Friday, July 18, 2014

Pixar's Pivotal Moment?

In my experience, the hardest thing to cultivate in a studio and the easiest thing to destroy is enthusiasm.  When the staff feels that the studio is dedicated to turning out good films and is providing the crew with opportunities to do their best work, the employees give extra effort.  When management says one thing while doing another, cynicism quickly sets in and every move or statement by management is viewed with suspicion.

The recent revelations that Ed Catmull was a willing conspirator to hold down wages and limit employment opportunities destroys his credibility as a manager.  While his contributions to the development of computer animation technology are untouched by this, his leadership credentials now lie in ruins.  While his book Creativity, Inc. has been praised by reviewers, my friend James Caswell says that it should be shelved in the fiction section.

Pixar has been very effective in keeping their internal workings from the public.  There aren't Pixar employees contributing to message boards or commenting on blogs.  Even those people with reason to complain, like Jan Pinkava and Brenda Chapman, have been circumspect.  Perhaps that's because the field is so small they didn't wish to burn bridges or perhaps there were settlements paid with silence as a condition.

But within Pixar, what's the mood?  Can any statement or policy from Catmull be treated as genuine now when the staff knows that he has been picking their pockets and limiting their prospects?  Has his authority been neutered?  Will Robert Iger ease him out as a way of reassuring the staff, or worse, leave him where he is and act as if nothing is wrong?

And what about John Lasseter?  What did he know and when did he know it?  Are there emails that implicate him as well?  Did he ever disagree with the policy or did he just accept it?  Regardless, he has profited from it.  Pixar's profits have increased the dividends and the price of Disney stock, making Lasseter richer.  Pixar's employees have paid for a portion of his winery.

Will this hasten people to leave the company?  Will it cause animation artists and students to think twice before applying to Pixar or the other studios involved in the conspiracy?  Will this push some employees or former employees to go public with their grievances?

As we don't know what's going on in Pixar, this may be a tipping point or the staff may just ignore it and keep working.  However, in the 1930s when the world was celebrating Walt Disney, conditions in his studio were deteriorating, eventually resulting in the strike that changed the company forever.

We may have to wait years until some Pixar employees retire or leave the field before we get a sense of how this was received within the company, but eventually the truth will come out.  The media love to build people up and then tear them down.  I'm guessing that it's just a matter of time before Pixar is in their sights.  Certainly the company has given them ample reason to take aim.

Monday, July 07, 2014

Submarine Patrol

(For my regular readers, I couldn't resist taking part in this multi-blog discussion of John Ford films.  I'll return to animation with my next entry.  For those of you wondering why an animation blog is writing about Ford, I've been interested in him for 40 years.  I've seen 80 of his films and TV shows, most of them multiple times, and I count 27 books on Ford on my shelf.  You are not in the hands of a dabbler.)

Anyone interested in Ford knows that starting with his 1939 releases, he made a series of masterpieces.  What is surprising is that immediately preceding that amazing run, his 1938 releases are so little known.  Regarding Four Men and a Prayer, Ford told Peter Bogdanovich that "I just didn't like the story, or anything else about it, so it was a job of work."  The DVD release of the film in the Ford at Fox collection has not prompted anyone to champion the film.

For reasons that I don't understand, Ford's other 1938 release, Submarine Patrol, was omitted from the Ford at Fox collection.  Submarine Patrol can almost be considered a lost Ford film.  It's never legally been available on VHS or DVD.  John McElwee, of the essential blog Greenbriar Picture Shows, doesn't believe the film has run on the Fox Movie Channel and says that the film lost $132,000 on it's initial release, so it was never particularly popular.

I wouldn't say that Submarine Patrol is first- or even second-tier Ford, but it is unmistakeably his work.  It looks back to films like Men Without Women, Seas Beneath and Up the River and looks forward to They Were Expendable, When Willie Comes Marching Home and Donovan's Reef.  Anyone familiar with Ford would immediately recognize it as his work from the supporting cast and the style of humour.  While it doesn't come together into anything you could call great, Ford's themes and approach are strong throughout the film.  While Four Men and a Prayer may have been an obligation to the studio, Submarine Patrol was a film that Ford was interested in making.  By 1938, Ford was already in the U.S. Naval reserve, and one of the freighters in the film, the Maria Ann, sails out of Portland Maine, Ford's home town.

I will recount the plot simply because the film is so little known.  During World War I, a rich socialite named Perry Townsend, played by Richard Greene, joins the Navy expecting to be assigned to an impressive ship.  Instead, he's assigned to be chief engineer on a 110 foot wooden submarine chaser manned by a crew of recruits who lack discipline.  Lt. John Drake, played by Preston Foster, was responsible for letting a destroyer run onto the rocks while on watch and was court-martialed for it.  Now, he's assigned to the same submarine chaser and has the job of getting the crew into shape.

Townsend meets Susan Leeds (Nancy Kelly), daughter of a freighter captain (George Bancroft), and falls in love with her.  The captain thinks his intentions are dishonourable in the parlance of the time and is against their relationship.  Susan's resistance to her father foreshadows Mary Kate Danaher's resistance to her family and husband in The Quiet Man.

Through various plot twists, Townsend, Drake and the captain all end up on the sub chaser when they go on a mission to sink a German submarine.  Drake is commended for the action, and the captain approves of Townsend's marriage to his daughter, but the necessities of war prevent it.  Duty comes first, though Susan pledges to wait. 

The plot elements are hardly novel.  The disgraced officer who regains respect and the rich kid who learns discipline to become a team player were not new even in 1938.  The same plot elements would be used in many movies made during World War II just a few years later.

Ford doesn't do much to add depth to either of these plots, and I suspect it's due to the actors he's working with.  The best performances in Ford films come from actors who are capable of expressing their thoughts through their facial expressions.  Think of Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath preparing to leave her homestead for the last time.  Ford consciously pushed his actors in this direction.  In Stagecoach,  he changed John Wayne from someone who spouted expository dialogue in B movies to a performer silently exposing his innermost thoughts through his reactions.

While Ford had worked with Preston Foster in The Informer and The Plough and the Stars, Foster was an actor whose emotions don't go very deep.  There's no complexity or subtext to his performances.  Richard Greene is even worse.  His dialogue delivery is all at the same pitch and the same tempo; there's little modulation in how he delivers his lines.  While he is handsome, his eyes are not expressive.   There are shots towards the end of the film where Greene and Bancroft are both in the engine room of the sub chaser while it is traveling through a minefield.  The contrast in their performances is striking.  Ford gives extended close-ups to Bancroft because Bancroft's love for his daughter and the danger of his situation read clearly on his face.  Greene's face reveals no comparable emotion.

Knowing that he couldn't add depth to the main stories, Ford concentrated on the supporting cast to add comedy and Fordian grace notes.  That's where the value of this film lies.  The supporting cast is full of Ford's stock company of the time.  John Carradine, Ward Bond, J. Farrell MacDonald, Jack Pennick, Slim Summerville, Warren Hymer, Harry Tenbrook and Harry Strang had all been in previous Ford films.  Charles Trowbridge would appear again in later Ford films.  Elisha Cook, Jr. might have become a Ford regular but for an accident during filming that upset Ford.  Cook's bandaged left thumb can be seen towards the end of the film.

Ford's comedy is broad and knockabout.  There are gags about sea sickness, Navy food, malapropisms, slot machines, drinking and "The Monkey's Have No Tails in Zamboanga" is sung as in many of Ford's Navy films.  J. Farrell MacDonald, 63 years old at the time, leads the men in calisthenics, jumps a rope railing and knocks out a complaining seaman.  A subplot with Maxie Rosenbloom has him stealing Richard Greene's initial girlfriend and winning a slot machine jackpot, a gag later used in Donovan's Reef.  Slim Summerville is the main comic relief, playing a sad sack Navy cook, who claims everything he serves is lamb stew and is so dumb he throws garbage into the wind.  Henry Armetta plays an over emotional waiter who cries when he's happy or sad.  Everyone except the lead characters adds humour to the film, and often just a facial expression is enough to provoke a laugh.

There are two sequences where Ford evokes melancholy emotions.  When the sub chaser leaves New York to head out to sea, the crew stares at the shore, remembering parts of their past lives and aware that they may be saying goodbye permanently.  Later, when the sub chaser successfully destroys a German sub, a sailor asks Jack Pennick if they should cheer or something.  Pennick says no and salutes his fallen opponents.  Ford previously had Germans salute a fallen American in Seas Beneath.  Even in victory there is loss, and loss is a recurring theme in Ford's work. As in They Were Expendable, the enemy is never demonized; death is something to be respected, not celebrated.

Submarine Patrol deserves to be better known.  It's a pleasant film for casual viewers and full of Fordian moments and humour for fans of the director's work.  Let's hope that Fox releases it on DVD or at least runs it on their movie channel.

(For those interested in reading more of the Ford Blogathon, Krell Laboratories is the central hub.  You can find the entries for day one here.)

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

TAAFI 2014 Part 3

The final day of TAAFI was devoted to industry panels.  It started with DreamWorks supervising animator Rex Grignon recapping his career.
L to R: Shari Cohen, Mark Jones, George Elliot, Laura Clooney, Juan Lopez, Michelle Melanson, Brian Simpson

This was followed by The State of the Industry panel.  While I understand that TAAFI has to keep good relations with its sponsors and the industry, this panel could better be called The Conventional Wisdom panel.  Rather than discuss the real state of the industry, it deals with what everyone thinks the world looks like at this particular point.  Nobody talks about the challenges that Canadian animation is facing or challenges the direction that the industry is going.

George Elliot made the point that in the past, the industry was more about service work and didn't pay much attention to building brands.  Now, there is less service work and studios are working harder to build brands.  While this is accurate (and not to dump on George, who is one of the more successful independent studio owners), it ignores the myopia of Canadian studios for the last 25 years.  While American studios were building worldwide franchises around shows like Dora the Explorer, Spongebob Squarepants, and The Powerpuff Girls, Canadian studios focused on working the tax credits and Canadian content rules to get shows on the air.  Once the show it 52 or 65 episodes, it was retired.  Instead of continuing to build a franchise to the point where it could support merchandising, studios walked away from shows.

As viewers are abandoning broadcast and cable TV, Canadian content rules are becoming less and less useful.  Now the Canadian animation industry is heavily dependent on the existence of tax credits to fund production.   There is no guarantee that those tax credits will survive or won't be superseded by larger tax credits in other countries.  As usual, the Canadian industry is always using a crutch to stay in business.  Rather than using the crutch as a way to get strong enough to survive without government regulation or largesse, the industry is addicted to the government propping it up in one way or another.  So long as the short term is covered, Canadian producers are satisfied.  Are there any studios strong enough to weather the withdrawal of government support?

Would TAAFI be able to stage a real discussion or debate about the state of the industry?

Vera Brosgal
Vera Brosgal presented a panel called The BoxTrolls: A Case Study.  The talk was actually more about Coraline and Paranorman, but was still a very enjoyable look behind the scenes at Laika.  Brosgal showed some of her storyboards as well as images of the various departments at Laika.

Ayah Norris of Indiegogo gave an excellent talk about crowdfunding and the best way to orchestrate a crowdfunded campaign.  She revealed that Indiegogo takes 7% as their cut for projects that fulfill their goals and talked about how it is best to know you can quickly get to 30% of your goal before launching the campaign.  The best perks are those that can be delivered digitally, as they are the most cost efficient, and she stressed that the cost of the perks should be calculated before the goal is set.

She mentioned that any dispute, say for non-delivery, was between the contributor and the project.  Indiegogo takes no responsibility for projects that don't deliver.  This is the Achilles' heel of crowdfunding.  While the amounts donated are generally low, they are a 100% risk.  I've donated to several crowdfunded campaigns that have not delivered their promised perks or did not get completed.

That was my TAAFI for this year.  There were many panels and screenings that I did not attend, so others may have very different opinions.

I think TAAFI is still trying to figure out who its audience is.  There are events for fans, students, and professionals.  The Animarket is a case in point.  It was free, which was an excellent move, but I suspect that artists looking to sell their work were disappointed relative to their experiences at Anime North or Fan Expo.  The studios there to recruit and the hardware/software vendors were probably pleased with the response they got.  I'm sure that the TAAFI management will be evaluating the Animarket results and adjusting accordingly.

Here are some suggestions for future TAAFIs.  While the venue was good, being located on Lake Ontario at Corus and George Brown College, the food choices were severely limited.  I hope that if TAAFI continues in this location that they do something about this.  The industry panels should be moved to a weekend day so that people would not have to lose a day of work to attend them.  There should be a separate pass for just the industry panels and also a separate pass for just the screenings.

While TAAFI is still suffering some growing pains, it is an excellent festival and one of the few events that unite the Toronto industry.  I look forward to future editions and I'm confident that it will continue to improve.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Supreme Court to Rule on Jack Kirby Case?

Updated at the bottom.

Readers of this blog know of my interest in creator rights and the work of Jack Kirby.  Kirby was one of the most prolific comic book artists of the 20th century.  It's not just that he turned out an enormous amount of work, it's that he created more characters - both heroes and villains - than anyone else.

At the time he did his work, the comic book business was run by people with questionable ethics and business practices.  As a result, Marvel does not have a clear title to the characters Kirby created and Kirby's children have fought in court to recover the copyrights to their father's work.  So far, the courts have ruled in Marvel's favour.  However, the issue is not yet resolved and the Supreme Court of the United States will soon decide whether to hear the latest appeal.  In the corporatist time we live in, I'm skeptical that the court will rule against Marvel and Disney, but there is still a chance.

The Hollywood Reporter has the latest on this case and it is worth reading.

If you create material that you pitch to broadcasters or studios, you own the copyright to your work.  While the thrill of a sale can be overwhelming, don't lose your copyright without fully understanding the repercussions.  It is the single most valuable part of your creation.  If Jack Kirby owned the copyright to his characters, his life would have been very different and each of his four children would be multimillionaires.  Instead, Disney is not paying the estate when they reprint Kirby's work or when they make blockbuster movies featuring Kirby's characters.

Creative people need to understand what happened to Jack Kirby (and Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, and Bill Finger) in order to prevent it from happening to them.  Educate yourself.

Update: The Hollywood Reporter says that the actors, writers and directors unions are filing briefs in support of the Kirby case being taken up by the Supreme Court.  The article points out that the case could have repercussions for the music industry as well.

How Pixar Made Me a Better Photographer

photo by Paul Teolis

Animation artist and photographer Paul Teolis has written  an article called "How Pixar Made Me a Better Photographer."  And it's not in the way you might think.  The article says a lot about career management in a time and industry of uncertainty. 

TAAFI 2014 Part 2

Sunday at TAAFI began for me with a panel called Compelling Character Design featuring Dave Cooper, Jessica Borutski and Stephen Silver and hosted by the Guys with Pencils, Andrew Murray and Adam Hines.
L to R: Andrew Murray, Adam Hines, Dave Cooper, Jessica Borutski, Stephen Silver

Dave Cooper talked about drawing from photos and then doing multiple passes on the drawings, each time pushing the caricature and the shapes farther, as a way of warming up. Silver also agreed that figure drawing was fundamental.

The following panel was called Creating Success and was hosted by Mike Valiquette of Canadian Animation Resources and featured Rob Davies, Dave Cooper, Mike Geiger, Michael Rex and Natasha Allegri.
L to R: Mike Valiquette, Rob Davies, Dave Cooper, Mike Geiger, Michael Rex, Natasha Allegri

Each of these people had sold a show and Valiquette questioned them about the paths they followed. Davies is a partner in Atomic Cartoons and one of the creators of Atomic Betty. Cooper started out as a cartoonist and fine art painter before pitching shows and only after Pig Boat Banana Cricket was rejected by Nickelodeon and gathered an audience online did Nickelodeon reverse itself and pick the show up. Mike Geiger had been creating online animation for years. Michael Rex was a children's book illustrator who created a series of graphic novels starring a barbarian in third grade called Fangbone. Natasha Allegri had been doing online comics since high school and was invited to work on Adventure Time as a result. From there, she created the online series Bee and Puppycat. In every case except for Allegri, the shows had been in development for a period of years before getting the green light. A question I should have asked, but didn't, was whether anyone on the panel retained part ownership of the copyright of their projects and whether they had any share of ancillary rights such as merchandising.
L to R: Steve Wolfhard, Vera Brosgal, Michael Rex, Jason Thompson

Make Comics! featured Steve Wolfhard (Cat Rackham), Vera Brosgal (Anya's Ghost) and Michael Rex (Fangbone) and was moderated by Jason Thompson (The Art of Dad).  All three of the panelists work in animation: Wolfhard on Adventure Time, Brosgal at Laika and Rex on the forthcoming Fangbone series.  For Wolfhard, comics were a way to create personal work away from a day job.  Brosgal talked about how her graphic novel was a way to deal with her experiences as an immigrant and Rex created the graphic novel as part of his day job creating children's books but it got optioned for a series.

My final event of the day was a screening of Student Shorts.  Seven countries were represented, which speaks well for the quality of animation education around the world.  Overboard used a sailing analogy to talk about the production of animated films.  It was directed by Paul Zeke at the Vancouver Film School.  Harald, directed by Moritz Schneider, is a cgi film about a wrestler with a mother/manager from hell. Floating in My Mind is a beautiful film by Hélène Leroux, but I don't know if the baloon metaphor is properly worked out.  Chili Con Carne by Philippe Rolland is funny and ends with a very sick joke.  The Sugar Bugs is an epic by John Kim about bacteria.  There were two films by Sheridan grads: Backwards Cat Goes to the Vet by Tanya Kozak and Bringing up Bigfoot by Edward Coughlin.

EXTRAIT : Philippe Rolland "Chili con carne" from Ecole Emile Cohl on Vimeo.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

TAAFI 2014 Part 1

The third edition of the Toronto Animated Arts Festival International has now finished.  As always, there was more than a single person could attend, so what follows is only a partial review of what occurred.

This year, the opening night film was a French feature, Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart, directed by Stéphane Berla and Mathias Malzieu.  Unfortunately, it could not live up to last year's opening night feature, The Day of the Crows.  While the film had interesting art direction, it was heavily influenced by Tim Burton, reminding me of Edward Scissorhands and the ending echoed Corpse Bride.  The script was extremely talky and the drama was not as developed as it should have been.  Still, I'm always grateful for the opportunity to see an animated feature that isn't available in North America.

Prior to the feature, two shorts were screened.  Gertie the Dinosaur, 100 Years Later, was not, as many of us suspected, a screening of McCay's original film.  It was a wholly original piece taking off on McCay's film and was well received by the audience.  This year's College Animation Challenge, It Happened in a Pub, included contributions from seven Ontario animation programs.  Max the Mutt's contribution was generally acknowledged to be the best.
Dan Povenmire (left) and Jeff "Swampy" Marsh

On Saturday morning, the creators of Phineas and Ferb, Dan Povenmire and Jeff "Swampy" Marsh, critiqued It Happened in a Pub and then gave their keynote speech, going over their careers and how they launched the show.

The next thing I attended was a screening of shorts for kids.   Lightning Larry by Daniel Solomon and Hyun Jun Song, had  being late for school turning into a disaster movie.  Runaway by Susan Huen Sin Yung and Esther Parobek was about an aging refrigerator convinced he was to be replaced by a newer appliance.  A Girl Named Elastika used pushpins and rubber bands to form its characters, a very novel approach to animating.  Warren Brown had three of his Big Block Singsong shorts screened, and while simple were great fun. The Fog of Courage, a cgi Courage the Cowardly Dog short by John Dilworth was incredibly creepy and sent at least one child out of the screening in tears.  The final film, The Dam Keeper by Robert Kondo and Dice Tsutusmi, was a beautifully art directed film bullying and social isolation.

"Courage the Cowardly Dog" (Excerpt) from Acme Filmworks on Vimeo.
A GIRL NAMED ELASTIKA from Guillaume Blanchet I Filmmaker on Vimeo.

I then went to a second screening entitled Straight Up Toons.  Monkey Rag, by Joanna Davidovich is an energetic homage to musical cartoons and was lots of fun.  Yellow Sticky Notes, directed by Jeff Chiba Stearns, was a jam animation about a day in the lives of all the animators.  Crime: The Animated Series, directed by Alix Lambert and Sam Chou, used documentary soundtracks and a range of design approaches to illustrate various perspectives on criminal activity.  Mr. Hublot, which won an Oscar for bets animated short, was an amusing story about a man and his robot dog.

I really looked forward to seeing Stephen Silver at the festival.  Besides admiring his art, I admire his fearlessness.  He is very entrepreneurial and has no hesitation to move forward on any idea he has for marketing his artwork and earning a living with it.  His talk was entitled "How Not to Get Screwed" and was about behaving in a professional manner and watching out for people who have no hesitation to take advantage of artists.
Stephen Silver

My final event for Saturday was Bill Plympton's latest feature Cheatin'.  I have very mixed feelings about Plympton.  On the one hand, he's certainly a good artist and I admire the way he's created a unique career for himself.  On the other hand, I find that his features are all lacking in the areas of story and structure.  Cheatin' is about a husband who is given a photo implying that his wife has cheated on him.  The problem is that the evidence showing that she is innocent is in the same photo, but the husband never looks closely enough to notice.  Furthermore, the husband never confronts his wife about her supposed infidelity.  The audience spends the entire film knowing that the wife is innocent and wondering how long it's going to take for the husband to figure it out.  The story could have been told in 20 minutes but made for a very dull feature.  I noted three people who left while the film was in progress.

Plympton doesn't need advice from me, but I wish that he would work with a writer.  He's complained that it's difficult to get distributors to take on his films because they don't conform to the family audience, but in this case, I think the film is its own worst enemy.  Everyone knows that sex sells, yet his film built entirely around illicit sex is far from compelling.  There's nothing wrong with Plympton's ideas, but they need more structure, less padding (there are endless shots of characters traveling) and better dramatic development.
Cheatin' Trailer from Bill Plympton on Vimeo.

To be continued.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Book Review: Genius Animated: The Cartoon Art of Alex Toth

This is the third volume by Dean Mullaney and Bruce Canwell chronicalling the life and career of Alex Toth.  Toth spent the bulk of his career illustrating comic books but spent a significant portion of his life designing animation for TV.

The earlier two volumes focused on Toth's work in comics and included a fair amount of biographical material from Toth's co-workers and family.  This volume is entirely about his work in animation, though the text is sparse and frankly not very valuable.  The interviewees, including Mike Kazaleh and Robert Alvarez, never worked with Toth.  The bulk of the book are designs, model sheets and presentation art that Toth created for TV cartoons.

Toth was a master of composition and design.  His cropping is unusual and he constantly tried to strip down his drawings to their essentials.  His use of blacks, patterns and textures went far beyond what most other artists in comics or animation concerned themselves with.  His influences included Noel Sickles, Milt Caniff, and Jesse Marsh.

 His initial foray into animation was Space Angel, and in many ways it sums up the issues surrounding Toth's animation design.  Toth's drawings for the show are excellent, but the drawings don't move.  The lip synch was done by photographic real mouths and superimposing them on the drawings.  While the graphics are very sophisticated, the motion is primitive. 

While Toth simplified his work for later animated shows he designed for Hanna Barbera, there was always a considerable gap between the quality of the designs and the style of motion.  Joe Barbera used Toth's work in his sales pitches to networks, but it was all smoke and mirrors and everyone agreed to ignore the truth.  The artists at Hanna-Barbera couldn't draw as well as Toth and there was never a hope that there would be a consistency between the style of drawing and the style of motion.  The network executives knew that the shows would never look as good as Toth's presentation art, but the limited profits for Saturday morning cartoons were not enough to cause them to bother about it.

While Toth groused about the quality of the comic book scripts he was given, they were far better than the animation that resulted from his work.  People forget how truly terrible TV animation was in the 1960s and '70s.  Toth designed the first TV version of Marvel's Fantastic Four.  Take a look at how poor the show's opening credits are.

There are people who are nostalgic for shows Toth designed like Space Ghost or The Herculoids. Toth may have improved the quality of the designs, but the shows never rose to the level of his work.

There are a lot of great drawings in this book.  All three volumes are valuable for showing Toth's evolution as an artist and demonstrating what's possible in visual storytelling.  The third volume leaves an important question unanswered, though.  Are Toth's drawings, as good as they are, appropriate designs for animation at all?  Given the realities of the marketplace, are the designs functional? Perhaps Bruce Timm and company came closest to answering the question, but even their shows feel compromised in terms of motion to me.

Many have commented that Toth is an artist without a monument.  He has no work universally acknowledged as great or remembered by the audience.  That's the tragedy of his career, but it doesn't negate the quality of his drawings or design.  Every Toth drawing is an education, and that alone makes this book, and the preceding volumes, worth having.