Friday, December 30, 2011

New Year's Greetings

Kaj Pindal is the lucky owner of this New Year's greeting from animation legend Norman McLaren. There's much more than the above photo shows, and you can see it all by clicking here.

Monday, December 26, 2011

The Artist, Perception and Animation

Can this film tell us something about animation?

I recently saw The Artist, the new silent film that has been picking up awards at festivals and is in the running for the major awards this season. It's clear that the film's creators have a genuine fondness for silent Hollywood cinema and I found it to be a very enjoyable experience. I recommend it.

The film is silent, black and white and with a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, taking on all the trappings of films of the silent era. It occurred to me, though, that at this point in time, it's all an affectation.

Silent black and white films existed due to technological obstacles. Early sound and colour systems were unreliable, producing results that clearly failed to meet the audience's standard. Without sound and colour, films compensated with the use of orchestral scores in the larger cities, increasingly sophisticated photography and a style of directing, acting and editing that communicated characters' thoughts clearly to international audiences. Silent film makers like Griffith, Murnau, Lubitsch Vidor, Ford, Borzage, Chaplin, Keaton, etc. made films that can still move audiences (when given the chance) even though audiences are no longer accustomed to the limitations of silent films. The Artist certainly proves that silent film can still be a potent experience.

But it is now an artificial experience. A silent film of the 1920s was as advanced as the technology would allow. The Artist is a conscious decision to go backwards in both time and technology. In its way, it depends as much on novelty as Avatar did with its use of 3D. However, I would be surprised if The Artist was the first of a new wave of silent features.

Audiences embraced sound and colour because it brought film closer to their own perception of the world. Sound became omnipresent in film by 1930. Colour, due to cost, took considerably longer. Black and white films were still being made into the 1960s, some even in Cinemascope.

(What I think sounded the death knell for black and white film was color TV. So long as people were watching black and white at home, they would accept it in films. Once color TV was widespread, a black and white film somehow seemed cheap. And truthfully, the majority of black and white films in the 1960s lacked color due to budget restrictions.)

The Artist got me thinking about the transition from drawn to computer animated features. Perhaps our view was influenced by the weak drawn features that were competing against better computer animated films. Certainly, that's the line that many in the industry and fans took, blaming the films rather than the medium.

While the quality of the films was an undeniable issue, perhaps it hid something larger. Perhaps our own biases in favour of drawing prevented us from seeing things from the audience's point of view. Throughout the 1930s, there was a strong movement to bring animation closer to the audience's perception of the real world. Animation embraced sound and colour early. There were also experiments of various kinds to give animation a greater illusion of depth. In Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Disney was attempting to give a greater impression of depth both with cel painting techniques and the multiplane camera. It was cost that forced him to back away from these techniques and so that in the '60s you have films like 101 Dalmatians, where the linear quality of the animation drawings is extended to the backgrounds and there is no attempt at spatial depth through the use of the camera.

When computer animation came along, it increased the image's verisimilitude to how the audience perceived the world. Light striking the characters provided a more accurate feeling of solidity and shadow. The computer allowed for a greater use of texture and, unlike drawn animation, allowed that texture to move with the characters. The virtual space had depth and perspective similar to the world the audience lived in and the camera had the freedom to move through it. Computer animation succeeded the same way Disney did in Snow White in making the image closer to the audience's experience.

At this point in time, drawn animated features may be seen as a throwback, much as The Artist is, as they deprive the audience of some of their perceptual experience of the world. Of course, just as silent films had qualities that are emotionally powerful, so, too, do drawn features. Much was lost with the death of silent and of black and white films, but those things were developed to compensate for shortcomings. Similarly, much is being lost with the death of drawn animated features, but again, many of these things were developed as a means of compensation.

Furthermore, live action directors who started in silent film (Ford and Hitchcock as an example) continued to use silent film techniques in their sound films. Both directors have long passages driven purely by the visual. Similarly, animation directors such as John Lasseter and Brad Bird have brought drawn animation techniques into computer animation, such as animated acting techniques and the ability to design the on-screen world from scratch.

Every artist knows that limitations are often a blessing, forcing solutions that are more creative than would otherwise be arrived at. But as movies are a mass medium, depending on a world-wide audience in order generate a profit, the artistic love of drawing and understanding of limitations is up against the audience's preference for a world on screen that matches its real world perceptions. It isn't a question of one group being right and the other being wrong. It is simply a question of competing preferences, and as the audience is footing the bill, it wins.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

No Editorial Comment Intended

I keep an eye on politics, even though I've kept this blog free of it. However, today I saw this image of Ron Paul at

Film history buff that I am, I immediately thought of this image from the 1910 version of Frankenstein produced by the Edison company.

As I said, no editorial comment on Ron Paul intended, but the pose similarity is too strong not to note.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Why No Animated Feature Award?

Howard Fine of the New York Film Critics Circle writes about why the group declined to give an award this year for the best animated feature.

"To me, the key word in that award title is "feature." It's not an award strictly for animation -- it's for the whole movie, which happens to be animated. And I'm hard-pressed to think of an animated film this year that could make that claim, among the 18 recently announced as the animated titles that qualified for this year's Oscar.

"Because it's not about the animation -- it's about what's being animated. If the script is dumb or flat or just plain not funny (and, like it or not, the vast majority of animated films are comedies aimed at children), I don't care how spectacular it is visually -- it's not cutting it."

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Oscar Race

I'm interested in this year's Oscar race for Best Animated Feature because my perception, right or wrong, is that it was a weak year.

The various film critic organizations have begun to weigh in on their bests of the year, and Rango seems to be off to an early lead. The Boston, L.A. and S.F. critics have picked it as the best animated feature. The N.Y. film critics chose Tintin, though Richard Corliss of Time also picked Rango for his 10 best list.

It's interesting that with critics from three major cities accounted for, there isn't a Pixar or DreamWorks film mentioned.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Brad Bird and Ignorance

No, I'm not implying that Bird is ignorant. But a great many of the reporters who interview him about Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, which Bird directed, definitely are. Here's an article in the N.Y. Times about Bird and it contains this paragraph:
"Plenty of live-action directors have successfully taken on animated movies, including Gore Verbinski (“Rango”) and Tim Burton (“Corpse Bride”). But the flow almost never goes in reverse — if you can name a successful example you have movie historians beat — making Mr. Bird’s chance at bat a fascinating one for Hollywood to watch. A similar attempt will come in March, when Andrew Stanton, the director of Pixar’s “Finding Nemo” and “Wall-E,” unveils his live-action space saga, “John Carter.”"
So the writer has no knowledge of film or animation history. He doesn't know that Tim Burton's first job was as a Disney artist. He has no knowledge of Walt Disney(!), let alone Frank Tashlin, Gregory La Cava or George Pal. And he's unaware of Rob Minkoff or Frederick Du Chau.

I don't have exact numbers, but I think that more animation film makers have moved to live action than the reverse.

It's going to be painful reading this swill in the coming weeks.

UPDATE: A writer in the Philippines knows more about animation directors crossing over into live action than the N.Y. Times.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

NFB Hothouse 8 Now Open for Submissions

The National Film Board of Canada holds an annual hothouse, where emerging Canadian animators are offered a 12 week internship at their facility in Montreal. The next hothouse will take place from March 5 to May 25, 2012 and submissions on the theme of sheep dreams must be in by January 24.

The complete details are here. By following links on the left, you can see the films that have been created during previous hothouse sessions.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Hank Ketcham Animation

This is something I've been meaning to do for a long time.

The 1976 paperback collection, Dennis the Menace: Short Swinger, contains a flipbook that appears to be done by Hank Ketcham. The registration, however, is horrible. I bought a cheap copy of the book on Ebay and pulled it apart, registered it to the best of my ability and then shot it. The character is less than an inch and a half high and the pulp paper was surprisingly hard to see through on my lightbox, so the registration still leaves something to be desired.

Here it is exactly as it is in the book, on 2's.

Here it is with my retiming to make it read better:

Ketcham got his start in the animation business, working for Walter Lantz and then Disney before he enlisted in the navy during World War II. After the war, he concentrated on magazine cartooning before selling Dennis the Menace to newspapers.

After the war, Ketcham really blossomed as a designer. His style, using a pen, was expressive and elegant. With Dennis, he handled the daily panel while handing off the Sunday strip and the comic books to assistants such as Owen Fitzgerald, Al Wiseman and Lee Holley, terrific cartoonists all. Ketcham's influence is still felt in Jaime Hernandez's work.

The animation above shows that Ketcham remembered the basics, but there are weak spots. The stitching on the ball doesn't rotate when it rolls farther from Dennis. I focused on registering Dennis and discovered that the position of the ball isn't controlled well. The timing works for a flipbook, but it needed more room than the 63 images in the book for the timing to work on screen.

I wonder what motivated Ketcham to try animation again? Was it an attempt to help sell a Dennis animated series? Was he influenced by Walt Kelly, who animated a short for Pogo? Or was it just a lark? In any case, I hope that the video versions of the flipbook show off the animation better than the print version.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Studio Ghibli Retrospective

UPDATE: Here's a link to the schedule at the IFC Center.

A major Studio Ghibli retrospective will soon be starting at IFC in New York City and will travel to Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington D.C, Toronto, Boston, San Francisco, Seattle and other cities in 2012. The films will be projected in 35mm. Here's a list of what will show and the dates for IFC:


Director (Producer)
Versions Year RT

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind
Hayao Miyazaki (Isao Takahata)
Subtitled and dubbed (Uma Thurman, Shia LeBouf, Edward James Olmos, Mark Hamill) 1984 116 min

Castle in the Sky
Hayao Miyazaki (Isao Takahata)
Subtitled only 1986 126 min

My Neighbor Totoro
Hayao Miyazaki (Toru Hara)
Subtitled and dubbed (Dakota Fanning, Elle Fanning, Tim Daly, Frank Welker) 1988 86 min

Kiki’s Delivery Service
Hayao Miyazaki (Hayao Miyazaki)
Subtitled and dubbed (Kirsten Dunst, Phil Hartman, Janeane Garofalo, Debbie Reynolds) 1989 102 min

Only Yesterday
Isao Takahata (Toshio Suzuki)
Subtitled only 1991 118 min

The Ocean Waves
Tomomi Mochizuki (Nozomu Takahashi)
Subtitled only, digital only 1993 72 min

Porco Rosso
Hayao Miyazaki (Toshio Suzuki)
Subtitled and dubbed (Michael Keaton, Cary Elwes, Brad Garrett, David Ogden Stiers) 1992 94 min

Pom Poko
Isao Takahata (Toshio Suzuki)
Subtitled and dubbed (J.K. Simmons, Brian Posehn, Tress MacNeille, John DiMaggio) 1994 119 min

Whisper of the Heart
Yoshifumi Kondo (Toshio Suzuki)
Subtitled and dubbed (Ashley Tisdale, Cary Elwes, Harold Gould, Brittany Snow) 1995 111 min

Princess Mononoke
Hayao Miyazaki (Toshio Suzuki)
Subtitled and dubbed (Billy Crudup, Claire Danes, Gillian Anderson, Minnie Driver, Billy Bob Thornton, Jada Pinkett Smith, John DiMaggio) 1997 134 min

My Neighbors the Yamadas
Isao Takahata (Toshio Suzuki)
Subtitled and dubbed (James Belushi, Molly Shannon, Tress MacNeille) 1999 111 min

Spirited Away
Hayao Miyazaki (Toshio Suzuki)
Subtitled and dubbed (Daveigh Chase, Jason Marsden, Michael Chiklis, Susan Egan) 2001 125 min

The Cat Returns
Hiroyuki Morita (Toshio Suzuki)
Subtitled and dubbed (Anne Hathaway, Cary Elwes, Peter Boyle, Elliott Gould, Tim Curry, Andy Richter, Kristen Bell, Avril Lavigne) 2002 75 min

Howl’s Moving Castle
Hayao Miyazaki (Toshio Suzuki)
Dubbed (Christian Bale, Lauren Bacall, Billy Crystal) 2004 119 min

Hiroyuki Morita (Toshio Suzuki)
Dubbed (Cate Blanchett, Matt Damon, Liam Neeson, Tina Fey) 2008 101 min

For more details, go here.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Mini History Lesson

Profiles in History is having an auction entitled Icons of Animation on December 17. While the majority of items are out of my price range (maybe all of them actually), you can download a catalog of the auction for free.

Even if you're not in the market to buy, the catalog is a mini history lesson by itself. It contains art from Disney, MGM, Warner Bros, Fleischer and Hanna Barbera. There is work by Bill Tytla, Fred Moore, Carl Barks, Bob Clampett, Virgil Ross, Irv Wyner, Mary Blair, Preston Blair, Gustav Tenggren, Charles Schulz, etc. There are worse ways to spend time than by paging through the download and admiring so much beautiful stuff.

(link via Disney History)

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Genius That Was Pocoyo

If you've ever worked on a TV series, you know the limitations. The budgets are tight and the schedules are short. There is always the danger of attempting something too ambitious for TV or letting the limitations restrict everyone's creativity. Either way, the end result is mediocrity.

Usually, the first casualty of TV schedules and budgets is the animation itself. Whether it is subcontracted to a low wage studio or not, it still takes a lot of time to get done. Shows often throw the animation overboard, relying instead on the scripts, the audio tracks and the designs to keep the audience entertained.

Occasionally, though, somebody decides otherwise. Pocoyo is a pre-school cgi show made in Spain. The creators, Guillermo García Carsí, Luis Gallego and David Cantolla, made conscious design choices that free them up to move the characters. What are they?
  • No backgrounds
  • Little to no dialogue
  • A limited number of characters
Most TV series will have the characters go into new environments at least occasionally. That requires design and in cgi also requires modelling, texturing and lighting. By eliminating backgrounds all together, there's a significant time and money saving.

Many pre-school shows just use a narrator. It makes it easier to create versions of the show in different languages in that there is only a narration track to replace and it can be done with only one performer, not a cast. The lack of dialogue also forces the animators to communicate visually.

By limiting the number of characters, once the design, modeling and rigging of the characters is done, that's it for the series. No new neighbors, visitors, villains, etc.

As the design, modeling, rigging and texturing jobs are limited in scope, the money normally spent on them can be put into performance. The Pocoyo characters move in distinct ways. Their rigging is excellent, resulting in playful shape changes and funny movements.

In addition to these creative choices, the show has something that's hard to write into a budget or schedule: charm. It's just fun to watch. There are pre-school shows I find deathly boring or puerile. Pocoyo is a show that doesn't need apologies. It works for pre-schoolers, for their parents and certainly for animators.

Two other things are worth mentioning. Where many North American shows now default to 11 minute episodes, Pocoyo is roughly 7 minutes per episode. That gives the show a snappy pace where other shows feel padded to fill their running times. The other thing is that for years, the conventional wisdom was that holds don't work in cgi. Pocoyo proves they do. It's not the cgi that makes holds feel dead, it's the designs and style of movement. Pocoyo's designs are cartoony enough and the movement stylized enough that holds work. That's another money-saver, too.

The first season is the best. Unfortunately, when it came time to do another season, somebody decided to "improve" the series. While Pocoyo is a perfect example of "less is more," somebody decided that less wasn't enough. Characters were added and so were environments. Instead of Pocoyo and friends living in limbo, they now visited cliché environments like the sea bottom and outer space, making it just another pre-school show.

While the original vision lasted, however, Pocoyo showed that there are artistic choices that can overcome TV's budgets and schedules. As TV budgets continue to shrink, animation doesn't have to be sacrificed unless the producers want it to be.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Bil Keane R.I.P

Bil Keane, cartoonist of the comic strip The Family Circus and the father of Disney animator Glen Keane, passed away on Tuesday at the age of 89. Details here.

Monday, November 07, 2011

A Discussion of the Kirby Copyright Decision

I'm sure some of you have your eyes glaze over every time I bring up Jack Kirby or copyright. However, I keep mentioning it as intellectual property, more than factories or natural resources, has become one of the most valuable assets in the world today.

The decision against the Kirby estate in its attempt to recover copyrights on many of the Marvel characters is a warning to anyone who creates for a living.

At the Center for Cartoon Studies, a graduate school program in comics located in Vermont, Stephen R. Bissette, cartoonist, publisher and creator rights advocate, discussed the Kirby decision with lawyer Oliver Goodenough, a professor at the Vermont Law School. The audio runs an hour and covers issues like nepotism, work-for-hire, risk, ethics and the history of employer-employee relations in the comic book field. I recommend it highly.

Maybe Not So Weak?

I haven't seen this film, but Movie Morlocks, the official blog of Turner Classic Movies, has a review and stills from the French animated feature A Cat in Paris. It looks like a film I'd like to see, though I have no idea if it will get a North American release outside of Los Angeles. In any case, I will keep an eye out for it.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

A Weak Year for Animation?

The following 18 films have been submitted to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in the category of Best Animated Feature. With 18 submissions, there can be five nominees.

The Adventures of Tintin
Alois Nebel

Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked
Arthur Christmas
Cars 2
A Cat in Paris
Chico & Rita
Gnomeo & Juliet
Happy Feet Two
Hoodwinked Too! Hood vs. Evil
Kung Fu Panda 2
Mars Needs Moms
Puss in Boots
The Smurfs
Winnie the Pooh

I have to admit to not having seen many of these films and some of them have not yet been released. Many of them are sequels or spin-offs. At least three contain motion capture (Tintin, Happy Feet 2 and Mars Needs Moms). And none have a strong buzz, at least so far as I've heard.

While it is great that this many animated features are being made, both from an employment and audience standpoint, it's disheartening that this year's Oscar winner will likely be something that won't stand the test of time.

My guess for the five nominations are: Cars 2, Tintin, Rango, Rio and Winnie the Pooh. The latter will be there only to maintain some visibility for hand drawn animation. The eventual winner will depend a lot on the critical and box office reception of Tintin. Should that film be a hit, I expect it to win, regardless of the fact that I think it's completely wrong-headed. If it doesn't have a strong showing, I would guess the winner will be either Cars 2 or Rango.

The nominations will be announced on January 24.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Upcoming Toronto Events

On November 4 at the NFB (150 John Street), the Toronto Student Animation Festival will screen. The doors open at 6:00 and the screening runs from 6:30 to 8:30. Admission is $10. John Bissylas, a local high school teacher, created a festival several years ago to showcase the animation of high school students. This screening, however, will feature work from older students from around the world.

On November 10, there will be an industry event to raise funds and awareness for the Toronto Animated Arts Festival International. It's an animation festival that will take place next June at the Bell Lightbox downtown. Admission to the fundraiser is $15 in advance and $20 at the door and the event takes place at the Vogue Supperclub, 42 Mowat Avenue in Liberty Village.

You Can't Go Home Again

Børge Ring called the above to my attention. It's a 2005 Tom and Jerry, co-directed by Joe Barbera. In some ways, it does a remarkably good job of duplicating the look and feel of the Hanna-Barbera Tom and Jerry cartoons of the 1940s and '50s. However, in other ways, it doesn't, and surrounded by those things that work, the lapses stand out even more.

Børge pointed out that Bill Hanna's timing just isn't there and that this cartoon inadvertently shows the importance of Hanna's contribution. He's right. For instance, the gag at 3:05 where Tom hurtles into the garbage truck is timed too slowly. Hanna never would have had the extended pause between Tom landing and the jaws closing. Furthermore, the jaws would have closed faster. That wouldn't have been true to life, but it would have been funnier.

Like the opening titles, a collision of Warner Bros. and MGM fonts, some of the character poses look to be from Warner Bros. rather than MGM. Jerry's look to the audience at 2:36 smacks of Chuck Jones. Jerry's pose at 1:36 has the look of a Robert McKimson cartoon. Tom's look to the camera at 3:26, with his eyes merging, is also more reminiscent of Warners.

The music can't compare to the exuberance of Scott Bradley's scores.

There are good things here. The characters stay on model. The animators have captured the way Tom scrambles off screen, including the subtle stretch in his mid-section, and have also captured the way Hanna and Barbera had characters shooting and rebounding into holds. As I said above, because so much of this is right, what's wrong stand out and that is why you can't go home again.

Revivals work in the theatre because the originals only exist in memory. There is no expectation that a revival will duplicate the look and feel of the original because the original is not there for comparison. In film and TV, though, the originals are not only there, they are often front and center, showing right next to attempts at a revival. The comparisons are inescapable.

Creative works are not only the product of people, they're also the products of a time and place. As the world keeps changing, it is impossible to recreate something from the past. While artists often wish to duplicate what they love, they can only approximate it. Paradoxically, the closer they get to it, the more they've succeeded in doing nothing more than an good imitation. And since the originals are everywhere to begin with, is an imitation necessary?

From a corporate standpoint, it's another cartoon to add to the library. From an artistic standpoint, it's a dead end. What could this budget and these creators, including 94 year old Joe Barbera, have come up with if they tried something new?

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Chuck Jones' Comic Strip

Comic Book Resources has an interview with Dean Mullaney and Kurtis Findlay, who have edited Chuck Jones: The Dream that Never Was, a collection of the comic strip Crawford that Jones did in the late 1970s. The book will be available in December.

I remember reading the strip and clipped a few of them before I lost interest. One of the ironies of Jones' career is that he received more attention and opportunity when his work was in decline than he did when he was at his peak. Crawford suffers from the cuteness that infected much of his post-Warner Bros. work and the coarsening of his drawing that also occurred then.

I will definitely look this book over when it is published for the opportunity to see unpublished work and to compare my current impression with my memories of the strip, but I don't believe that Crawford is a hidden treasure that will add anything to Jones' reputation. This is not Peanuts or Calvin and Hobbes. If it was, the strip never would have been cancelled and would be better known today.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Another Loomis Reprint

The second volume of the reprinting Andew Loomis's art instruction books is now available. I've seen copies in stores, though Amazon won't release it until Oct. 25.

Loomis was a commercial illustrator in the days when mass circulation magazines were full of painted illustrations accompanying fiction. He also authored a series of art instruction books that are still much sought after, even 6 decades after first being published. The books were out of print for years and copies commanded over $100 apiece on used book sites. Titan Books (who are also publishing The Simon and Kirby Library; the next volume is of their crime comics and due out momentarily) have undertaken to reprint Loomis. This volume follows Figure Drawing for All It's Worth. While art styles have changed since Loomis's day, the fundamentals don't change. Anyone interested in learning to draw will benefit from Loomis's books.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Those Animated Lectures

By now, I assume everybody has experienced at least one of the lectures illustrated/animated by cartoon drawings on a whiteboard. They are done by Andrew Park, a British artist who listens to each audio entry 50 times before completing his art.

Here's an article on Park, detailing his approach to making these pieces.

Screen Captures

From Galloping Gaucho

From Peter Pan features thousands of screen captures from shorts, features, and made for DVD films. It also includes work from Pixar and Dreamworks.

I don't know if there's any rhyme or reason for the particular captures. It doesn't appear that they were selected by an animator. For all I know, the captures were done by an automated process. In any case, if you're looking for a handy visual reference from any of the films they've covered, it may be quicker than hauling out the DVD.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Walt's People Volume 11

You would think that by volume 11 of Walt's People, a series of books composed of interviews with people who worked with and for Walt Disney, that editor Didier Ghez would be down to interviewing the grandson of the janitor who emptied the wastebasket of Milt Kahl's inbetweener. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Editor Ghez continues to come up with interviews of historical importance filled with fascinating anecdotes and production details.

The contents of volume 11 are:

Foreword: John Canemaker
Didier Ghez: Ruthie Tompson
Christopher Finch & Linda Rosenkrantz: Walt Pfeiffer
John Culhane: Shirley Temple
John Culhane: I. Klein
Peter Hansen: Basil Reynolds
Christopher Finch & Linda Rosenkrantz: Eric Larson
John Culhane: John Hubley
Robin Allan: Jules Engel
Darrell Van Citters: Ed Love
Darrell Van Citters: Mike Lah
JB Kaufman: Frank Thomas
Dave Smith: Carl Nater
John Culhane: John Hench
John Canemaker: Ward Kimball
Dave Smith: Ward Kimball
Didier Ghez: Frank Armitage
Robin Allan: Ray Aragon
Didier Ghez: Ray Aragon
Gord Wilson: Jacques Rupp
David Tietyen: George Bruns
John Canemaker: Dale Oliver
John Canemaker: Iwao Takamoto
John Canemaker: Richard Williams
Charles Solomon: Brad Bird
Alberto Becattini: Don R. Christensen
Jim Korkis: Tom Nabbe
Dave Smith: Roger Broggie
Didier Ghez: David Snyder
Didier Ghez: Carl Bongirno
John Culhane: Daniel MacManus
John Culhane: Ted Kierscey
John Canemaker: Glen Keane
Didier Ghez: Joe Hale
Jérémie Noyer: Mark Henn
Christian Ziebarth: Andreas Deja and Mark Henn
Didier Ghez: Ed Catmull

This is yet another book I've got to add to my overburdened shelf. Copies can be ordered from Xlibris for those living in the U.S. and from Amazon for those living in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Guess Whose Eyes

Go here, for an interactive version of the above. And go here if you want a print.

(Link via Boing Boing)

Monday, October 10, 2011

Warner Bros. Animated Coming Attractions

In addition to voicing the Loony Tunes characters for animated cartoons, Mel Blanc also voiced them on records for children. Warner Bros. has now created new cgi animation to go with one of those records.

I previously mentioned Sam Register's address to Mipcom Jr, a TV market in Europe. Above is the video of that address and at 27:03, you can see a clip of the Daffy Duck animation done to the Mel Blanc record. You can also see a clip of Thundercats at 19:33 and the cgi Green Lantern at 23:39.

Disney Live Action Reference

Someone known as lostvocals4 has taken live action footage from Operation Wonderland, a live action promotional piece that Disney made for Alice in Wonderland, and synched it up with the finished film.

Disney was shooting live action reference footage at least as early as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. That procedure continued in the 1950s, especially because the budgets were tighter and the films had to be made more efficiently. Ed Wynn was filmed as the Mad Hatter and Jerry Colonna was filmed as the March Hare, with Kathryn Beaumont as Alice. What's interesting is that the audio from the reference footage was used as the final audio in the film.

The artists on screen, in order of their first appearance, are Les Clark, Fred Moore (at left) with John Lounsbery, and Ward Kimball.

If you want to see the entire Operation in Wonderland, which contains additional live action reference for the Walrus's dance and the march of the playing cards, you can see it here and here. Look for Walt Disney manning the animation camera. I doubt that he did that much after the 1920s.

(Link via Drawn.)

The Rauch Brothers Interviewed

Left to right: Mike and Tim Rauch.
"The key is to try and be as honest and true to the story as possible."
- Mike Rauch
I admire the work of the Rauch brothers enormously as their work, based on documentary audio recordings done by Storycorps, is built on emotional truth. That's something too often lacking in modern animation.

The brothers are interviewed by Jeremy Helton, talking about their history, their influences and their process. There are also photo comparisons between real people and settings and the designs that the brothers have created from them.

You can see four video interviews with the brothers here and a selection of their work here.

Friday, October 07, 2011

Steve Jobs as Walt Disney

Left to right: Ed Catmull, Steve Jobs, John Lasseter. Image lifted from the Pixar website.

It's been a few days since Steve Jobs passed away and I've had some time to gather my thoughts. It occurs to me that Jobs was like Walt Disney in that they shared traits common to visionary entrepreneurs.

Walt Disney didn't create animation. He wasn't responsible for every advance that came from his studio. And while there were others in animation who broke ground, the public identified the animation medium with Walt Disney. Disney went through a bankruptcy and several setbacks (the loss of Oswald the Rabbit and the defection of staff), but still managed to overcome the problems and continue to pursue his goals.

Steve Jobs didn't create personal computers. He wasn't responsible for every advance that came from Apple. Certainly there are others who broke ground in computing, but Jobs was the very public face of computers as lifestyle enhancers. Jobs was tossed out of the company he co-founded with Steve Wozniak, but during that period, he bought Pixar from George Lucas and created a second success before returning to Apple, where his second stint may have been more influential than his first.

I don't doubt that somebody would have made a cgi feature had Pixar not existed, but as we can see from films like Beowulf, cgi films might have been extensions of the visual effects world more than the animation world. As there have been animated films in every medium that were duds, who knows if that first cgi feature would have had the impact on audiences and on the marketplace if the film hadn't been Toy Story?

Pixar was not a sure thing. There were many technical problems to be solved and it was uncertain how an audience would react to an hour and a half of computer graphics. Jobs supported Catmull and Lasseter's goals, resulting in one of the most successful animation companies in history. Jobs' importance to animation history is secure for that alone.

So Jobs, like Disney, pursued his goals though they were risky. They both overcame setbacks to innovate in several fields. They both enhanced the lives of their audiences and were feted for it. That last item is a key point. Business schools may one day examine the careers of Michael Eisner or Robert Iger and take lessons from them, but the public won't. Jobs, like Disney, worked on a public stage, combining vision with showmanship. There are many successful business people, but few have the vision of these two men and fewer still have a vision that the public willingly embraces.

Animation is lucky to have crossed paths with both men.

(One of the best summations of Jobs' career I've read is an obituary written by animation fan and technology writer Harry McCracken for Time magazine.)

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Steve Jobs R.I.P.

Steve Jobs, founder of Apple and savior of Pixar, has lost his battle with pancreatic cancer. The official announcement is here.

Jobs was also a major shareholder in Disney after he sold Pixar to Disney. While he clearly prepared Apple to continue without him, we'll have to see who inherits his Disney shares. In any case, John Lasseter and Ed Catmull have lost an ally and Robert Iger's hand is no doubt strengthened.

Men like Jobs are rare and he will be missed. There was no one in the computer or electronics field to compare with him.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

A Clay Animated Batman?

Those of you interested in what's happening with the Looney Tunes characters, Thundercats and the animated version of Green Lantern should read coverage of Sam Register's keynote speech to MIP Jr, a European TV market for children's programming.

One of the revelations in the article is that Warner Bros. is teaming up with Aardman Animation to make clay animated Batman shorts. There's also a cgi Batman series coming in 2013.

Some Ottawa Festival Thoughts

Everyone who attends the Ottawa Festival (or any other large event for that matter) is going to have an individual opinion. It's impossible at Ottawa to see every screening and attend every presentation, so opinions will vary based on what a person experienced. What follows are my thoughts, based on being there for just the weekend and the programs I chose to attend.

It's a shame that the animator picnic is not included in the weekend pass, as it is now the only venue at the festival where everyone is together. When the festival used the National Arts Centre, it was a central place for everyone to meet. This is my second year attending since the National Arts Centre is no longer used, and my feeling that the festival is spread over too great a distance remains. The individual venues are nice, but the lack of a real hub makes it tougher to find people and lessens word of mouth for any hot films.

I saw The Bug Trainer, a European documentary on Ladislas Starewitch, the stop motion animator. I didn't know much about him personally, so I was grateful to the film for filling me in, but I wish that the film, which only ran an hour and was most likely made for TV, had showcased more of his animation. Perhaps Europeans are more familiar with his films and didn't need to be reminded, but I've seen only a few Starewitch works and would have liked to see more.

John Canemaker

John Canemaker's presentation on Joe Ranft and Joe Grant was a highlight for me. Canemaker knew both men, so there was a personal dimension to the talk, which included artwork that isn't in his book Two Guys Named Joe. The Joe's emphasis on entertainment value was a contrast to much of what is screened at Ottawa. Canemaker mentioned that his next book was on Herman Schultheiss, an effects animator at Disney, who kept an extensive notebook about how the effects of the time were achieved, such as the snowflakes in "The Nutcracker Suite" section of Fantasia.

I always attend the screenings of children's films as I find them to be more satisfying than the films in competition. This year, my favorite was Princess' Painting, a German short by Johannes Weiland and Klaus Morschheuser about a Princess who receives automatic praise for superficial work and how she discovers that her priorities are wrong.

Saturday had several panel discussions set up by Tom Knott to give guidance to aspiring animation artists. I was on a panel about web portfolios chaired by Richard O'Connor of Ace and Son Moving Picture Company that also featured Knott, Brooke Keesling of The Cartoon Network, and Cal Arts instructor Fran Krause. Some solid information was passed along during this panel. The following panel, which I stayed for, was a collection of directors including Jan Pinkava, Marv Newland, Joanna Priestly, Isaac King and Jessica Borutski.

Left to right: Marv Newland, Jan Pinkava

Saturday night, I attended two competition screenings. The only film that I'd like to see again is Joost Lieuwma's Things You'd Better Not Mix Up from the Netherlands. The film was funny, something you'd think wouldn't be in short supply at an animation festival, but you'd be wrong.

Sunday, I saw two presentations from Disney-Pixar. The first was Enrico Casarosa screening the Pixar short La Luna, which will be released next year with Brave. The film is charming and clearly comes from a personal place for Casarosa. That personal connection is what separates the film from some other Pixar shorts and too much Disney these days.

The second presentation was of the Winnie the Pooh feature and the short The Ballad of Nessie. Pooh directors Steve Anderson and Don Hall were there to talk about the film after the screening. While they made it a point to go back to the original shorts for the design of the film, they talked about reworking the characters of Owl and Rabbit to make them carry more of the comedy. Personally, I felt that those characters were pushed too much, to the detriment of Tigger. Originally, Tigger's hyperactivity and wackiness was a strong contrast to the staid nature of the other characters. Now Tigger is only one of many broad characters. I also thought that the animators on Tigger (Andreas Deja) and Rabbit (Eric Goldberg) were miscast. Goldberg should have been given Tigger and Deja Rabbit.

Nessie also looked backwards to the Disney design of the 1940s and '50s. Johnny Appleseed was referenced for design.

Both the feature and short lacked the personal connection of La Luna. They were well crafted, but seemed to me to be imitation Disney rather than stories that needed to be told. By coincidence, the day after I returned from the festival, I was reading Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland and came across this quote:
In the first third of [the twentieth] century, Edward Weston, Ansel Adams and a few fellow travelers turned the then-prevailing world of soft focus photographic art upside down. They did so by developing a visual philosophy that justified sharply-focused images, and introduced the natural landscape as a subject for photographic art. It took decades for their viewpoint to filter into the public consciousness, but it sure has now: pictures appearing in anything from cigarette ads to Sierra Club books owe their current acceptance to those once-controversial images. Indeed, that vision has so pervasively become ours that people photographic vacation scenery today often do so with the hope that if everything turns out just right, the result will not simply look like a landscape, it will look like an Ansel Adams photograph of the landscape.

This too will pass, of course. In face, artistically speaking, it has passed. The unfolding over time of a great idea is like the growth of a fractal crystal, allowing details and refinements to multiply endlessly -- but only in ever-decreasing scale. Eventually (perhaps by the early 1960's) those who stepped forward to carry the West Coast Landscape Photography banner were not producing art, so much as re-producing the history of art. Separated two or three generations from the forces that spawned the vision they championed, they were left making images of experiences they never quite had. If you find yourself caught in similar circumstances, we modestly offer this bit of cowboy wisdom: When your horse dies, get off.
If drawn Disney animation is to survive, the artists are going to have to find their own voices, not "making images of experiences they never quite had." Time to find another mount.

As I said above, this is only my experience of the festival. For other viewpoints, see Jerry Beck, Richard O'Connor (1, 2, 3 and 4) and Michael Valiquette.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Animation Insider

Animation Insider is a site whose mission is to "focus on the real people in the trenches who make the award winning stuff we love. " The good news is that there are a great many interviews on the site, focusing on people who don't normally get coverage. The bad news is that the questions are standardized, so all kinds of opportunities for follow up questions are missed. Still, the site is a good place to discover the varied backgrounds and sensibilities of the people who earn their livings in animation.

Here's a link to an alphabetical listing of interview subjects.

Gil Alkabetz in Toronto

Fresh from his appearance at the Ottawa International Animation Festival.
(click to enlarge.)

Monday, September 19, 2011

At the Ottawa Festival

I will be at the Ottawa Animation Festival from sometime Friday afternoon until Sunday afternoon. On Saturday at 1:00, I'll be on a panel called Web Portfolios with Richard O'Connor of Ace and Son Moving Picture Company and Brooke Keesling of The Cartoon Network.

Stop by and say hello if you're there.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Invitation to the Dance

Most animation fans are familiar with the sequence in Anchors Aweigh where Gene Kelly dances with Jerry, the mouse from Tom and Jerry cartoons. Fewer fans have seen Invitation to the Dance, a feature spearheaded by star Gene Kelly which consists entirely of three dance sequences. The last sequence is "Sinbad the Sailor" and features Kelly dancing with animated characters produced by Hanna Barbera while they were still at MGM.

The film will be showing on Turner Classic Movies early in the morning of Tuesday Sept. 20 at 12:15 a.m. Eastern Time. Or if you prefer, late Monday night. In any case, TCM only runs the film every few years, so you might want to catch it if you're interested.

Below is an excerpt from the animated sequence.

Monday, September 12, 2011

I Have An Idea for an Animated Film. Can You Make It For Me?

Steve Bissette, a comics artist who also writes and publishes, has posted a great piece on issues surrounding collaborating on a graphic novel.

The piece is relevant because the requests that Bissette is addressing are similar to those that I regularly address as the coordinator of Sheridan College's animation program. I am constantly fielding phone calls and emails requesting that students create films for individuals and organizations. As Bissette points out, like it or not, drawing takes longer than writing. And animating most certainly takes longer than writing.

My first question when I get these requests is to ask if this is a paying project. Most times it isn't. In that case, my response is that we have a highly structured curriculum and we're not able to accommodate the request. If the job is paying, I try to connect a recent graduate with the project.

I don't doubt that many animation artists get requests like this. I remember somebody who wanted an animation done for her daughter's birthday party with a caricature of the mother as the main character. I think the fee on that was as high as $100, but when I quoted industry rates, that ended the discussion quickly.

People generally don't understand how labour intensive drawing and animating are. They also assume, as Bissette points out, that artists are devoid of ideas, just sitting around waiting for somebody to give them one. The problem is never finding an idea, it's finding the time and money to work on an idea.

Bissette raises a lot of issues concerning ownership, royalties, etc. which are food for thought for anybody who is hired to collaborate, as opposed to simply being hired to execute. While the issues surrounding graphic novels and animation don't match exactly, there are enough in common to make the piece worth reading.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Kim Deitch

Kim Deitch, son of animator Gene Deitch, has been writing an autobiography of sorts at The Comics Journal site. This installment mixes comix, music and animation into a gumbo that features animators Sally Cruikshank, Tony Eastman, Gene Deitch, and comix artist R. Crumb.

Who Owns Our Modern Myths and Legends?

(Click to enlarge. It's a big one.)

Charlie Jane Anders at io9 has put together this chart showing how six large corporations essentially control the pop culture franchises that make up our common experience.

The chart doesn't really represent ownership as much as it represents control. New Line Cinema doesn't own The Lord of the Rings, only the film version. And Harper Collins doesn't own Tolkien's novels, only the publishing rights. But when you see how much these six companies control, it's clear why copyright and digital rights management have become major issues and why the United States is leaning heavily on other countries, including Canada, to write legislation to protect U.S. corporate assets.

The chart is also incomplete. Notice that while Disney is listed, none of the drawn animated characters are on this chart. Neither is Nickelodeon or CBS (both Viacom companies), though Cartoon Network makes it. That just shows that what's here is only the tip of the iceberg. The odds are that if you've bought a book, seen a movie, bought a DVD or watched TV, you've been feeding these corporate behemoths.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Fred Moore's 100th Birthday

Cartoon Brew has a photo of Moore I've never seen, Jenny Lerew posts a lovely photo of Moore with his wife Virginia and their infant daughter, and Andreas Deja posts a large sampling of Moore's work. The above is the one Moore from my own collection.

Moore is practically a mythical character. His influence is ubiquitous, not only in animation but also in greeting card art of a certain vintage. Because he died before fans and historians could interview him, he's a mystery compared to other Disney artists. His death, often falsely attributed to his alcoholism, has spawned more versions than I can count. He's the Bix Beiderbecke of animation: the flawed boy prince, bursting with a unique talent, who left us too soon.

What would we give to have known him?

She Was the One

Another Storycorps film from the Rauch Brothers.

Monday, September 05, 2011

Early Computer Animation

Ed Catmull, currently the president of the Walt Disney and Pixar animation studios, was one of the key people in the development of computer animation. Catmull was and is a software engineer, somebody who developed the nuts and bolts of making animation work with computers.

A couple of his early pieces have surfaced. The first, reported on Cartoon Brew, is a film from the University of Utah in 1972.

After the University of Utah, Catmull went to the New York Institute of Technology, located on Long Island, where he was involved with trying to find ways of joining the computer with drawn animation. John Celestri has reprinted a paper Catmull wrote called "The Problems of Computer-Assisted Animation."

Computer animation has reached a high level of sophistication but it wasn't that long ago that it was struggling to establish itself as a practical medium. These pieces show how far it has come in less than 40 years, all within the working lifetime of Ed Catmull.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Guys with Pencils Podcast

Andrew Murray and Adam Hines are two Sheridan graduates who have a podcast talking about what it's like to be starting out in the animation business. You can find all their podcasts here.

I'm their guest in episode 22, talking a bit about my career and a whole lot about creator rights.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Jack Kirby's 94th Birthday

August 28 would have been Jack Kirby's 94th birthday. Mark Evanier, who worked with Kirby, has his birthday tribute here, including an embedded documentary on Kirby made for the DVD release of one of the Fantastic Four movies. Tom Spurgeon prints a great gallery of Kirby artwork and Mark Seifert has a gallery of Kirby originals to enjoy.

I wish that we could be celebrating the success of the Kirby estate's attempt to recover copyrights, but the recent court decision that went against the Kirby estate is now being appealed. Perhaps there will be better news for Kirby's next birthday.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Miss Devine

The Rauch Brothers' latest short combines documentary audio of grown children remembering their Sunday school teacher with animation designed by Bill Wray.

I love this kind of work, mixing real life events with animation. All of the Rauch Brothers' work for Storycorps can be seen here and all of it is worth watching.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Disney Animators Who Sculpt

I've been on the road for the last ten days: Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley (second time!) and now Loveland, Colorado. I'm guessing that readers are scratching their heads over the final location, but this weekend was the occasion for two annual shows that attract hundreds of sculptors who display their work. As I've been sculpting for the last two years, I wanted to see what was being done.

Sun Dog by Ellen Woodbury

I knew that I'd see Ellen Woodbury at Sculpture in the Park. I met Ellen a year or so ago when she visited Sheridan College and I learned that she's now living in Loveland and sculpting full time. Ellen works in stone and her subject is animals, not a surprise given her animal animation at Disney on characters like Pegasus in Hercules.

Reviewing the Troops by Mark Henn

I did not expect to see Mark Henn, who participated in the Loveland Sculpture Invitational Show. Mark is still at Disney, having recently completed work on the Winnie the Pooh film, but sculpts subjects from American history as a hobby and casts the work in bronze.

The link between animation and sculpture is a strong one. I know that Bill Tytla, Blaine Gibson, Milt Kahl and Andreas Deja, all associated with Disney, have done both. As Disney-style animation requires drawings that are structured and dimensional, it's only logical that animators can transfer their knowledge into a three-dimensional medium.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Jonathan Rosenbaum on Walt Disney and Tex Avery

In early 1975, Film Comment magazine devoted an entire, oversize issue to Hollywood cartoons. It's well worth finding in a library or through an online service, as it contains a comprehensive interview with Chuck Jones as well as an interview with Grim Natwick and articles by Greg Ford and Mark Langer.

One piece was an essay on Walt Disney by film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum. Rosenbaum has now posted the first part of that essay on his website with the second part to follow shortly. As Thad has pointed out in the comments, part 2 is now up.

And here is Rosenbaum on Tex Avery.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Animated Leo the Lion

Here's an oddity. The trailer for MGM's 1935 feature No More Ladies starts and ends with an animated Leo the Lion. According to Steve Stanchfield of Thunderbean Animation, the animator is Bill Nolan, a veteran of the silent era whose previous job was at the Lantz studio in the early '30s. The voice, of course, is by Billy Bletcher, who voiced the Big Bad Wolf in Disney's The Three Little Pigs and also did cartoon voices for Warner Bros. (Little Red Riding Rabbit).

(Link via The Golden Age Cartoon Forum.)

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Kirby Estate Loses Copyright Battle

I am sure that this judgment will be appealed, but a Federal court has ruled that the work Jack Kirby did for Marvel was "work-for-hire." This is despite the fact that the legal term was not part of the copyright law at the time Kirby co-created characters such as The Fantastic Four, The Hulk, The Silver Surfer, Thor, etc.

Here's the Associated Press story and here is Deadline Hollywood's.

While I am sure that there is a celebration occurring in the Disney and Marvel boardrooms as a result of this ruling, it's a questionable victory. When the artists at Marvel realized that the company was not going to compensate them beyond paying them by the page, they simply stopped creating new characters. Image Comics exists because a group of artists realized they would never be fairly compensated for their work at Marvel and so they formed their own company. Marvel's treatment of their artists has been consistently bad. See this article on the recently deceased Gene Colan.

Corporate copyright is strangling creativity, not promoting it.

Kirby's case and the ongoing litigation regarding the Superman copyright are just more evidence that anyone who creates something without securing ownership is a chump. It's one thing to be hired onto an ongoing project or series to make a contribution, but quite another to originate an idea and only be paid a regular salary or a flat price.

Stop giving your ideas to corporations. Own them and control them. Or else there will be more Jack Kirbys, Jerry Siegels, Joe Shusters, and Gene Colans ad infinitum.

Why in hell should stockholders and executives who weren't born when the work was created be profiting from it when the people who created it and their heirs get nothing?

(For my earlier take on the benefits of ownership, go here. For Heidi MacDonald, a comics news columnist, on the Kirby decision go here. It's worth quoting her conclusion: "Don’t ever create characters for work for hire, no matter how much “back end” you’re promised. In this day and age there is NO excuse for giving up your creations. We may never see another Jack Kirby among us, but let his lessons stand, both the triumphs and the sadness." )