Sunday, September 26, 2010

Dumbo Part 23

While there are nice bits of animation in this sequence, this section is really dominated by story and layout. The way in which the audience learns that Dumbo can fly is quite inventive. Rather than see a take-off, the screen is obscured with dust, Timothy is convinced they've failed and then the audience sees Dumbo's shadow on the farmlands below.

This image is one that could only exist in a period when commercial air travel existed or the audience (and the artists) could never have conceived of such a shot.

The other great piece of layout is shot 28, where Dumbo lands on the phone wires. That's another shot that depends on the widespread use of a technology. Will future audiences understand what those wires are when all they know is cell phones? I'm assuming that Don Towsley animated the bending poles. It's a thankless task; what could be more boring? Yet the shot always gets a laugh.

Towsley's Dumbo still has a pinched face, where the features are too low on the head. Walt Kelly gets another couple of crow shots, but I've yet to see evidence, much as I admire him, that Kelly was more than a second string animator. He was right to leave the studio for greener pastures. Ward Kimball and Fred Moore get the personality shots here, but neither does work that's up to the previous sequences. The same is true for Tytla's lone shot. That's due to the story material more than their animation.

Michael Ruocco, a sharp-eyed animation student, found a series of Fred Moore drawings from a deleted scene in this sequence and shot them. Here they are:

It's shot 30, though not the entire shot. You can lip read Timothy saying, "Dumbo! I knew you could do it!" The balance of the dialogue, not in this clip, is, "Now our troubles are over. Ho-ho!" The crows apparently agree to keep Dumbo's secret in this shot (as voice over) and shots 31 and 32. The final shot of the mosaic doesn't exist on the draft, though it is very likely by Ward Kimball.

Friday, September 24, 2010

The Vault of Walt

Here's a Disney book I'm looking forward to reading. I've known Jim Korkis in print for several decades and have always enjoyed his writing and his passion for animation history. He's the co-author (with John Cawley) of several out-of-print books such as How To Create Animation, Cartoon Confidential and The Encyclopedia of Cartoon Superstars. He has contributed numerous articles to Mouse Planet under the pseudonym Wade Sampson, a name taken to avoid any conflict with his former employment at Walt Disney World (and bonus points to you if you know where the name came from).

The book is over 400 pages of articles concerning Walt Disney, his films, and his theme parks. Many are based on Korkis's own conversations with Disney employees over the years in addition to historical research. For instance, I'm interested to read why the FBI opened a file concerning the original Mickey Mouse Club.

Here's a list of the book's contents:

Part One: The Walt Stories

The Miniature Worlds of Walt (Walt’s fascination with making miniatures)
Santa Walt (Walt’s feelings about Christmas and a special family gift)
Horsing Around: Walt and Polo
Walt’s School Daze (Walt’s public school education)
Gospel According to Walt (Walt’s feelings about religion)
Walt and DeMolay
Extra! Extra! Read All About It! (Walt’s adventures as a newspaper boy)
Walt’s Return to Marceline 1956
Walt’s 30th Wedding Anniversary (The very first Disneyland party)

Part Two: The Disney Film Stories

Disney’s Ham Actors: The Three Little Pigs (Including the Rarely Seen Spanish cartoon)
Snow White Christmas Premiere (Description of the event at the Carthay Circle in 1937)
Destino (The true story behind Salvador Dali’s collaboration with Walt Disney)
Song of the South Premiere (Description of the event in Atlanta in 1946)
The Alice in Wonderland That Never Was (The Aldous Huxley script never filmed)
Secret Origin of The Aristocats
So Dear To My Heart (The neglected film that inspired many Disney firsts)
Toby Tyler (How Walt recreated the circus of his youth with authentic props)
Lt. Robin Crusoe U.S.N. (Only film with a story credit for Walt Disney)
Blackbeard’s Ghost (Last live action film made while Walt was alive)

Part Three: The Disney Park Stories

Cinderella’s Golden Carrousel (The complete history of a genuine antique)
Circarama 1955 (The very first 360 degree theater show at Disneyland)
Story of Storybook Land
Liberty Street 1959 (Walt’s planned addition to Disneyland that never was)
Sleeping Beauty Castle Walk Through
Zorro at Disneyland (How Guy Williams and friends entertained in Frontierland)
Tom Sawyer Island
Epcot Fountain (The true meaning behind the popular landmark)
Captain EO (The only complete story in print about Michael Jackson’s 3-D film)
Mickey Mouse Revue (How and why the beloved attraction was created)

Part Four: The Other Worlds of Disney Stories

Khrushchev and Disneyland (Russian leader denied entrance to Disneyland)
A/K/A The Gray Seal (Walt’s favorite pulp mystery hero)
Mickey Mouse Theater of the Air (The unknown radio show from the Thirties)
Golden Oak Ranch (Location where Disney classic live action films were made)
Disney Goes To Macy’s
Tinker Bell Tales (The first Disneyland Tinker Bells and much more)
Mickey Mouse Club: FBI’s Most Wanted (Why Walt got in trouble with J. Edgar Hoover)
Chuck Jones: Four Months at Disney (Pepe Le Pew’s father’s troubles at Disney)
Walt’s Women: Two Forgotten Influences (Walt’s Housekeeper and Studio nurse)

The Disney History blog has posted an interview with Korkis about the book, which is currently available from Create Space and will be available from Amazon in early October.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Dumbo Part 22

Except for two shots, one by Walt Kelly and the other by Don Towsley, Ward Kimball and Fred Moore dominate this sequence. Kimball does the entire song, "When I See an Elephant Fly" (except for Kelly's shot 22), including shots of Timothy. Then Moore takes Timothy over for his heartfelt recitation of Dumbo's troubles. Once again, the film is powered by contrast, this time moving from the upbeat song to the plea for understanding.

Was Kimball ever better than this and his work in Pinocchio? The music here allows him to be as broad as he wants to be while the crows' reaction to a flying elephant is perfectly reasonable. As much as I love Kimball's work, there are times I feel his broadness pulls me out of a film. His work here and in Pinocchio has an emotional grounding that keeps him functioning as part of the story.

All of Kimball's strengths are on display here: brilliant posing, fantastic accents and eccentric movements. The bottom half of the crow with glasses in shot 12 is just astounding in the way it moves. I can't figure out how Kimball planned it. Maybe he animated it straight ahead knowing where the beats were, but there's no obvious logic to it and yet it works. The shots that follow it with the two tall crows dancing are approached more conventionally, but Kimball's posing and timing make them stand out, the same as shots 19 and 20 animated to Cliff Edwards' scat singing.

If Kimball quit the business after animating this song, we'd still consider him a genius animator.

I've already written about how Kimball doesn't care which voice comes out of which crow and also pointed out that the two crows switch positions in shot 14. I've found yet another cheat. In shots 25 and 29, Jim Crow is painted different colours, so there's a sixth crow in the sequence. This might be because the film cuts from shot 29, with all the crows on the ground, to shot 30 with Jim Crow standing elsewhere. Perhaps the wrong colours were used to avoid the appearance of a jump cut.

Moore's animation does an excellent job with Ed Brophy's voice track. His trademark rhythmic line is present in his poses and his accents, such as kicking and grabbing the hat in shot 46, are dead on. Moore captures Timothy's anguish and emotional exhaustion well, making the crows' eventual response believable. Timothy's speech provokes tears, embarrassed looks and in shot 41, a cringe when Timothy describes how they made Dumbo a clown.

I've always felt that cringe was very daring. It rips away the pretense that the crows are genuinely happy, revealing their awareness of their own social position. It's that line of dialogue and the reaction to it that convert the crows to Dumbo's allies. They know what Dumbo's experienced, even if they're not showing it. Having the crows take Dumbo's side implicitly acknowledges that they are equally victims of injustice, a rather audacious racial attitude for a 1940 Hollywood film.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Dumbo Part 21A

This is a continued discussion of the "Up in the Tree" sequence. The first part dealt with racial issues surrounding the crow characters. This part will look at the animation. I'm reprinting the mosaic below so that you don't have to scroll down several articles to see the shots.

The two animators whose work is important in this sequence are Ward Kimball and Don Towsley. Kimball is a master of certain things. His poses are very strong; they have a strong line of action and good negative shapes. They are also very rhythmic, with long sweeping curves that tie a character's body parts together into a unified whole. He also understands stretch and squash, changing the character's body shape to make the pose more pleasing or to communicate more effectively. As a result, the poses read very clearly.

The pose above is typical of Kimball's work. Note the negative spaces that separate the legs, arms and cigar from the rest of the body. This pose has a clear silhouette. The line that runs down the back ends at the character's right foot and the line that runs down the chest ends at the character's left toes. That line also forks and continues to the sweep of the tail. Note that the angle of the arms and the tail are parallel and that each arm is defined by continuous curved lines, broken only by scalloping to give the impression of feathers.

Kimball is also a master of contrasting timing. This was standard at the Disney studio at the time, though Kimball's background as a jazz musician may have made him more sensitive to this than most. If you watch this sequence with the sound turned off, you can clearly see how Kimball accents his animation by placing fast actions against slow ones. This is accomplished by the spacing between drawings. The wider the spacing between drawings, the faster the character will appear to move.

There's a sequence in the Disney Family Album on Kimball, where he flips key drawings drawings of Jiminy Cricket. (If you go to the link, the relevant portion is at 2:42.) Those drawings are an entire course in animation by themselves. Everything an animator has to know is in those drawings and by 1940, those qualities were as natural to Kimball as breathing.

Don DaGradi did a good job of laying out the crowd shots of the crows. However, Kimball knew how to animate them so that the audience knows where to look. This is another tough skill to master, as with 5 characters on the screen, an animator who doesn't understand staging will produce a mess of unfocused movement.

What's here is typically strong Kimball animation, but the next sequence is where Kimball really shines.

I first watched this sequence single frame on Super 8mm film. During the heyday of the home movie market, Disney released seven minute long sequences from their features in colour and sound. The last few shots of Timothy really made an impression on me due to their strong poses. At the time, I assumed that the work was by Fred Moore, though now I know it was Don Towsley, a lesser-known animator who did some excellent work at Disney.

The one negative against Towsley in this sequence is his treatment of Dumbo's face. He pushes the facial features too low on the head, giving them a pinched look.

However, his animation of Timothy is great. In those final shots, Timothy is bursting with enthusiasm for his vision of the future. Towsley puts in a lot of broad poses that are very different from each other, though each one is impeccable. As Timothy moves between the poses, the rapidity of his movements perfectly communicates his excitement at discovering the truth that will finally redeem Dumbo.

In addition to what I've already mentioned, take a close look at panels 5-12. The motion is very sophisticated in that Towsley is not having all the body parts move at once. In panels 5-9, the arms are leading the body. In panel 10, the body leads and the arm hangs back before snapping forward in panel 11 and the motion resolving itself in panel 12.

Look at how broad those poses and shape changes are. Look how appealing the drawings are. You can't tell the timing from the stills, but there's some very fast accents in that animation. Towsley really knew what he was doing.

Monday, September 06, 2010

The Provenance of a Painting

(Updated at the bottom.)

(Click to enlarge)

Leon Schlesinger was the producer and owner of the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies that were released through Warner Bros. While his studio had cartoon stars like Porky Pig and Daffy Duck, Bugs Bunny surpassed both of them to become a major hit with audiences. As a result, Schlesinger had this painting made and hung in his office.

The artist is unknown, though it is likely John Didrik Johnsen, the background painter who worked in the Tex Avery unit.

Schlesinger sold out to Warner Bros. in the mid 1940s and his office contents were put out with the trash. Story man Michael Maltese was driving home and saw this painting in the garbage and took it. He kept it for the rest of his life.

Greg Duffell started at the Richard Williams studio when he was 17 years old. He was intensely interested in animation and just as intensely interested in its history. Duffell was lucky to be at the Williams studio when Williams hired veteran animators Ken Harris, Grim Natwick and Art Babbitt to work and to educate the staff.

When Duffell visited Maltese in California in the 1970s, he saw the painting in his home. Maltese passed away several years later, and his family put the painting up for auction. Duffell won the bid.

Last Saturday, I visited Greg with Thad Komorowski and Bob Jaques. We spent a pleasant afternoon talking about animation and towards the end, Greg hauled out some of the vintage animation art he's acquired over the years. When I was about to leave, Greg asked me to stay for just another few minutes while he showed one more item. He brought out the painting pictured above.

I've seen a lot of animation art but this piece had a different effect on me. Maybe because it was painted, maybe because of its size, but I think it goes deeper. I've been to museums and seen paintings by masters and while I can admire their beauty and craft, I don't have the same emotional connection to the work. Maybe it's nostalgia for my childhood or a wish to have been part of the business during the time the painting was created, but the painting was akin to a religious relic. It is an artifact from a vanished golden age, evidence of what animation once was and no longer is.

Update: Michael Barrier has printed a photo of Michael Maltese with the painting and supplied more information about the creation of the painting and how it came into Maltese's possession.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Summer Box Office

The New York Times reports that while box office revenue went up 2% this summer compared to last, attendance was actually the lowest since 1997. It's only higher ticket prices, specifically for 3D films, that's driven the increased revenue.
The worry, as seen in poor results for recent 3-D releases like Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore, is that theater chains and studios have overreached on pricing. “We suspect some consumers are choosing 2-D movies solely to reduce the cost of their moviegoing experience,” wrote Richard Greenfield, an analyst at the financial services company BTIG, in an Aug. 23 research note.
The top grossing film for the summer of 2010 was Toy Story 3, which took in $405 million at the North American box office and grossed more than a billion dollars world-wide.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Dumbo Part 21

And so we come to the crows. Any controversy attached to this film has revolved around the crows. Some see them as a racist portrayal, others not. This blog is not going to settle the question, but I do want to look at some of the historical context. The crows, as black characters, are treated in significantly different ways than black performers in other Hollywood films of the time.

The portrayal of blacks in film breaks down into three categories: white people in blackface, black performers who created a reputation outside of film and black performers whose careers were built on film.

Blackface, where white people would apply burnt cork to their faces and hands, is a mode of performance that dates to 19th century minstrel shows. White actors would perform songs, dances and jokes while impersonating the white perception of black people. That tradition survived into the 20th century in theatre and film with performers like Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor and, on occasion, performers like Buster Keaton, Laurel & Hardy, and Judy Garland. One of the most popular radio shows of the 1920s and '30s was Amos and Andy, focusing on a black community but voiced by white performers.

Black performers who achieved a reputation outside of film worked mostly in music. Louis Armstrong (this clip includes Martha Raye in blackface), Duke Ellington, Josephine Baker, Fats Waller, Bill Robinson, and Lena Horne appeared in films with their stage or musical personalities intact. They were brought into films to cash in on their existing reputations, usually performing on film what they performed in other media.

Black performers who worked predominantly in film were usually relegated to characters with menial jobs. Porters, butlers, maids, cooks and occasionally loyal sidekicks of the white hero. Performers like Clarence Muse, Ernest Whitman, Louise Beavers, Hattie McDaniel, Butterfly McQueen and Dooley Wilson fit this mold. Three other performers, Mantan Moreland, Willie Best and Lincoln Perry (whose stage name was Stepin Fetchit) had the same type of roles but were there to be comic relief. They played up the white stereotypes of black people; they were buffoonish, lazy and easily frightened. Black actors might get throwaway bon mots to deflate a villain or some other pompous character, but they never directly confronted a white person.

In Dumbo, the voice of the lead crow, named Jim Crow in the studio draft, is Cliff Edwards, a white performer who was previously the voice of Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio and who had a successful career on Broadway, in vaudeville and in early talking pictures starting from the mid 1920s. The other crows were voiced by black performers from the Hall Johnson Choir, a singing group which performed black spirituals that was formed in 1925.

The crows are unquestionably meant to be the animal equivalent of black characters. Their speech patterns and eccentric wardrobes play to familiar stereotypes. However, their behaviour is something out of the ordinary. Jim Crow talks to Timothy and takes liberties (like blowing cigar smoke in his face) that would never be tolerated in a live action picture of the time. Jim Crow's whole attitude is one of superiority to the other crows and to Timothy as well. Referring to Timothy as "Brother Rat" is frankly a dig. This is one crow who doesn't know his place as defined by Hollywood in 1940. The other crows laugh at Timothy and Dumbo when they get dunked in the puddle, a demonstration of ridicule that also wasn't the norm for the time.

So while certain stereotypes are present, others are broken. However, this sequence is complicated further by the fact that Jim Crow is really white. Does that make his attitude more acceptable? Did the audience immediately know that it was Cliff Edwards? There are no voice credits on the film, though publicity photos exist of Edwards with Ward Kimball. It's not possible to know how audiences of the time interpreted the racial politics of this sequence, if they bothered at all. While it's not immediately apparent, Edwards' performance is a form of blackface.

And while there is information available about Hall Johnson himself, I've yet to find any information that named a single member of his choir other than himself. The performers who voiced the background crows are anonymous. While the choir appeared in live action films like Zenobia (with Oliver Hardy) and Tales of Manhattan, the performances that I've seen have emphasized the group, not singling out any of the singers.

How did the black back-up singers in Dumbo feel about the sequence? Did they see it as subversive? Did they resent being portrayed as crows and talking with those accents? Were they proud to tell their children and grandchildren about their participation in the film? If that information has survived, I'm not aware of it and it's a loss to our understanding of the making of the film.

There's more to say about the crows and how they function within the story, but it will have to wait for the next few sequences. I haven't even touched on the animation in this sequence, but as this has already gone on at some length, I'll do another entry on this sequence. You may be surprised to learn that my favorite animation here is by Don Towsley, not Kimball.