Sunday, November 26, 2006

An Animated Political Trial

The N.Y. Times has an article about the forthcoming film Chicago 10. It's a work of "experimental cinema" in the words of Brett Morgen, co-director of the film. The subject is the trial of the Chicago 8 after the 1968 Democratic National Convention, which was marked by violent demonstrations against the Viet Nam War.

One third of the film will be animated using motion capture done by Curious Pictures in New York. Hank Azaria, who does voices for The Simpsons, is one of the voice cast and acts the parts of Abbie Hoffman and Allen Ginsberg.

I'm interested in seeing this film purely for its political content, but I'm a little wary of the animation. This paragraph in the article caught my eye and set off a few warning bells.
“Traditionally the director has been at the mercy of the person who’s drawing,” Mr. Morgen said. “Once you’d communicated what the action was supposed to be, it was really in the hands of the animator. Now, as the director, I get to control whether I want the eyebrow to go up, if I want it to go down, if I want the hand to go here, the hand to go there. So it’s allowed me total control over performance.”
This quote indicates to me that Morgan really has no understanding of animation. I seriously doubt that he feels "at the mercy" of live actors or attempts to direct their eyebrows. We'll see what the results look like on screen.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

An Early WB Booster

Jaime Weinman's blog has an entry on two articles by Paul Harrison, one of the rare journalists who bothered to write about the Leon Schlesinger cartoons at the time they were first released. Weinman reproduces the text of the articles, which include some interesting facts such as the size of the crew in 1937 and show that even before the birth of Bugs Bunny, there were some people who appreciated the studio's approach.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

The Collaborative Nature of Animated Acting

I'm making a presentation about my masters thesis this week at a graduate symposium at York University. Below is the basis for what my thesis will be when I finish my research and start writing it in December. I've already written a bit about this subject, but this is the longest and most organized piece I've done about it to date. I know that the things I'm writing about vary based on time period, studio, director, etc. but fundamentally, there's far more collaboration in an animated performance than in a live action one. Whether you agree or disagree, feel free to leave comments.

My name is Mark Mayerson. I’m in the studies stream and I’m doing a thesis on the collaborative nature of animated acting. My professional experience has been as an animator, as well as writing and directing for animation. I’m currently teaching animation at Sheridan College.

Within animation, there’s a cliché that an animator is an actor with a pencil. That makes it sound like a there’s one to one correlation. Animators are just like actors; they just use different tools. My experience is that animators are significantly different from actors in terms of how animated film production is structured, and my thesis is an examination of how and why this is the case.

In live action, we think of the actor as being central to a role. Marlon Brando is Vito Corleone in The Godfather. We understand that the script, direction, lighting, costuming, etc. all contribute to the performance, but while we can’t quantify how much Brando contributes, we have a gut feeling that he is responsible for the majority of the performance. Replace him with another actor and the role is different. It’s Brando’s body, voice and movement whenever the character of Vito Corleone is on screen and most of all it’s Brando’s brain driving it all.

In other cases, such as the James Bond films, we can easily see how changing the actor affects the role. Sean Connery is different than Roger Moore, Pierce Brosnan, etc. If you use the TV series Bewitched as an example, two different actors, Dick York and Dick Sargent, both played the role of Darren Stephens yet nobody confused them. They were different in same the part.

Imagine watching a dubbed film. The on-screen actor has acted the role in the usual way. The voice actor, adding his or her voice after the visuals have been created, is constrained in several ways. The timing and the emotions are dictated by what’s on the screen. The voice actor has to work within the limitations of the visuals if the dubbing is going to be successful.

If the dubbed version is the only version available to you, how do you judge the success of the performance? If the voice work is poor, is it due to the voice actor or the constraints placed on him or her? If the acting is successful, how much is due to the on-screen actor and how much is due to the voice actor? Who is responsible for the performance?

Animators are in this situation but in reverse. Where dubbing takes place after live action has been filmed, in animation the creation of the motion takes place after the voice tracks have been recorded. A performance is split between two collaborators who may never meet. Where the voice actor gets to interpret the script, the animator is forced to interpret the voice actor. Failing to do so results in a disjointed result on the screen.

This is only the tip of the iceberg for the ways that animated performances are fragmented. I’ve got to go into some history here.

Initially, animated films were the work of single artists. Winsor McCay, J. Stuart Blackton and Emile Cohl were among the earliest animators and they did all the important work themselves. Of the three, McCay was the one most interested in acting. In his Gertie the Dinosaur of 1913, he animated the dinosaur by himself. We can say that McCay is Gertie the same way that Brando is Vito Corleone.

Beginning around 1913, animation studios sprang up to produce series of films based on continuing characters such as Mutt and Jeff. This is where fragmentation entered the process. An animator who worked on the Mutt and Jeff cartoons recalled that they would pick a setting, like the beach, and then each animator would grab a section. By verbal agreement, one animator would deal with gags about a shark and another animator would deal with gags about mermaids. Each animator was responsible for writing his own section, drawing the background art and designing any characters he introduced in the segment.

At this point in animation history, cartoons were mostly about gags and acting wasn’t even on the radar. In a single cartoon, four or five animators would each take turns playing the roles of Mutt and Jeff. They wouldn’t see each other’s work until it was shot and cut together, so creating a coherent performance was not going to happen.

Animated acting came into its own in the 1930’s at Disney. The paradox is that Disney accomplished this by increasing the amount of collaboration rather than reducing it. The difference was that the control was centralized in Disney’s own hands. He used separate artists to design characters, to draw storyboards, to animate the characters and to re-draw the characters “on model” for the final frames of the film. Directors and musicians would plan out the tempo of every scene and voice actors would perform the dialogue prior to animation.
Every step of this process contributs to the performance. Character designers create the look of a character specifically to evoke a particular response from the audience, so animators, unlike actors, are forced to come to terms with an unfamiliar appearance that they don’t control.

(Powerpoint slide of early and final Queen designs from Snow White here. In live action terms, it’s the difference between Rosanne Barr and Angelina Jolie. Or in historical terms relative to Snow White, Margaret Dumont and Gale Sondergaard.)

Where a live actor can take his or her body for granted and is confident about how it moves, an animator never knows what age, size, shape or species will need to be animated in the next scene. In live action terms, it’s as if actors had their brains transplanted into different bodies. John Wayne becomes Don Knotts and Don Knotts becomes Marilyn Monroe.

In animation, it’s more severe. Several animators get their brains transplanted into a single body, and they have to grapple with how that body is going to move and how they’re going to create a consistent performance.

In live action, storyboards are mainly used for shot composition and continuity. In animation, because of the low shooting ratio, storyboards concern themselves with acting. On a feature film, an animator may produce as little as 5 seconds a week. In TV, the animator will probably produce between thirty seconds and a minute a week. At that rate, revisions take far longer than doing another take on a live action set. A production has to clearly communicate the emotional progression of each scene to the animators to enable them to get it right (or close to right) on the first attempt. But that means that the conception of the performance (both audio and visual) exists before the animator starts work.

(Story reel/Animation comparison from Mulan here).

In many ways, the job of the animator is more a synthesizer than a creator. All the work done prior to animation must be woven together into a coherent whole. This is different than an actor being free to create an interpretation with the approval of the director.

When an animator’s work is finished, there are still hands that shape it before it reaches the screen. At Disney, animators were encouraged to concentrate on performance more than drawing. Their assistants took their rough drawings and polished them into what finally appeared on screen. Assistants also often took care of secondary bits of animation on the character, such as hair, drapery, or costume details. (Slide of Sleeping Beauty rough and clean-up here.) Their contributions aim to be invisible, but there is the potential for introducing problems. In the 1939 animated feature Gulliver’s Travels, there are scenes of the Princess Glory character where the assistant work detracts from the animation. The character’s hair shifts around on her head, giving the impression of a loose wig. (Princess Glory clip here.)

The problem I’m dealing with is determining where an animated performance is centered. In the case of a character like Bugs Bunny, he had at least three character designers, nine directors, eight writers, one voice actor and more than two dozen animators in a fifteen year period. Is there anybody whose influence is as large as Brando’s on Don Corleone?

In feature films, animators are sometimes cast by character, but the amount of screen time a character has often requires that the animator supervise other animators in order to hit the deadline. On Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, Glen Keane was the animator in charge of the Beast character, but he supervised seven other animators, in addition to assistant animators, breakdown artists and inbetweeners who all had to draw the character consistently as well as merging their work into a coherent performance. There’s a scene of the Beast learning to eat with a spoon that was animated by Tom Sito and based on actions he observed when his cat tried to eat from a spoon. Sito pitched the idea to Keane who accepted it, but the scene would have been done differently had another animator handled it.

This thesis will also examine live action reference, whether rotoscoped (which is tracing live action to turn it into drawings for cel animation) or motion captured (which uses hardware and software to capture a live performance and convert it into a computer animated character). Both these approaches are another layer of collaboration.

Not a lot has been written specifically on this topic; because people who write about animation are rarely animation professionals, they don’t understand the process or the repercussions of it. I’ve collected studio documentation from Disney, Warner Bros, Lantz and MGM that lists who animated specific scenes in a film. This has given me insight into the styles of individual animators as well as directors, who have very different approaches to assigning animators to characters or scenes. In addition, there is a large body of interviews with animation professionals that reveal the behind-the-scenes working methods.

With the exception of writings by Michael Barrier, who argues that casting by character results in better performances than casting by sequence, and Ed Hooks, who never deals with the issue of fragmentation, there really isn’t any critical writing on the nature of animated acting. In part, this thesis is an argument against Barrier’s position, as I don’t think he understands the degree of fragmentation that exists. Even when casting by character, I don’t know if animators ever have the same level of control that a live actor takes for granted.

I am familiar with an animator’s thought processes from personal experience. I am not familiar with an actor’s thought processes. I’m curious to know how similar they are and if differences are due to how theirjobs are organized or due to their nature of their crafts. I need to read more about acting, though I’m not sure that the material will turn out to be relevant to this thesis.

In writing this thesis, I have to be sensitive to how I use jargon and how much explanation is needed. If I was writing about what a film editor does or what a steadicam is, I know the readers would understand what I was talking about. However, I don’t think that the readers are going to understand what a inbetweener does or what an exposure sheet is, so I’ve got to make sure that I explain things so that readers can follow my argument.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Cartoon Medicine

The N.Y. Times has an article called "Historians Resurrect 'Cartoon Medicine' for a New Generation." It talks about the Private Snafu cartoon Malaria Mike and a film about latrine sanitation called Use Your Head, that was produced by Hugh Harman. Apparently, the National Library of Medicine has a whole collection of health-related animated films from the 1920's through the '60's. Perhaps some enterprising DVD producer (paging Steve Stanchfield!) will contact them and put out a collection of their best cartoons.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Gabler on Biography

Neal Gabler on his approach to writing biographies, including his latest on Walt Disney.

The Death of DVD

Sean Cooper writes about the future of home media and why he thinks that the two competing high def DVD formats are both going to fail. I think the logistics of pushing high def video through cables to your computer are going to take longer to solve than Cooper does, but this isn't the first time I've read about DVD being the last physical format for distribution. It's only a matter of time before we're storing hard drives on our shelves instead of DVDs.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Keith Lango Prescribes

I've already mentioned the series of articles Keith Lango is blogging about how large cgi features are organized and how that organization often gets in the way of good looking images. In his latest post, he offers possible solutions to these problems.

Keith's experience at several studios means that he has a well-rounded view of production. He's not married to a single pipeline model. The broadness of his perspective is one of the strengths of his recommendations.

Even if you disagree with his thoughts or think that you have a better solution, Keith has done us all a service. Pointing out the trouble on screen and how organization creates those problems means that studios can no longer ignore it. Alex Toth once talked about a stain on a white dinner jacket. Once you are aware of it, it's the only thing you see. Keith has pointed out the stain and we can't take our eyes off it.

Any studio looking to graduate to longer productions should think hard about Keith's points. Those studios already involved in longer productions should use them as a way of examining their procedures.

We're all constrained by budgets and deadlines. We're also all constrained by human frailty, whether it's studio politics, questionable clients or just plain stubbornness. It's always amazing to me how much talent is in even the worst studios; it's usually something other than talent that is responsible for poor results on screen.

Don't underestimate the effects of pipeline organization. Pipelines are there to get a film finished, but they are often more concerned with volume than they are with flexibility. Keith has made some constructive suggestions that I hope will be debated at production meetings all over the world.

Monday, November 13, 2006

The Pointer and the Click Track

The ever-generous Hans Perk has posted a video of the Mickey Mouse cartoon The Pointer which includes an audio and visual representation of the click track used to time the cartoon. He has also included the animator identifications with each shot, so you can watch animation by Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston, John Lounsbery, Norm Ferguson and others.

I showed this to my animation lecture class of over 100 students. I had previously discussed the use of the metronome and I've also been talking about beats in terms of walks and runs. The Pointer doesn't rely on music as heavily as Thru the Mirror, another cartoon that Hans has posted with an accompanying click track, but you can still see the animation working with the beats on walks, runs and even hand gestures.

This is an incredibly powerful tool for organizing the timing of a cartoon and guaranteeing that your animation will synch tightly to a music track. Hans and ASIFA-Hollywood have brought this approach back from the dead and we owe them a debt of gratitude.

Don't just look at this stuff and file it away. USE IT! Your films will be better for it.

Brad Bird on Animation

The N.Y. Times Magazine had an article entitled "How to be Funny." Comedy and the N.Y. Times are something of an oxymoron; they don't call the newspaper "the gray lady" for nothing. However, they solicited contributions from stand-up comics, writers, etc, and did include one contribution from our neck of the woods.

How to Draw Funny Pictures
By Brad Bird, creator of “The Incredibles”

Because animation is a relatively complicated process, and because it is not spontaneous, it is often mischaracterized as purely mechanical. In reality, and at its best, the art of character animation exists somewhere between silent comedy and dance. Its success depends on finding a physical expression that is recognizable yet beyond what occurs in real life.

Fred Astaire had unusually large hands and learned how to use them in a way that made his dance more dynamic; he’d fold his hands for most of a routine, then flash them out for accents at key points. Their sudden increase in size made those moves pop in a way that other dancers couldn’t match. Animators use tricks like this all the time in ways that the audience never sees but always feels. Bugs Bunny, imitating the conductor Leopold Stokowski in concert, will violently raise his arms in onetwelfth of a second (two frames of film). Every part of his body will be rock-still — save for Bugs’s quivering hand.

It is impossible for a living being to do this, but not for Bugs. He is truly Stokowski, more Stokowski than Stokowski was himself, because Bugs is the impression of Stokowski: his power, his arrogance, his supreme control over his musicians, perfectly boiled down to its essence. We laugh because it is completely unreal and utterly truthful in the same moment.

Friday, November 10, 2006

More Click Tracks

Hans Perk has posted another piece of animation accompanied by a click track. This time, it's the Mickey Mouse cartoon, Thru the Mirror. Hans has taken the beats off the original bar sheets and put visual and audio beats over a copy of the film.

Take a look at it soon, as YouTube has been fairly aggressive lately in removing copyrighted material. Clearly, this is not an attempt to rip Disney off, this is an attempt to explain the studio's work processes and educate a new generation of animators.

(Mike Sporn beat me to linking to this, but it's so important that it deserves the redundant link.)

Thursday, November 09, 2006

You Are a Tool

Shawn Kelly of Animation Mentor has written a column that accurately describes the animator's role in a large production. Animation students who currently have creative freedom are advised to read it (and perhaps weep). Having personally created a TV series, I found that I was still a tool of broadcasters and distributors.

Richard Williams once said that the golden rule was that the guy with the gold makes the rules. Unless you're financing your own work, you're going to be answering to somebody.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Click Tracks

Hans Perk has posted a clip from Quark and the Highway Robber from the '80's. The great thing about this clip is that the click track is audible, and you can watch the animation and see how it relates to a musical beat.

For those who don't know, a director (with or without a musical director) will set a tempo for a sequence. In the case of the above clip, Hans set a 12 beat (a beat every 12 frames) for the start of the sequence and switched to a 10 beat as the action heated up.

By laying down the beat, the director can make sure than actions take place in such a way that when the music is added later, the action will work with the music. The musical director composes music (or takes music out of a library) that is timed to the same beat that the director has specified. When recording, the musicians will hear the click track to make sure that the music is played at the proper tempo.

Carl Stalling, who composed for Disney, Iwerks, Van Beuren, and was the major musical influence at Warner Bros. is credited with the invention of the click track.

This Quark clip is very different from cartoons from the early 1930's, where the visuals tried to hit just about every beat. The Quark clip shows that working to a beat is not a straightjacket; it's a convenience. It provides enough structure to give the director a way to time action coherently and guarantees that the music track will fit the action tightly.

This is a useful tool even within the budget constraints of a TV series that is going to build a library of music cues rather than use original music for every episode. If the director and composer plan things well enough, the director can work to a beat with the knowledge that there's an appropriate piece of music to accompany the action. This also speeds up the creation of the music tracks, as the music librarian can go straight to the appropriate piece of music.

If you're a director, an aspiring director or a student, the clip is worth looking at.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Animated Soviet Propaganda

The Animation Guild Blog has an entry and links to a new DVD release of animated Soviet propaganda. If you follow this link, you can see a half hour documentary from the set dealing with American imperialism that includes clips from many films. The complete set includes four half hour documentaries and six hours of animated films.

Having seen a fair amount of American propaganda cartoons from World War II, it's fascinating to see the U.S. viewed from another ideological viewpoint. The films excerpted in this documentary view America as a racist and corrupt society where money can buy a dog a place in congress or where rich people can amuse themselves in a shooting gallery by using live people as their targets.

Other parts of the set focus on fascist barbarians, capitalist sharks and the Soviet shining future. You can order the set here, and the page includes a two minute trailer and a mosaic of images from the films.

Monday, November 06, 2006

John Ford

This has nothing to do with animation, but I'm indulging myself.

As much as I love animation, my favorite filmmaker, bar none, is John Ford. While there are many movies I like and watch repeatedly, I return to Ford's films more than those of any other director.

TCM (which I unfortunately can't get in Toronto) is having a 22 film retrospective of Ford's work. I think that these days Ford is an acquired taste; he's terribly different from contemporary directors and his films are now at least 40 years old and suffer from changes in social attitudes (many of which needed changing). But if you can respond emotionally to Ford's work, you enter a universe where everything is an expression of his personality and every film echoes and reverberates against every other.

If you're not familiar with Ford, try the Bogdanovich documentary Directed by John Ford airing Tuesday evening. After that, dip into Stagecoach, They Were Expendable, Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Rio Grande, The Long Voyage Home, Wagon Master, The Last Hurrah and Judge Priest.

YouTube and Copyright

Over at Mark Cuban's blog, there's a very interesting speculation about how Google is dealing with the copyright problems they're inheriting with the purchase of YouTube.

I had talked earlier about YouTube being in a position to try and reform the copyright laws to allow for greater freedom to use copyrighted material. Copying is going to happen anyway, so why not figure out a way for copyright holders to profit from it? However, if the above speculation is true, Google preferred to buy off the media conglomerates (and screw creators) rather than fix a broken system.

Another Business Model

Everybody is trying to figure out new business models right now. The audience is dispersing and nobody knows how things are going to shake out.

Craig Mazin's site The Artful Screenwriter has a two part article on how the talent agencies and some screenwriters are beginning to see their new places in the world. You can read the first part of the article here and there's a link at the top to the second part.

In Mazin's view, writers are better off finding private investment to make their movies. The investors are less interested in creative than they are in making a profit. Mazin talks about Sacha Baron Cohen's next deal (made before the wide release of Borat), where he raised $25 million in private equity and then turned around and sold the film to Universal for $42 million, not only making an instant profit but owning a significant piece of the film, which will pay off in DVD and TV sales. In other words, why not become a partner rather than an employee?

There's no way of knowing if this business model will become the standard, but there's obviously potential for animation. Everyone who has worked in production in the last 15 years has stories about enormous financial waste due to poor management. We know that animated features can be made less expensively than the big studios can make them. I hope that somebody with an audience-friendly idea can find enough private investment to try this approach out.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Animation Oscars

Over at the Risky Biz blog, Anne Thompson offers up her opinions on which films will be nominated for the Best Animated Feature oscar. There will possibly be five nominees this time, rather than three, due to the high number of releases this year. That will make it tougher for any one film to garner votes.

It's a pretty safe bet that Cars and Ice Age 2 will get nominations (though Thompson doesn't include Ice Age 2 in her nominees), but the others are not so certain. I would think that Flushed Away, Monster House, Happy Feet, Over the Hedge and Open Season are in the running. A Scanner Darkly has a good shot at a nomination for being so different from everything else released this year. Curious George stands a chance based on name recognition and holding up the banner for drawn animation.

Each of the above films has its fans, but I don't think there's a consensus in the industry or in the audience as to what film should win.

More Keith Lango

Keith Lango continues his excellent series on production, this time focusing very perceptively on pipeline differences between drawn and computer animation and how those pipelines have an impact on the resulting images. This is a tremendously important set of articles and I urge everyone to go have a look.

More MGM

And yet another interesting and informative Greenbriar entry on the MGM cartoon studio, with more behind the scenes pictures (including Pete Burness and Harvey Eisenberg), tales of TV salesmen hawking cartoons and some interesting figures on theatrical budgets and grosses.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

MGM Cartoons

The Greenbriar Picture Shows blog has an article on collecting MGM cartoons in 16mm, which gives something of the history of the MGM cartoons on TV. The piece also reproduces some posters for the cartoons as well as some behind-the-scenes publicity material. There's a picture of the MGM ink and paint department, a photo of Carman Maxwell (the original voice of Bosko at WB) with Fred Quimby, Hugh Harman with cameraman Jack Stevens, and a page of photos including musical director Scott Bradley, background artist Joe Smith and sound effects creator F. McAlpin.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Keith Lango On What Makes an Image Work

Cartoon Brew noted this earlier, but Keith Lango is continuing an excellent series of blog entries where he takes sample stills from recent animated features and discusses where they succeed and where they fail. His focus is on colour and composition and he argues that the nature of cgi production pipelines are working against the creation of good imagery.

All the articles are still on his main page. Start with the entry for October 29 and read forward. Keith isn't done with this yet, but it's already a must-read for those working in animation and anybody else trying to get a better appreciation for how images are put together.

Crunch Time

Over the next four to six weeks, I have way too many responsibilities. I'm afraid that posting on this blog may be less frequent than it's been and rather than contribute much in the way of original content I'll be pointing you to things of interest elsewhere.

I won't be able to read Neal Gabler's new Disney bio until December or January at the earliest, but Tom Sito has checked over the section relating to the 1941 strike at Disney and offers comments on his blog. For those unfamiliar with it, Tom posts historical items of interest each day in addition to various bits of animation news.

Tom's own book, Drawing the Line, is about the labour movement within the animation industry. I won't have time to read that book either until my crunch is over, but I am very much looking forward to it.