Thursday, January 22, 2015

Bye Bye PDI

When I started in computer animation in 1985, there were five studios that dominated the field: Robert Abel and Associates, Digital Productions, Omnibus Computer Graphics, Cranston-Csuri Productions and Pacific Data Images.  Three of those five companies didn't make it to the '90s.  I can't remember when Cranston-Csuri closed, but it was a long time ago.

PDI was the company that survived.  It was formed in 1980 by Carl Rosendahl, who was joined shortly by Glen Entis and Richard Chuang.  At that time, all software had to be home brewed.  There was no off-the-shelf software.  Every company that existed at the time had to invent (forget about re-invent) the wheel before they could do any work.

Take a look at this demo reel from 1983.  This was cutting edge stuff at the time.

PDI stayed at the forefront of the computer animation business.  It did many flying logos for broadcasters.  It moved into TV commercials, animating the Pillsbury Doughboy.  It created morphing software used in the Michael Jackson video Black or White.  It produced shorts like Gas Planet, and contributed computer character animation to the TV special The Last Halloween.

After Pixar got computer animated features off the ground and drawn animated features were suffering at the box office, Jeffrey Katzenberg of DreamWorks knew he had to get into the cgi game.  His way in was by partnering with PDI.  Initially a minority owner, DreamWorks eventually purchased the entire company.

Antz was the first film made by the studio, followed by Shrek, the film that really put DreamWorks animation on the map.  The PDI facility continued to create some of DreamWorks most successful films, such as the Shrek sequels and the Madagascar series.

Now, it's closing.  It's no secret that DreamWorks has been suffering financially of late.  The company has worked hard to diversify, buying existing characters and creating TV work.  However, it still needs to cut expenses in order to stay healthy.  Five hundred employees are expected to lose their jobs across all the DreamWorks facilities, but PDI is being closed. 

The last of the '80s companies is gone.  It held on longer and had a greater impact than its original competition.  With the closing of PDI, a chunk of living cgi history vanishes.  A lot of top talent passed through PDI through the years, and now it's just a memory.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Animatic T.O. Returns

Animatic T.O, the Toronto lecture series featuring animation professionals, is back on Wednesday, Jan. 14 at The Rhino, 1249 Queen Street West.  Doors open at 7 and the event begins at 7:30.  Admission is $10 at the door.

This event features the work of Genevieve FT, an illustrator and designer who has worked in comics and videogames.  See you there.

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Book Review: Funnybooks

If you ask anyone in North America to name a comic book company, they would probably name Marvel or DC.  Possibly they'd name Archie.  However, during the heyday of comic books, the 1940s and '50s when one comic sold over 3 million copies a month, a different company had 40% of the market, outselling all of the above.  The comic book was Walt Disney's Comics and Stories and the company was Western Printing and Lithography, distributed under the Dell imprint.

Historian and critic Michael Barrier is best known for his writings on animation such as Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in its Golden Age and The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney.  However, his interest in certain comics is longstanding and he previously wrote two books on this topic.  In his latest book, Funnybooks: the Improbable Glories of the Best American Comic Books, he has chronicled the complicated and surprising history of Western while focusing on several creators whose work has stood the test of time.  Carl Barks, Walt Kelly and John Stanley were three writer-artists whose work in comic books aimed at children transcended the target age group.

While most comic book companies of the time were located in New York City, Western had offices in New York, Poughkeepsie and Los Angeles.  While other comic book companies owned the characters they published, Western licensed the majority of its titles from other media: animation, movies and TV shows.

In the days before the internet, the dominant on-demand medium was print.  Movies, radio and television schedules were beyond the public's control.  Magazines, produced cheaply and frequently, were present at every newsstand and were there to be read at leisure.  There were general interest magazines aimed at adults and magazines specifically aimed at men, women and children.  Comic books filled the niche for children starting in the late 1930s and stayed a major part of childhood until the industry was worn down by attacks linking it to juvenile delinquency, the rise of television and the decaying economics of the newsstand.

While the vast majority of comic books were formula stuff, occasionally the stars would align allowing certain creators the opportunity to satisfy themselves while satisfying the market.  The three creators that Barrier focuses on all had that opportunity for varying reasons.  All three had experience working in animation, though only Barks and Kelly had story experience.  They were all draft exempt, making them valuable during the war years when other artists were disappearing into the military.  In Barks case, as he had worked on Donald Duck cartoons at Disney, his editors in Los Angeles figured he knew as much about portraying the character in comics as anyone.  Kelly and Stanley were lucky to be working for Oskar Lebeck in New York, one of the handful of editors in comics history who could not only recognize talent, but encouraged writers and artists to follow their muses.

Barks made Donald Duck and his supporting cast far more complex than the animated versions and brought a level of characterization that made superheroes pale by comparison.  Walt Kelly created Pogo for Animal Comics, and also illustrated fairy tales and adapted the movie characters of Our Gang.  John Stanley was handed Little Lulu, a single panel cartoon series created by Marge Henderson Buell for The Saturday Evening Post, and fleshed out Lulu and her friends into one of comics' greatest comedy series.

With his usual precision and thoroughness, Barrier has laid out the history of the company and its key creative personnel.  In addition to the aforementioned cartoonists, there is material about Gaylord Dubois, Roger Armstrong, Carl Beuttner, Dan Noonan, Moe Gollub, Jesse Marsh and Alex Toth.  Barrier writes about the many artists who crossed over from animation to comic books with varying success.  He explains the relationship between Western and Dell in detail and the careers of Barks, Kelly and Stanley are charted from their starts to their ends, with Barrier offering his insights on the nature of their best work and when and why they fell short.

While the publishing company may now be obscure, the work of these three creators continues to be reprinted.  Fantagraphics is reprinting Carl Barks' work as well as Walt Kelly's version of Our Gang and the newspaper version of Pogo.  Hermes Press is reprinting the comic book version of Pogo.  Dark Horse has reprinted John Stanley's work on Little Lulu as well as Tarzan, written by Dubois and drawn by Marsh.  Drawn and Quarterly has reprinted some of Stanley's non-Lulu work.  In addition, you can find work by most of these creators online at ComicBookPlus for free.

If you haven't read the work of these creators, you are missing some of the best that comics has to offer.  If you have read this work, Funnybooks: The Improbable Glories of the Best American Comic Books will provide a historical context and a critical perspective that will enhance your understanding of how this work came to be and why it is so good.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Song of the Sea

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 05, 2014

CTN vs. TCAF and Zen Pencils

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cartoon Carnival: A Documentary on Silent Era Animation

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

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

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

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

Van Beuren Cartoons on TCM Dec. 7

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

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

Steve wrote about the cartoons to be shown here.

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

I look forward to finally seeing this show on TCM.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Torill Kove's Me and My Moulton

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

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

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