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.