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. 

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Controversial Miyazaki

I would look forward to any new film directed by Miyazaki, but I'm especially curious about The Wind Rises.  It's about Jiro Horikoshi, the designer of the Zero, the Japanese fighter plane that was used extensively in World War II.  The subject matter is far from films like Totoro and very far from North American animated features in theatres this summer.

What's also interesting is that the film is politically controversial in Japan (this article is now behind a login and password.  Using, I got in using a login of what@yourmom.dom and a password of updude).  Miyazaki has written that that it was "a truly stupid war," which has angered Japanese nationalists who want to change Japan's constitution to allow for military aggression.

I'm wondering what company, if any, will pick up distribution for North America.  A Disney too afraid to release Song of the South hardly seems a candidate.  While Gkids has released Ghibli films, this subject matter is not aimed at their usual audience.  Perhaps some other indie distributor will pick up the film.  As there is a dearth of animated features specifically aimed at adults, I hope someone does.

Needless to say, I won't be holding my breath waiting for a North American animated feature that tackles Viet Nam, Iraq, drone warfare or the national security state.  While I can point to live action features that have questioned government policy or the official interpretation of history, North American animation is too timid.  Mustn't upset the kiddies.

(link via The Comics Reporter)

Monday, July 15, 2013

Fleischer Gag Cartoons

Check these out.  Gag cartoons from various Fleischer artists: Willard Bowsky (pictured), Tom Golden, Gordon Sheehan, Orestes Calpini, Tom Moore, George Germanetti, and Jack Ozark.  All seem to revolve around Dugan's cake, so there must have been a party where this cake was served.

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

A History of Computer Animation

Moving Innovation: A History of Computer Animation by Tom Sito is a sprawling chronicle of the development of cgi.  That sprawl is both a blessing and a curse.  The blessing is that Sito makes it clear how many people, institutions and companies each contributed to the development of computer animation over decades.  He has interviewed many of the pioneers and looked at many of the individuals, institutions and companies that doggedly pursued the dream of images and animation created on computers.

The curse is that this wide-ranging approach has made the book's organization clumsy.  Rather than work chronologically, Sito devotes chapters to contributions by government, academia, business, gaming and individual artists, so the book keeps doubling back on itself.  Certain films, people and events pop up repeatedly, muddying the historical sequence.  A timeline in the appendices would help clarify the history.

Hearing the pioneers speak about their own ambitions and accomplishments provides an intimate look at an art and technology as it was struggling to be born.   The path was not a smooth one; the failures were as common as the breakthroughs.  There's a cgi graveyard filled with people and companies who chased their dreams before the hardware, software and economics were in place to make those dreams come true. 

While certain well-known figures, such as George Lucas, Steve Jobs, Ed Catmull and John Lasseter, are present, so are many who are unknown to the general public in spite of their importance: Alvy Ray Smith, Jim Blinn, Charles Csuri, Alexander Schure, John Pennie, Robert Abel, Bill Reeves, David Evans, Ivan Sutherland, Seymour Cray, and James Clark.  Each of these people and the others chronicled in the book made contributions that changed the course of the field.  Each worked to create better looking images or to make computer animation flexible enough to communicate ideas and entertain audiences.

While Tom Sito is a traditional animator who has also done storyboards and directed, he has no hands-on experience with cgi.  That lack of familiarity shows in various ways throughout the book.  The development of hardware, particularly the rise of Silicon Graphics followed by the development of video cards for consumer PCs, had huge a impact on the proliferation of cgi and its ability to produce more complex images.  Similarly, viable off-the-shelf graphics software put cgi into the hands of artists who didn't know how to write software.  Sito doesn't fully recognize the impact that each of these things had on the growth and success of the industry.

He also doesn't fully grasp cgi concepts.  His description in the glossary of forward and inverse kinematics is "formulas used in 3D animation," which says nothing about their most common use in moving characters' arms and legs, let alone defining the difference between them.

Historical errors also creep in.  The TV series ReBoot ran on the ABC network, not the Disney Channel.  The animation for the TV series Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future was not produced by Omnibus.  The studio did a sample to try to land the project, but lost it to Arcca Animation.

There will undoubtedly be more histories of computer animation written in the future, some that will go into greater depth on certain topics.  However, in Moving Innovation, Tom Sito has begun to map the territory, making it easier for those future authors to understand how the pieces fit together and who the important players were.  While not perfect, Moving Innovation is a good introduction to how computer graphics grew and have spread throughout almost all areas of computing and our daily lives.

Monday, July 08, 2013

The Decline of Disney

Jaime Weinman on recent Disney events:
"But some people will miss the tradition that Walt Disney created—people who have animated for Disney, and people who aspire to. “I feel like the latest news of layoffs has shaken up a lot of animators, especially students,” says Bobby Chiu, founder of Toronto’s Imaginism Studios. “They’re all a little nervous.” And of course so will some fans. While a future dominated by Star Wars and Iron Man might make Disney more profitable, it could also mean a future where Disney releases movies that could have been made by any studio—and in many cases, used to be made by other studios. In the Lion King era, Disney was the studio that every company tried in vain to rip off. But today, “the average person can’t tell the difference between a Disney movie and a DreamWorks movie, or even a Sony movie,” says [Tom] Bancroft."

Friday, July 05, 2013

Stunted Growth

“Because there’s bad guys, and Mater, and Lightning McQueen, and SPIES!” 
- Max (age 5)

Slate recently published an article comparing how children and adults rated Pixar features.  The children focused on different things than the adults did.  The above quote refers to Cars 2, not any adult's favourite Pixar film.

The article exposes the paradox that is the family film.  It must be acceptable for small children and still keep the attention of parents.  It's a compromised enterprise from the start and I think it's the major obstacle preventing animated features from maturing.

I have nothing against children's entertainment, but imagine if every medium other than animation had to conform to the same standard.  What if every book written had to be acceptable for a five year old?  What would be the attraction for adults?

While animation fans and professionals insist that animation is a medium and not a genre, Hollywood treats it exactly like a genre.  Animated features made for the North American market are the equivalent of books read to children at bedtime.  They're all cut from the same cloth: comical fantasies suitable for young children.  They differ in terms of their characters and settings, but the content is sharply proscribed.  The majority of adults would never choose these films as entertainment for themselves; they tolerate them only because of their children.  When alone, adults are far more likely to tune in HBO than pull a Pixar film off the shelf.

For all the advances on the technical side, the computer animated features in theatres this summer would fit comfortably into the 1990s in terms of their stories.  Computer animation may have displaced drawn animation as the technique of choice, but it has fully embraced the content of animated features dating back to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Economics, as usual, control the situation.  Contemporary animated features cost anywhere from $75-200 million.  With budgets that high, nobody is willing to take a chance and so long as most of the films are profitable (and let's not forget the additional revenue from merchandise), there's no incentive to change.

Japan and Europe haven't fallen into the same trap as North America.  Their animation budgets are lower and the range of content is far wider than North America will accept.  When these films are imported, they receive critical praise but barely register at the box office.  Hollywood has trained the audience well. 

Steven Spielberg is negotiating with John Steinbeck's estate for the right to remake The Grapes of Wrath.  I'll bet that Spielberg would think it a ridiculous idea to do the remake in animation.  Most people would.  And that's the point.  If animation is a medium, it should be able to tackle any subject matter.  Animation will never develop or attract or keep great directors unless they are free to express whatever they want to, whether it's suitable for a five year old or not.

The family film will bring a lot of joy to audiences and make a lot of money for studios, but it will also keep animation a second class medium.  Pixar let Andy grow up.  Too bad the studios won't grow up themselves.