Friday, April 27, 2012

Sheridan Industry Day 2012

It's that time of year again. The Sheridan class of 2012 met the industry on April 26.
Industry and faculty line up to register

Sheridan President Jeff Zabudsky addresses the industry prior to the screening

The students set up their areas in the Learning Commons prior to the industry's arrival.

After the films are screened, the industry mixes with the students.

L to R: Omar Al-Hafidh, Tony Song (way in the background) and Jeremy Bondy.  Omar's film, Out of Bounds, is a cautionary tale of child safety.  Tony's film, Just Remember Me, features a girl trying to download her late father's essence into a robot.  Jeremy's film, Pollen, is a chase with a twist ending.

Victor Preto's film, Theft, uses Flash in a very sophisticated way.

Evee Fex-chriszt's film, The Terrible Bandit, shows off her masterful drawing and animation skills.

Garth Laidlaw's film, Finally, anticipates the zombie apocalypse.

Kirsten Whitely animated the opening for her TV pitch, Spectra.

Leigh Ann Frostad's film, Origin Story, is about the conflict between the sun and the moon and shows off her distinctive designs.

L to R: Dean Heezen, Shen Ramu and character design instructor Peter Emslie.  Dean's film, Sax, was an audience favourite showing off superb animation and choreography.  Shen's film, Bygone Bounce, is a clever look at the aging process.

Justin Hartley receives an award for his film, Murder on the Docks, from Judy Leung of Nelvana.  The film is a film noir pastiche made in stereoscopic 3D.

Hai Wei Hou receives an award for her film, Vernal Equinox, from Associate Dean Angela Stukator.  Haiwei's film shows off her remarkable draftsmanship and design sense.

Last and not least is Tony Tarantini, who teaches layout and art direction to third year students and is the organizer of industry day.  Tony pulls together this large and successful event every year, giving both students and industry the chance to connect for their mutual benefit.  Tony appeared on Canada A.M. that morning to talk about the event.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Moon and the Son

I find that many of the most interesting animated films these days are being made in the genre of animated documentaries.  Paul and Sandra Fierlinger, The Rauch Brothers, and Marjane Satrapi ground their films in every day life, rather than fantasy.  This isn't to say that their films don't take advantage of animation's ability to use exaggeration, symbol and metaphor.  It's just that their films illuminate real life instead of providing the audience with an escape from it.

I am late in getting to John Canemaker's The Moon and the Son.  I never saw it in its original release and have only now caught up to it on DVD.  The film won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short in 2005 and it deals with the relationship between John Canemaker and his father.

There's been no shortage of father-son relationship issues in recent animated features.  Finding Nemo, Chicken Little, Ratatouille, and How to Train Your Dragon come to mind.  In each of these films, though, it is the child who is misunderstood and the parent has to come around to understanding and accepting the child.  In The Moon and the Son, both father and son are misunderstood by each other and as the film is Canemaker's attempt to understand the relationship after his father's death, no real resolution is possible.  That's the difference between a film for children and a film for adults.  Canemaker doesn't privilege his own point of view over his father's and paint himself as the victim.  Both he and his father are victims due to circumstances beyond their control.  The question is not who is right and who is wrong.  That's too simplistic.  The question is how do people deal with what life throws at them and how does it affect their relationships with others?  The older I get, the more I think about Jean Renoir's line in his film The Rules of the Game. "The horrible thing about life is that everyone has his reasons."

Canemaker's father had anger issues.  Whether that anger was due to his personality or his circumstances is left to the viewer.  He had a hardscrabble life, typical of working class immigrants and he kept his old world values.  Canemaker was embarrassed by his father's jail time and intimidated by his temper.  While Canemaker escaped the family as an adult, his relationship with his father could be reduced but not resolved.

The history and conflicts in the film are portrayed through animation as well as still photographs, home movies and newspaper clippings.  This allows the film to move freely between emotion and fact and that's what gives the film its power.  This isn't an abstract history but something that had real consequences for the film maker.

The voices in the film are Eli Wallach, portraying Canemaker's father, and John Turturro, portraying Canemaker himself.  Based on the story reel that is an extra on the DVD,  I'm guessing that Wallach and Turturro did not record together.  That's a pity.  Wallach's reading is excellent, though Turturro's is a bit stiff.  I'm sure that if they had the opportunity to work off each other, Turturro's performance would have been fuller.  In many ways, I prefer Canemaker's own reading in the story reel to Turturro's.

The other extras on the DVD are two galleries of artwork and an on-camera interview with John Canemaker and producer Peggy Stern.

There's no shortage of animated films that are trifles, something to amuse or distract and then be quickly forgotten.  The Moon and the Son is not that kind of film.  It's more proof of the emotional richness that animation is capable of when it sticks to the truth.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Stripped Bare

The above animation is by Ron Zorman, who did it with TVPaint.

I'm including it here because it is a clear reminder of the expressive power of motion. These days, motion is either limited and cliched or buried under textures and effects. Animation also veers between stylization with no resemblance to human behaviour or a leaden attempt at realism that fails to achieve the complexity of live acting.

The above is stripped bare: no sound, no colour, no texture, no face, few details. Just line. Yet the way the four sack moves presents us with a character that is indisputably alive. We can read the character's mind. We can empathize with the character's experiences. All of that is accomplished purely through motion.

The principles of animation are all here. Anticipation, stretch and squash, overshoot and recoil, line of action, follow through, overlapping action, drag, staggers, slow ins and slow outs, contrast in timing, etc. While an animator can pick them out, they're invisible to the audience because all of them are based on motions we've experienced in life. The motion is, in terms used by Chuck Jones, believable as opposed to realistic.

This is the core of what animation is. Everything else is elaboration.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Ham and Hattie are Ho-hum

I've been working my way through the UPA Jolly Frolics DVD collection. I had never seen any of the Ham and Hattie shorts, so I was naturally curious about them. They are bad, but specifically bad in ways that illuminate what went wrong with UPA.

These films show all the things that UPA didn't care about, personality, humour and animation being three of the most prominent. Having lost key personnel such as John Hubley, Phil Eastman and Bill Scott, the studio was left with little more than design in these cartoons. While the design is sometimes attractive, it's not enough to sustain interest for seven minutes.

Hattie is a little girl whose personality can only be described as bland. We get no sense of who she is, what she values, or how she could be expected to respond. The cartoons are free of conflict relating to her and the humour is so soft that the cartoons might be turned down by Sesame Street as too boring. Even pre-school shows have more bite than Hattie.

The animation is severely limited, akin to what was being done on TV at roughly the same time, even though the UPA theatricals presumably had better budgets. In Trees, a cat is riding on an out-of-control wagon and it's just a held cel panning across several backgrounds.

Ham is even worse. He takes on a different persona in each of his four cartoons: a Jamaican, a dog, a Japanese and an Italian. Why create a character if he is going to be different in appearance in every cartoon? His ethnic adventures are accompanied by a narrator with the appropriate accent, making it clear that the later UPA Dick Tracy TV cartoons starring Joe Jitsu and Go Go Gomez were completely in line with UPA's sensibilities. So much for the studio being politically progressive.

Like Hattie, the Ham stories are dull with few gags and little conflict. The most they aspire to is a smile. The stories are simplistic, the characters have no psychological depth, let alone complexity, and the motion in the Ham cartoons is sloppy. Either the assistant animators had no clue how to maintain shapes and volumes or nobody cared at that point. Inbetweens were seen as a luxury. The design is also unpleasant, tending towards lumpiness.

There's no question that by the time these cartoons were made, UPA was a spent force. They might rally for the TV special Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol or the features 1001 Arabian Nights or Gay Purr-ee, but even these films can't compare to the work being done at the studio's birth. Whatever one's view of Stephen Busustow, he was not a guiding sensibility. Without the right people around him, he was no better than Walter Lantz, another weak producer whose quality level was all over the map.

The Hollywood blacklist, the result of the House Un-American Activities Committee, was terrible for UPA. Conformist hysteria gripped mainstream society to the point where any deviation from political orthodoxy was seen as a threat to the nation. The irony is that the artists attracted to left wing politics in the '30s and '40s were reacting to a world that had gone off the rails and one they wished to fix. In short, they were not aesthetes, only interested in creating beauty; they were engaged with the larger world and had opinions about more than the way an image should look.

When UPA lost Hubley and Eastman to the blacklist (as well as the unpersecuted Bill Scott), they lost their mainspring. These men understood personality (see Scott's work for Jay Ward, Hubley's independent films and Eastman's books), they understood how to create stories and in Hubley's case, valued the expressive quality of movement. Without them, UPA was full of artists who wanted to create pretty pictures but had no idea what those pictures should be about. Like Hubley, Bob Cannon's cartoons at UPA also valued expressive movement, but once he got past Christopher Crumpet, his cartoons became a little too precious. Cannon's animation is like Ham and Hattie's design: window dressing with nothing much to sell.

Thad Komorowski has also commented on the DVD set. He feels that only the first disk is worth watching. I'd be willing to dip into the second. However, regardless of your opinion, this set finally allows viewers to put UPA in perspective for the first time since the cartoons were originally released. Eleven years of cartoons show the quick rise and the prolonged fall of the studio. The Ham and Hattie cartoons rank with the worst theatricals of the era and by the time that UPA moved into TV production, the body was already cold.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Book Review: When Magoo Flew

The only way this book could be better is if the artists who worked at UPA were all still alive to be interviewed. Thankfully, many were interviewed before their deaths by animation historians such as John Canemaker, Michael Barrier, Leonard Maltin and Karl Cohen and author Adam Abraham has accessed this information as well as trade publications, studio records, letters, etc. to write the most detailed history of UPA to date.

What struck me most while reading this book was how continually precarious UPA's existence was. There were, of course, the early days when finding any work was a life or death situation for the company. However, even when they got a contract to do theatrical shorts for Columbia, the first two contracts were only for two cartoons apiece.

Other threats to the studio's existence had to do with the various partners. While some studios were owned by individuals, such as Leon Schesinger, or partnerships such as the Disney brothers or Harman and Ising, UPA started with three partners and often had more. The inevitable artistic and business conflicts that developed due to the many owners and ownership changes meant that the studio never had a genuinely steady hand on the till. Producer Steve Busustow was only nominally in control, always having to deal with competing partners.

UPA also had the problem of being born at the same time that television was changing the entertainment landscape. It had less time than other studios to solidify it's sensibility and to create characters popular with audiences.

Finally, UPA was the animation studio hit hardest by the 1950s witch hunt for Communists in the film industry. It forced out John Hubley, arguably the studio's heart and soul, as well as Phil Eastman, a top story man. Writer Bill Scott was collateral damage, as he was laid off at the same time as Eastman to disguise that the move was political.

With all these problems, the studio managed to create interesting films. Its peak years were brief; the most memorable films were released from 1949 to 1952. Yet the studio changed the look of animation in North America and inspired foreign studios like Zagreb as well.

Abraham's book covers it all: the budgets, the personnel, the satellite studios, the sponsored films and the many sales of the company to corporate interests. There are interesting tidbits about individuals here, such as director Bobe Cannon's bathing habits and animator Pat Matthews' brain surgery.

The studio was controlled by artists, but those artists had trouble staying on budget and often were so in love with their imagery that they forgot about the audiences they were trying to please. Abraham's book tells the story of UPA's triumphs and tragedies in a way that's both enlightening and cautionary. The book is valuable beyond the historical facts for anyone who dreams of running a studio or who hopes to break out of a commercial straitjacket. UPA solidified a graphical revolution in animation, but didn't have the organization or luck to profit from it for more than a short time.