Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Flying House: Resurrection or Ruination?

Independent animator Bill Plympton is using Kickstarter to raise money to "resurrect" Winsor McCay's 1921 short The Flying House. Plympton is digitally cleaning the film, colorizing it, replacing word balloons with audio dialogue and adding music and sound effects.

I am torn about this. On the one hand, the film is in the public domain. I personally think that copyright has become way too restrictive and that the public domain is a good thing for society at large, allowing past work to be re-issued and to inspire new work. What Plympton is attempting here is fully within the law and an example of how the public domain can feed contemporary creation.

On the other hand, the historian in me believes that the past has value and to remake the past is to distort it. I was always against colorization when it was applied to black and white films. I also believe that there is great value in attempting to understand the past by immersing yourself in it. The world was a different place socially, culturally and technologically, and understanding how the world has changed can only be accomplished by understanding how the past was different from the present.

I don't think I'd have a problem if Plympton decided to remake the film. Leaving the original alone and offering a new interpretation of a past work is something people have been doing throughout recorded history. Restoration has always been focused on returning a work to its original state. This is a posthumous collaboration. Because film is mechanically reproduced, the original is untouched, but is this something like changing the background behind Mona Lisa or revising Duchamp's painting so that it is Nude Ascending a Staircase?

It's not fair of me to judge an unfinished work as it's impossible for me to come to a conclusion, but the project does raise questions.


Amir Avni said...

I admire Bill Plympton, but I also would feel better with a remake rather than a restoration. On a related subject I see the erasing of cigars from old cartoons pure historical revisionism.

kellie said...

I think colour in this context bothers me much less than when applied to old live action footage, and the fact that his newspaper work was in colour where possible suggests that McCay would also have embraced colour in animation had it been available to him. The question, as with recoloured reprints of old comics, is whether it's done well or is an annoying distraction. The snippets above look promising.

John Celestri said...

Mark, I feel the same way as you do. I understand Bill's motivation: that the vast majority of modern audiences can't seem to appreciate anything that is not in color.

But just because something can be done legally, it doesn't mean it's the right thing to do. In this case, it would be a "crime" to hide the original version away from the public and focus solely on the revised version as though it were the original.

I feel that both versions should be linked together as Siamese twins (so to speak), so that Winsor McCay's incredible talent can be fully appreciated and the historical context of the work be retained.

kellie said...

As the colour process comes after cleanup, I presume it shouldn't be difficult to include a restored monochrome version as a DVD extra? How about the title cards though?

Kevin Gendreau said...

What bothers me most is the loss of word balloons in favor of recorded dialogue. The animation was timed in part to pause with the balloons and extracting them alters McCay's original intention. (I think he was experimenting with blending a cartoon and a comic strips.) And it strikes me a purely personal choice -- Bill Plympton doesn't like the placement of the word balloons. Winsor McCay did.

Also, does restoring, coloring and recording dialogue for an established film really earn anyone a shared "Film by" credit? Is the cleaned up and colorized version of "It's a Wonderful Life" a film by Frank Capra and Ted Turner?

Thad said...

I saw some of the test footage when Plympton was in Ithaca last February. It was... awkward. For someone who goes out of his way to keep dialog out of his own films, it seems wholly baffling that he'd add it to a silent McCay cartoon.

When I last checked with him, Tom Stathes had a bile-filled manifesto to say about Plympton's project so we'll see if he let's us all know soon.

kellie said...

I showed the film last year at my son's ninth birthday party, and it went down very well. Neither titles nor lack of colour were a bar to enjoyment for that gang of rowdy boys and girls.

Daniel [] said...

I don't expect Plympton's transformation to be an improvement, but let us return to your analogy of the Mona Lisa. Lots of transformations of it have been effected, but we should be relatively unbothered by any of these, excepting those which have changed the original canvas. Otherwise, the painting simply abides, and most of the transformations that should be forgot are.

Presumably, the only copies that Plympton will be altering are no more than duplicates of the best copies.


Michael Sporn said...

Good for you, Mark This is someone pretending to care about Winsor McCay while trying to turn a profit off of it.

I'm sure colorizing it won't be too damaging since McCay did it, himself (in a more imaginative way.) Plympton will most probably do this part tastefully. But adding a sound track and eliminating the speech balloons turns the film into something cheap.

The comparison to the Mona Lisa doesn't work in that the Mona Lisa is famous enough to be known by any living soul on earth. The Flying House is probably only known to film historians. Which makes it even more of a desecration.

Dennis Doros said...

As the distributor of Winsor McCay (through a deal with the Cinematheque Quebecoise) who has brought out two versions of the films, I wouldn't mind half so much a) he actually restored the film first (which he's not), b) if he didn't use the word restore which is a corruption and c) if he didn't use the word "fix" which suggests that it's broken in the first place. As a film archivist dedicated to preserving a filmmaker's original vision, it's more disturbing what he is saying then what he is doing. As the films are public domain, he can do what he likes -- but selling out a dead artist based on falsehoods about restoration and assumptions what Winsor would think is really pretty low.

Unknown said...

Bill first told me about this last fall, in public, when I interviewed him at the Silent Movie Theatre at a showing of his films. I was a bit conflicted about this idea when I first heard it - but now I'm just interested in seeing how the project turns out.

This is obviously no "Fred Ladd" colorization hack job, but being done with some care. I liken it to Georgio Moroder's METROPOLIS (1984), which was reviled by historians and purists, but I believe introduced a new audience to Lang's masterpiece and brought interest in the original film to those who would never have seen it. Bill's version will never take the place of the original film - in fact, I'd suggest to Bill that he include a title card at the end imploring viewers to seek out the original version.

I can't wait to see what some wacky filmmaker does to PLANE CRAZY someday...

David B. Levy said...


I don't claim to speak for Bill Plympton on his intentions or motivations, in regards to your statement that Bill is merely "pretending" to care for McCay or that his motivations are for profit.

From my observation, Bill has a greater kinship and bond with McCay than most animators being offended by this project. Bill's career, a strong draftsman starting in illustration/cartooning, and becoming a late-in-life animator, parallel McCay's. Bill has described an almost spiritual connection that he feels with McCay. As I've heard it, Bill feels that this project is a way to connect present day audiences with McCay's work. In my opinion, It doesn't squash the official DVD of McCay's film, nor make Canemaker's fine book obsolete.

Besides, from what I know about Bill's art and business (from co-writing his book and spending much of the last two years with him, I can tell you that there's far more profitable ways for Bill to be spending his time. He has termed this project a labor of love and doesn't expect profit or awards.

All this said, Mark raises excellent, balanced, and thoughtful questions in this post.

Daniel [] said...

Mr. Sporn

While it's true that the Mona Lisa has a popular image and The Flying House does not, the issue is what effect a transformation has on whatever sort of image the original has with whatever sort of audience it has. So the questions then are of how the work will be viewed and by whom it will be viewed.

What sort of person is going to see Plympton's work and impute whatever shortcomings it has to McCay? I don't think such opinions much matter.

Who would have seen the original but, after Plympton will not? I expect that the net effect on viewing of the original will in fact be small, one way or another, but will be positive.

I think that the only real issue here is that Plympton is being (unintentionally) disrespectful, and that the disrespect is not itself here useful. It's unfortunate, but hardly dire.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

In the few shots shown, the removal of the flicker and jiggle on everything but the animating parts is distracting to me. The flicker in McCay's animation gives the characters life, lets them breath. Gives the illusion that every frame was entirely redrawn on ones. The scene of the woman talking in profile to the man looks dead in the Plympton version, like a disembodied head talking to a cutout. Likewise in the city shot with the flying house, the foreground building now looks haphazardly cut-out, flattening the whole scene.

I love Plympton's work. I love how he can give life to his characters with often limited animation. His style doesn't suffer from stills, but translated into a McCay piece everything starts to look frozen.

However, I'm only judging from the scenes shown here which may very well be in progress. I still look forward to further developments. Though I too wish Plympton had chosen to do a complete remake.

Michael Sporn said...

Daniel, I completely agree with you. The disrespect shown to McCay's work is not intentional, but it's disrespect just the same. This is the same disrespect that was done to the B&W WB and Popeye cartoons that were traced and colored in Asia back in the 60's. Today they're selling those recolored cels on ebay.

Bill is using his army of student/interns to do the work of retracing Winsor McCay. And though he has a brilliant actor in Patricia Clarkson, the question of whether those balloon should have been deleted is completely decided by Bill Plympton's hubris ... and disrespect.

David Nethery said...

A restoration would attempt to remove the scratches on the film and stabilize the jittering (caused by the original nitrate negative shrinkage and/or the stretched sprocket holes) but leave the original images intact. There is no virtue in jittering or other artifacts caused by the negative's aging process. If digital restoration could be used to remove those problems without altering the original art (including McCay's dialogue balloons) I'd be all for such a restoration.

Something about "The Flying House" I'm unclear on:
the animation is credited on screen to Robert McCay (using the 'Winsor McCay process') . How much of the art in "The Flying House" is from Winsor McCay's hand ?

StephenB said...

+1 to what Kevin said, above, about the shared credit. What a load of nerve he has to wedge his name into the same filmmaker's title card as McCay. Profit or not, that's just bad judgment.

Reema said...

McCay's work is animation, it served right at it's time (& still serves right to some newer generation fans) who the hell restores an animation? a painting fades, architecture corrodes but this? no point whatsoever, Bill could find something productive to do rather than ruin valuable qualities of the immature era