Friday, December 26, 2014

Song of the Sea

Song of the Sea is director Tomm Moore's follow-up to his first feature, The Secret of Kells.  Once again, he delves into Irish culture for his subject, this time with the legends of Selkies, humans who are able to turn into seals. 

Song of the Sea is one of the most beautiful animated features ever made.  While the recent flood of cgi features all start with brilliant pre-production artwork seen in dozens of "The Art of" books, the films themselves homogenize that art into a faux--'50s Disney style.  Because the techniques used to create pre-production art for Song of the Sea are consistent with the techniques used to make the final images on screen, the film is able to take advantage of its foundational art in ways that cgi features either can't or won't.  Each shot of Song of the Sea is worthy of framing.

The story resembles The Tale of Princess Kaguya in many ways.  Both films are about mystical creatures living in human families and the members of those families are insensitive,  thinking they know best for everyone else.  In both films, the conflict arises from people's blindness rather than from stock villains.

The Irish mythology is a little thick.  It may be that the writers took in this mythology with mother's milk and it's second nature to them, but the film's two main stories are not tied together as clearly as they might be.  One story is that of a family where the youngest child is a Selkie.  The other is a tale of character who steals her son's emotions and those of others, turning them to stone, so as to relieve them of the emotional pain they feel.  The Selkie's song is the key to fixing this situation, but it's something of a distraction from solving the Selkie's own situation.

It is refreshing to see a film true to the filmmaker's ethnic roots, as opposed to American films like like Aladdin or Kung Fu Panda, which appropriates other people's roots.  And Moore and art director Adrien Merigeau are to be commended for the look of the film and for maintaining consistency though production occurred at studios in several countries.

Any year that has given audiences The Tale of Princess Kaguya and Song of the Sea has to be counted as a good one.  Forget all the upcoming awards that will probably overlook these two films beyond the nomination stage, assuming they are recognized at all.  These are the ones to see.  They are both deeply felt and personal to the filmmakers.  I've grown increasingly bored with North American feature animation in the areas of design and story and it's satisfying to see that the rest of the world is willing to go its own way.

Friday, December 05, 2014

CTN vs. TCAF and Zen Pencils

I attended CTN for the first time this year, representing Sheridan College.  Because of that, I was pretty much tied to Sheridan's table in the exhibition hall.  I didn't attend any of the presentations or screenings, though I did get to walk around the exhibition hall several times.  The observations that follow all relate to that.

There were hardware and software vendors there, like Wacom and Zbrush.  There were schools of various types offering formal and informal education.  There were book dealers like Focal Press and Stuart Ng.  However, the vast majority of exhibitors were artists selling their work in the form of prints, sketchbooks and collections.

The quality of work was exceptionally high and the love of drawing was visible everywhere.  It would have been easy to spend thousands of dollars on artwork and have years of inspiration as a result.

However, it struck me that the exhibition hall was like a farmer's market where the only people buying were other farmers.  It puzzled me that the exhibiting artists were not creating work that would appeal to a wider audience than just other artists.

I regularly attend the Toronto Comic Arts Festival (TCAF).  The people exhibiting there sell comics and graphic novels.  Their audience certainly includes artists, but the majority of people who attend are the general public.  The work there is something that average people, not people in the art field, might buy for themselves or purchase as a gift.

This is the case even though the average quality of the artwork is below what I saw at CTN.

Similarly, I've just found the Zen Pencils site.  Gavin Aung Than illustrates quotes from other people about various aspects of life.  While I admire his work, once again it's fair to say that his draftsmanship is below the CTN standard.

Yet at TCAF and Zen Pencils, the artists are reaching a broader audience.  The reason is that they are creating content, not simply demonstrating craft.  There's a difference between designing a character and creating a character.  While the CTN folks are great at design, a sketchbook or print lacks the narrative structure that an audience is looking for.

The artists at CTN love drawing and are good at it.  But in only talking to other artists, they're limiting their sales.  Why aren't they creating childrens books, comics, graphic novels and greeting cards that would show off their art as effectively as their sketchbooks, but also sell to a general audience?

Zen Pencils shows that you don't even have to be able to write, just recognize writing that has a meaningful perspective on life.  It also shows that cartooning, not just realistic illustration, can deal with subject matter that's relevant to adult lives.

I don't doubt that the artists at CTN would love to see drawn animation come back.  By just selling to other artists, they're doing nothing to make that happen.  Only when a property catches with the larger audience will producers take note.  Only when the audience is surrounded by drawings that entertain and enlighten them will there be a demand for drawn animated features.

As Chuck Jones once said, "All of us must eventually do what the matador does: go out and face not only the bull but the crowd."  The talent at CTN should seek out the crowd.

Cartoon Carnival: A Documentary on Silent Era Animation

Silent animation is esoteric, even to people who love animation.  Not much of it is shown anymore and animation has evolved so much from the silent period that these films seem ancient, when they are really only a hundred years old.

Tom Stathes has devoted himself to collecting and researching the animation from this period.  He's appeared on Turner Classic Movies to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Bray studio, the first animation company in the U.S.  He's now collaborating with Andrew T. Smith in a Kickstarter campaign to make a documentary about the silent animation era.

Pioneers like Winsor McCay, Max Fleischer, J.R. Bray, Paul Terry, Earl Hurd, Raoul Barre, Bill Nolan and Otto Messmer laid the groundwork for everything that came after.  Without them, there would have been no Walt Disney, and without Disney the animation we watch today would not exist.

This documentary is an opportunity for the animation world to explore its roots.  I've contributed to the campaign and I hope that the campaign reaches its goal.

Van Beuren Cartoons on TCM Dec. 7

Steve Stanchfield (right) with Robert Osborne
Due to a snafu last October 6, TCM didn't run its scheduled program of Van Beuren cartoons, with guest Steve Stanchfield of Thunderbean.

That program has been rescheduled to this Sunday, December 7 at midnight, Eastern Time.

Steve wrote about the cartoons to be shown here.

I've known Steve for several years and have nothing but admiration for him.  Besides working as an animator and animation teacher, he also puts out fabulous DVD and Blu-ray sets of vintage animation, lavishing far more care on restoration and extras than higher profile companies do.  In addition, he writes a regular Thursday column for Jerry Beck's Cartoon Research site, where he showcases historical treasures and updates Thunderbean's release plans.

I look forward to finally seeing this show on TCM.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Torill Kove's Me and My Moulton

On Dec. 2nd and 3rd, the National Film Board of Canada is making Torill Kove's latest film, Me and My Moulton, available for free.  You can watch it here.

It's a droll story about growing up with unconventional parents and how being different can lead to being uncomfortable.

In the event you see this entry after the free period expires, here is the film's trailer.