Sunday, February 27, 2011

False Comparisons

Michael Barrier was interviewed in the Huffington Post for an article entitled "Animated Man: Cartoon Expert Michael Barrier Decries Pixar, Computers." This article already has multiple comments about Barrier's views and the article was linked to on Cartoon Brew, where there are yet more comments.

Two quotes caught my eye.
"What I'd call the direct connection between the animator and the character that you have when the animator is drawing the character with a pencil on a sheet of paper, it simply doesn't have an equivalent as far as I'm aware, or if it has an equivalent, it's much harder to establish."
I've already attempted to debunk this based on the techniques of both drawn and computer animation. My opinion hasn't changed. It's not the technique, it's how the production is organized. Should a cgi feature want a strong connection between animator and character, there is no technical reason why it couldn't be accomplished.

There are other reasons, salaries being one, that are incentives to prevent it. The more animators remain anonymous and the less distinctive their work, the harder it will be for an animator to demand a higher wage. As it is unlikely that an animator's name will ever increase the box office gross the same way a star voice does, why create star animators who will only drive up the budget?

The other quote is this one:
"If you look back, we've had computer animated features for 16 years going back to 'Toy Story,' and we've had computer animated characters before that, I have not seen the kind of evolution of those characters anything like the extremely compressed and dramatic evolution of the hand drawn characters in the 30s. When you think about how Disney went from 'Steamboat Willie' in 1928 to 'Snow White' less than ten years later, I think that's an extremely compressed [growth] that I don't think computer animation has nearly approached. What you have instead in computer animation is a continuing elaboration on texture and surfaces and three dimensional space without anything comparable for characters."
I am at a loss to understand why the development of one medium is being measured against the development of another. It assumes that both media exist in a vacuum, not part of larger forces such as the Hollywood industrial model of the time, the availability of media to the public, the prevailing popular culture and the world economy. The conditions that existed when Walt Disney grew from Steamboat Willie to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs are wholly different than those that exist today.

Let's examine what Walt Disney actually did. If you look at the Oswald cartoons, made immediately before Steamboat Willie, you see films that are ten or more years behind the times compared to live action films. The films are shorts instead of features and at the level of story, characterization and acting, they are not as accomplished as Chaplin's The Immigrant of 1917. Compare the Oswalds to the best live action of the time (The Big Parade, The General, The Gold Rush, Sunrise, Seventh Heaven, The Crowd, Underworld, etc.) and you see a medium that cannot compete as an equal. Except for its use of sound, Steamboat Willie was no better.

What Disney was able to do in ten years was bring animation up to the level of live action films. Snow White and the films that followed were taken as seriously by film professionals, critics and audiences as the live action films of the time.

While computer animation struggled mightily against its technical limitations in the '80s and '90s (and I know because I was there), the advances made by Disney were taken for granted. The techniques developed at the studio were codified to the point where they could be taught in a classroom to 18 year olds at Cal Arts, including John Lasseter, and put between book covers by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston. Computer animation's problem wasn't knowing what was needed, which was often the case in the '30s, it was figuring out how to make characters flexible enough via software. Which is to say that computer animation didn't start as crudely as Disney animation did and had less far to go to get up to the level of live action films.

And the state of live action films is a key point. Disney did not exceed the expectations of what a live action film was supposed to be in his time and computer animation is not exceeding it today. I can make an economic and cultural argument that computer animation is more successful than Walt Disney ever was in that cgi films have been nominated for Best Picture, are more numerous and have been more profitable on a consistent basis than the features Disney made himself.

You can't criticize computer animation without looking at the bigger picture. This article in GQ, entitled "The Day the Movies Died," is subtitled "No, Hollywood films aren't going to get better anytime soon." Computer animated films exist in the same economic structure and cultural zeitgeist as live action films and aren't going to escape the problems that plague the larger industry.

I'm not defending the current state of computer animated features. I just saw a preview of Rango, directed by Gore Verbinski, and while the people at ILM have done a great job on the technical side, the film itself is thoroughly mediocre. It's emotional tone is all over the map; sometimes it's a parody and sometimes it wants to be taken seriously. Its references to other films only reminded me that it's inferior to the films it's quoting. And it is a perfect example of Barrier's observation that "computer animation is a continuing elaboration on texture and surfaces and three dimensional space without anything comparable for characters."

But I insist that it's not the medium. It's the structure of Hollywood and its economic model and it's what the public expects from movies. If computer animation sucks (and it often does), there are many more reasons than technology that are the cause. Furthermore, I don't think comparing it to Disney in the '30s is a valid or useful comparison.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Jones and Freleng Interviewed in 1980

Chuck Jones (top) and Friz Freleng. That's a Blackwing pencil in Jones' hands and he spends the interview playing with it. I don't know where the Jones interview was shot, but Freleng's is in his office at DePatie Freleng. I met Freleng there in 1978.

For years, Elwy Yost hosted a show called Saturday Night at the Movies on TV Ontario. He would run classic films and TVO would send him to Hollywood once a year to film interviews that related to the films he scheduled. In 1980, he interviewed Chuck Jones and Friz Freleng.

Elwy was very much a fan, and not a particularly informed one. His questions were often naive and his reactions were overly enthusiastic. However, he did speak to a great many important Hollywood figures and was genuinely interested in their careers.

I have these interviews on VHS somewhere and remember being disappointed by how superficial they were. If I recall correctly, you could see Freleng's patience getting a little thin at times. However, how many on camera interviews are there with Freleng? Jones certainly received a lot of coverage in those days and had his stories down pat, but it's still nice to see and hear him again.

Michael Barrier has recently printed an interview with Warner Bros. director Robert McKimson from 1971. That's essential reading and frankly way better than Yost's interviews. If you hunger for more Warner directors looking back, though, you can watch Yost's interviews with Jones and Freleng here.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Scott Caple Retrospective

Scott Caple is having a show of his work at the Toronto Cartoonist Workshop, 486 College Street, just west of Bathurst, in Toronto. The opening is Friday, Feb. 25 from 7 to 11 p.m.

Scott is a 30 year veteran of the business, having done effects work on Raiders of the Lost Ark and layout and design for films such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Incredibles. He's worked for Nelvana, Industrial Light and Magic, Don Bluth, Disney and Pixar and has also done designs for videogames and book illustrations. For the last several years, Scott has been teaching layout at Sheridan College, where he also mentors 4th year students in the making of their films.

While the art will be up for awhile, it is in the regular classroom space of the workshop. As such, the retrospective doesn't really have regular hours. Scott tells me that he'll try and set up an additional time when the art can be viewed for those who can't make it on Friday.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Happy 90th Børge Ring!

February 17 is Børge Ring's 90th birthday. I want to wish him the warmest of birthday greetings and thank him once again for the films he has made, Oh My Darling, Anna and Bella and Run of the Mill.

All the best to you, Børge!

Monday, February 14, 2011

Animated Tatsumi

Yoshihiro Tatsumi is a manga artist who is the founder of the gekiga movement, one which took manga into the area of adult content. In some ways his work resembles film noir, dwelling on desperate outcasts who are driven by their emotions to behave in socially unacceptable ways. Tatsumi's work has been published in English by Drawn and Quarterly.

Eric Khoo, a Singaporean director, is adapting several Tatsumi works into an animated feature film. The only information I've found on the film is here.

I've admired Tatsumi's work for years and hope that this film will be worthy of it.

Tatsumi in Toronto in 2009 for the Toronto Comic Arts Festival.

Sunday, February 13, 2011


Teletoon is running another one of those contests that essentially rape creators while pretending to do creators a favour.

By submitting your film -- not winning, just submitting -- here's what Teletoon takes:

You hereby grant TELETOON Canada Inc., its affiliates, agents and each of their successors and assigns (collectively ,”TELETOON”) the unlimited, irrevocable and royalty-free licence and right to use, display, exhibit, edit, modify licence, sub-licence and otherwise exploit the video (“Video”) you upload to (“Website”) without notice or compensation to you or any third party, in perpetuity throughout the world, in any and all manner, media or technology now known or hereafter devised including, without limitation, TELETOON’s television services, websites, or in any promotion or programming for TELETOON.

In short, they can do whatever they like with your film without your permission or without any payment to you. They can sell it to anyone they choose. They can edit it or modify it in any way they like. They can do this anywhere in the world, forever, in any existing medium or any medium not yet invented. You have a problem with that? Too bad. By submitting, you've given up your legal right to complain:

You fully discharge, release, indemnify and hold harmless TELETOON and its respective directors, officers, employees, agents, representatives and advertising and promotional agencies (collectively, “Releasees”) from any or all claims, demands, damages, losses, expenses (including any legal fees and expenses) actions or causes of action whatsoever incurred by or asserted against Releasees arising out of or in connection with: (a) any breach or alleged breach of any representation, warranty, promise or agreement made by you in this agreement; or (b) TELETOON’s use of the Video in accordance with the rights and licences you granted to it under this agreement.

It is disturbing to me that Teletoon does not find this offensive. Why would anyone want to do business with these people? What they are doing with these contests is vacuuming up other people's intellectual property and planting their flag on it. I hope this contest fails to attract entrants and I would discourage anyone from entering.

The truth is, if you have a film you want to pitch to them or anyone else, make an appointment and pitch it. If they don't want it, you walk out of the meeting with them having no rights whatsoever to your film or idea. And if they want it, get yourself a good lawyer and squeeze every penny you can out of them. Because they have no scruples about taking your property without paying. They've stated that in black and white.

If you have the stomach for it, you can read the details here.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

CGI Character Design

"I don't personally respond to the design in "Beowulf," "Polar Express," "Christmas Carol," "Final Fantasy" or anything that skews toward realism. There's an eye-contact issue with those characters. It never seems like they're making eye contact with each other -- they kind of have dead eyes. It's an eye-tracking issue. There's always this blank stare look.

"And if you look at "Polar Express," for example, they tried to make the main characters that Tom Hanks played look kinda like Tom Hanks and in some instance really trying to look like Tom Hanks. That's going beyond making your character look real -- you're trying to make him look like one of the most well-known personalities in the world. I would much rather see Tom Hanks in a movie than I would want to see a facsimile of Tom Hanks."

Salon interviews character designer Shannon Tindle.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Vintage TV Commercials

Duke University has put their collection from the D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles Archives online through iTunes. You can access the animated commercials here. Lots of Post cereal and Beech-Nut gum and candy commercials.

iTunes is a clunky interface for quickly working through these TV spots, but if you have the patience, you can find some interesting work.

(link via Boing Boing)

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Creative Talent Network Videos

The Creative Talent Network, hosts of the CTN Expos held the last two years, has posted a series of videos from the Expos featuring industry folks such as Mike Mignola, Steve Hickner, Chris Bailey, Kathy Altieri, Jerry Beck, Andy Gaskill, Dave Master and others. You can find the complete series of videos here.

Bob Clampett's High School Yearbook

Warner Bros. animation director Bob Clampett's high school yearbook is up for sale on Ebay. Starting bid is $249.99, but you can buy it now for $324.99 if you are so inclined.

The listing includes many cartoons done by Clampett for the yearbook, so even if you're not in the market to buy, it's still worth visiting the link and see what Clampett's high school cartoons look like. The yearbook is from 1930 and shortly after graduating, Clampett went to work for Hugh Harman and Rudy Ising at Warner Bros. on the Merrie Melodies series. Five years later, he became a director and went on to direct some of the greatest Warner Bros. cartoons in the first half of the 1940's.

(link via Mark Evanier)