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.