Friday, December 21, 2007

JibJab's Year in Review


In what's getting to be a year end tradition, JibJab once again looks back on the year that was.

Andrew Loomis


Issue twenty of Illustration magazine has a lengthy article by Jack Harris on Andrew Loomis, the magazine illustrator and author of several highly influential books on drawing. The article contains many full color images of Loomis's work and Harris has spoken to members of the Loomis family to get biographical information. Thumbnails of the issue can be seen here.

The next issue will feature an article on Gustaf Tenggren, an artist who spent time at the Disney studio and was a major influence on the look of Pinocchio. You can see thumbnail previews of that article here.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Screenwipe - Idea


A friend of mine who worked on the last 26 episodes of Monster By Mistake saw this video and thought of me. While the above presents itself as a comedy, it is (I swear!) a documentary.

I keep talking about reasons to avoid the gatekeepers and go straight to the audience. This video by Charlie Brooker says it with more style than I am able to muster and he speaks the truth.

More About Jack Zander

Tom Sito has posted his memories of Jack Zander here. It turns out the photo I used in my previous entry was actually one of Tom with Jack, though I didn't know it. You can see a larger version of the entire photo here.

Before I ever worked for Jack, I wrote him while researching an article about MGM cartoons. Here's what he replied:

6-24-76

Dear Mark

Thanks for your letter. Yes I did work with Harman and Ising. Started with them in 1931 as an animator (I was never an inbetweener!). $40 per week. Worked on Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies and "Bosko" both for Hugh and Rudy. I left H + I in 1933 to come to N.Y. and work for Van Beuren Corp. making Toonerville Trolley etc. Van Beuren closed in 1936. I worked for Paul Terry for about a year.

Had a call from Max Maxwell who said they were starting a cartoon dept. at MGM and could I help him with people. I rounded up Dan Gordon, Ray Kelly, Joe Barbera and Mike Meyers and we went to Calif. in the fall of 1937.

Bob Allen and Bill Hanna had left H + I to start MGM. They were the two directors and Max Maxwell was the production manager. Fred Quimby was the "Boss."

The first pictures were terrible. So during the next few years MGM hired everyone they could think of to make it work, including Milt Gross, Harry Herschfeld, High and Rudy, each of which lasted for a year or less. Finally in 1940 Hanna and Barbera hit on Tom and Jerry which was an immediate success. At that time I was animating the mouse which I did for 2 yrs. Tex Avery ran his other unit very successfully.

Animators there were Pete Burness, Emery Hawkins, Bill Littlejohn, Ken Muse, Irv Spence, J.Z. and others in and out.

Hugh and Rudy left and business went on as usual. I don't recall what they left to do, but Quimby (who knew nothing about the business) was generally unsatisfied with their efforts.

When Bob Allen and Bill Hanna left H + I they took the key men with them in 1937 leaving H + I very high and dry.

Friz Freleng was also a director at MGM. His brother was a "gag man."

Heck Allen, Bob's brother, was also a "gag man."

In 1942 I enlisted and came to N.Y. to work in the Signal Corps.

There's lots more info. Too bad you can't drop in for a short talk.

Thanks for your interest.

Jack Zander

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

R.I.P. Jack Zander

I received an email from Margalit Fox of the New York Times informing me that Jack Zander passed away last Monday at the age of 99. The Times is preparing an obituary and I'll link to it when it's published.

I had the pleasure of working for Zander's Animation Parlour from late 1976 to early 1978, though I suffered several layoffs. If you know about the N.Y. animation business from that period, it was par for the course. The work just wasn't very steady. I was an inbetweener, and while I was a rank beginner I was treated well there and was in awe of the people around me.

As I've said before, Jack Zander had good taste. He understood the difference between good and bad animation. While his commercial studio was located in N.Y. he regularly used west coast freelancers like Emery Hawkins and Irv Spence, two animators at the top of anybody's list. He also used the cream of N.Y. talent like Preston Blair. Finally, while Zander was in his 60's, he was one of the youngest older people I ever met. He was still driving a motorcycle (and continued to for years after I worked for him) and he recognized talent in young artists and was willing to hire them to animate. His crew included Dean Yeagle, Nancy Beiman and the late Bill Railey, all of whom were excellent designers and animators and all of whom were no older than 30 at the time I was at the studio. No other union producer in town gave young talent the opportunities that Jack Zander did.

Jack got his start at the Romer Grey studio. Grey was the son of western novelist Zane Grey and I guess he wanted to own a cartoon studio. The talent there included the McKimson brothers as well as Jack, but for whatever reason the studio never released any cartoons. Zander also worked for Harman and Ising while they were at Schlesinger. He spent some time in N.Y. at Van Beuren during the Burt Gillett years and then went to Terrytoons. When MGM dumped Harman and Ising and decided to open their own studio, Jack got the call from Carman Maxwell, the MGM production manager, and spread the word at Terry. He and Joe Barbera were two of the artists who headed to MGM. Eventually Jack would animate Jerry the mouse on the first seven Tom and Jerry cartoons for Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera. His work on those films is still impressive.

After World War II, Jack produced TV commercials in New York at a succession of studios, starting at Transfilm, as an owner of Pelican (which did live and animation) and finally as the proprietor of Zander's Animation Parlour, where he brought his son Mark into the business as a producer.

During the period of the Animation Parlour, Zander and Phil Kimmelman were doing the best looking commercials in N.Y. Both used many famous designers and print cartoonists, but Zander always had superior animation.

One of the strengths of Zander's studio was the quality of the assistant animators. Ed Cerullo was a genius at doing clean-up with a pencil, prismacolors, marker or anything a job required. Mike Baez, Joe Gray, Ellsworth Barthen, and Jim Logan were also highly skilled themselves, able to follow Ed's lead when necessary and fully capable of producing stunning art on their own.

Besides commercials, Zander dabbled in TV specials. He directed The Man Who Hated Laughter, a special that included many comic strip characters from King Features Syndicate. He also directed Gnomes, based on the book by Rien Poortvliet. While the occasional special project came along, Jack seemed very happy working in commercials. He was not frustrated in the least. TV gave him the opportunity to own his own studio and high commercial budgets (roughly $30,000 for 30 seconds in the 1970's) allowed him to produce great looking animation. That seemed to satisfy him.

Jack left theatrical animation just when it was beginning to reach its peak. As a result, his animation doesn't attract the attention that other animators get. However, he was the real thing and it was because of the war (he was in the Signal Corps) and his entrepreneurial instincts that he moved from what we now consider the center of the business. He was a solid draftsman, a skilled animator, a successful businessman, a good boss and he contributed to the animation industry for more than 50 years. We could use more guys with his skills, his taste and his managerial ability.

Thanks for the education, Jack. I spent almost 30 years in the business and your studio remains one of the best places I ever worked.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Oswald the Missing Link

The new Walt Disney Treasures DVD release, The Adventures of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, is a revelation on several fronts. While the films might not hit the heights of invention found in the Fleischer or Messmer silents, their overall quality is superior. These films can best be described as breezy. They are well animated for the time, packed with gags, and moving at a fast pace.

I have to admit to never thinking much of Disney's Alice shorts. The animation is stilted, relying heavily on cycles and re-use. The drawings and motion are hardly graceful. By contrast, the Oswald shorts are a major step forward. Dick Huemer said that the New York animators all paid attention to the Oswald shorts, realizing that Disney was doing superior work. With this series, Disney became a major player within the animation world.

As good as the shorts are, they (and the rest of silent animation) were behind what live action comedies were doing at the time. The stories are simple, often based purely on a setting. Oswald is not a particularly well developed character. I think that Messmer's Felix is still superior as a character, though the production values of the Messmer films are not up to the Oswalds.

In many ways, the animation of the late '20's is where live action comedy was at the end of the teens. The major growth in character comedy that took place in the 1920's didn't reach animation until the '30's at Disney and the '40's practically everywhere else. The Oswalds are not competition for the silent Laurel and Hardy shorts and certainly not for the silent features made by Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd.

The DVD set contains 13 Oswalds of the 26 produced. The remaining cartoons are lost, though there are hopes that more will turn up. Print quality is good to excellent, considering that Disney did not preserve these films as he did not own them. There's a fantastic piece of pencil test animation from a currently lost Oswald called Sagebrush Sadie. How often do you get to see 80 year old pencil tests?

Commentaries are by Mark Kausler, Leonard Maltin and Jerry Beck and they identify animation by Hugh Harman, Ub Iwerks, Rollin Hamilton and Friz Freleng. The second disk includes the documentary The Hand Behind the Mouse about Ub Iwerks as well as 3 Alice cartoons and some early Iwerks Mickey and Silly Symphony cartoons.

One thing this set makes clear is that Charles Mintz was a greedy fool. He had a successful series on his hands and instead of giving Disney a modest increase in budget and letting the money continue to roll in, he wanted it all and took the series and the crew away from Disney. The irony is that he did Disney an enormous favour. Yes, Mickey Mouse resulted from losing Oswald, but the bigger lesson was that Disney never again trusted his business partners. He realized that they were all short term thinkers and that they underestimated his talent and ambition.

Had Mintz given Disney what he wanted, Disney would have been tied to Mintz, a producer whose films are relatively obscure. Mintz produced other cartoon series like Krazy Kat and Scrappy, but he was clearly not a creative producer. While Mintz was able to release cartoons through RKO, Universal and Columbia, they were not the studios with the best financial footing in the 1930's and Mintz never really cracked the big time. Who knows if Mintz would have had the foresight to allow Disney to make sound cartoons the way he wanted to? It's unlikely that Mintz would ever have approved the idea of an animated feature.

Oswald is the nexus of Hollywood animation. He is the missing link between Alice and Mickey, showing precisely where Disney animation was just before the sound revolution. He is also the hidden origin of the Schlesinger studio as Hugh Harman, Friz Freleng and Ham Hamilton all worked on Oswald before animating Bosko. Finally, Oswald is one conduit through which N.Y. animators began to flow west, with Walter Lantz and Bill Nolan inheriting Oswald after Disney's crew went elsewhere. There's an awful lot of history wrapped up in these films, so if you are interested in Disney or animation history, this DVD set is essential.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Hitchcock Mosaics

There's a site where every Alfred Hitchcock feature has been broken down into a 1000 image mosaic. If you're interested in visual continuity or composition, it's a goldmine of reference material.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

The Way Forward

“There’s $30 billion of advertising in search revenue, and they want to put it into YouTube videos, so you know there’s going to be some breakout things here.”
That's a quote from Theodore J. Leonsis, producer of a new documentary called Nanking. He's frustrated at the dearth of distribution channels for documentaries and while he won't reveal his plans, it's clear that he sees the web as a major opportunity. So should we all.

I spent a lot of years animating TV commercials. I got to the point where I had trouble dealing with ad execs and their clients and the questionable requests that they made. I say that so you know that I'm not really a fan of advertising. My TV viewing these days is almost entirely movies without commercial interruptions.

However, I think that embedded advertising is the key to success on the web. People are used to free content online whether it's print, audio or video. Sure, there's iTunes, but we have to acknowledge all the torrent sites that are making enormous amounts of material available for free (legally or not).

It's a given that anything that's posted online is going to be watched, copied, emailed, etc. If you're trying to collect money on those digital copies, good luck. The only workable solution is to embed advertising or use product placement. That way, the more a work is viewed, copied, etc. the happier the financial backers will be. What advertisers are paying for is eyeballs. The more eyeballs who see their message, the happier they are.

Unless you're somebody with an already successful property or an impressive track record, you're not going to attract ads. You've got to build your audience first and it has to be a demographically specific one. When you pitch a show to a broadcaster, it's always one of their first questions: who is the show aimed at? They need to know that because they have to approach the right advertisers. While creative people might resent being forced into a demographic box, it's a necessary evil if you want to attract advertising dollars.

Since Felix the Cat in the 1920's, we know the value of a popular character. It builds an audience and it spawns merchandise. If you're going to try and succeed on the web, look for the star character with a definite demographic. Then approach advertisers that seek your demographic and embed their ads in your piece. Give the animation away and tie the advertiser cost to the number of hits. Sooner or later, somebody is going to score big with an internet character and the advertisers will line up to throw money at the creators.

(Changing the subject somewhat, I'm frustrated that the Writers Guild isn't thinking outside the box during the current strike. Certainly, the AMPTP is going to provide the bulk of writers' earnings once this strike is settled, but why not break the AMPTP business model wide open? Imagine if Jay Leno or Jon Stewart went straight to advertisers and said that they wanted to produce daily material directly for the web with their regular writing staffs and that they would embed ads. Heck, Leno or Stewart might even do the ads themselves. Can you believe that the advertisers would say no?

(Should something like that occur, the AMPTP would soil themselves when they realized that they're only conduits between advertisers' money and the talent and that they could be eliminated. Ultimately, the AMPTP's money is advertiser's money or the public's money. There's no reason why the talent shouldn't be accessing that money directly, without the AMPTP.)

The Return of Harvey Deneroff

I received an email from Harvey Deneroff informing me that he's finally back online. This is something to celebrate.

Those of you not familiar with Harvey should know that he's the son of a Fleischer artist and someone who has devoted considerable time to animation history. He is the founder and past president of The Society for Animation Studies, an academic group that regularly holds conferences where papers on various animation-related topics are given.

In addition, Harvey served as editor of Animation Magazine and the online publication Animation World Magazine. Both of those magazines were absolutely at their best when Harvey held the editorial reins because he understands that a trade publication has to do more than stroke the people who place ads in it. It also needs substantial content. (Animation Magazine's current motto, post-Deneroff, is "The Business, Technology and Art of Animation." I don't think that order is an accident.)

Until three years ago, his website was an excellent source of international animation news. His job, commuting to and teaching at the Savannah College of Art and Design, forced him to discontinue his updates, but now he's back. I've added his link to the side of this page and his site is one that I'll be checking regularly.

Friday, December 07, 2007

The Little King and Steve Stanchfield

I've been remiss in not talking about this sooner. Steve Stanchfield's Thunderbean Animation has released a DVD of the complete series of The Little King cartoons based on the comic strip by Otto Soglow. The DVD includes the cartoons made by the Van Beuren studio as well as The Little King's one guest appearance in a Betty Boop cartoon. The DVD also includes two cartoons starring Sentinel Louey, another Soglow character as well as essays by Chris Buchman, Steve Stanchfield and Milton Knight which provide background on Soglow, the character and the making of the films.

The king is a childish character; typically he ducks official duties or protocol in order to pursue some fun. Soglow's style is very geometric, linear and flat. I have no idea if Soglow saw Emile Cohl's early animated films, but there's a resemblance in their design approaches and I'd guess that Soglow may have influenced Crockett Johnson's comic strip Barnaby.

The Van Beuren animation studio isn't one that attracts a lot of attention, but the cartoons have a quirky charm at times. The studio did not have a strong artistic direction in the early '30's, and while that resulted in cartoons that rarely hold together, it did allow for individuals to do some interesting work. Jim Tyer worked on this series, though you'll only occasionally catch glimpses of his mature style. Watching a Van Beuren cartoon, you're never sure what's going to happen or how characters will be drawn from scene to scene. Occasionally, the odd gags and the shifting designs add up to an interesting experience.

In some ways, Soglow's approach predicts UPA and it's surprising that the Van Beuren artists, not known for consistency, kept the design as consistent with Soglow as they did. The cartoons are also interesting from a content standpoint, reflecting the depression, the political unrest of the time, and the ethnic stereotyping typical of films in the 1930's.

I would never pretend that these films are essential viewing or even that there's a hidden masterpiece on this DVD, but there's a fair amount of interesting work here for anybody interested in animation history.

Where this DVD shines is in the presentation. Steve Stanchfield has produced many DVDs of public domain material and has done a better job of restoring films and creating special features than many studios that do official releases. It's clear that Stanchfield loves the films that he's releasing and he goes to great lengths to create a package that provides the best possible image quality, historical background and rare supplementary material.

So far, Steve has been restricted to public domain cartoons but he told me at the last Ottawa festival that he's tried to license cartoons from studios without any luck. It's a shame that a company like Viacom, which controls the Terrytoon library, hasn't had the foresight to license those films to Steve as he would provide an excellent product. I wish that every animation DVD was put together with as much care and respect for the material as those done by Steve.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Hockey Homicide Animator ID's

Run (or maybe skate) over to Thad Komorowski's Animation ID blog where he has identified the animators in the cartoon Hockey Homicide, one of Jack Kinney's best cartoon shorts at Disney. The information comes courtesy of a draft supplied by Michael Barrier.

Milt Kahl is known for his princes and his tremendous draftsmanship, but the truth is that he was brilliant at cartoon comedy. Take a look at the Lake Titicaca sequence from Saludos Amigos where Kahl did the llama. In this cartoon, Kahl revels in the cartoon violence he's asked to animate.

Kahl isn't the only one who did excellent work on this cartoon. John Sibley is another stand-out in the Kinney unit and other animators (Cliff Nordberg, Hal King and Al Bertino) are no slouches either, yet more proof of Disney's bench strength. There's a bit of Kimball here as well, but for once Kimball's wild animation doesn't stand out because it's surrounded by everybody else going nuts.

If you're not familiar with this cartoon, you're in for a treat. If you don't like Disney, give this one a try as you'll be surprised. In any case, it's great that the animators on it can finally get their due.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Financial and Emotional Investments

There was a time when U.S. networks would buy programming from independent producers. Then they got greedy and had the rules changed so that they could create and own their own programming. That pretty much killed the independent producers and should have led to a happy ending for the networks.

That wasn't the case, though. They faced increased competition from cable, including channels that they owned or shared an owner with. One result was that Saturday morning kid shows became less profitable. Fox ended up leasing out its entire Saturday morning to 4Kids Entertainment. CBS leased out their Saturday mornings to Nelvana and more recently to Discovery Kids. Both Fox and CBS decided that a small, steady profit for Saturday morning was better than risking losses on shows that they created or bought.

That's now spreading to prime time. The N.Y. Times is reporting that NBC is buying a block of programming from Thom Beers, who has had success with cable series such as Deadliest Catch and Ice Road Truckers.

So far, this is limited to the old networks, not newer cable channels, but there's no reason that this won't eventually spread. Networks lobbied hard for the opportunity to own the programming they broadcast and when they won it, they realized that they weren't particularly good at creating shows, especially in a more competitive environment. Now, while the law hasn't changed, the networks are at least partially in retreat. Power is useless if you don't know how to wield it to your own advantage.

Beers got the nod for two reasons. His programming cost $500,000 an hour as opposed to the network reality shows costing at least $1.5 million per hour. Also, his Ice Road Truckers finale garnered an audience of 5 million viewers, proving that Beers knows how to attract eyeballs. NBC is in business with Beers to cut its costs and for the audience they think he'll bring with him. While you might expect that NBC would own the programming outright, they're only taking 50% of it. Beers' company will keep the other 50% and control international rights.

I keep hammering on this point in this blog because I think it's critical for people who are starting out in the animation industry. The old business model is faltering. It may never disappear entirely, but the fragmentation of the audience and the increased number of distribution channels is weakening it and presenting alternatives.

Corporations are businesses. Their concern is profit and return on investment. They have no emotional attachment to their products and services. When those products and services are no longer in demand, corporations discontinue them and move on to something else. Because the corporations have money, marketing and distribution, creative people orbit around them hoping to sell their ideas. These corporations need product and as they have the money to buy it, they become magnets for hopeful creatives.

There are only two reasons why a corporation would do business with you. The first is that they have a specific need that they think you can fill. The second is that they think they can make money from you. The first situation is the average job. They need an animator, storyboard artist, etc. so somebody gets hired to fill the need. It may even include buying a show idea to fill a time slot or satisfy a demographic. When the need no longer exists, the person is cut loose. The second situation is when a corporation hires a person with an independent reputation and hopes to benefit financially from it. This is why DreamWorks hired Jerry Seinfeld to make an animated feature. DreamWorks hoped that Seinfeld's TV and stand-up audience would pay to see the movie and buy the DVD. This is also why authors like J.K. Rowling and Stephen King are sought after for adaptations of their work.

The vast majority of people in the animation industry fall into the first category and it's one with a limited future. It will pay the bills (sometimes generously), allow for developing skills and occasionally someone will achieve a measure of control. Because corporations only have financial, not emotional investments, when they are looking for properties, they will look for what (or who) has already been successful before they look at their own employees. The irony, of course, is that the corporation is responsible for their employees' lack of success in the wider market because they've limited the employees' contributions. The corporation doesn't care that the playing field isn't level; for them it's all about minimizing risk and maximizing return on investment.

Creators, regardless of what they create, have an emotional investment in their work. When creating on spec they have to, as there's no motivation but the hope of future reward. Putting in the necessary hours to solidify an idea into a tangible form requires commitment and the thing that sustains a creator is a belief that the work has value, not necessarily limited to financial value.

A problem results from the gulf between financial and emotional investing. Corporations don't have a sentimental attachment to product; it's only a means to a profit. Creators generally have a strong emotional attachment to their ideas, and are not willing to bend them out of shape simply because someone requests it. Many creators have suffered while an idea has been refashioned against their wills.

Another problem is that creators often sell their ideas outright. The sale may come with assurances that the creator will have a part in the ongoing production and will be consulted, but even if the corporation lives up to its promises, eventually the product will no longer be lucrative enough to continue. At that point, the property dies (except for reruns or re-issues) and the creator is severed from the property. The creator may have ideas to regenerate the property, be convinced that there's still income to be made from it, or may just want to keep it going out of love for it, but usually the creator's relationship with the property is over.

So what to do? NBC's latest move is a reminder of how the industry is shifting. Creators need to move from filling a need and being discarded when the need no longer exists to creating something that generates its own audience. The web provides that opportunity.

Opportunity is no guarantee of success. The emotional investment that creators make often blinds them to the true viability of their ideas. The saying that "love is blind" refers to creative work as much as it does to romance. Just as romantic euphoria might blind you to a partner's shortcomings, not every idea you have is worth pursuing. While you may take great personal satisfaction from it (which is enough justification for creating it), it may have no appeal to an audience larger than one. The low cost of distribution on the web is way to determine if an idea has wide appeal.

If it does, work it for all it's worth. This doesn't necessarily mean that you should give up your day job and invest all your money in it, but keep working to build up the audience. If you can get it sufficiently large, instead of you pursuing the money, the money (in the form of corporate interest) will pursue you. When that happens, do not, under any circumstances, sell the idea. No amount of money will compensate you for your emotional investment. Maintain ownership. License your idea. That way, when the corporation loses interest and drops it, you'll still have it. Maybe there's not enough juice left in it to satisfy a corporation, but there's likely enough to earn you a living while you're developing further ideas.

And history shows, unfortunately, that even people who produce a hit don't always produce a second. Siegel and Shuster never again created anything as popular as Superman. Harvey Kurtzman created three humour magazines after creating Mad and none of them had the success or the staying power of his biggest hit. If you are lucky enough to create something that generates income, it may be your only success. Why sell it?

You have the possibility now of reaching an audience without gatekeepers in the way. The financial rewards may never come or they may come more slowly than by selling your idea, but by owning your creations, you control how they'll be used and continue to profit from them. Your chances of making a deal with a large corporation are better if you have an audience attached to your idea. Finally, you'll protect your emotional investment. The best ideas are highly personal and suffer the most in a corporate environment. If this whole, overly long essay can be boiled down to one thought it's this: Work to develop your own audience and then don't sell your idea, license it.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Larry Lessig on Copyright

Copyright has turned into a double edged sword. Its purpose is to protect people and corporations from having their work duplicated without compensation. Eventually, this work is supposed to pass into the public domain where it becomes everyone's property. However, these days the bulk of copyrights are controlled by multinational corporations who are in no mood to let assets slip from their control.

The last copyright law in the U.S. prevents anything copyrighted after 1923 and still under copyright at the time the law was passed from going into the public domain until 2023. Larry Lessig is a lawyer and university professor who challenged the constitutionality of the law in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. Unfortunately, the court ruled against him.

Much as they'd like to, governments and corporations can't stop the world from changing and culture has the nasty habit of evolving without needing anyone's official permission. Below is a 20 minute video of Lessig discussing why governments and corporations are behind the times and how mash-ups are a vibrant form of contemporary culture. Lessig is still looking for ways to make the copyright laws more balanced as he fears that in their current state they will restrict the creation of culture and make us intellectually poorer.

This video is one of many resulting from the TED conferences. The topics are wide ranging and some are scientifically complex, but the speakers generally are good at explaining things to a lay audience and there's lots of provocative material here.