Saturday, August 28, 2010

Behind My Dog Tulip

The New York Times has an article about the technology behind Paul and Sandra Fierlinger's animated feature My Dog Tulip, which opens in New York on September 1.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Dumbo Part 20

I'm going to start off with a plea. Hans Perk's documentation for Dumbo is incomplete in several areas, but never more frustratingly than in the "Pink Elephants" sequence. He only has credits for the first 9 shots.

This sequence is a tour de force. It is graphically daring, using colour treatments, metamorphosis and shot transitions in ways that were out of the ordinary for Disney and every other animation studio of the time.

The missing information is out there, I'm sure. If anyone can supply the information for the rest of this sequence, I would greatly appreciate it. I would be happy to give credit to whoever supplies it, or would be happy to keep the donor anonymous if that is the donor's preference. If you have access to a complete copy of the animator draft or access to the scene folders for this sequence, could you please supply me with the information?

This sequence is an alcohol-induced joint hallucination of Dumbo's and Timothy's and ends with images of a tree, which will turn out to be their new location. The sequence can best be described as a stream of consciousness (or unconsciousness?) where each elephant action leads to another without any sense of narrative logic.

Wikipedia says that the first recorded use of the term "pink elephants" is from Jack London in 1913. The phrase was used musically by George Olsen and His Music in the 1932 recording below, so Disney was not the first to use it as the basis for a song.

Please note that after shot 9, the shot numbers are pure guesswork. I could number the later shots differently and still support the alternate numbering. For instance, the tearing curtain in shot 13, revealing the skaters, could be thought of as a wipe between two separate shots rather a single shot. Did a single animator do the work before and after the curtain? Even if that is the case, it might still be two shots in the eyes of the production team.

Howard Swift tends to give the elephants more pointy heads than Hicks Lokey. Is that due to the animators' drawing styles or did that come from the layouts? If it's the animators, it gives us a clue as to who did the later, unidentified shots, but if it comes from the layouts, all bets are off.

I have to admit that my favorite animation in this sequence is the skaters. I love the striking colour treatment and the animation is as flexible and fluid as it gets. Who animated it? I wish I knew.

The opening 4 shots portray the elephants as very bubble-like, as they have originated as bubbles blown by Dumbo. By shot 5, they are being treated more solidly, though liberties are taken with their colours and their construction.

Shots 15 through 18 are very interesting for their suggestion of male and female elephants. With all the shots of mothers in the "Baby Mine" sequence and Dumbo being named for his father, this is the only hint in the film of male animals. The lightning between the dancers in shot 15 can be interpreted as sexual energy. Can this be considered a wet dream? That interpretation can be supported by the phallic imagery of the snake in shot 11 or the raised trumpets of shot 15. The harem elephant's suggestive hip wiggling also supports this. Or are the dancers Dumbo's longing for an elephant father figure and a complete family unit? Is it a coincidence that the male-female dynamic of the dancers leads to the chaos that ends the dream? Like real dreams, this can be interpreted several ways, but there's no doubt that something deep and agitating has been released to cause Dumbo to become airborne.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Arnie Lipsey

Arnie Lipsey is a Toronto animator who has worked in the local industry for years. He has also created two independent films, The Crow and the Canary (1988) and Almonds and Wine (1999) and has finally made them available on YouTube. You can see them below.

The Crow and the Canary is a story from Arnie's childhood, narrated by his father. Almonds and Wine is a visualization of the Jewish experience from eastern Europe to Canada.

Almonds and Wine inspired a mural, created by Cristina Delago, that's located on the west side of Bathurst Street, two blocks south of Lawrence Avenue. You can see the mural here and photos and video of the opening ceremony as well.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Unfinished Mouse

Thad has posted about Plight of the Bumblebee, a Mickey Mouse cartoon from the early '50s that was animated, but never finished. Included in Thad's post is the pencil test, something I've never seen before.

Rather than steal Thad's thunder, I'll direct you to his site so that you can watch it.

The Return of the Blackwing Pencil

Here's something that will make Jenny Lerew and many other animation artists happy: the Blackwing pencil will be manufactured once again.

These pencils were standard in the animation industry for years. I first encountered them at Zander's Animation Parlour in the 1970s. According to the Boing Boing link, original pencils are going for as high as $40 apiece on Ebay, so you know that some people really value these things. Personally, I always found them impossible to erase, but they did make a beautiful dark line that worked really well when photocopying drawings onto cels, the technology of the time.

No word yet on whether the new manufacturer is able to match Eberhard Faber's quality or when the pencils will be generally available, but Mark Frauenfelder promises to review the advance pencils he will be receiving.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Dumbo Part 19

Dumbo is still tearful after seeing his mother and gets the hiccups as a result. Timothy has Dumbo drink water from the tub the clowns knocked a bottle of champagne into and both of them inadvertently get drunk. Timothy challenges Dumbo to blow a square bubble, and before their eyes (it's a joint hallucination), the bubble metamorphoses into an elephant that starts to blow its own elephant bubbles.

The use of alcohol and drunkenness is very cleverly handled. The clowns have spiked the water purely by accident. Dumbo is motivated to drink by the hiccups and the hallucinations that start here and continue in the next sequence are what cause Dumbo to fly for the first time. There has been no suggestion anywhere in the film that Dumbo's ears resemble a bird's wings, so Dumbo has no logical reason to attempt flight. It's only the alcohol-induced nightmare that provokes his actions and the audience doesn't find this out until after the fact.

The innocent and accidental nature of the drinking excuse it for both the family audience and the Hollywood censors. The film gets to use alcohol for humour while keeping the characters untainted by a moral lapse.

John Lounsbery handles the bulk of Dumbo shots and Fred Moore handles the bulk of Timothy. I have no idea what Lounsbery's relationship to alcohol was, but Moore was famous for his love of drink. You can bet that everyone in the studio considered this sequence typecasting.

Both animators have a lot of fun with the characters' tipsiness. Lounsbery gives Dumbo heavily lidded eyes. Moore has Timothy constantly weaving, using S-curves for the character's line of action. Ed Brophy is just wonderful in his voicing for Timothy. I don't think that Brophy gets enough credit for what I think is one of the best vocal performances in all the Disney features.

There are unnumbered shots between 18.2 and 26. The draft lists 19, 20, 21, 21.1, 22 and 23 as "out of picture," but I suspect that some of those shots were put back in.

Shot 18
There's some bad matching of the water with the top of the bucket in shot 18 before Timothy comes into the shot. I assume budget limitations prevented it from being fixed and I have to admit that it bothers me every time I see this sequence.

Then two shots later in 18.2 (above), the top of the tub is dry. This is small stuff and nobody watches Dumbo for details like this, but there's a clear distinction between the production values of this film and the other pre-war features.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Employer Obligations

A short time ago, I linked to a Mark Evanier piece about hitting deadlines. I believe strongly in behaving in a professional manner when working on a project. I also believe strongly that professional conduct goes both ways and that studios have the same obligation to behave as their employees do. In that piece, I mentioned that "the people setting up the schedules or passing judgment on work are often ignorant. They create impossible schedules or ask for changes that will take enormous amounts of time." There are also cases where studios are dishonest with their employees because they have run out of money.

The latest example of this is a studio with the unfortunate name Fake Studios in Montreal. They have yet to pay visual effects artists for their work on Piranha 3D. Variety has the details. The story was also reported and commented on at The Animation Guild's blog. Visual effects artist Scott Squires has posted an excellent list of actions employees should follow to avoid being taken advantage of.

The bottom line is that if a company misses a payday, stop working. The company will use guilt, telling employees that they are disloyal if they don't work, that the company is a big family going through a tough time and that everyone has to pull together. The company may threaten employees with blacklisting if they don't cooperate. However, an employee without a paycheque is an ex-employee no matter how much a company wants to convince people otherwise. It's important for artists to understand this.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Happy 90th Maureen O'Hara

Left to right: John Wayne, Maureen O'Hara and Claude Jarman, Jr. in John Ford's Rio Grande.
Tomorrow, Aug. 17, is Maureen O'Hara's 90th birthday. As she is one of the few surviving members of director John Ford's stock company and the performer he most frequently cast as his female lead, I want to acknowledge the milestone by wishing Ms. O'Hara a happy birthday.

Turner Classic Movies will also be celebrating the day by screening her films for 24 hours. They'll screen three directed by Ford (The Long Gray Line, 9:30 a.m; The Quiet Man, 8 p.m; and Rio Grande, 10:15 p.m; all times Eastern). In addition, they will show The Hunchback of Notre Dame with Charles Laughton (noon), Our Man in Havana with Alec Guiness (directed by Carol Reed, Wednesday at 1:45 a.m.), Big Jake with John Wayne (one of the better movies in Wayne's late career on Wednesday at 4 a.m.), and Disney's The Parent Trap with Brian Keith and Hayley Mills (directed by former animation artist David Swift, screening at 5:45 p.m.) The complete schedule can be found here.

Sunday, August 15, 2010


This will probably be old news to New Yorkers, but I moved out of the city before this was created and never managed to see it on my visits home.

Bill Brand used the principles of a zootrope and the existence of an abandoned subway station (one which trains pass at full speed) to create the above animation. Here are some older news reports on the creation of the work.

Toronto has a subway and there are stretches where this kind of thing could be done. However, I think it would be more interesting to do it outside the elevators of the CN Tower. How great would it be to see animation on clear plastic (cels!) of somebody falling and opening a parachute as you descend back to ground level? Or something totally surreal as people in rocking chairs or rowing boats in the sky, as Dorothy sees out her window during the tornado in The Wizard of Oz?

In any case, my hat is off to Bill Brand for finding this use for animation and for livening up the commute to work.

(link via 37signals.)

Hitting Deadlines

Mark Evanier, who has written for many animated TV series as well as writing for comics, has posted some advice to a comics writer friend of his. An excerpt:
There are also times when they can't [give you extra time]...or when to give you that two weeks means taking it away from your collaborators; i.e., the artist is going to have to draw the comic in three weeks instead of the five he expected to have.

You may also have harmed his income. He expected to have that script next Tuesday. He planned his life and maybe turned down other work so he could start drawing your script then, plus he counted on being paid for it by the time his next mortgage payment is due. But because of you, he has nothing to draw next week and no way to make money on the days he cleared to draw your script...and he may have to turn down the assignment he was going to do after he finished your script because he's now not going to be done with it when he expected to be. Ask anyone who's worked in comics for a few years and they'll gladly unload a tirade of anecdotes about how someone else's lateness screwed up their lives and maybe even prevented them from doing their best work.

The above advice, as I said, is aimed at a writer for the comics market, but it is relevant to animation artists. Company-produced comics and company-produced animation are both pipelines. If you are an artist in working in either, there is somebody ahead of you and somebody following you in the pipeline. If somebody ahead of you is late, you've got less time to do your job; if you're late, somebody after you has less time. No matter what the length of the schedule, it's a standard complaint that you wish you had more time.

Two things flow from hitting deadlines: payment and return business. Companies don't get paid the full price of a job until it delivers and if it delivers late, a late payment can jeopardize a company's existence. A company that delivers late is likely to lose a client. A company that consistently delivers late is a doomed company.

No company will risk its existence on an employee who misses deadlines. Whether a project is a TV series, feature film or videogame, it's likely the budget is in the millions of dollars. No artist is more valuable than the company's existence or reputation, so artists who can't hit deadlines are artists who will spend more time unemployed.

Yes, the people setting up the schedules or passing judgment on work are often ignorant. They create impossible schedules or ask for changes that will take enormous amounts of time. It's the nature of the business and everyone has experienced it. It is better to avoid these projects and people rather than commit to them. Experience helps to read the situation, but things sometimes take a turn for the worse even if the project looked to be well organized at the start.

As Evanier says,

I tell beginning writers, "Never get a reputation for unreliability. You will never lose it," which is an exaggeration but only a slight one. What you need to do now is cultivate the opposite rep and maybe, just maybe, the new one will trump the old one. If not...well, you just may have to look for another career.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Dumbo Part 18

The clowns are still celebrating and decide to raise the platform that Dumbo jumps from. On their way out to ask for a raise, one of them knocks into the table, spilling a bottle of champagne into a bucket of water.

This is a very curious sequence from a graphical standpoint. Like the previous clown sequence played in silhouette, the layouts are credited to Al Zinnen. However, that sequence was animated by Berny Wolf and this one was animated by Art Babbitt. This sequence is quite a bit busier graphically. The characters are not as well defined by the negative spaces around them and their silhouettes are not as strong. The clowns' hair is far more complicated here. There are more clowns on screen, which also clogs up the graphics.

Did Zinnen lay out both sequences or was he supervising two different layout artists? Did Berny Wolf make a conscious decision to streamline the layouts he was given? Did Babbitt add more detail and characters? Personally, I find Wolf's sequence more attractive than Babbitt's. Babbitt's is a bit of overkill.

I also wonder about Babbitt being assigned to this sequence. He's the animator who did the Queen in Snow White, Gepetto in Pinocchio and the mushroom dance in Fantasia. He animated the stork earlier in Dumbo. Why put an animator of Babbitt's caliber on this sequence? Were his union organizing activities affecting the assignments he was given? It may simply be that he needed work and this was what was available, but it's a rather dry assignment.

According to the draft, the sequence opens with the clowns singing. I assume that what the sequence currently starts with was the end of shot 4, with the clowns laughing at their lyrics.

While shot 18 is separate on the draft, there is no cut from shot 17. It's only the addition of Josh Meador animating the bottle and the liquids that justifies giving it a separate shot number.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Dumbo Part 17

This sequence, the song "Baby Mine," is the emotional center of the film. Looking at it by itself, it's surprising how little screen time there is of Dumbo and his mother. Obviously, what's there is very powerful, but this is a case where the film makers felt that less is more. The entire story has built to this moment. The bond between mothers and children is so primal and the injustices suffered by Dumbo and his mother are so appalling, that the audience's emotions are waiting for the release that this sequence provides.

The music has a melancholy quality that tempers the joy of the reunion with an underlying sadness.

A great deal of the power of this sequence comes from touch. All the animals except the ostriches are sleeping while physically touching each other. There is much physical contact between Dumbo and his mother. The rocking, in shots 1.2 and 12, though done with an elephant's trunk instead of human arms, is familiar to everyone in the audience, parent or child. The caressing in shot 1.1 is also familiar. As a species, we need physical contact with our loved ones in order to feel secure.

Here are a series of frames from scene 1.1, animated by Bill Tytla.

In the first five panels above, Tytla shows the pleasure Dumbo feels from the caress. This is a happy reunion. In panel 6, the tears start to flow and after a slight anticipation in panel 7, the grief that Dumbo feels overcomes him. In panels 8-12, he clutches his mother's trunk close to him and buries his head in it, rubbing against it as the accumulated sadness pours out of him. Then, emotionally spent, in panel 14 there is nothing left but the gratitude Dumbo feels for being with her.

This is a bravura piece of animation. The way in which Tytla animates Dumbo losing control contains great emotional truth and, for me, is what elevates this shot to a level few other shots (or animators) can match.

When it is time to leave, their trunks maintain contact for as long as possible. That touch is central to their relationship and once their contact is broken, Dumbo is once again vulnerable in a cruel world.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

3D Fading?

The above charts come from this article which suggests that the novelty of 3D is rapidly diminishing. Clearly, people are choosing to see movies flat, either because they find the glasses uncomfortable or aren't willing to pay a premium for stereoscopic images.

Supply and demand factors into this as well. One of the commenters to the above article suggested that more recent films are not able to find as many 3D screens as there are so many 3D films in the marketplace. It may also be that the increasing supply of 3D is simply overwhelming whatever demand there is.

It will be interesting to watch this trend. Last year's box office gross set a record, but attendance was only average. Price increases made up the difference. If people start avoiding 3D in large numbers, Hollywood will definitely suffer at the box office.

Various Links

John Canemaker has been contributing articles to Print's online version. His latest is "Chuck Jones at the MacDowell Colony," a speech that Canemaker made as the prelude to Chuck Jones receiving the MacDowell Medal. Jones was only the second filmmaker to receive it (the first was experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage).

You may have seen video of Pixar's three dimensional zoetrope. If not, you can see it here. Gregory Barsamian is a sculptor who does something similar, creating sequential sculptures that he then films using strobe lights. Unfortunately, his site does not allow embedding or direct links to specific pages, but you can see his work here.

Hogan's Alley is an eclectic magazine about all forms of cartooning. The 17th issue is out and the articles relating to animation include a career-spanning interview with the late Bill Scott conducted by Jim Korkis. Scott was a writer for Warner Bros, UPA and most especially, Jay Ward. There is also an oral history of Spongebob Squarepants. Hogan's Alley has an absolutely horrible web presence, but you can see some web extras for this issue here. You can subscribe here, or look for the issue at better comics shops. If you're going to subscribe, be aware that the magazine appears just annually.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Two Guys Named Joe

John Canemaker has become one of our leading animation historians for several reasons. As an artist and animator himself, he has an advantage over non-artists such as Bob Thomas or Charles Solomon in understanding the process. As someone immersed in animation history, he is familiar with the field in a way that dabblers like Stefan Kanfer or Neal Gabler never can be. As someone who has personal relationships with many of the people he writes about, he has insights that are not available to authors like Donald Crafton, who write about the remote past.

However, all these qualities are trumped by Canemaker's honesty and, perhaps, his courage. Older books on animation tended to be scrubbed clean of studio politics and personal foibles. They were usually content to present chronologies of events and talk of technical and artistic innovations. Canemaker understands that artists are human and so are not wholly admirable and that studios are often battlegrounds where various aesthetics, ambitions, and alliances clash.

When I read Before the Animation Begins, Canemaker's book on the Disney inspirational sketch artists, I was surprised to be reading about recognizable human behavior in a book published by Disney. I'm sure the studio would have been very happy with something along the lines of what Christopher Finch gave them in The Art of Walt Disney, lots of pretty pictures, a cursory history and humorous anecdotes. Instead, Canemaker portrayed the artists sometimes being frustrated, angry and victimized, with many of them happy to leave the studio when a better opportunity came along. I don't know how much Canemaker had to argue for his approach or if the company had matured enough to accept it, but whatever the case, the book raised the standard for animation history.

Canemaker's subsequent books have taken the same approach and Two Guys Named Joe is no exception. It is a dual biography of story artists Joe Ranft and Joe Grant, each of whom was a major influence. Ranft's biggest contribution was at Pixar, though he also worked on films by Henry Selick and Jerry Rees. Joe Grant had two distinct periods at Disney, the early features and the Eisner era.

Ranft had an uncomfortable childhood as he didn't fit in. He was too large, too active and too mean. Spitting at nuns is hardly standard behavior for a future Disney story artist. At some point, though, Ranft decided to remake himself, joining a self-help organization called Lifespring, where he met his wife Su. The marriage proved to be a stabilizing influence on Ranft, who continued his evolution by working with community outreach programs.

Even so, his time at Disney on projects like The Great Mouse Detective and The Rescuers Down Under was not satisfying and he left Disney voluntarily. From there, he worked on The Nightmare Before Christmas, Toy Story, and James and the Giant Peach before moving into Pixar full-time. At Pixar, besides being a primary contributor to the features, his need to help others led him to create story classes where employees had the opportunity to sharpen their skills. Ranft became a resource that many people at Pixar called on.

Joe Grant was not the humanitarian that Joe Ranft was. If anything, Grant was somewhat arrogant, unafraid to alienate people at the studio in order to push his own agenda. The model department, which he headed, was a studio within a studio and Grant protected the artists and the working conditions within it, leading to envy and anger on the part of those on the outside. Even Grant's own collaborators, like Dick Huemer who co-authored Dumbo with him, fell out with Grant and the two never reconciled.

Unlike many Disney artists, Grant had a successful career before joining the studio. Other artists lived in fear of falling out of Walt Disney's favor, but Grant was willing to take chances knowing that he could survive on the outside. He was good at stimulating Walt Disney with various artistic possibilities, but wasn't afraid to disagree with him. That eventually led to Grant leaving the studio in the late '40s and embarking on a career in ceramics and greeting cards.

It was only chance that brought Grant back to Disney. A Disney executive went to interview Jack Kinney about the story process during Walt Disney's lifetime. Kinney was in poor health, so his wife asked Joe Grant to attend as an extra source of information. The Disney exec was so impressed with Grant that he told the studio about him and Tom Schumacher brought Grant in to view work in progress on The Rescuers Down Under. That led to consulting and in 1991 to full time employment. Grant was 83 at the time. Schumacher found Grant, "hard to integrate into the studio process," acknowledging that Grant's personality had not changed over the years.

This book is illustrated with wonderful artwork. Ranft's story sketches are crystal clear, both compositionally and emotionally. There is no visual confusion about what's happening or what a character is thinking or feeling at that moment in time. If Joe Ranft was influenced by Bill Peet, concerned about revealing character through action, Grant seemed influenced by Albert Hurter. Grant's strength, like Hurter's, was the single drawing that suggested character and business possibilities. Don Hahn said, "I don't think he cared about plot all that much."

John Canemaker has contributed yet another essential volume for everyone interested in the animation medium. Both Ranft and Grant are fascinating personalities with strong artistic points of view. Canemaker interviews many other artists about them and the projects they worked on. Two Guys Named Joe is a satisfying read for anyone interested in the creation of Disney and Pixar films.