Monday, April 30, 2007

A New Animation Webzine

Flip is a new animation webzine edited by Steve Moore that's worth checking out. I recommend the interview with Nancy Beiman, author of Prepare to Board. Other articles include an autobio piece by Mike Knapp and articles on Jeff DeGrandis, Australian drive-ins, and a novel excerpt and book reviews by animation personnel. A very eclectic mix.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Good Luck Sheridan Grads

Today was Industry Day at Sheridan College, where members of studios come to view the films of the graduating animation students. Tomorrow, students will be interviewed for positions by these studios.

This is the first graduating class of the revamped Sheridan program, now a four year course instead of three. It's fair to say that the transition hasn't been a smooth one and the current grads, some of whom were my students two years ago, have suffered more than their share of bumps and bruises on the road to today. Ironically, their difficulties may make them better prepared for the peculiar world of animation production.

Best of luck to them all. Animation is a wonderful and maddening profession and I hope that the industry will provide them with the opportunity to work and grow over the coming years. We could all use better cartoons.

Animation Directors

Eddie Fitzgerald has a piece on how the job of director doesn't seem to exist anymore in TV cartoons. I would agree that's the case.

In live action, the director's job is to decide where to put the camera and to work with the actors to shape their performances. In animation, that job would entail doing the board (or at least thumbnailing it) and timing the cartoon. How many directors in animated film or TV actually do that these days?

This ties into my previous post, "Curious." The animation production pipeline that was created in the 1910's through the 1930's was not, I'm now convinced, the best possible pipeline. However, the way it evolved at Disney and spread to studios like Warners, MGM, Lantz, etc. did provide a director with the tools to control cartoons, though at the expense of the artistic freedom of the crew.

What we've got now, between fracturing production among several studios and with directors who don't direct, is the worst of the old system with none of its virtues. The crew is still handcuffed to somebody else's decisions, but those decisions are now made by people who are ignorant of why the tools were created in the first place.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007


What do the following animation studios have in common? Yowzaa, Project Firefly, Neomis Animation, Fat Cat Animation, James Baxter Animation, Wang Film Productions, July Films, and Sunwoo Entertainment?

They all worked on Curious George. With the exception of Sunwoo, they all contributed animation to Curious George. And that doesn't count Imagine Entertainment/Universal, where more animation was done.

Several of these companies are Canadian and I would be the last one to argue that they shouldn't be grabbing whatever business they can find, especially when it comes to features, where Canada is woefully underrepresented.

But there are obvious questions to be asked: how do you make a coherent feature and control quality when you've farmed out the animation to nine companies? How do you create consistent characterizations when the animators have no clue what's being done at other facilities? When did people start to assume that animated performances are something you can build out of standardized parts, like a car, so it doesn't matter where you buy them? When did Hollywood's opinion of animated acting get so low that it no longer cared at all?

I'm just curious.

Sunday, April 22, 2007


Here's a study in contrasts. First, TV comedy writer Ken Levine, who has written with partner David Isaacs for The Simpsons, Frasier, Everybody Loves Raymond and M*A*S*H, talks about his experience with focus groups.

Then we've got Scott Kirsner writing about It's a website similar to American Idol, where thousands of people vote for their favorite bands and web videos and the winners are awarded prizes. (You can check out the animation winner for March here.)

Each one of these is a filter, a way of trying to pick winners out of a crowd. In the first case, the crowd consists of commissioned TV pilots and in the second, user-generated music and video. But both are attempting to use the audience to determine what's going to be successful. The focus group is small and supposed to be representative of the larger audience, but we know from watching TV that it has a high failure rate. The second case uses the entire audience as the focal group but it only gets to judge user-financed content.

The logical question is why aren't these two procedures merged? TV networks are hampered by the small sample sizes they use for testing. OurStage is hampered by the budgets and talents of self-selecting contributors. If TV networks put all their pilots online and asked viewers to vote on which ones should go into production, we couldn't do any worse than we're doing now.

OurStage is promising recording studio time and film festival entry to its winners, which means that eventually the prize money will allow popular contributors to work with larger budgets. Once OurStage can finance work based on proven popularity, the contributors will have the wherewithal to do better work.

Whoever is first to finance work based on audience popularity without the bottleneck of gatekeepers is going to leave everyone in the dust. Let the audience decide and direct the money to audience favourites.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

The Networks vs. The Net

This article by Patrick Goldstein is a month old, but worth reading for describing the tension that exists between the top down networks and the bottom up net.
"You can see why people find YouTube subversive," says [Alex] Gregory. "If you were to put all the failed [TV] pilots up there and some of them became popular at a time when the shows the networks put on as series were failures, it would make them look terrible. In fact, it would make their jobs look superfluous. If you prove their taste wrong or incorrect, that's a pretty dangerous scenario."

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Writers, Gatekeepers and Distribution

This will probably be the last post for about a week due to several competing obligations. However, there are some things I'd like to point out that are worth reading.

Evan Gore left a comment on my entry on character sympathy that led me to the Animation Writer's Blog which he contributes to. You're undoubtedly aware of John K's stance on animation writers and this blog represents the response of some writers.

That blog led me to, the site of writers Andrew Nicholls and Darryl Vickers, who have written for live action and animated TV. There are two things there very much worth reading about the interference that TV writers regularly suffer from those above them in the hierarchy. The short article (a downloadable pdf file) is "The Nevermending Story." The other piece is a 288 page book (also a downloadable pdf) called Valuable Lessons, chronicling their careers and which unfortunately degenerates into a torrent of stupidities that have rained down on their heads. These writers are obviously far better than the work that they're allowed to do and while my experience in TV is tiny compared to theirs, what happened to them rings true to me.

Finally, the ever-useful Scott Kirsner points to this article in Variety about a feature producer working to distribute purely through the internet. There's no question that it isn't a mature distribution medium yet, but the existing alternative is hardly an alternative at all.
"We knew we didn't have the quality to stand up to a theatrical release," Nelson says. "But we got five offers from DVD distributors." Nelson, however, was shocked by the deal terms, which were typical: No advance without a star or a decent budget. No piece of the backend. The distributor hangs on to its rights for seven to 10 years. And when they sell the DVD on the Internet via Amazon or Netflix, the distrib takes 25% of the gross and subtracts all expenses, including replicating and supplying DVDs and marketing. (Netflix won't take any films without a distributor.)

Nelson was amazed, too, by the distributors' lack of accountability. "They send quarterly reports by country," she says, "But they don't tell you how many units they sold. They don't keep track by film. They don't have systems or bookkeeping capabilities. There's no such thing as making money. What you get upfront is what you are going to see."
I keep saying this and you're probably sick of reading it. Under the old system, before the internet, distribution was scarce. This led to gatekeepers who sifted through thousands of potential projects and picked the ones that they thought would sell. Inevitably, they picked material that had already sold or resembled material that had already sold. The good thing about this system was that the gatekeepers had money, so if you were picked, you were financed. The bad thing about this system is that they controlled content, so they could warp your project into whatever they thought the market wanted.

Now, distribution is essentially free. Every blog, webpage or posted video has a potential audience of billions of people. The new problems are financing your work and figuring out ways to earn money from it. People in media like prose and comics have it fairly easy, in that they can create for pennies. Animation takes more time and effort than other media, which means more of an up front investment and somebody's got to pay the bills while the work is being created.

On the income side, once again other media have it easier than animation. Musicians have figured out that if they give away their music online, they can still make money from concert appearances and merchandising. Unfortunately, nobody's lining up for tickets to see animators talk about their work, so giving away your animation isn't viable.

Charging for downloads seems to be the best possibility at the moment (though merchandising is viable depending on the property).

The point is, given the long odds of getting a gatekeeper to take your project, given the stupidity that gatekeepers inflict on creative people, and given how questionable the accounting practices of the entertainment business are, I don't feel the old system is worth pursuing. Feel free to disagree. While the internet isn't a mature business model yet, this is one case where I think it's better to go with the devil you don't know than the devil you do.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Keith Lango on Inefficiency

Keith Lango has a two part (so far) article on why he thinks animators turn out less footage now than in the past and what the causes of this are. Here's part 1 and here's part 2. If you're an animator or an aspiring one, it's definitely worth a read.

Legacy Characters

The death of B.C. cartoonist Johnny Hart has once again raised the issue of whether a comic strip should continue beyond its creator's death. With animated characters being kept alive long after their creators and their originating studios are gone, the same questions could be asked about our medium. Tom Spurgeon at The Comics Reporter considers the question, and this paragraph caught my attention.
"Further, there's no way anyone can really prove that the newspaper page would be better off if strips died with their creators, other than pointing out a few that have and a general, logic-based hunch that, for example, audiences were more entertained by watching Jerry Seinfeld on Seinfeld than they would have been viewing his run playing Dobie Gillis. As ridiculous as that sounds, I think that's a pretty convincing way of looking at the overall issue. There's no way to keep any piece of art running past the death of its creators without a loss of vitality somewhere along the way, and when that decline defines a significant portion of your public face, it's bound to have a significant effect on the art form."

Lantz and Fleischer DVDs

Jerry Beck of Cartoon Brew has announced a collection of Walter Lantz cartoons that will appear on DVD this July. I'm assuming that readers of this blog are already aware of this, but they may not realize the importance of the cartoons on this set as the Lantz studio has been very poorly represented on video and DVD.

This set contains cartoons directed by Shamus Culhane, a very underrated director who never got the opportunities he deserved. In the '30's, Culhane worked just about everywhere, including a stint at Disney where he was something of a Pluto specialist. He worked on Snow White, Pinocchio (though there's confusion as to how much of his work is in the finished film), Gulliver's Travels and Mr. Bug Goes to Town.

At Lantz, Culhane took a studio that was turning out weak cartoons and jump started them with his interest in experimenting and his aggressive sense of timing. Culhane's best work at the studio was possibly the Swing Symphonies. While he admitted to having no feeling for jazz, he worked well with it and his musical cartoons are really vigorous. Abou Ben Boogie and The Greatest Man in Siam are excellent cartoons and worth seeing.

The set will also contain cartoons by Dick Lundy and Tex Avery. I admire Lundy's craftsmanship but not his directorial personality. He was a good animator and his cartoons are always slick, but I find his point of view to be pretty pedestrian. However, his cartoons contain the some of the best animation in the history of the Lantz studio and are worth watching for the animation alone.

Tex Avery's affect on the Lantz studio was much the same as Culhane. At the time Avery rejoined the Lantz studio, it was out of creative energy. Avery was able to bootstrap the studio with his posing, gags and timing. His four cartoons are a textbook case of how much impact one person can have on the output of a studio.

The animators who worked on these cartoons include Fred Moore, Ed Love, Emery Hawkins, Pat Matthews, Grim Natwick, Dick Lundy and LaVerne Harding. If you are interested in this style of character animation, this set is a bonanza of material.

There are other studios whose cartoons are not available on DVD, such as Famous Studios and Terrytoons, but the Lantz cartoons are probably the most interesting of this bunch and this release is long overdue. If you have any interest in 1940's style animation, I guarantee you that there will be cartoons and moments in this set that will entertain you and show you the high standards that were once commonplace in animation.

If it wasn't for the release of the Popeye cartoons, also in July, I'd say that the Lantz DVD was the animation history release of the year. The Popeye cartoons have had even less presence in home video than the Lantz cartoons, due to some rights issues that have finally been settled.

The Fleischer cartoons of the 1930s are worth watching for different reasons than the Lantz cartoons. The animation is not as slick, but the stories, characterizations and layouts are all of a high standard. In the 1930s, there were many different streams of animation all running in parallel. The Fleischer cartoons were urban, gritty, and focused on adult concerns like sexual competition. In the early '30s Fleischer cartoons, the world is a surreal place where anything could be alive and nothing could be taken for granted.

There's no question that Popeye, especially when voiced by Jack Mercer, was the most complex animated personality of the 1930's, far more complex than anything Disney, MGM or Warner Bros. offered up in short cartoons. It's only when Disney expanded to features that he began to approach the level of character depth that Popeye routinely displayed. Ironically, it's when the Fleischers expanded to features that Popeye began his decline, but that's not until volume 2 of the Popeye set.

At any given moment, there are dominant styles in animation. Right now, we've got the Pixar style, the Cartoon Network/Nickelodeon style and the anime style. While we're immersed in a style, we take it for granted as the way things have to be, but the thing about styles is that they eventually change. The best thing about these historical DVD collections is that they show approaches to animation that we don't take for granted. It's stimulating to see films from different places and different times and I hope that the release of these DVDs will shake things up a little and get people thinking in new (or old) directions.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Movie Downloads

Scott Kirsner has a list and ratings of the various movie download services. This is an immature market so far, but I believe that it's going to become the dominant way that we watch films at home.

Note which services are friendly to independents. It's a given that mainstream Hollywood films will be available. What's important is whether in the long tail world of the net there will be places for other points of view. I think that's animation's best hope for offering a wider range of content to audiences.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Pinocchio Part 6

A couple of notes on the draft. The effects animator on shots 3 and 35 is listed as Struther and Struthers. It's probably Sandy Strothers. Also, the effects animator listed as Case in shot 13 is probably Brad Case, but Alberto Becattini doesn't list him as being at Disney this early. I'm not aware of another Case who might fit the bill.

While the draft lists 1.01 to 1.06 as separate shots, they are continuous in the film. My assumption is that it was easier to treat it as sections in terms of assigning the work.

That opening shot, craning from the church bell tower down through the town and ending on Gepetto's door is similar structurally to the first shot of the story proper, where the camera cranes from the wishing star to Geppetto's house. That first shot spatially connects the star with occupants of the house, declaring the connection between them. This shot connects the world with the occupants and the second act will be all about how the world affects Pinocchio, Geppetto, Jiminy and their relationships.

The shot also mirrors the characters on Geppetto's clocks, but these characters are real and less predictable than Geppetto's mechanical creations. If those clocks are facsimiles of real life, we discover when Geppetto leaves Pinocchio at the world's mercy that Geppetto is as much a facsimile of a real father as Pinocchio is of a real boy. Geppetto witnessed Pinocchio playing with fire and knows of his son's lack of worldliness, yet he gleefully sends Pinocchio off to school, dancing back into his house, oblivious to the monstrous wrong he's just committed.

Jiminy is nowhere to be found either, so Pinocchio goes into the world unarmed. Everything in the second act will flow from these opening moments.

Geppetto in this sequence is all Babbitt's. Babbitt's animation is warm, showing Geppetto's pride in his newfound son. The dancing scene is particularly effective, though it has to be viewed ironically in view of what follows.

Milt Kahl and Les Clark handle the bulk of Pinocchio. Clark's Pinocchio has a less appealing face. The features don't generate the appeal that other animators are able to get. Shots 15 and 30 are typical of the problem. When Pinocchio's cheeks are not cutting into the bottoms of his eyes, the eyes tend to look vacant. Clark also draws Pinocchio's eyes more round than oval, which doesn't help.

Don Lusk and Lynn Karp get the best Figaro scenes here, even though Eric Larson gets a scene.

Marketing Canadian Movies

Steve Schnier, who usually works in animation but is currently in production on a low budget live action feature, has a couple of blog entries about the never ending problem of marketing Canadian movies.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Pinocchio Part 5A

As the spectre pointed out in comments to Part 5, it's likely that the draft is wrong in crediting Ham Luske for any Cleo animation. When I saw the spelling change from "Luske" to "Lusk," I realized that it was far more likely that Don Lusk was animating Cleo rather than someone as important as Ham Luske working on a relatively insignificant character.

There is another error in the draft. Between 61.1 and 63.3 in the mosaic, there's a 4 second shot on the draft labeled 61.4 with animation by Johnston, Bradbury, Karp and De Beeson that's described as "MLS - Pinocchio and Figaro dancing. Pino sees candle burning. (Geppetto singing off stage.)" No question that shot was animated, but it ended up on the cutting room floor.

For all of this film's elaborateness, there are some cheats. It's standard for animation that's over a panning background to be done on ones. In scene 11, some strange things are happening. It could be the DVD transfer, but it appears that every 5th frame of the panning background is on 2's. The animation is all on two's, but on every fifth frame it's on 3's! Even if the DVD transfer is guilty of causing this, there's no question that the animation is on 2's while the background pans on 1's.

We know about Tytla's Stromboli, but here he handles a lot of Geppetto. He probably has the most sustained acting in this sequence and does a great job with it. While some feel that Stromboli is over-animated, Tytla's Geppetto is a very clear and direct performance. Tytla handles Geppetto's fear and surprise well in addition to Geppetto's pleasure at discovering Pinocchio is alive. This sequence is exactly the kind of thing that allows Tytla to do his best work. The acting is grounded in strong emotions and the shifting emotions give Tytla the chance to show off his range as an actor. Stromboli and Chernobog are more bravura performances, but there's an honesty to Tytla's Geppetto that makes it closer to his work on Dumbo and personally I prefer it.

The most noticeable thing about this long sequence is how many different people had a hand in it. It's got a wide assortment of animators on every character. Other Geppetto animators in this sequence include Walt Kelly, Fred Moore, Bill Shull and Art Babbitt. Pinocchio gets handled by Ollie Johnston, Milt Kahl (his Pinocchios in this sequence cuter than in the last), Frank Thomas, Marvin Woodward, Phil Duncan, Bob Youngquist, Les Clark and Harvey Toombs. The rest of the characters fall into the same pattern. As a result, it's difficult to talk about performances because few animators besides Tytla got more than a few shots in a row for their characters.

At the end of this sequence, we're finished with the first act of the film. Except for a brief time after the credits, we've stayed inside Geppetto's house and all our time getting to know the film's protagonists. This film builds more slowly than more recent animated features, which usually start out with an action sequence rather than risk boring the audience. There's been lots of comedy and three musical numbers already, but the first act has been all about meeting the characters, setting up their relationships and establishing what Pinocchio needs to do to become a real boy.

From this point forward, the film moves out of Geppetto's house and into the wider world. The second act is all about how the protagonists fail each other.