Thursday, December 26, 2013

Composer Normand Roger Remembers Working with Frederic Back

Normand Roger, who composed the music for all of Frederic Back's films from 1975 on, remembers the late artist on the CBC radio show As It Happens.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Holiday Screenings in Toronto

There are several animation screenings in Toronto over the next few weeks.

Once again, the TIFF Bell Lightbox is running a retrospective of Studio Ghibli.  The films and times can be found here.

In addition to the well-known Miyazaki classics such as Nausicaa and the Valley of the Wind, Castle in the Sky, Kiki's Delivery Service, My Neighbor Totoro, Porco Rosso, Princess Mononoke, Howl's Moving Castle, Spirited Away and Ponyo, they are also showing lesser known Ghibli films such as Pom Poko, Grave of the Fireflies, Only Yesterday, Ocean Waves, My Neighbors the Yamadas, The Secret World of Arrietty, Whisper of the Heart and The Cat Returns.  Miyazaki's collaboration with his son Goro, From Up on Poppy Hill will also screen.

At the Royal, located on College Street 5 blocks west of Bathurst, there will two screenings of the French animated feature Ernest and Celestine on December 27 at 7 p.m. and the 28th at 2 p.m.  Information about the Royal can be found here.

Of course, Disney's Frozen is still in release and as of today, you can still see The Croods or Despicable Me 2 playing somewhere around the city.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Fuzzy Job Boundaries

Canadian Animation Resources points out the changing demands on storyboard artists.  Where once a board artist's job was to visualize the script through drawings, studios are now often requesting that board artists also time the boards or cut animatics including dialogue and sound effects.  It should be noted that studios are offering no additional money for these tasks.

Software is what makes this possible.  When boards were done on paper, the board artist didn't have the tools to create an animatic.  Now, with applications like Storyboard Pro, the same software that a board artist draws into can also output a finished animatic.  While there is no question that this is convenient, it also allows studios to make requests that were logistically impossible in the past.

Just because board artists can create full animatics, should they?

Television animation is a strange beast.  The person who is the director really isn't the director if you compare the job to the one Chuck Jones had.  Jones would have input into the story and design.  He would design the characters himself, do all the character layouts, time the animation, supervise the voice recording, work with the composer and have approval of everyone's efforts.  This is why a Jones cartoon (and the cartoons of his contemporaries like Bob Clampett, Friz Freleng, Tex Avery, Frank Tashlin, Bob Cannon, John Hubley, and Hanna & Barbera) are so instantly recognizeable.  Their personal stamp is on every frame of the film.

A director of an animated TV series may have approval over everything, but has no time to do any of the jobs that Jones did.  Maybe the director supervises the voice recording, but beyond that, it's mostly giving notes on other people's work.

In many ways, the board artist is the de facto director.  The board artist is choosing the camera angles and the cutting continuity, two of the main jobs of a live action director.  These days, board artists are asked to provide more poses for each shot, so in effect, they are doing the character layouts.  If a board artist is also timing the cartoon and placing the dialogue and the sound effects, so far as I can see, that makes the board artist the director of the show.  What's left for the director to do except for passing judgment?

While the current studio perspective is that editors can be eliminated, why not go a step farther and eliminate the director as well?  Doubling the board artist's fee would probably still be cheaper than paying the editor and director.  It might also lead to work that has more individuality. Most episodes of an animated series rival the monotony of McDonald's hamburgers.

If studios thought more about the content of the work they produce rather than the cost, this might happen.  Instead, the focus is on saving money and the place to save it isn't on producer's fees or middle management, it's on the backs of freelancers.  In the Canadian industry, with no union and where the sellers (meaning animation artists) vastly outnumber the buyers (the studios), the leverage is all on the side of the studios.  There's no agreement as to what a board artist's duties are exactly.  The studios are free to ask for anything, and artists are aware that with a limited number of places to work, they don't dare be uncooperative if they hope to keep earning a living.

Unfortunately, this is a race to the bottom.  How much more will board artists be asked to do for the same old fee?  The only possible way for board artists to stem this tide is to say "No."  That's a definite risk, but the studios have shown that so long as they are hearing "Yes," they will keep asking for more.  If board artists are bleeding now, at what point does it become fatal?  Each board artist will have to make that decision, but that decision will affect all board artists.  If a few decide to go along and create full animatics, the job of board artist will be redefined.  If board artists don't get paid more for doing it, then that becomes the new normal.  Proceed with caution.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Ghibli's Pippi Pitch

In 1971,Studio Ghibli attempted to get the rights to adapt Astrid Lindgren's Pippi Longstocking stories.  Hayao Miyazaki did a series of watercolours as part of the pitch.  Unfortunately, they didn't get the rights and now we'll never see a Miyazaki Pippi beyond these lovely paintings.

(link via Comics Alliance)

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Listening is an Act of Love

Storycorps presents it's first half hour special, animated by the Rauch brothers.  It will air on PBS stations on Thanksgiving night, but check your local listings.  From what I can see, the Buffalo affiliate, WNED, will not be running this, so Toronto is out of luck.

Greg Kelly has pointed out to me that starting November 29 until December 28, the special will be online at PBS, so everyone will get a chance to see it.  Thanks Greg.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Miyazaki Manga

While he has seemingly retired from directing animation, Hayao Miyazaki has returned to creating manga. Above are two photos of many from a recent Japanese documentary on Miyazaki, as reported by Crunchyroll.

The manga is a period piece dealing with samurai during the Warring States period of Japanese history.

Miyazaki already created one major manga work, Nausicaa and the Valley of the Wind.  Having read and admired that, I look forward to reading more Miyazaki when this is completed.

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Milt Kahl Before Disney

The always interesting film blog Greenbriar Picture Shows has an entry on the work that Milt Kahl did prior to starting at Disney.  He did advertising art for the Fox cinemas on the west coast of the U.S.  One of the ads pictured has a 'K' signature in the corner, making it highly likely it's Kahl's work.

Somebody tell Andreas Deja about this.

Monday, November 04, 2013

Uh Oh Pocoyo

My admiration for Pocoyo, especially the first season, is a matter of record.  I was sorry to hear that Zinkia, the company that produces Pocoyo, is now seeking bankruptcy protection.  I have no idea if this was due to circumstances beyond the company's control or if there was mismanagement involved, but in any case it's a shame.  I hope the company is able to restructure and survive.

Friday, November 01, 2013

A New StoryCorps Short by the Rauch Brothers

There's not a lot of contemporary animation that I look forward to, but I'm always excited to see a new short by the Rauch brothers.  So much of contemporary animation is devoid of real human feeling and emotion.  It relies on dramatic and comic clichés and the dialogue is straight from sitcoms.   It is refreshing to see some animation, like the above, built on genuine human experience.

I have no idea if these shorts are creating any ripples within the animation community, but they should be.  The Rauch brothers are pointing in a direction that animation needs to go, and it doesn't need $150 million budgets to get there.  All it needs is truth and taste, two things that should be in good supply and that won't break the bank.

This short is one of four new Rauch brothers shorts that will be included in the November 28 POV special on PBS.  I look forward to them all.

You can see all of the Rauch brothers shorts for StoryCorps here.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

On Working for Free

In the New York Times, Tim Kreider writes a terrific essay on working for free.
"People who would consider it a bizarre breach of conduct to expect anyone to give them a haircut or a can of soda at no cost will ask you, with a straight face and a clear conscience, whether you wouldn’t be willing to write an essay or draw an illustration for them for nothing. They often start by telling you how much they admire your work, although not enough, evidently, to pay one cent for it.  “Unfortunately we don’t have the budget to offer compensation to our contributors...” is how the pertinent line usually starts. But just as often, they simply omit any mention of payment.

"A familiar figure in one’s 20s is the club owner or event promoter who explains to your band that they won’t be paying you in money, man, because you’re getting paid in the far more valuable currency of exposure. This same figure reappears over the years, like the devil, in different guises — with shorter hair, a better suit — as the editor of a Web site or magazine, dismissing the issue of payment as an irrelevant quibble and impressing upon you how many hits they get per day, how many eyeballs, what great exposure it’ll offer. “Artist Dies of Exposure” goes the rueful joke."

Saturday, October 26, 2013

The Coming Copyright Battle

Timothy B. Lee, writing in the Washington Post, has an excellent summary of the evolution of copyright in the United States.  In a little over 5 years from now, assuming the copyright law isn't changed, works will once again begin to fall into the public domain.  However, it is likely that major corporations such as Disney will be heavily lobbying to extend the length of copyright once again.  Lee suggests that the existence of the internet, which rallied to kill the Stop Online Piracy Act, may be a countervailing force.
"The big question now is whether incumbent copyright holders will try to get yet another extension of copyright terms before works begin falling into the public domain again on January 1, 2019.

"For now, Hollywood is staying mum; a spokesman for the Motion Picture Association of America declined to comment on its plans. We weren't able to find any sign the topic has come up on Capitol Hill. But most of the experts we spoke to said the stakes are so high that a renewed lobbying push is almost inevitable.

"'If Hollywood and their allies want to do this, they're going to have to start doing it now,' says Chris Sprigman, a legal scholar at New York University. "I would imagine there are discussions going on." Sprigman predicts a debate over term extension over the next five years will look very different than it did in the 1990s. "People are paying attention," he says. "There's a coalition now" that's likely to oppose longer terms."
(Link via Mark Evanier)

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Pixar Canada and Money

I don't for a minute buy the official reason for shutting Pixar Canada down.  No other part of the Disney empire is concerned about having everything under one roof.  Certainly, Disney TV animation had no problem having Planes produced overseas, and if Pixar was having problems with the Vancouver facility, there are people within Disney who could easily troubleshoot any problems.

There are several potential reasons why the facility is shutting down, and they all relate to money.  As Disney is a public company, it reports its earnings quarterly.  It always makes a profit, the only question is how much?  If there are money losers for a quarter, the only way to compensate for that is to be making profits elsewhere in the company or to cut costs.

It's possible that the failure of The Lone Ranger, forcing Disney to write off up to $190 million,  may be one of the things motivating Pixar Canada's closure.  That money has to be made up somewhere, and closing a studio will certainly cut costs.

Another possibility is the delay of The Good Dinosaur.  Having replaced the director, the film is now delayed from it's original release date.  That means that Pixar's revenues will be less than expected due to the delay.  Again, a way to compensate for that is to cut costs.

Variety claims that that British Columbia's tax credits are not as lucrative as those offered by Ontario and Quebec.  While British Columbia may no longer seem lucrative enough to warrant Disney's presence, their tax credits have not changed so far as I know.  Whatever discount Disney was receiving before is still in place, so I doubt that tax credits were a big part of the decision.

Finally, there is the difficulty of putting a revenue figure on the short films that Pixar's Canadian studio made.  If a short is in front of a feature, how much of the box office can be attributed to the presence of the short?  If a short is an extra on a Blu-ray, how many more units are sold due to the inclusion of the short?  When the short shows up on TV, what part of the ratings can be credited to the short?  What percentage of sales of Toy Story merchandise can be attributed directly to the existence of the shorts?

When costs can be figured precisely but revenue cannot,  the costs carry more weight on a balance sheet. 

Note that none of the above reasons have anything to do with the work produced by the studio or the competence of the staff.  That's the tragedy of it.  A bean counter, charged with projecting profits for the quarter, decided that closing the studio was a good way to goose the numbers.  The layoffs are just collateral damage.  Robert Iger's job is to maintain the profits and the stock price.  Animation is just a means to that end and not necessarily the best one either.  A hundred artists are a tiny percentage of the tens of thousands of people who work for Disney, and their livelihoods pale beside the needs of shareholders and executives. 

Disney marches on.  Just don't get in the way.

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Pixar Canada Shuts Down

Adios, Amigos

The Province is reporting that Pixar Canada has shut its doors and laid off its staff.
 Close to 100 employees at Pixar Canada’s Gastown animation studio lost their jobs Tuesday as the company decided to pack up the three-year-old operation and concentrate its operations in Emeryville, California.

 “A decision was made to refocus operations and resources under the one roof,” Barb Matheson, a spokesman for Pixar parent company Disney, said from Toronto. “Staff were just told today. Not great news, obviously. It was just a refocussing of efforts and resources to the one facility.”
The facility opened in the Spring of 2010.  This is the third studio that Disney has opened and closed in Canada and the second in Vancouver.  As recently as August 20, Pixar Canada was advertising for a layout artist and animators, so it appears that this decision was fairly sudden.

 It is important for animation artists and students to realize that while companies like Disney/Pixar appeal to a person's love for their characters and the status of joining a winning team, that branch plants are nothing more than economic calculations.  At the time it opened, Pixar Vancouver made economic sense; now, for some reason, it doesn't.  The Pixar dust that was liberally spread throughout Canada was a marketing opportunity to gain the company good will and bait for prospective employees.

It wouldn't surprise me if in five or ten years Disney/Pixar opens yet another studio in Canada.  I hope that people wake up to the fact that a job in a branch plant is just a job.  It might be a good job in terms of pay or opportunity, but in fundamental ways, it is no different than any other kind of job.  If they no longer want you, you're gone.

(If anyone from Pixar Canada would care to comment, I'd be interested in an employee's view of the shut down.  Did employees receive notice or severance?  What happens to projects that are still in progress?)

Friday, October 04, 2013


You knew it was coming, didn't you?

Thanks to my student Ali for bringing this to my attention.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

A Medium? A Genre? Does it Matter?

Scott Mendelson in Forbes takes a view I've long held.  Animation may be a medium, but Hollywood treats it like a genre.
"It can be argued, and has been argued by the likes of Brad Bird (The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, and Ratatouille) among others that one shouldn’t discuss animated films as if they are all to be lumped together, since technically the only thing they should have in common is the fact that they are not produced via live-action.  I wish that were wholly true. But when it comes to discussing mainstream animated films in America, it is unfortunately a question of genre. Artistically and especially financially speaking, films like Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs 2 and Turbo are indeed cut from similar cloth in that they are basically targeting the same audience. We might decry this fact, but American animated films are still considered child’s play, a notion that heavily influences who they are aimed at and how they are made."
Unfortunately, when we get something animated aimed at adults, it's because it's unsuitable for children, not because it should be taken seriously by anyone mature.  Today's announcement of Sausage Party, an R-rated animated feature by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, does nothing to advance the cause of animation for adults.

We can argue over the terminology, but it doesn't change the facts.  North American animation is kid stuff.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Grant Campbell R.I.P.

I've just learned that Grant Campbell passed away from lung cancer on September 4, 2013.  Grant worked in the Ottawa animation industry for several decades.  He was a graduate of Sheridan College in 1981 and he worked on Rock and Rule at Nelvana in Toronto before relocating to Ottawa.  His sister Kathleen would like to be in touch with those who knew him.  Her email is kathleen1133(at)sympatico(dot)ca.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Wind Rises

The Wind Rises, viewed at the Toronto International Film Festival, is most likely Miyazaki's last feature film.  It departs from his previous work in many ways.  It is a film of contemplation more than action.  The fantasy elements that Miyazaki has used so effectively are present only in the main character's dreams.    The dreams themselves have ties to the real world, as Jiro Hirokoshi converses with Caproni, an Italian aircraft designer that Jiro has only read about.  Jiro's waking life is our world, with all its problems, and his dreams are related to his real world concerns.
The young Jiro meets Caproni in a dream

While flying is Jiro's ambition, he is too nearsighted to become a pilot.  His compromise is to become an aeronautical engineer and design the planes that he is unable to fly.  While he is interested in planes for their beauty, his work is financed by the Japanese military establishment that has other plans for the machines.

Just as Clint Eastwood's Letters from Iwo Jima is the Japanese perspective on events depicted in his movie Flags of our Fathers, Hayao Miyazaki's The Wind Rises is in some way a Japanese perspective on William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives.  In both films, ordinary people pursue their goals but are caught up in World War II.  Both films have a similar image near their conclusions: a graveyard of ruined aircraft.

Two events early in the film are the story in miniature.  The first is the Tokyo earthquake and fire of 1923.  While a disaster overall, it prompts heroic action and the rebirth of the city.  Then there is Caproni's dream plane, built after World War I, which crashes on its test flight.  The first disaster is beyond human control and the second is the result of human failure.  In each case, there is disappointment and tragedy, yet people persevere and continue to pursue their goals.  In a dream, Caproni asks Jiro if he would prefer a world with or without pyramids.  The implication is that their construction created both human suffering and beauty.  Both Jiro and Caproni prefer a world with pyramids, a statement that creation is worth suffering for.  As the earthquake shows, there will be suffering in any case, creation or no.

The Wind Rises is both profoundly realistic, unafraid to recognize the disasters and suffering (both natural and man-made) that people must endure, and also profoundly optimistic, in that people continue to follow dreams despite their troubles.  It is a film made by an old man, one who understands that there are no unequivocal happy endings.  Tragedy and disappointment are inevitable in each life.  The pursuit of creating something beautiful stands in opposition to that, the only thing that elevates people beyond mere survival.  

It is not a film for children, not because there is anything objectionable in it but because I suspect it would bore most children.  The film is about adult concerns: the workplace, marriage, politics and death.

I'm curious as to why Disney has decided to distribute this film and also curious as to how they will market it.  Given how hard they worked to shield children from seeing Pecos Bill smoking, Disney can't be happy that several characters in The Wind Rises are chain smokers.  Advertising this as "from the director of Spirited Away" may be literally true but will not represent this film accurately to the family audience.  I doubt it's going to appeal much to weekend moviegoers at the mall as this is not what general audiences have been trained to expect from animated entertainment.

Miyazaki has broken new ground for himself here, stepping away from fantasy to offer a perspective on Japan's past and the value of creativity to human existence.  This film will not please all his fans but he knew that this film would be his final statement. He chose to address his society about the things that he values and those he disdains.  That the film has provoked some controversy in Japan is evidence of Miyazaki's decision to take risks.

I don't know if I'd consider the film a masterpiece.  Is it as good as Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away or Ponyo?  I'll need more viewings to solidify my thoughts.  However, it is an important film, both as part of Miyazaki's body of work and as another advance for mature animated films.

Miyazaki's retirement, while inevitable, is a tragedy for animation as a whole.  His exit will leave a gaping hole in the animation landscape.  We've been blessed to have so many films from him and his compatriots at Studio Ghibli.  The Wind Rises might not be Miyazaki's best film, but it might be his most important.

Thursday, September 05, 2013

We May Have Lost Another One

Sylvain Chomet, director of The Triplets of Belleville and The Illusionist premieres his first live action feature, Attila Marcel, at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 6.
“There is something really nice about live action,” Chomet said, having previously made a live-action short as part of the “Paris, je t’aime” omnibus. “I really discovered it while I was shooting, the relationship between a director and the actors. They really bring so much to the film.”

“I was always thinking of live action but came to live action through animation. That was a way for me to get into live action. Animation is filmmaking, it’s the same thing. And you really train as a director when you do animation. You get the eye, the sense of composition and timing.”

“Live action is very similar to animation,” he said, “apart from animation takes ages and live action goes really fast.”
The above quotes come from an article in the L.A. Times.

Toronto's two weeklies, Now and The Grid, both review the film in advance and find it lacking.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

Miyazaki Retires

What's below is an awkward Google translation of this Japanese press release:

" Miyazaki is to retire " Studio Ghibli12 minutes 0:02 September
Studio Ghibli production company has announced that the master of animated film known in the world , Hayao Miyazaki to retire supervision.Miyazaki is with a press conference in Tokyo on the 6th this month , and that talk and reason of retirement.
Koji Hoshino is president of Studio Ghibli , held a press conference at the Venice Film Festival in Italy , which has been nominated the " Tachinu Wind" movie , this was revealed.
The said, " Hayao Miyazaki has decided to retire supervision last " Tachinu " wind " and, Hoshino president has announced that it will withdraw the director in this.Miyazaki 72 -year-old from Tokyo.

It becomes animator after graduating from college , and has been expanding the area of representation of the animated film in a unique view of the world and delicate movement. 
Successive box office film was screened in Japan, "Spirited Away," which is known for its hit "My Neighbor Totoro" and " Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind," and "Princess Mononoke", was published in 2001, among others the number 1 in the revenue, the record is not broken now."Spirited Away" such as winning animated feature film award of the Academy Award in the United States, received a high reputation abroad, from the achievement of these many years, last year, Miyazaki has been elected a cultural contributor.

Retirement announcement of supervision work is nominated in the three major film festivals the world is exceptional.

In feature films first time in five years since "Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea " which was published in 2008, therefore, Horikoshi Jiro, who hit the design fighter of the Imperial Japanese Army "Zero fighter" and "Tachinu Wind" movie it is the work which in the model, depicting the figure of a man who lived hard, such as war or earthquake, the difficult times.

In this, including the latest, in July this year, Miyazaki, feature film that Miyazaki made ​​it . Feature that you 've worked hard so as not to disturb the physical condition because there is no "daily time for an interview with NHK I've been," said has been doing think of it is, 's last work at any time.

Miyazaki is that you talk about as the reason of the retired press conference in Tokyo on the 6th this month

Saturday, August 31, 2013

40 Years Ago Today...

...John Ford passed away. His films and the man are endlessly fascinating to me. And truth be told, if I had to choose between never watching another Ford film or never watching another animated film, animation would be gone. With the possible exception of Disney in his early features and some of Miyazaki, no animated feature director comes within hailing distance of Ford. That's both a comment on Ford's greatness and on animation's failure to engage with the complexities of human life.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Jack Kirby's 96th

Jack Kirby, 1946
Jack Kirby, who passed away in 1994, would have been 96 years old today.  Here are a selection of links to celebrate Kirby's life and work.
Mark Evanier, who knew and worked with Kirby, reminisces.
Tom Spurgeon prints a large variety of Kirby artwork. has a gallery of over 1000 pages to see.
Kirby's granddaughter, Jillian, has a photo album on Facebook that includes many family photos.
Rob Steibel examines a Kirby page from Thor.
And here are tumblr posts tagged Jack Kirby.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

100 Years of Walt Kelly

(Click any of the images to enlarge.)

August 25, 2013 marks the 100th birthday of Walt Kelly, one of the most important and influential cartoonists of the 20th century.

Kelly grew up in Bridgeport, Connecticutt, and started drawing at a young age.  In the mid-1930s, he contributed to the earliest years of the comic book industry, working for the company that eventually became DC comics.
More Fun Comics, 1936

From there, Kelly went to work for Walt Disney, first as a story artist and then as an animator in Ward Kimball's unit.  Kelly's animation can be seen in shorts like The Nifty Nineties and the features Pinocchio, Dumbo and The Reluctant Dragon.  Truthfully, Kelly gained more from Disney than Disney gained from Kelly.  There were many animators at Disney who were Kelly's superior, but Kelly's time at the studio working with Kimball and Fred Moore had an enormous impact on the quality of his art.

At the time of the Disney strike, Kelly left the studio and returned to the east coast.  Exempt from the World War II draft for health reasons, Kelly returned to comic books where he did a variety of material that showed off his versatility.  He did fairy tale material aimed at young children.  He did the comic book version of Our Gang (later known to baby boomers as The Little Rascals when the films reached TV) and made a conscious effort to draw the Buckwheat character (whose name Kelly shortened to Bucky) in a non-stereotypical manner.  There are four volumes reprinting Kelly's work on this strip.  Finally, he created the cast of Pogo for Animal Comics.

In the late '40s, Kelly went to work for the New York Star, a liberal daily newspaper that only lasted a few years.  He was the art director of the paper, doing editorial cartoons and putting Pogo into comic strip form.  When the paper folded after just a few years, Pogo was syndicated nationally in 1949 and by the early 1950s became a hit, especially with college students.  He continued to work on Pogo until his death in 1973.  In the interim, the strip was the subject of a network animated TV special The Pogo Special Birthday Special, directed by Chuck Jones and a 15 minute animated film, We Have Met the Enemy and He is Us, made by Kelly himself and his third wife Selby.  The strip was collected in a series of trade paperbacks that often included original material.

With all of this, Kelly additionally did a comic book series The Adventures of Peter Wheat, a giveaway comic for Krug's Bakeries and illustrated several books including The Glob by John O'Reilly and I'd Rather Be President by Charles Ellis and Frank Weir.
Kelly illustration from The Glob

Kelly had a fondness for drink and did not look after his health.  He developed diabetes and had a leg amputated as a result of the disease.  When he died in 1973, Pogo was continued by his widow Selby.  Later, it was revived by Doyle and Sternecky and finally by Kelly's daughter Carolyn.  Pogo is currently being reprinted in handsome volumes by Fantagraphics.

Kelly's work was typified by several things.  He created gentle fantasies aimed at children in his comic book work, where children and talking animals engaged in adventures that were free of the violence that dominated many comic books of the time.

He did raucous slapstick in the Our Gang and Pogo comics.
Sarcophagus MacAbre, undertaker

He loved playing with language, mangling words for comic effect and used different lettering styles to indicate the personality of his characters.  He was a poet who alternated between nonsense rhymes and wistfulness. 
Kelly caricatures Truman

Finally, he was an ace caricaturist and political satirist, taking on Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s over his anti-communist witch hunting, and Lyndon Johnson, Spiro Agnew, J. Edgar Hoover, Nikita Khruschev and Fidel Castro in the 1960s.

Kelly's art was heavily influenced by his time in animation.  His designs were of the Disney school in their construction.

His characters acted; their body language explicitly communicated their emotional states.  They stretched and squashed freely.  This came from his knowledge of posing characters for animation.  Animation also influenced his slapstick gags.

Kelly's brush work is awe inspiring
 Finally, his use of the brush for inking is legendary and was the envy of every cartoonist who saw it.  His brush line was lush, supple and expressive, contributing a solidity and dimensionality to his drawings.

What's here is only a tiny sampling of Kelly's output.  If you want to see more images, check here.  If you want to know what Kelly material is available for sale, Ebay has a wide selection.

Illustrator Thomas Haller Buchanan has gone into much greater depth than I have here by putting together a whole online publication dedicated to Kelly on his 100th birthday.

Having gotten to the end of this brief survey of Walt Kelly's career, I realize that I've yet to include a drawing of Pogo himself, the character that Kelly is most known for.  So to end, here he is.
A 1963 Sunday page

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Controversial Miyazaki II

Updated below.
“My wife and staff would ask me, ‘Why make a story about a man who made weapons of war?’” Miyazaki said in a 2011 interview with Japan’s Cut magazine. “And I thought they were right. But one day, I heard that Horikoshi had once murmured, ‘All I wanted to do was to make something beautiful.’ And then I knew I’d found my subject… Horikoshi was the most gifted man of his time in Japan. He wasn’t thinking about weapons… Really all he desired was to make exquisite planes.”
More on the controversy surrounding Hayao Miyazaki's latest film, The Wind Rises.  For an earlier post about this, go here.

Here's the trailer with English subtitles.  For those of you in Toronto, the film will be playing at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

R.I.P Lou Scarborough

I met Lou when I was starting out in animation in New York in the 1970s and we both worked at Nelvana in Toronto the early 1980s.  He was a great artist, a great guy and he's gone too soon.  Jerry Beck has details.  Tom Sito has written a remembrance at FLIP.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Cartoonist Evan Dorkin on Rejection

Good advice for anyone doing creative work from Evan Dorkin, who has worked in comics and animation.

Was Disney's Pixar Purchase Worth It?

Go here for a very interesting financial analysis of how much Pixar is contributing to Disney's profits.  According to this article, Disney paid $2.2 billion too much for Pixar and it also questions the purchase price Disney paid for Marvel and Lucasfilm.

(link via James Caswell)

Sunday, August 04, 2013

TAAFI Roundup Day 3

In addition to Kevin Schreck's excellent documentary on Dick Williams, I also watched another shorts program.  I see that I mistakenly included comments on those shorts in my day 2 roundup, so I've nothing else to report about them here.

Mark Caballero

Mark Caballero, a stop motion animator who worked with Ray Harryhausen towards the end of Harryhausen's life, celebrated Harryhausen's work with some rare clips and behind the scenes photos.  Caballero's company, Screen Novelties, collaborated with Harryhausen to complete The Tortoise and the Hare, one of the fairy tales that Harryhausen did early in his career but abandoned.  Caballero revealed that Harryhausen actually did several new shots in the film, so it was probably the last animation he ever did.

TAAFI had originally intended to have Harryhausen as a guest and planned to give him the Life Achievement Award, but Harryhausen's death intervened.  TAAFI still wanted to do something to commemorate his career, so they worked with Harryhausen's foundation to have Caballero make his presentation and Harryhausen was given the award posthumously.

Top: Matt Mozgiel.  Bottom: Max Piersig.  Photos by Graydon Laing.

The Big Pitch was an opportunity for two creators to pitch a TV series idea to a panel of development executives, with the winner decided by an audience vote.  Matt Mozgiel and Max Piersig pitched their ideas.  Both deserve a lot of credit for guts.  Having pitched shows myself, I know the pressure that a creator is under when in a room with just a few people, but to do it in front of development people and a full auditorium takes real nerve.  Both acquitted themselves well, with the audience selecting Piersig the winner.

With all due respect to the participants, the whole idea of pitching an idea is absurd as the ability to pitch and the ability to create are wholly separate skills.  A great creator may be bad at pitching and someone good at pitching may not have the best ideas.  If a novelist is looking for a publisher, he or she submits a finished manuscript or an outline and sample chapter.  What's being judged is the actual work.  It's easy to imagine great writers unwilling or unable to pitch.  Someone like J.D. Salinger (The Catcher in the Rye) would never have put up with it.  Budd Schulberg (What Makes Sammy Run?) had a bad stammer.  What chance would he have had?

Pitching exists in TV due to the laziness of development people.  Rather than read a script, a bible or a storyboard, they want to be spoon fed a series concept and characters in just five minutes.  How absurd is it that a creator, who has probably laboured for an extended period of time to create a show concept, has only 5 minutes to make an impression?  And how many good shows have never seen the light of day because the creator wasn't good at pitching?

The last event of the festival was the awards.  If you want to know who won, you can find out here.

TAAFI was densely programmed with a wide variety of screenings and talks.  I'd be surprised if an attendee couldn't find something of interest in every time slot.  The festival also benefits from the venue.  The TIFF Bell Lightbox is compact making it easy to move from one screening to another.  The location is also good for a variety of food choices and is well served by mass transit.

With so much animation production for TV, games and effects done in Toronto, it's great that the city finally has a festival to celebrate it.  Ben McEvoy and Barnabas Wornoff have pulled together the entire animation community to make the festival work.  The second year was better than the first and it's heartening to know that the next festival is already being planned for June of 2014.  I will definitely be attending and look forward to whoever next year's speakers will be and hope that Ben and Barney find a feature as good as The Day of the Crows for us to watch.

For lots more photos of the events, visit TAAFI's Facebook page.

Friday, August 02, 2013

Persistence of Vision

Richard Williams

I will write an entry about TAAFI's third day, but Kevin Schreck's documentary Persistance of Vision, which screened at TAAFI, deserves an entry of its own.  The film is a chronicle of the making and unmaking of the Richard Williams' feature The Cobbler and the Thief.  Williams began the film as an adaptation of stories featuring the mullah Nasruddin written by Idries Shah.  A falling out with the Shah family led to the reworking of the story to eliminate the Nasruddin character and a cobbler became the new focus of the film.

Williams financed the film out of profits made from his studio's commercial work.  After the success of Williams' contribution to the animation of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Warner Bros. agreed to finance his feature.  When Williams failed to deliver the film on time, Warner Bros. decided it was better to drop the project and collect the completion insurance, which put the ownership of the film in the hands of The Completion Bond Company.  At that point, the film had been in production for 24 years.

Stuck with a film they didn't want, the bond company took it away from Williams and had it completed in the cheapest, fastest way possible.  They hoped to salvage something financially by bowdlerizing the film to make it look like other animated features of the time.  The film, released as Arabian Knight, was a failure and Williams withdrew from active production to lecture, write The Animator's Survival Kit, and to work on personal projects.

That's a very bare outline of events, but the man at the center of it, Richard Williams, is a huge contradiction: he elevated the art of animation but was the author of his own misfortune.  Schreck's film explores both of these aspects of Williams' career by interviewing many people who worked on the film and using footage of Williams himself from interviews he gave over the years.

Left to right: Ken Harris, Grim Natwick, Art Babbitt, Richard Purdom, Richard Williams

Williams understood that the men who created character animation were getting on in years and that their art would die with them.  At his own expense, he brought animators Art Babbitt, Ken Harris, and Grim Natwick to his studio to train his staff.  These veterans of Disney and Warner Bros. gave their knowledge freely as well as contributing to the studio's output.  Williams himself was a perfectionist who demanded the best possible work from his staff.  While he was often a difficult boss, those who worked for him acknowledge the opportunity he gave them to grow as artists.

Left to right: Ben McEvoy, Kevin Schreck, Tara Donovan, Greg Duffell.  Donovan and Duffell both drew inbetweens on the Williams feature 17 years apart.

After the screening, Kevin Schreck made the comment that Williams had the sensibility of a painter working in film rather than the sensibility of a film maker.  That crystallized my thinking on Williams.  While he brought over veteran animators and idolized Milt Kahl, it's interesting that over the course of the production, he never brought in veteran story men like Bill Peet, Mike Maltese or Bill Scott.  He never consulted with directors like Wilfred Jackson, Dave Hand or John Hubley.  At no time did he hire a famous screenwriter or novelist.  He was interested in creating better animation, but he was uninterested in what the animation was there to serve.

Williams treated content as an excuse to create elaborate visuals, but he didn't much care what the content was and may not have been able to tell the difference between good and bad content.  In this way, he was perfectly suited to the commercials his studio turned out.  He was lucky that during that period, British ad agencies were writing literate and witty ads.  The combination of their content and his astounding artwork made his commercials the best in the world.

But when the content was mediocre, as it was in his feature Raggedy Ann and Andy or in The Cobbler and the Thief, the result was an elaborateness that wasn't justified. Character designs were overly complicated and had a multiplicity of colours.  Layouts used tricky perspectives.  The inevitable result was that artists could only work at a snail's pace, driving up the budget and jeopardizing delivery.  The detail overwhelmed the flimsy stories and the films collapsed under their own weight.

Someone in the documentary revealed that during the period when Warner Bros. was financing the film, Williams was still creating storyboards.  That was twenty years into the project.  It was obvious that Williams considered story an inconvenience; it had to be done so there would be something to draw.  In the panel discussion after the film, Greg Duffell recalled that there were mornings where Williams had to create sequences off the cuff in order to supply Ken Harris with work.  There was never a structured story, just sequences that tickled Williams' fancy. The visuals were what Williams cared about.

Schreck's film encompasses the heroic Williams and the self-destructive Williams.  Williams is animation's Erich Von Stroheim, making an impossibly long version of Greed.  Or maybe Williams is Captain Ahab, inspiring his crew to pursue the white whale but leading them all to destruction.  Williams set out to make a masterpiece, to show the world animation as it had never been done before.  Those parts of his film that survive are unlike anything else that's been done.  But being different and being worthwhile are not the same.  Williams chose to work in a medium where the audience expects a story that evokes emotions, but Williams saw story as a necessary evil instead of the heart of the project.

This documentary is a major work of animation history.  Schreck has been traveling with it to festivals all around the continent.  I don't know if the film will be picked up for distribution as clearing the rights to various clips would be expensive and time consuming.  For now, festivals may be the only way to see the film, so you'll have to seek it out.

Williams' career has undoubtedly been a benefit to the entire animation industry, but his success with audiences was greater when others created the content that was the basis for his work.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

TAAFI Roundup Day 2

Dr. Stuart Sumida

The absolute highlight of TAAFI on Saturday was a talk by Dr. Stuart Sumida, a paleontologist by trade who consults with the animation business.  Dr. Sumida has consulted for Disney, DreamWorks and Arc Productions in Toronto, and it was Arc who suggested him as a TAAFI speaker.  His talk was on comparative anatomy, pointing out the difference between herbivores and carnivores, between animals and humans and then between men and women.  Those differences in structure had repercussions for how various creatures move.

 I think everybody in the audience learned something about anatomy from his talk.  I know that I did.  After his talk, I approached him to suggest that he lecture at Sheridan the next time he was in Toronto, but the associate dean of the animation program beat me to him.  I hope that Sheridan students have the benefit of his knowledge.

Not having heard of him prior to TAAFI, I did not register for his Sunday master class.  I will not make that mistake again should he return to Toronto.  If he appears at a festival near you, I urge you to attend.  You will not be disappointed.

The balance of my day was spent watching three shorts programs.  Shorts programs are always a mixed bag.  There's no question that I have a bias for narrative.  My general comment, not only about the shorts at TAAFI, is that many films are poorly paced and directed.  I often find myself wanting the films to move faster or be clearer as to what they are trying to communicate. The work embedded below is what I found online and that I felt had merit.  However, few of the films are serious and still entertaining.  That may be asking too much, but it's a direction that I'd like to see animation pursue.

I enjoyed the anarchy of Got Me a Beard and I thought The Right Place was well crafted, though I wish the craft was applied to something other than a scatological joke.  Fester Makes Friends is the latest in a series of Fester cartoons.  They are dopey and politically incorrect, but they remind me of cartoons of the 1930s that throw decorum to the wind.

There was a 21 minute film called Priests whose animation and design were rather spare, but had a great script that dealt with various religious contradictions as well as the relationship between two priests.

Jazz That Nobody Asked For was another anarchic piece that I enjoyed.  The Bravest Warriors is a web series by Pen Ward, the creator of Adventure Time.  I was never able to get my head around Adventure Time and admit that it's probably a generational thing, but I found The Bravest Warriors to be clever.

The last shorts program I saw that day was student shorts.  Four of them were from Sheridan, so I can't be objective about them.   Happily Ever After was from Israel and had potential but he ending was a disappointment.  Double Occupancy from Germany was very solid for a student film, but there were missed acting opportunities.  The two characters could have been developed further.  Probably the stand-out was I am Tom Moody.  What's embedded below is only a portion of the entire film, which is a sensitive look at a character at war with himself.

Jazz that nobody asked for from Benny Box on Vimeo

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Parallel Posters

If you think that the movies coming out of Hollywood are all alike, take a look at the similarities of the posters that advertise them.

(link via Boing Boing)

TAAFI Roundup Day 1

Anyone who has attended an animation festival knows that the cascade of talks and films tend to blur together.  In addition, TAAFI had three sessions running simultaneously each day.  It's possible for someone to have attended and experienced a completely different festival, so don't take this as a definitive review of TAAFI, merely my own personal impressions.

David Silverman

David Silverman, a director on The Simpsons, gave the keynote address on the series.  Someone asked about table reads and punching up the script and Silverman revealed that the script was punched up at least four times, the final time after footage was already in colour.  He mentioned that people suggested more efficient ways of working, but his attitude was that the show was the most successful animated series in history, so why mess with a good thing?

This was followed by a state of the industry panel.  Ben McEvoy, one of TAAFI's founders moderated and asked if the broadcasting was dying, with so many people cutting their cable subscriptions.  Predictably, the broadcasters on the panel said no.  Whether they believe this or were trying to project confidence, I don't know.

Later, there was a panel "From Napkin Sketch to Green Light," about pitching shows and getting them to air.  Someone on the panel said it could take five years to go from pitch to a show, and I thought to myself that if broadcasting wasn't dying now (and I think it is), who knows where it would be in five years?  Pitching shows to conventional broadcasters and cable channels now is a questionable proposition, as their financial model is deteriorating rapidly.

I have an axe to grind here, but it was clear from this panel that ideas should not be fully developed, as broadcasters like to shape shows to their needs, and a broadcast executive emphasized that even if he liked a pitch, he still had to sell it to those higher up in his company.  The combination of these two things is the reason that I personally discourage people from pitching shows.  Any creator worth his or her salt is going to want to explore their idea and nail things down.  This is precisely what broadcasters don't want.  There are legitimate reasons, such as needing a show to be suitable to a particular demographic, but there is also the vanity of business people who think that their ideas are as good as anybody's.  If this was true, they wouldn't need to take pitches and would create their shows in-house.  Furthermore, after contorting an idea to please a development executive, the executive doesn't have the authority to put the show into production but has to convince the bosses, who are likely to contort the show even more.  While this ugly process proceeds, the creator is being paid peanuts in development money while the broadcast people are on salary.

The game is stacked heavily against creators, which is why I encourage people to get their work to an audience in a more direct fashion: as prose or as comics distributed on the internet.  Besides establishing ownership of the property (something you would have to give up to a production company or broadcaster), it allows a creator to thoroughly explore the idea and develop it without interference.  Finally, should the property attract an audience, that gives the creator increased leverage in dealing with broadcaster interest.

The business we're in is very simple, really.  It's all about attracting an audience, the larger the better.  That audience gets monetized though advertising, subscriptions, pay-per-view, merchandise, etc. and that's what finances the whole shebang.  If you've built an audience, that makes you and your property valuable.  People who want access to your audience will come to you.  Pitching will be unnecessary and instead they'll be making you offers.

There was a panel on funding yourself which I had to miss as it ran concurrently with a panel I moderated on portfolios and self-promotion.  I really wanted to see it.

My panel had Lance Lefort of Arc, Darin Bristow of Nelvana, Patti Mikula of XMG Studio and Peter Nalli of Rune Entertainment talking about the best way to organize your material when applying for work.  These days studios prefer links to any physical media.  Reels should be short with the best material up front.  Applicants should know about the companies before applying so that they know they're showing suitable material.  Resumes should be no longer than 2 pages and cover letters a single page.  All stressed that attitude was as important as skills, as they were looking for people who would fit into existing teams and be pleasant to work with.

The day ended with three talks.  Mark Jones and Sean Craig of Seneca College talked about how the school had worked on professional productions, particularly those made by Chris Landreth.

Jason Della Rocca gave a fabulous talk relating Darwinian evolution to the changing nature of the media.  As I have an interest in evolutionary psychology and business, it was right up my alley.   He talked about how people assume that the present environment extends infinitely into the future without disruption and how inevitable disruption catches people off guard.  He talked about the importance of variation in an uncertain environment as the only way to discover what would work in new conditions.  Failure was a necessity in order to gain knowledge but the failure had to be small enough as to not destroy an enterprise.  Della Rocca mentioned that Angry Birds was the fiftieth project of the creators and that nobody remembered the previous forty nine.  He talked about how the highest quality inevitably came from those who put out the greatest quantity, precisely because that quantity (including failures) gave them more information about what worked in a given environment.  The talk could be boiled down to "fail fast and cheap."  Right now, Hollywood is betting everything on tentpoles that cost $100 million plus (meaning "slow and expensive") and even Lucas and Spielberg are warning that movies are vulnerable to a financial collapse as a result.

Greg Duffel explaining spacing charts

The last speaker of the day was veteran animator Greg Duffell, who talked about timing.  In the past, directors would time entire films down to the frame as a way of guaranteeing synchronization with music that was being written while the animation was being done.  Duffell talked about how this had fallen by the wayside and that what animation directors do today bears very little resemblance to what they previously did.  Duffell gave a longer version of this talk to the Toronto Animated Image Society several years ago and I wish that TAAFI had allowed more time for this important talk.

Coming up will be reflections on days two and three of the festival.

Friday, July 26, 2013

The Day of the Crows

Courtesy of TAAFI (Toronto Animated Arts Festival International), I have just seen a terrific animated feature from France.  It's original title is Le Jour des Corneilles and it was co-produced by France, Canada and South Korea.  It is a drawn feature made for less than $10 million U.S. and is easily one of the best animated features I have seen in the last several years.

The film opens with two characters, a father and son who live in a forest.  The father is a gruff barbarian who treats his son with disdain.  The time period is impossible to determine.  It could be a fantasy setting or could be any time in the historical past as there is nothing beyond the natural world to provide a clue.  When the father is injured, the son ventures beyond the forest for the first time to find help, and we then learn that the film is set during the first World War.

The son has grown up isolated from anyone except his father and forest animals.  At this point, the film becomes reminiscent of Francois Truffaut's The Wild Child, where the feral son has to adjust to life in civilization.  As the film continues, it reveals the backstory of who the father is, how he came to live in the forest and what has determined his relationship with his son.

When I watch animated features made in North America, I always know where they're going.  I hope for surprises or twists to break the film out of the predictable story structure that Hollywood continually falls back on.  In this film, I had no idea where it was going and I loved the film for that.  The characters were intriguing, their background was a mystery and the ultimate resolution was not guessable until it arrived.
Director Jean-Christophe Dessaint (left) with TAAFI director Ben McAvoy
The artwork is beautiful, the characters are well developed and the direction and pacing by , who was present at the screening, were excellent.  I was sitting between Jerry Beck (an old friend) and David Silverman of The Simpsons (who I met today) and the three of us loved the film.  I said to Jerry that this film could easily be the wildcard Oscar nomination for animated feature this year.  Each year, after the major animation studios have been stroked with nominations, the animation branch usually gives a film a nomination based purely on its quality.  This film deserves that nomination this year.  I don't believe that the film has a North American distributor yet, but this is the kind of film that Gkids has picked up in the past and I hope that they, or somebody else, grabs this film.

Apparently, it is already available in Blu-ray with English subtitles, though I don't know where it can be bought.  The DVD listing says that it is bilingual, but there is no indication if it is dubbed or subtitled.  In any case, if it is playing in a festival near you or turns up on Netflix or a cable channel, I highly recommend it.  While the film is still child-friendly (though not for very young children), it has enough adult content that it is a satisfying experience.

It shows clearly that drawn animation is far from exhausted as a medium and it shows how much can be done for a relatively low budget.  More and more, I know that the most interesting animated features are not coming from  North America.