Friday, May 27, 2011

John Lasseter in Toronto Cancelled

John Lasseter's appearance at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on Tuesday, June 7 at 7:30 p.m has been cancelled. Details are here.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

R. O. Blechman Interview

Over at The Comics Journal website, Jeet Heer interviews designer, illustrator and animation director R. O. Blechman. Blechman talks a bit about the production of The Juggler of Our Lady at Terrytoons and his disappointment at never getting to direct a feature.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Elements of a Scene: Business

This is the fifth in a series analyzing a scene from The Grapes of Wrath. For this entry, I want to talk about business. Business is what performers do in a scene besides delivering dialogue.

An awful lot of animation, especially TV animation, has degenerated into talking heads. All the audience sees on screen are shots of characters talking. The animator spends a lot of time figuring out where to put in an arm gesture or a head bob to keep the character alive while the dialogue is delivered. It's boring for both the animator and the audience.

It's better for everyone if a character has something to do in addition to speaking and the obvious thing is to give the character something to do that relates to the setting or the meaning of the scene. Business is something that is usually not in the script and is the creation of the director and the actors in working out the staging of a scene.

The above scene is in a roadside diner and there are obvious bits of business as a result. The waitress clears dishes off a table. The fry cook works at the grill. The two truck drivers eat and drink throughout the scene, giving them something to do while Pa Joad makes his request, as they say nothing the whole time that Pa Joad is present.

There's nothing particularly inventive in this, but it does provide action for the characters. Where business in this scene gets interesting has to do with Pa Joad and his children.

In buying the bread, Pa Joad takes out a change purse and there are two bits of business relating to it that help to illuminate his personality and situation. He produces the change purse around 1:24 and when it appears that the fry cook is being charitable, giving Pa more than he can pay for, Pa snaps the change purse shut at 1:34. That action helps to communicate Pa Joad's pride. He knows he's poor but he's determined to pay his way, not take a handout. When Pa decides to accept the whole loaf, he digs deep into the change purse for a dime from 1:39 to 1:45. That visually shows how little money is in that purse and how broke the Joads are.

The children have no dialogue for the entire scene and yet director John Ford is very skillful at giving them business. Ford has made a conscious decision that he's wants the audience to focus on the girl and not pay much attention to the boy. Note that at 0:21, when he brings the children into position outside the diner, he partially obscures the boy's face with the window frame and leaves it in shadow while the girl is facing the camera and is not obscured. That becomes more obvious at 0:27 when the camera moves closer.

When Ford finally focuses on the children, starting at 1:06, the boy is hidden behind his sister for part of his entrance and then immediately turns his head to look at the candy. By almost never giving the audience a clear look at the boy's face, Ford has successfully brought him into the scene without him taking attention from what Ford wants to focus on: the girl.

When she walks in, she grabs her father's arm and looks around. Those gestures say that she's nervous and needs the physical reassurance of her father's presence. Her nervousness is explained by how she moves her head. The audience senses that this is a new experience for her; she's never been in a diner before. When she spots the candy, she grabs her father's arm with both hands, a subtle expression of her excitement. After the bread is purchased, she goes over to her brother and puts her hand on his shoulder. Ford has used touch to communicate both her nervousness, her excitement and her closeness to family.

There are seven characters in this scene. That makes it tough to stage. How do you keep the audience aware of everyone without creating visual confusion? Ford does it by cutting to characters in various groupings and also does it by making characters more or less prominent by the business they engage in. Everyone in this scene has actions to perform; nobody just talks. That's a lesson that animators should keep in mind.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Tintin Trailer

The trailer for the mocapped The Adventures of Tintin is now online. Note how little the trailer focuses on the characters and especially the faces. Are they hiding something?

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Elements of a Scene: Conflict, Obstacles and Resolution

This is the fourth in a series analyzing a scene from The Grapes of Wrath. For this entry, I want to talk about conflict, obstacles and resolution.

There are three types of conflict: character vs. character, character vs. circumstances, and character vs. self. In the past, these were often referred to as man vs. man, man vs. nature and man vs. self. What's important is understanding that without conflict, there is no drama.

If Pa Joad walks in and asks for a 10 cent loaf of bread and they sell it to him, the scene is over. Furthermore, we've learned nothing new about the characters or the world they live in. Conflict by itself is valuable for what it reveals.

The other important thing to realize is that there can be more than one kind of conflict in a scene. The more levels of conflict there are, the more interesting the scene and the more information gets revealed. In the above scene, we clearly have character vs. character. Pa Joad wants to buy bread and the waitress doesn't want to sell it to him. Pa Joad is also in conflict with circumstances. His family has been thrown off their land, they're poor and they're traveling over a thousand miles in a truck that's little more than a junk heap. Finally, we have character vs. self in the person of the waitress. She could have chosen to quote the accurate price for the candy, knowing full well that the Joads could not afford it, but decided instead to lie so that the children could have a treat.

There is also a character vs. self conflict going on with the truck drivers. They know that the waitress has lied and sold the candy at a discount. They could choose to pay their bills and leave, but they decide to endorse the waitress's action by not accepting their change.

Obstacles are related to the type of conflict. In a character vs. character situation, each character is the other's obstacle. The waitress stands between Pa Joad and the loaf of bread and Pa Joad stands between the waitress and her having a good time with the truck drivers. The circumstance of poverty is Pa Joad's obstacle. With more money, he'd have no problems. For character vs. self, it's a character's conscience that is the obstacle. The waitress has to struggle with charging the correct amount and disappointing the children, or making an economic sacrifice so that the children can be happy.

The conflicts here illuminate the characters. Pa Joad will not take no for an answer but will also not raise his voice or make threats. The waitress and the truck drivers have a hard shell, but there is humanity underneath. Ultimately, they recognize that others are struggling and decide to help.

The resolution of this scene is that Pa Joad succeeds and the waitress does not, but she is touched by the actions of the truck drivers. The resolution of any scene is not a foregone conclusion; it must come naturally out of the events of the scene, but still keep the audience wondering what will happen. There is no shortage of bad news for the Joads in this film; they are treated poorly on many occasions. Because of this, the outcome of this scene is uncertain in the eyes of the audience. It could go either way. It is one of the few scenes in this part of the film where the Joads get some relief from their troubles.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

TCAF This Weekend

A reminder to everyone in the greater Toronto area that the Toronto Comic Arts Festival is this weekend at the Toronto Reference Library at Yonge and Bloor. Admission is free.

Guests include Seth, Chris Ware, Adrian Tomine, Chester Brown, Darwyn Cooke, Dave Boswell, John Porcellino and animation related guests include Vera Brosgal, Graham Annable and Pendleton Ward.

The schedule of panels can be found here and exhibitors can be found on the first floor and the second floor.

On Saturday at 2:15, there will be a panel entitled Comics & Animation: A Conversation with the Artists of Adventure Time featuring Michael DeForge, Bob Flynn, Andy Ristaino, Steve Wolfhard and Adventure Time creator Pendleton Ward.

Jaime Weinman on The Looney Tunes Show

Jaime Weinman reflects on the latest updating of Bugs and Daffy, with quotes from Amid Amidi, Michael Barrier and yours truly.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Sheridan Industry Day 2011

(Updated Below.)

The industry awaits the screening

April 28 was Sheridan's annual industry day for its two animation programs. It wasn't until it was over that I realized that I took far fewer pictures this year than in years past and I don't know why that is. For photos of past industry days, click here. Each year, the student faces change, but the guests and the events stay pretty much the same.

Based on industry attendance this year, it appears that the business is recovering from The Great Recession. There were companies from outside the local area attending, including DreamWorks, Walt Disney Television Animation, Bioware, Pixar, Atomic Cartoons, JibJab and Blue Sky. Nine studios conducted job interviews on campus on April 29. Many of the local studios prefer students to come to their premises for interviews.

I didn't see any TV cameras this year, but the Toronto Star covered the event.

Above, the students set up their presentations for their post-screening meetings with industry people.

Tony Tarantini is behind the podium. He is responsible for organizing industry day and has done so successfully for the last several years. To the right of the podium are Chris Walsh and Chang Dai. Chris was in charge of the 4th year production course this year and Chang is receiving the award for best animation for her film Vigour.

While industry day is fun for professionals who meet up with friends and for returning alumni who are back to scout out talent, it can be a stressful day for the students. Everyone is hoping to attract studio interest, an interview, and best of all, a job. I try to explain to students that rather than look at industry day as the climax of their educations, they need to scale down their expectations and think of it as the first day of their job hunt. No matter how good their films are, the students can't control the state of the larger economy, the schedules of industry projects or the needs of a particular studio. While students feel judged, the quality of their work is only one variable of many.

The other stressful thing is that from kindergarten on, students have been told what to do in order to succeed. Read this chapter, answer this question, get a good grade and get promoted. School is a highly structured environment. Work is, too, but the time between school and the first job is one which has no rules. There are no guarantees for getting a job, there are only strategies and luck. Some students, due to their personalities or their histories, deal well with the uncertainties of the job hunt. Others are less likely to take initiative and can't bridge the gap. It can be one of the tougher transitions in life.

As always, I wish the class of 2011 the best of luck in their quest to find their places in the animation industry.

Update: By coincidence, Leisha-Marie Riddel, a graduate from last year, has written a blog post talking about her transition from student to professional that is definitely worth reading by anyone still in school or has just graduated.