but some, like Brophy, were never used again. It's a shame, as I think that Timothy is one of Brophy's best roles and his voice was certainly distinctive and flexible enough to inspire some great animation.

Woolie Reitherman's Timothy is more solid and structural than Fred Moore's (who doesn't appear until later in the film). Reitherman has some nice business with the peanut (why no sound effect when the shell cracks in shot 8.1?), and Timothy's scare tactics are fairly reserved, better to contrast with the wild fear they inspire. Bill Shull's animation of the panic-stricken elephants in shot 38 is excellent.

I was aware that Ben Sharpsteen did some last minute editing on this film and I always assumed that the jump cut between shots 32 and 33 was the result of that. I was surprised to see on the draft that these shots were never separated by a cut away to something else. I wonder if the end of 32 or the start of 33 was truncated to speed up Dumbo's exit. I find it hard to believe that a cut this bad was intended.

(Michael Sporn has posted a Bill Tytla Dumbo run here.)

Friday, June 11, 2010

Blame It On the Samba

Thad Komorowski has posted a version of "Blame It On the Samba" (from Melody Time) that identifies the animators. The identifications come from JB Kaufman's book South of the Border With Disney.

This has always been a favorite film of mine and it's great to learn that the most spirited animation in it was done by Hal King and Les Clark. Now that so many animator drafts are surfacing, the history of Disney animation needs to be rewritten with much less emphasis on the Thomas-Johnston-Kahl contingent.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Gene Deitch Interview

"I hate the term “2D.” That’s bullshit. They put us in that category. They say they’re making 3D. They’re not 3D. What Pixar does is not 3D because it’s shaded. The screen is flat. It’s a flat picture. It’s just an illusion. There’s only one 3D, Brian, and that’s what you’re looking at with your two eyes. You are seeing real space. It’s all around you. And you can touch the objects and see that they’re really there."
The four part Gene Deitch interview is now complete. Go here for links to all four parts.

FLIP, Tests and Dean Yeagle

The new issue of Flip (#34) is out. As always, it's an interesting read. For me, the highlights of this issue are a round table of professionals giving their views on art tests for employment and a feature on Dean Yeagle.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Dumbo Part 7

Once again, the principle of contrast is front and center here. The first half of the sequence is relaxed and heartwarming while the later half is tense and frightening.

The bath section is really a musical sequence, though there are no lyrics. The animation has been tied tightly to the beat and melody of the music. Certainly that was a specialty of sequence director Wilfred Jackson. Animator Bill Tytla, himself the parent of a young son at the time, perfectly captures how a parent and child tease each other and play games, both secure in their loving relationship.

One thing that makes their relationship obvious to the audience is the use of touch. Touch is a powerful way of communicating in life and on film. A caress, a pat on the back or a punch in the nose all communicate clearly. Mrs. Jumbo's trunk is there to wash her child, lift her child or caress it. Dumbo pulls on his mother's tail. The willing physical connection between the two makes their feelings for each other plain.

This sequence is crucial for making the film work emotionally. By showing how supportive Mrs. Jumbo is of her child and how happy Dumbo is in her presence, the audience feels the injustice and pain of their separation all the more.

Touch is also a major element in the latter half. Skinnay (as he is named in the draft) thinks nothing of grabbing Dumbo's ear or tail. Mrs. Jumbo understandably tries to remove her child to safety, but Skinnay won't take the hint and ends up being spanked by Mrs. Jumbo. The loving touch of the bath has given way to the aggressive touches of ridicule and revenge.

The ringmaster then uses the stinging touch of the whip and the roustabouts use the constraining touch of ropes and chains to subdue Mrs. Jumbo.

Touch isn't used as often as it should be in animation due to technical issues. A single character is the easiest to animate. Two characters sharing the screen require more planning so that their timing is complementary and the audience knows which character to look at. Generally, two characters who aren't physically interacting would be done on separate levels of paper, giving the animator the maximum freedom to alter their timings. However, whenever characters touch, either they are animated on a single level or their timing must be coordinated even more closely. That's extra work. In cgi, the animator doesn't have to worry about levels when characters touch, but does have to worry about intersections instead.

Once the ringmaster shows up, there are some striking low angle layouts to emphasize Mrs. Jumbo's size compared to the roustabouts. (And I was wrong, writing in part 5 that the roustabouts disappear from the film after raising the tent; clearly these roustabouts are also black.)

The quality of drawing suffers somewhat in the latter half of this sequence. The mob of children are pretty rough. The ringmaster and roustabouts are also not very well refined. There's a painting mistake in shot 57; the ringmaster has no white in his eyes. It's true that with fast cutting and fast action, detail matters less, but I see this as more evidence of the low budget having an effect on what's on screen. Certainly, you don't see work this rough in Fantasia.

Bill Shull does an excellent job on Mrs. Jumbo during the struggle. She's the emotional focus at this point, so it's important that she be drawn and animated well to maintain our sympathy. Note that her eyes turn red in shot 66 after Dumbo is taken away and she is chained. It's a small touch that does a nice job of stressing her increasing agitation. Prior to this, she has tried to protect Dumbo and to resist being confined. After this, she gets aggressive, tossing a roustabout into a crowd of others and dunking the ringmaster in Dumbo's washtub.

(I should point out that Michael Sporn has been featuring a lot of Dumbo pre-production artwork. Here are two segments (one and two) on the roustabouts. Here is a segment devoted to the bath sequence. Here is the "Baby Mine" sequence. Here are two sections on "Pink Elephants" (one and two) and finally, here are some random storyboards and a collection of model sheets.)

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Dumbo Part 6

As I watch this film in chunks, I am struck by how much the film relies on contrast. Each sequence seems to contrast with the last and there is contrast within sequences as well. This sequence follows the raising of the big top during a thunderstorm. Where the previous sequence was dark and grey, this one is bright and colorful. The music here also contrasts with the roustabout song.

Within this sequence, there is the contrast between the excitement of the parade itself and the boredom of the animals. Those open-mouthed animals in shots 4.1 and 8 are yawning, not roaring. There's also contrast between the gorilla's seemingly ferocious demeanor in shot 7 and his embarrassment when one of the bars comes loose. Van Kaufman animated the shot. While he not well-known, he certainly gives a good performance here.

Hicks Lokey's animation of the band in shot 3 is broad, energetic and full of stretch and squash. Similarly, his animation of the clowns in shot 11 introduces them and also establishes that while they're colourful and frantic, they are not particularly funny. There are no gags taken to completion.

Alberto Becattini's listing for Lokey has no credit between Dumbo in 1941 and Lokey joining Hanna Barbera around 1958. Based on Lokey's work in this film, it's a shame that he had no further opportunities to do work of this caliber.

The final shot of Dumbo, unfortunately uncredited, is an excellent piece of character animation. Dumbo is happy to be trailing behind his mother. The crowd distracts him and he shows some nervousness. He overcomes the nervousness with a smile and then runs to catch up to his mother, tripping on his ears and landing in a puddle. Finally, he looks sad over his situation and the laughter of the crowd. This is a textbook example of what's known these days as the "gear change," where a character's thoughts are expressed through changes in facial expression.

Because the elephants in Dumbo are so well done, it's important to realize what an animation challenge they are. Characters on four legs don't have arms to help communicate. Elephants, in particular, don't have fingers. Because they are so bulky, their spines can't be used to express emotion the way that Pluto's spine can. That pretty much leaves their faces and the way their bodies move overall. The last shot here and shot 9 in sequence 3 (animated by Hugh Fraser) are both examples of the use of the head and face as the focus of elephant acting.