Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Is There an Animated Feature Bubble?

Cartoon Brew has a list of 47 animated features that will potentially be released in 2016.  Some have already been released outside North America, others are still in production.

There have been articles in the past about whether animation is wearing out its welcome or not, but now we are reaching a saturation point that is constrained by the calendar.  With only 52 weeks in a year, next year could potentially see a new animated feature released almost every week.  Is it possible for the box office to sustain that many animated films?  Even if half of them don't get a North American release, that's still a new feature every two weeks.

With few exceptions, they are aimed at the family audience.  That audience is now being courted by two other major franchises, Marvel and Star Wars, that will compete for box office dollars.  While many animated features have budgets significantly lower than those from the big studios, they still need to earn enough to make their releases worthwhile.

With so many films hitting theatres so frequently, marketing is going to be extremely important.  Films that have poor opening weekends are toast.  There will be no time for word of mouth to build before the next animated feature arrives.

Many who have jumped into producing animated features are destined to be disappointed.  That's when this bubble is going to pop.  Audiences may not care.  A dozen high profile animated features a year may be more than enough to satisfy the family audience.  But what is this going to do to employment?

People who have been in animation for the last 20 years (except for those who worked in hand drawn animated features) have not seen lean times.  The increase in TV animation, videogames and animated features has mostly been a continuous upward curve.  Those who have been around longer remember that the animation industry was not always so robust.  I can't believe that all these features are going to be profitable enough to keep their producers starting new projects.  Should producers walk away, there are going to be people looking for work.  Maybe TV and games can absorb them, but TV is experiencing its own potential bubble, with streaming being added to broadcast and cable.  Is there enough money in that system to keep everything going?

The Disneys, DreamWorks, Blue Skys and Sonys have deep enough pockets to stay in the market for animated features, but they're a minority of those 47 films.  There will always be features made for local markets in Europe, Asia and South America, but getting a North American release may become harder in the future.  Even the Ghibli films have not pulled major box office in North America, which casts doubts that many of the freshman features coming will be successful.

I could be wrong, but how many animated features a year can the market sustain?

Monday, December 28, 2015


Here's an interesting article on GKIDS, for my money the most interesting distributor of feature animation right now.  They've been unafraid to release hand drawn features and they have brought some of the best international animated features to North America.  They've had six of their films nominated for Academy Awards, and I've seen them all.  I look forward to their future releases and hope they continue to flourish.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

"Nothing begins good, but everything good begins."

I've recently read How to Fly a Horse: The Secret History of Creation, Invention and Discovery by Kevin Ashton.  It contains many insights on creation, more than I could do justice to in a review, but I do want to share a few quotes from the book.
Creators must expect rejection.  The only way to avoid rejection is avoid making anything new.  Rejection is not a ticket to quit.  It does not mean the work is bad.  It does not mean we are bad.  Rejection is about as personal as gravity.

At its best, rejection is information  It shows us what to do next....Rejection is not persecution.  Drain it of its poison and what remains may be useful.


Great creators know that the best step forward is often a step back -- to scrutinize, analyze, and assess, to find faults and flaws, to challenge and to change.  You cannot escape a maze if you only move forward.  Sometimes, the path ahead is behind.

Rejection educates.  Failure teaches.  Both hurt.  Only distraction comforts.  And of these, only distraction can lead to destruction.  Rejection and failure can nourish us, but wasted time is a tiny death.  What determines whether we will succeed as creators is not how intelligent we are, how talented we are, or how hard we work, but how we respond to the adversity of creation.

Why is changing the world so hard?  Because the world does not want to change.


Nothing begins good, but everything good begins.  Everything can be revised, erased, or rearranged later.  The courage of creation is making bad beginnings.

Friday, November 06, 2015

101 Dalmatians: Give the Lady a Hand

Above is an early section of 101 Dalmatians that I regularly show my students when talking about walks.  The three women are great contrasts in design and movement and we analyze how the visuals form our impressions of these characters.

There are variations in timing.  The first woman walks at 15 frames per step, which is a relaxed gait.  The second at 10 frames per step, showing more urgency and the third woman walks at 8 frames per step and is clearly in a hurry.  There are variations in body shape.  The first woman is gangly, the second stout and the third svelte.  There are variations in dress which imply what class the women belong to.  The first woman wears an ill-fitting coat and is bohemian, the second woman wears a smartly tailored outfit and is middle class and the third woman wears fur and is upper class.

While I've seen the film many times and I've shown this clip easily dozens of times to students, there was something I didn't notice until this week: the way each woman holds her leash.

The first woman is the most casual of the three.  Her hand is in her pocket.  The second woman is quite rigid in her arm motions and she holds the leash in a fist.  This implies that she's very guarded and not willing to take chances.  The third woman holds the leash with an open hand.  That shows her confidence that nothing will go wrong.

Then there's Anita, the woman who Roger will eventually marry.
She holds the leash in a fist, but isn't holding the leash by the loop.  She's not as rigid as the second woman, but not as confident as the third.  Also notice what she's carrying.  The first woman, we see later, is a painter.  She's carrying her supplies.  The second two women are carrying purses.  Anita is carrying a book, implying intelligence.

At this point in the film, the women, including Anita, are just vignettes.  The audience is only given brief glimpses of them.  Yet it's clear that the artists have worked hard to visually differentiate the women and to give the audience clues as to who these women are.  Even something as potentially trivial as how someone holds a leash has been thought out to be consistent with what the artists want to communicate.

The credited animators for the walks are Frank Thomas and Blaine Gibson.  It's impossible to know what came from the designs and what was added in animation, but these walks are a testament to how much information can be compressed into a short amount of time.  That's the power of good design and expressive movement.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Some Thoughts on VR Storytelling

I am not an expert in virtual reality and frankly haven't been following it that closely.  However, it's beginning to pop up more and more, so I've started to think about how it might affect animated storytelling.

You've probably seen the video of Glen Keane drawing in three dimensions.  I've just seen a video from Occulus Medium about sculpting in a virtual reality.  I don't doubt that video games will take advantage of VR before any other form of animated storytelling, but how will stories that are not interactive accommodate themselves to VR?

The simplest approach will probably be to let the viewer wander through a scene, looking wherever he or she wants to at any given moment.  This is the closest to what now occurs on the stage.  When watching a play, you are free to look where you wish.  There are many directorial tricks to influence where the audience is looking, but there's nothing to stop an audience member from staring at a performer's shoe for the entire play.

(Will the hardware will track head or eye positions?  We move our eyes much faster than we turn our heads.  Besides speeding up the audience experience, tracking eyes will prevent the feeling of vertigo when the entire world spins while you turn your head.  Will the viewer glide through the scene like a film camera or will the viewer have to walk or run to keep up with the action?  Both have emotional validity, but will the action scale itself to the viewer's ability to keep up with it?)

There are two issues with giving the viewer the freedom to wander through a scene that I see.  The job of director exists specifically to shape a story visually and direct the audience to what is important at any given moment.  If you give the audience the freedom to look where they please without strategies to influence where they look, you could end up with stories that are less dramatic or comic than intended, simply because the audience is not catching the important action.

The other issue, and one that will be common to all forms of VR, has to do with increased production demands.  Right now, if you cut from character A to character B, character A does not have to be animated so long as he is off-screen.  With VR giving the viewer the ability to look where he pleases, character A must always be alive in case the viewer is looking in his direction.  This will require more animation for each character in a scene and may also require more background animation (wind, water, etc.)  If the characters will truly be present in the story, and not just on some kind of breathing cycle or other nondescript movement, this will require more work and larger budgets.  It will also force animators to learn how to have characters listen, something live actors learn early on, but that animated films typically avoid except for reaction shots.

Another alternative to this would be something similar to directing live action TV dramas from the 1950s.  Imagine that every character has a virtual camera focused on her as well as a camera that covers the master shot.  The viewer could switch between cameras, choosing who to look at.  The danger here, as above, is that on a first viewing the viewer doesn't know where the story is headed. She might miss important details or emotional moments.  Will a story have to be viewed multiple times in order to fully understand its dynamics?  And once understood, will the viewer have evolved a preferred way of experiencing a particular story that will be different from other viewers' approach to the same material?  Imagine a shared VR experience where you are looking through the eyes of the person next to you, experiencing how they experience a story.  Then you switch places.

Another possibility is the subjective camera where the viewer is in the story.  This edges more into an interactive approach, where characters would address the viewer, even if the viewer's responses were prerecorded audio.  In this way, it would be possible to be in the film as whatever character you desired and see the story through their eyes.  On additional viewings, you could take the part of another character.  Would Star Wars be more or less interesting if you could take the part of any of the characters and see the film through that character's eyes?

While videogames have been around for decades, there is still a separation between games and narrative media.  With VR, will they bleed into each other more?  Besides playing a character, will the viewer have hands to interact with the environment?  And if so, will the viewer be able to influence the story based on actions taken?  A hit or a miss with a weapon could have a major impact for how a story unfolds.  With each action taken, a parallel story possibility exists, perhaps making this approach far too expensive to produce.  If it turns out "these ARE the droids we're looking for," or the trash compactor kills one or more characters or the death star doesn't blow up, you have three other movies.  Multiply that by every fork in the story and how long would it take to produce the film?

Eventually, conventions will develop.  There's no reason that red means stop and green means go except that we all agree on it.  There's no reason that a right mouse click does certain things compared to a left mouse click except that we've been trained across various software packages to accept this.  Just as there are storytelling conventions in film, such as the cut and the dissolve, VR will inevitably develop its own conventions so that audiences feel confident as to the best way to experience a story.  What those conventions will be and how long they will take to develop is unknown at this point, but that's the next frontier.  People look back in wonder at the development of animation in the 1930s and the development of cgi in the '80s and '90s.  The next explosion of creativity in the animation field is going to be the development of VR as a storytelling medium.

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Pete Williams and Undergrads

In August, Pete Williams, the creator of the MTV and Teletoon series Undergrads, gave a fabulous talk at Animatic T.O. relating the history of creating the show and getting it on the air.  It was a warts-and-all presentation, where Williams was forthcoming about the mistakes he made.

He has a lot to teach anyone interested in selling a TV series.  Until you've done it, you don't really know all the pitfalls and gotchas, so take advantage of the his experience and watch the presentation.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Tulips Shall Grow: George Pal vs. the Nazis

The Library of Congress National Film Registry invited me to write about the George Pal Puppetoon Tulips Shall Grow.  It is one of the most dramatic of Pal's animated films and the first American animated cartoon to be explicitly anti-Nazi.  The historical circumstances behind its creation include Pal's history as well as Hollywood's dealings with the German market in the 1930s.

If you're unfamiliar with the film, you can watch it below.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Jack Kirby's 98th Birthday

August 28 would have been Jack Kirby's 98th birthday.  While Kirby has been gone since 1994, it's still a day to celebrate for a variety of reasons.  First, Kirby's influence on popular culture is probably larger than it's ever been.  The Daily Herald reports that movies featuring characters created or co-created by Kirby have grossed $6.7 billion world-wide.  That doesn't count TV shows, toys and comics that are still being made based on his work.

Another reason to celebrate is that this is his first birthday since his estate received a settlement from Marvel and Disney for his creations.  While the amount is unknown, one hopes that it was significant given the earning power that Kirby's creations are still showing.  Marvel, which for years downplayed Kirby's role, is once again celebrating him now that the legal battles are over.

Charles Hatfield, author of Hand of Fire, an analysis of Kirby's work, has curated an exhibit of Kirby originals at the California  State University Northridge Art Galleries that runs until October 10 entitled Comic Book Apocalypse: The Graphic World of Jack Kirby.  If you're in the area, I would urge you to see it.  As powerful as Kirby's work is in print, the originals are more forceful.  Hatfield says, "The catalog is a monster: 20 essays on Kirby, most of them short and punchy, interleaved with more than a hundred images, most shot from original art. It's a joint publishing venture between the CSUN Art Galleries and IDW, under Scott Dunbier's eye and with design by Randall Dahlk, who designed IDW's incredible Kirby Artist's Editions. It's in production even now."

If you are in the mood to immerse yourself in Kirby's drawings, Tom Spurgeon at The Comics Reporter has put together an online gallery of his work that spans a good portion of his career.  And if you're looking for a more personal reminiscence, you can't go wrong reading Mark Evanier, who had the great fortune to work with Kirby and know him for around 25 years.

As powerful as Kirby's images are, single images don't address his strength as a storyteller.  I've just finished reading Invisible Ink: A Practical Guide to Building Stories that Resonate by Brian McDonald.  It's an excellent book on story structure and one of the best books on story creation I've ever read.  In his first chapter, he talks about structure in a way that illuminates Kirby as a writer.
Often when I listen to how people evaluate stories, I hear them talk about dialogue.  When they talk about "the script" for a film, they are often talking about the dialogue.  Or when they mention how well a book is written, they most often mean the way the words are put together -- the beauty of a sentence.

When people speak of Shakespeare's work, they almost always talk about the beauty of the language.

These are all forms of "visible ink."  This term refers to writing that is readily "seen" by the reader or viewer, who often mistakes these words on the page as the only writing the storyteller is doing.

But how events in a story are ordered is also writing.  What events should occur in a story to make the teller's point is also writing.  Why a character behaves in a particular way is also writing.

These are all forms of "invisible ink," so called because they are not easily spotted by a reader, viewer or listener of a story.  Invisible ink does, however, have a profound impact on a story.  More to the point, it is the story.  Invisible ink is the writing below the surface of the words.  Most people will never see or notice it, but they will feel it.
Kirby often worked with collaborators, sometimes by choice and sometimes not.  However, in telling the story pictorially, he was writing the story.  The contents of each panel, the continuity from panel to panel, the choice of "camera" distance and angle, the composition, the character poses, the facial expressions, the use of black ink, etc. all told the story before the dialogue was added.  As McDonald would say, it was the story.  As distinctive as Kirby's images are, it is also his imagination and his storytelling that make him worth remembering and studying.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

R.I.P. Richard Cohen

Feb. 3, 1952 - Aug. 20, 2015
Richard Cohen, an artist who contributed to the early days of computer animation and digital visual effects, passed away on August 20 from a cardiac arrest.

I first met Richard in the summer of 1984 at Sheridan College.  At the time, they had a 14 week summer course in computer graphics.  Richard was already an established illustrator, having done covers for Heavy Metal magazine.  He had also hung around Ohio State University, one of the hotbeds of cgi development at the time.

One of Richard's illustrations

Richard and I stayed in touch after the course and he was hired almost immediately by Pacific Data Images in San Francisco.  Later, he worked for ILM on films like Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Death Becomes Her.  Other work included matte paintings on The Hudsucker Proxy, Starship Troopers and The Santa Claus 2.  His IMDB listing is woefully incomplete, as so much of the early days of cgi were spent on company logos and TV commercials, work that IMDB doesn't track.

By 1999, Richard was teaching visual effects at Sheridan College, the same program that he had taken 15 years before.  He also taught painting in the Art Fundamentals program.

Richard had amazing taste and a strong sense of design.  He and his wife Ria bought a house on the Niagara escarpment in Grimsby, Ontario, that was something out of an architectural magazine.  It was the kind of house you'd see pictures of but never expected to see in person.  It was also exquisitely furnished.

In addition to art, Richard was heavily involved with woodworking, making guitars and furniture that were professional quality.  He was intensely focused when he found something he was interested in and stopped at nothing to get the results he wanted.

Richard in his workshop with a guitar in progress

In December of 2009, Richard had a stroke which resulted in a limp and losing the use of his left arm.  As you can imagine, that was a major blow for someone so interested in creating both digital and physical things.  In more recent years, as a result of the stroke, he developed chronic pain which no medication seemed to control.

He was an outgoing, boisterous guy who, as I said, could be intensely focused.  My wife and I shared many dinners with him and Ria and it's hard to believe that he's gone.  I'm going to miss his booming voice.  He's survived by his mother; five younger brothers; a daughter, Mara, from a previous marriage; and his wife Ria.  He's to be buried in San Francisco.

In 2001, Richard's special effects students collaborated on a film called The Artist of the Beautiful.  Richard was the artist in the film and it's the way I prefer to remember him.
THE ARTIST OF THE BEAUTIFUL from Noel Hooper on Vimeo.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

No Spec Work

I've written about creator rights.  I'm especially against contests, which are all over the internet and a really pernicious way for companies to solicit work for free.  Here's a great comic by Maki Naro about the problems of spec work and here's Mark Evanier on spec from the writer's side, but it still applies to anyone creative.

Saturday, August 01, 2015

The Collected Works of Hayao Miyazaki

Amazon.com will release a package of 11 Miyazaki features in Blu-ray for $224.99 on November 17, 2015.  No listing yet on Amazon.ca.  Apparently, versions of this box have already been released in Japan, Europe and Australia.  The link has more details.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Legend of Korra

(Spoilers below.)

Having watched and admired Avatar: The Last Airbender, I have now watched all of its semi-sequel, The Legend of Korra.  While there are aspects of Korra that are superior to Avatar, I don't think the series reaches the same high level, and I think that the reason has to do with the nature of television.

As I understand it, when Avatar was given the green light for production, the commitment was for three seasons right from the start.  Because of this, the creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko were able to know how long they had to tell their story and how they could develop their characters over time.  It resulted in a show I referred to a novelistic

To the best of my knowledge, Korra's initial commitment was only for a single season.  As a result, the show suffers from a common TV ailment.  Stories and character arcs can only be developed one season at a time, as nobody knows how many shows will eventually be produced.

In Korra's case, this led to disjointed stories and character arcs compared to Avatar.  The first season was underdeveloped.  The villain, Amon, was the head of a social movement built around resentment of those with bending powers.  Except for an early robbery attempt broken up by Korra, there were no other events that would explain why the general population resented benders.   When Amon was revealed to be a bender himself, public opinion immediately shifted against him, but if there was anger against benders, why would the population now side with Korra and her friends?

There was an attempt to tie the second, third and fourth seasons together.  In season two, Korra's uncle Unalaq attempted to free and merge with an evil spirit Vaatu and bring about 10,000 years of darkness.  In season three, the villain Zaheer revealed that Unalaq was a renegade member of a group called The Red Lotus.  In season four, the defeat of Zaheer led to the rise of a military dictator, Kuvira.  Unfortunately, these attempts at continuity were band-aids.  Each season there was just another villain bent on destroying Korra.  In this way, each season's arc devolved into formula.

This is a common problem with TV series due to the nature of renewing for single seasons.  Boardwalk Empire suffered from the same problem, where there had to be a new threat to the main characters for each set of episodes.  This limitation is a major drawback to coherent storytelling and is something that Avatar miraculously avoided.  Has there been another series with continuing characters that got a multi-season commitment before going on the air?

Formula also worked it's way into other parts of Korra.  Team Avatar was again four characters, two male and two female, with one of the males as comic relief.  The brother and sister Desna and Eska seem based on the deadpan Mai in Avatar.  This season by season development also led to questionable character appearances.  Zuko, a character from Avatar, appeared in season three as he was concerned about the threat posed by Zaheer, but he was absent from season two, which was an equal threat to Korra and a larger threat to the world.  While it was nice to see the character return, he didn't have much to do and his appearance was ill-timed relative to the levels of danger Korra faced.

The large cast caused several characters to remain undeveloped.  Suyin Beifong had a large family, and while she was given enough screen time to become a rounded character, her husband and children were not for the most part.  While Tenzin and his children were well developed, his wife Pema was not. Kai was heavily featured for awhile and then seemed to vanish into the crowd.

On the plus side, the production values were higher than the Avatar series.  There was more 3D animation brought in for vehicles and machines.  The fight scenes were better choreographed and animated.  The climax to season four was as elaborate as anything I've seen done for television animation.  In Avatar, there was the tendency to pop character's faces into extreme takes.  I don't object to the takes, but felt that they were clumsily animated and were jarring as a result.  The facial animation in Korra avoided the extreme expressions, though once again television budgets resulted in lots of limited animation in acting scenes.

The reunion and reconcilation of the Beifong family was nicely done.  Toph Beifong was brought back from Avatar and given enough screen time to be as vivid as she was in the earlier series.  Her relationship with her daughters and their sibling rivalry was one of the more satisfying parts of the series.

Season four seemed to be about reconciliation and redemption.  Asami's father was brought back to redeem himself.  Even the villains Zaheer and Kuvira were shown to be misguided rather than just evil.  Bolin, Varrick, Zhu Li, Prince Wu and Bataar, Jr. are all brought firmly into the good guy camp regardless of their earlier actions.

Like Avatar, Korra will continue in graphic novels.  It's interesting, though, that the series creators will be stepping out of animation, at least for a while.  Working on an animated TV series is exhausting and I can imagine how much more exhausting work on Avatar and Korra must have been due to the ambitiousness of the shows.  DiMartino will be writing novels and Konietzko will be creating a graphic novel.  Based on their animation work, I look forward to what they do next.

While I've listed areas where I thought Korra had weaknesses, it's still an immense achievement.  Falling a little short of Avatar: The Last Airbender is nothing to be ashamed of, and in some ways it exceeded the earlier series.  While I'd pretty much given up on TV animation as a place for quality storytelling, DiMartino and Konietzko managed to beat the system.  I congratulate them on that and hope that broadcasters are smart enough to learn from their success.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Hirschfeld Exhibit in New York

If you are in New York City before October 22, I urge you to go to the N.Y. Historical Society and see The Hirschfeld Century: The Art of Al Hirschfeld.  Hirschfeld (1903-2003) is best known for his caricatures of performers and for hiding the name of his daughter Nina in his drawings.  The exhibit contains original drawings, paintings, sculptures as well as lithographs and printed material.  You can see Hirschfeld's style coalesce in the mid 1930s.  From then until the 21st century, his work is of a uniformly high standard.  The work since 2000, when Hirschfeld was in his nineties, shows some deterioration in his line, but there's remarkably little loss of skill for a man his age.

The originals are a revelation.  While I have a shelf-full of books of Hirschfeld's work, none of the reproductions do justice to the originals.  For one thing, the originals are larger and so it is easier to see the quality of the line work and the detail.  Hirschfeld's control over the weight of his line has never been adequately captured in the printed reproductions of his work.

While his caricatures are they key to Hirschfeld's fame and popularity, they overshadow recognition of his abilities as a graphic artist.  Had Hirschfeld dealt with different subject matter, his work would still be worthy of study.  His use of rhythm, texture and composition are impressive and I'm fascinated by tension in his drawings between flat designs and dimensional volumes.
L to R: Cyd Charisse, Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Donald O'Connor and Debbie Reynolds.  Click to enlarge.

In the drawing above, look at the graphic treatment of most of the ankles.  Lines cross each other producing flat shapes.  For Rogers' legs, Hirschfeld uses three lines to describe four edges.  There's no logic to it, but it works.  See how flat Astaire's entire body is except for his hand and head.  In the same drawing, dimension is achieved by the overlapping volumes in the faces, skirts and O'Connor's right arm.
L to R: Tony Curtis, Marilyn Monroe and Jack Lemmon in Some Like it Hot.  Click to enlarge.

Take a look at the textures in this piece, all created with line.  Look at the contrast between the dots on Curtis's dress and the curved lines of his leg and chest hair.  Compare that to the flower pattern on Lemmon's top contrasted with the short stubby leg hair.  See the variety of texture on Monroe's dress contrasted to the open areas of her skin.  Note the treatments of the three performers' hair, all done with line but all having different value and texture.
L to R: Mildred Dunnock and Lee J. Cobb in the 1973 production of Death of a Salesman.  Click to enlarge.

Hirschfeld's drawings are built with curved lines.  Curves are inherently more friendly than straight or angular lines.  But Hirschfeld is very aware of his choices, as you can see in the above image.  Death of a Salesman is about how life crushes people and how the main character fails to achieve his ambitions.  The pain and tension in the character are manifested in the angular way Hirschfeld draws Cobb's hands.  Note the lack of detail in the shirt so that the contrast between the openness of the shirt and the density of the hands makes the hands stand out.  Note Cobb's face, where the features are jammed together in the middle, with lines radiating downwards.  This drawing gives life to the cliché that a picture is worth a thousand words.  Hirschfeld has not just caricatured Cobb, he's captured the essence of Willy Loman, the beaten character that Cobb is portraying.

The exhibit is curated by David Leopold, who is also the author of The Hirschfeld Century: Portrait of an Artist and His Age.  The book contains more art than is in the exhibit, including many pieces I was unfamiliar with.  My main complaint is that the art is reproduced too small.  I long for an oversize Hirschfeld book where the work is reproduced the same size as the originals.  If you can't make it to New York, the book is reasonable substitute for seeing the exhibit, but the originals are vastly superior.

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Wacky Walk Signal

In Toronto, the walk signals count down to let pedestrians know how much time is left before the signal changes. In Havana, they not only count down the "walk" but also count down the "don't walk" for both pedestrians and drivers.  That seems like an improvement.  In addition, though, the "walk" sign actually walks.  While the animation is not great, it's a nice idea.  Is this done anywhere else in the world?
While I'm sure that there is no connection, it reminded me of this Sheridan student film made by third year students several years ago.

Friday, July 03, 2015

Animation in Havana

Click any image to enlarge.
I just spent a week in Havana, Cuba, a city that is interesting for many reasons.  One of the highlights of my stay was a visit to Estudios de Animación, the state run studio that is part of the Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematográficos.  The studio is run by the brothers Juan and Ernesto Padrón and they generously toured me through their entire facility.

The studio is located in the Vedado section of Havana in a modern, multi-story building.
Inside is a full service animation studio, where work is done on paper, in stop motion, with 2D and with 3D software.  The lobby has a mural showing many of the studio's projects.
The studio does a variety of work.  There are educational films on Spanish grammar, how the body changes during puberty and Cuban history.  There are shorts made for festivals.  There are commissioned films and TV series for children.  They recently completed their first cgi feature that was a Cuba-Spain-Venezuala co-production entitled Meñique, directed by Ernesto Padrón.

I always feel at home in animation studios.  The artists there were like animation artists everywhere: friendly, happy to show off their work, and enthusiastic about the medium.  One artist I talked to talked about how much he loved working on paper and how superior he felt it was to software.  I shared complaints with another artist about the limitations of certain software packages.

As in most studios, the artist's desks were surrounded by toys, many of their own making.  The planes above this 3D animator were his own work, crafted from paper.  He also had built a replica of a rifle that appeared authentic until you touched it.

Ernesto and Juan showed me some stop motion shorts with tools as characters.  The puppets were amazingly lightweight.  There was a thin wire armature inside and the outside was a light, flexible foam.  They could be supported simply using pins to hold them to the stage surface.

Here are Juan (at left) and Ernesto in one of the 3D production rooms.

Juan has also done cartooning for print.  Here are some examples. 
Here are some posters of recent work

By coincidence, I was there on July 1, the day that Barack Obama and Raul Castro announced that they would reopen embassies in each other's countries.  President Obama has moved to improve relations between the U.S. and Cuba, but some of the restrictions, such as the embargo, are acts of Congress and can only be repealed by Congress.  I hope that relations are eventually normalized.  It will make it easier for this studio to get the supplies they need and will make their impressive work more readily available in English-speaking countries.

I am grateful for the opportunity to see this studio and speak to the artists.  I was impressed with the quality and variety of their work. 

Below is a series of spot gags directed by Juan that I believe is from the 1980s.  I'm sorry that the resolution is so low.  Below that is the English version of the trailer for Meñique, directed by Ernesto. 

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Avatar: The Last Airbender

Yes, I know.  I'm 10 years late.

I backed into this series due to my interest in the work of comics writer/artist Gene Luen Yang.  Having read his books American Born Chinese, The Eternal Smile and Boxers/Saints, I discovered that he had written several graphic novels based on the Avatar TV series.  I read them and was extremely impressed with the political sophistication of the stories.  The Promise has to do with two ethnic groups both laying claim to the same land.  Anyone who follows the news can easily see the resemblance to the middle east or Ukraine.  The Rift has to do with the tension between technological progress and ecological preservation.  Like life, these books don't present easy answers, showing that there are valid claims on all sides.

I should also mention the art by the Japanese team known as Gurihiru, which is very attractive.

So, knowing nothing of the backstory of the animated series but being impressed, I wrote Yang and asked where the stories came from.  Did he originate them?  He replied to me that they were written in collaboration with the series' creators Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino.

Hearing this, I wondered if the series reached the same standard that the graphic novels had, so I've now watched all 61 episodes.  I am very, very impressed.

Briefly, the series is set in an Asian world where there are four tribes based on the elements of fire, water, earth and air.  In these tribes, there are some who can manipulate their namesake element.  In essence, they're superheroes, though free from the cliches that have encrusted themselves around superheroes.  The fire nation has attempted to conquer the rest of the world and the Avatar, who is the only one to master bending all four elements, works to end the war and restore a balance in the world.

I can no longer claim to be an expert on animated TV series.  I haven't watched a lot in the last 15 years.  However, in my experience, I've never seen a series like Avatar.  When I was working in production, there was a strong resistance from broadcasters for continuity between episodes.  They wanted the ability to run them in any order without causing audience confusion.  I'm amazed that Nickelodeon agreed to letting a story play out in continuity over several seasons. 

The result is a story that is novelistic.  Characters come and go and their histories are filled in bit by bit.  They have time to truly develop based on their experiences, so they grow organically.  Just about every character gets screen time to become fully rounded.  In too many children's TV shows, there are a handful of personality traits assigned to a character that they never move beyond, but in Avatar, characters reflect on their pasts as they try to figure out how they should move forward.  The characters are driven by their emotional needs, not simply manipulated for the benefit of the plot.

In addition to well-developed characters, there are themes here that are also rare for children's TV:  war, genocide, racism, fascism, brainwashing, reincarnation, mysticism, loss of loved ones, and family relations that run the gamut from nourishing to dysfunctional.

The fights and action scenes remind me a lot of Jack Kirby's work at Marvel in the 1960's.  While there are explosions, collapsing buildings and characters thrown through the air who slam into objects, there are no broken bones and practically no blood.  I was surprised to find myself caught up in what would happen to the characters.  With so much formula storytelling on TV, for adults and children, that was a novelty for me.

I would love to know how the creators managed to get this series approved.  Did they reference The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter in order to show that children would accept material this dense and downbeat?  (There is a lot of comedy in the show, but a story built around a hundred year war is hardly a giggle fest.)  I consider it something of a miracle that this show ever got produced, as it breaks so many of the accepted norms of children's TV, which tends to be relentlessly shallow and cheerful.

It isn't perfect, but TV animation never is.  The animation itself, done in Korea, suffers from the compromises of TV budgets, with animation on 3's, 4's and 6's.  There's a six-legged bison character  they never did get a believable walk cycle for.  There are lots of held cels with only parts of characters moving.  However, there are fight scenes and action scenes that are elaborately choreographed.  The facial expressions are sometimes pushed too far based on the rest of the design approach, but even with the limited animation, the characters genuinely act.

There are some episodes that feel like padding, included to fulfill a 20 episode season.  However, there are interesting episodes that break expected patterns.  "Tales of Ba Sing Se" features vignettes of each of the leading characters, allowing them time to develop outside the overarching plot.  "The Ember Island Players" is meta-textual, where the characters watch a play based on their own adventures in earlier episodes and reflect on how they're being portrayed.

I know that the creators followed this series with The Legend of Korra and I'll now work my way through that.  Yang and Gurihiru have another Avatar graphic novel coming out in September called Smoke and Shadow.  Their novels are broken into three parts and come out at three month intervals.  This week, Yang's first written issue of Superman is in comics shops.

I am surprised and encouraged that material this good has made it into TV animation.  I might be the last person to discover this show, but if I'm not, I highly recommend it.  It's been a long time since I've felt this good about an animated TV series. 

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Inside Out

(Mild spoilers below.)

I'm in in the minority on this, but I was disappointed with Inside Out.

There is no question that Pete Docter has the ability to emotionally affect an audience.  My problem with this film, and on reflection with Up, is that he focuses too much on invention, and it gets in the way of the characters and the story.

In Up, everyone remembers the montage of Carl's life with Ellie.   Nobody talks about the absurd age and inventions of Charles Muntz.

In this film, what people will take away is the characters inside Riley and the ending, but the world they inhabit is overly complicated.  There is an lengthy journey for two of the characters inside Riley's head and there are all sorts of rules of the world that are introduced too conveniently.  Characters and props appear during the journey that change the audience's sense of what is possible and what is not.  It's hard to generate suspense when you never know when the equivalent of a magic wand will show up to help the characters. 

The problem is structural.  The film makers had too many good ideas to fit in the beginning, and so by introducing them mid-film, the world was continually redefined to the detriment of the story.

Here's a spoiler.  If Joy can be sad and cry, why can't the other characters inside Riley's head go beyond their dominant characteristic and grow as well?  The problem is that if you have characters who are incapable of change, you have no drama.  But introducing change into one character reveals the other characters as nothing more than stereotypes, no matter how entertaining.

The solution would have been to spend more time outside Riley.  Because she contains conflicting emotions, it's natural that the drama should have played out there.  But Riley is a puppet who can't experience emotions outside of what the characters in her head allow.  While her experiences moving to a new city, entering a new school and screwing up in front of peers are all easy for the audience to empathize with, they are done in a perfunctory manner.  We never see her interacting with the others in her school and so her experiences are left at the level of the generic.

Inside Out contains a lot of good character comedy, inventive concepts and striking design.  However, the dramatic logic of the film often gets broken under the weight of those things, and that's why I find the film unsatisfying.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Annecy Signal Films

The Gobelins signal films for this year's Annecy festival are turning up online.  They are all dedicated to women animators.  As usual, the art and animation are beautiful.  However, I'm a little wary of some of the historical interpretations, particularly the ones for Mary Blair and Evelyn Lambert.  The Blair piece implies that Disney heavily edited Blair.  Disney heavily edited everyone, but in Blair's case, he was always trying to get more of her look on the screen, much to the frustration of the animators.  Blair was one of Disney's favourites and there are many artists who are better examples of being victims of Disney.  In Lambert's case, the film is not very flattering to Norman McLaren.

I wish the Lotte Reineger tribute had been done cut-out style.  The film does use silhouettes, but it would have been more satisfying to me if the style was closer to Reineger's own.

Monday, June 08, 2015

Is This Progress?

There's going to be a new 3 Stooges animated series.  Let's look at how the Stooges have been treated in animation in the past.

And now, we have this.

Friday, June 05, 2015

Hairy Nuts

Click to enlarge
I was neutral regarding Peanuts being done in cgi.  Now, seeing this poster, I shudder at a bad design choice.  Putting photo-realistic hair on top of characters whose eyes and mouths are squiggles is ridiculous.  It looks like they're all wearing wigs.  I don't know if the hair is made of individually generated strands or done with textures, but the detail and the specular highlights are overkill.

I'm curious to see these characters in motion.  I wonder if the hair will have a lot of follow through, as that would be even more of a distraction than the way it looks in this poster.

Monday, June 01, 2015

Brad Bird, Ayn Rand and Frustration

Brad Bird
I haven't seen Brad Bird's new film, Tomorrowland, yet, but once again various reviewers are connecting Bird to novelist Ayn Rand's work, something that Bird denies.  This article in Slate by Forrest Wickman says that Bird is drawing more inspiration from Walt Disney than from Rand.  I think that both are missing a key point, possibly because nobody in the discussion has ever worked in the film or animation business.

The criticism of Bird is that his films contain characters who are innately superior to the majority.  This strikes many as elitist, though common sense tells us that we all know people who have an aptitude for something, whether it's music, math, sports, languages, drawing, etc.  It's interesting that the idea of talent has become so controversial.

Many claim that Bird expects his characters to be treated differently than those without their talents, and there's some truth in this, but not in a way that Ayn Rand would endorse.  I am no Rand expert, but what I know of her writing is that it is elitist; those who are superior should not be dragged down by the inferior and should it happen, then the superior are justified in withdrawing their talents from society.

As the Slate article points out, the idea of the elite going on strike is nowhere present in Bird's work.  Rather than springing from elitism, I think Bird's work springs from artistic frustration and I think his career should make that obvious.

In The Incredibles and in Ratatouille, the characters are trying to exercise their talents in ways that are beneficial.  A key scene in The Incredibles is when Bob witnesses a mugging while being dressed down by his boss.  His frustration doesn't stem from his inability to exercise his powers, but from the altruistic need to help someone who is being victimized.    In Ratatouille, Remy risks his life repeatedly to get closer to cooking, something that would benefit people if only they didn't let their prejudices get in the way.  Both are frustrated by a world which stops them from being who they are, even though the world would benefit.

Now look at Bird's career.  He was an animation prodigy, being tutored by Disney animators at the age of 14.  His time at Disney after Cal Arts did not lead to any films of note.  It was a low point in the company's management history, where no one with vision (artistic or economic) was willing to take a chance on the kind of animation that Bird wanted to do.  At that time, Disney had Bird, John Lasseter and Tim Burton on staff and essentially wasted them all.  Talent went unrecognized and unfulfilled.

Bird tried to get several projects off the ground, such as his animated adaptation of Will Eisner's The Spirit and his own Ray Gunn without success.  He didn't get to direct his first animated feature, The Iron Giant, until he was in his forties, twenty years after leaving Cal Arts.  In moving into live action, he wanted to make 1906.  He took the Mission Impossible film as a way of gaining credibility, but even after the success of that project, he couldn't get 1906 into production.  Instead, he directed a film with a link to a Disney theme park.  While fans are no doubt happy to hear that Bird will be working on a sequel to The Incredibles, he's going backwards at the age of 57, having to revisit an earlier success.  As he's closer to the end of his career than the beginning, there are a limited number of films he has time to make. How many of them will be the films he wants to make as opposed to what Hollywood will allow him to do?

Forget Ayn Rand and look at the animation business.  It's filled with artists who would say that they're not doing their best work or are stuck labouring on projects that they have no great love for.  It's true across the industry, which is why so many artists are involved in side projects that are an escape from the frustration of their day jobs.  Bird has been more successful than most, but he still can't get his chosen projects onto the screen.  The Incredibles and Ratatouille are fantasies where characters overcome obstacles to fully realize their talents.  Unfortunately for Bird and the rest of us, it rarely happens in life.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Amazing Video Interview Collection

Courtesy of Mark Evanier, here is a link to a page of rare video interviews with animation personnel, many of whom were not usually the focus of attention.  Subjects include Willie Ito, Milt Gray, Larry Harmon, Irv Spence, Bill Berg, Norm Blackburn, Alex Lovy, Lew Keller, Bill Hurtz, Philo Barnhart, Leo Salkin, Ward Kimball, Carl Urbano, Hicks Lokey, Al Bertino, Rudy Larriva, Grim Natwick, Pete Alvarado, Tom Ray, Owen Fitzgerald, Lloyd Vaughn, Lillian Astor and Bob Carlson.

Evanier has some background about Paul Maher, the person responsible for the interviews, here.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Brad Bird quote

"There are great animators just as there are great actors I gave a talk once using [digital] animation from the [1996] movie Dragon Heart. I showed two sequences and asked the audience which they believed; they said one sequence but not the other, as they said it looked fake. I said, "Yes, but why?" They couldn't tell me. The interesting thing was, it was the same technology and the same [animation] model; the only thing different was the animator. You can be convincing without being real."
Brad Bird is everywhere right now, promoting Tomorrowland.  This interview has a fair amount to say about animation.

Thursday, May 07, 2015

Don't Pitch a Buyer, Pitch the Audience Video

In March of 2014, I had the pleasure of giving a talk at Animatic T.O, an informal lecture series founded by Barry Sanders and continued by Andrew Murray when Barry took a job in Halifax.  Grayden Laing of the Canadian Animation Blog videotaped the presentation and now it's available online, courtesy of Grayden and John Righton.

I developed the talk into a series on this blog.  The first part of that series has been read almost 10,000 times to date.  Since giving the talk, my opinions haven't changed.  I've seen nothing in the intervening time to suggest that creators are getting a better deal anywhere.  I would love it if someday, a stranger walked up to me and told me that as a result of my talk, he or she kept ownership of their property and are making a living from it.  Hope springs eternal.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Tax Credits, Exchange Rates and Thin Ice

(Updated Below)
Canadian Animation Resources has good coverage of Nova Scotia's decision to reduce it's tax credits for film and TV production (1, 2, 3).

It's going to be a painful disruption for many people.  Undoubtedly, some studios will close, and some will shift work to another location.  Those lucky enough to be offered jobs elsewhere will have to uproot their lives and relocate to another province.  I'm sorry for everyone who will be affected by this.

This is an ongoing problem in Canada and I've seen it in multiple industries over multiple decades.  Too many companies base their existence on some kind of government protection (such as content quotas, tax rebates and before free trade, import duties) or on the exchange rate, as the Canadian dollar is generally worth less than the American.

The problem with this approach is that it adds more variables to the already difficult puzzle of making a profit.  Creating a product or service, pricing it properly, marketing it and fending off competition is never easy.  When government policy or exchange rates are added in, companies are at the mercy of things they cannot control.

There is also the upcoming issue of the CRTC's pick and pay decision.  As of next March, cable subscribers will be able to abandon packages of channels in favour of only paying for what they want to watch.  To date, YTV has been paid for by everyone in Canada who subscribes to cable, whether they have children or not.  They will undoubtedly lose subscribers.  Teletoon is part of a package, and no one knows what percentage of the people who purchase it actually watch it.

(Update: Canadian Press is reporting that the number of cable subscribers fell by 95,000 in 2014.  That compares to a drop of 13,000 in 2013.  It estimates that Netflix went from 3 million to 3.9 million subscribers in Canada last year.  Even without the CRTC decision, revenue for cable channels, where the majority of Canadian animation appears, is dropping and that is bound to have an effect on production levels, budgets and deadlines.)

While the animation business in Canada is booming at the moment, I'm not optimistic.  I worry about a contraction coming within the next two years.

Canadian gaming studios tend to be either very large or very small.  There are branches of Ubisoft, Rockstar and Electronic Arts in Canada.  There are also small indie studios that are often less than a dozen people.  Those small studios are surviving due to low overhead and a business model that allows them to sell directly to consumers over the web.

I suspect that Canadian animation studios are too married to series production and international financing to be able to work the low end of the market.  I'm waiting (and hoping) to see the entertainment equivalent of indie game companies arise, where small groups develop their own intellectual property and take it directly to the audience.

So long as Canadian studios depend on government regulations and the exchange rate, they are skating on thin ice.  We'll see how well Nova Scotia withstands the reduction of the tax credit, but what's happened in Nova Scotia could happen anywhere in Canada.   I hope that studios are preparing for that eventuality.

Sunday, April 05, 2015

The Upside and Downside of Influences

When a baby goose hatches, it starts following the first moving thing it sees.  As that is usually its mother, instinct serves it well.

People don't have an instinct that strong, but from around the ages of 5 to 20, humans are deeply influenced by what's around them.  Sometimes these influences cause an ignition moment; a person sees someone or something and suddenly knows the path to take.  I'm old enough to remember the first appearance of the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show, and my classmates were utterly transformed by the event.  I'd love to know how many guitars were sold in the weeks after that appearance.

Even when an influence isn't instantaneous, it still shapes shapes a person.  The things you are exposed to during your impressionable years contribute to who you are.  As they say, the child is father to the man. 

There's a strong emotional component to being influenced at that age.  The emotions generated by the things one likes cement their influence on you.  While I have seen many good movies since my twenties, few have the emotional impact that films I discovered as a teenager had.  When you reach maturity, something happens to how you respond; the impact is not as great. 

Creative people are formed during that 15 year period.  It's why you can look at the mass culture of any decade and find that it's distinctive.  It's because the people creating during that period grew up with the same influences.  While they don't reproduce those influences exactly, they shape the work in similar ways.

The emotional affection for something in its simplest form results in nostalgia.  It's fun to share childhood memories with someone the same age.  There's a pleasure to re-experiencing something you loved when younger.    The original emotional is evoked.  That's why there are oldies stations on the radio, even though the decade(s) they feature are constantly advancing with the age of the listening audience.  Good luck finding an oldies station playing '50s rock and roll now.

The emotional attachment to the things that formed us have repercussions for creators.  It's why animation studios and broadcasters hunt for young talent.  That talent is closest in age to the audience, so it shares more of the same influences.  Those people are often inexperienced in the ways of production, but studios think it's a worthwhile risk.  Production smarts can be bought more easily than an emotional link to the audience. 

It also means that everyone who is creative is in danger of losing the audience over time.  As media content shifts, creators often can't shift with it.  Because newer approaches rarely evoke the emotional response of the work they grew up on, staying current often produces a superficial result.  It apes the surface but can't connect to the core; it lacks sincerity. 

This has become very obvious to me recently.  I mentioned to one of my classes that I haven't really watched TV animation in 20 years, though I've stayed reasonably up to date with animated features.  Partly this is because I know first hand the limitations of TV budgets and schedules and when I watch TV animation all I see are the compromises and shortcuts.  The bigger issue is that I'm past the age where I can emotionally connect with shows aimed at children or teens.  The influences that formed the people making these shows are alien to me.  While my students may love Gravity Falls or Steven Universe, I'm never going to love them in the way that I love Chuck Jones or even Bosko cartoons, something I admit have little absolute value.  While I admire the work of Miyazaki, Takahata and Kon, I'm betting that younger people exposed to their work love it in a way that I can't.

(One of the oddities of growing up in the early TV era is that my generation was exposed to older work our parents grew up on: theatrical cartoons, the Marx Brothers, Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Abbott and Costello, The Three Stooges, Laurel and Hardy, and The Little Rascals.  This  proves that the work that influences you doesn't have to be contemporary, only that you experience it during your impressionable years.)

Twenty years from now my current students will discover that they're estranged from the younger people entering the field as they won't have the same influences.  Agism in the media is very real, and this is the root of it.  The gap between creators and the audience results from a difference of influences and the less common ground that creators share with the audience, the harder it is to connect.  Steven Spielberg's latest films are no longer the events they once were, and Spielberg is as audience-wise as anybody.  And I suspect that when we reach the point where young adults no longer grew up on The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King, I'm guessing that the desire to make drawn animated features will be a lot less widespread.

While we are less instinctual than goslings, we may also be less flexible. Goslings eventually move beyond their mothers, but do any of us escape our childhood influences?

Monday, March 30, 2015

Sheridan Industry Day 2015 Trailer

Some students have inadvertently been left out, so there may be an updated version coming.  If so, I'll replace this version.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Heritage Animation Art Auction

Heritage is running an animation art auction and you can see the complete, illustrated catalog here.

The art that is in this catalog is increasingly limited to the nostalgia market.  People growing up now will see this material as old fashioned and they don't have equivalent art to buy from the shows they grew up watching.

There was a time when animation art auctions were common, but since the field has gone digital, whether 2D or 3D, there is no longer any original art to sell.  The art that goes into pre-production is generally now available in the books that seem to accompany every animated release.  However, the animation business has lost a revenue stream and they seem to have lost interest in the high end collectibles market.

I don't follow the collectibles market closely, but is Disney still putting out limited editions and expensive pieces?  With DreamWorks diversifying and looking for revenue wherever it can, I'm surprised that they haven't tried to develop this market.  With cgi and 3D printing, I can see a market for turning out limited edition figurines that are actual poses from films.  The characters from the How to Train Your Dragon films seem a natural for this.

It will be interesting to see if animation art returns to being a small, esoteric piece of the art market or if studios figure out a way to get back into it in a big way.  If it remains a nostalgia item, it will eventually have its customer base die off.

Pete Docter in Toronto

Pete Docter was at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on Monday, March 23, starting the publicity rounds for his next film Inside Out.  He was interviewed on stage by film critic Richard Crouse in front of a sold out audience.  Crouse took Docter through his career and asked some very naive questions about animation, but Docter handled himself well.  At the end of the session, the opening to Inside Out was screened.  It is unquestionably a Pixar film in design and tone and it has the strong emotional core of Docter's earlier films.

This was followed by Docter introducing a screening of Up.

On Tuesday, Docter appeared on Q, the CBC radio arts program.  He covered much of the same material as he did with Crouse, and you can listen to the segment here.