Sunday, November 30, 2008

Fred Moore Centaurettes

(Click any image to enlarge.)

As the semester draws to a close, I'm getting buried with grading, which is why I haven't updated this blog in a while. Without time to really write something, I'm just going to mark time for a bit.

I bought this drawing at Gallery Lainzberg in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in 1979. At the time I was working at a small animation studio in Waterloo, Iowa, and every few months animators Bob Haack, Bill Barder and I would go to the Gallery.

This drawing was obviously fished out of a wastebasket. There are all kinds of notes jotted around the image that have nothing to do with it. It was also folded in half. Clearly, Moore discarded the drawing and then used it for scrap before trashing it. Somebody liked it enough to remove it and take it home.

The same day I bought this, Bill Barder bought a drawing from Avery's Dumb Hounded. I tried to buy it from him multiple times, but Bill wouldn't part with it.

I was pretty sure the centaurette drawing was by Moore but my opinion was corroborated by Chuck Jones. He came out to the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls to do a talk and he toured our studio while he was there. He stared at the drawing, mounted directly in front of my desk, and simply said, "Hmmm. Fred Moore." I figured he'd know better than me.

Here's a photo taken during Jones' visit. From left to right, Bill Barder, Chuck Jones, me, Mike Grove and Bob Haack.

That Moore drawing is still mounted over my board at home. The animation disk was one used on the Dick Williams Raggedy Ann and Andy. I bought it from my friend Murad Gumen, who worked on the film as an inbetweener. The drawings surrounding the centaurettes are others that I acquired over the years. The Mickey and Minnie was drawn by Peter Emslie, who gave it to me as a gift in 1990. On the right are drawings from a Tom and Jerry cartoon and from a Jones Sniffles cartoon. I've forgotten which cartoons they're from and I'm too lazy to look it up. On another wall in the same room, I have a Barney Bear drawing from Goggle Fishing Bear. I'll eventually give everyone a better look at these drawings, but I consider the Moore the prize in my collection of animation art.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Sleeping Beauty Puts Me to Sleep

My sentiments, exactly.

I just watched the new DVD release of Sleeping Beauty. It’s the first time I’ve seen the film in over a decade and maybe two. It has never been one of my favourites, but watching it now I’m struck by how poor the story and characterizations are. If not for the high production values and the presence of artists that I know to be more than capable, I would say that Sleeping Beauty is a poor imitation of a Disney film.

I am not a fan of Eyvind Earle’s artwork. I don’t have any insightful reasons for that; it just leaves me cold. Beyond Earle’s design style, I’m also not one who is impressed by detail. For me, all stories are about people and if the visuals don’t support a worthwhile story and characters, they are wasted. It’s no different than the common refrain that a particular movie isn’t very good, but the special effects are great. If a movie isn’t very good, I don’t care about any of the elements.

The story of Sleeping Beauty is ludicrous. An evil fairy is insulted for not being invited to a party, so she puts a curse on the princess in the cradle. By the sunset of her sixteenth birthday, the princess will prick her finger on a spinning wheel and die. I can’t begin to fathom how absurd this is. If Maleficent is angry enough to kill the child, why not do it on the spot? Why drag out the process for 16 years? And why a spinning wheel? Why not a disease or a fall or choking on food? This may be what the fairy tale original demands, but the Disney studio was never shy about rewriting its source material.

What’s worse is that Maleficent has no motivation to speak of beyond being miffed. Does she have a history with the royal family? Have the three good fairies caused her trouble in the past? Is she unable to have a child of her own? We are told nothing. Furthermore, Maleficent is a dolt. Her henchman search for the princess unsuccessfully for 16 years and she only questions them closely at the end of that time? What’s she been doing all those years? Watching the clock?

The three good fairies are even more empty-headed than Maleficent. They know that the curse will expire at sundown on the princess’s sixteenth birthday. They put away their wands so that their magic will not draw attention to her. Yet with hours to go, they bring out the wands and tip off the bad guys. Their reasons for using magic are also unbelievable. They’ve been living in the woods for 16 years and haven’t figured out how to make clothing or prepare food? Who made the princess’s clothing as she grew? What have they been eating all this time?

This stupidity is compounded by them bringing the princess back to the castle before the sun sets. Instead of leaving her hidden in the woods until the curse expires, they tempt fate by bring her out into the open. Why? The only reason I can think of is because the story artists couldn’t think of anything better. There is no logic to this.

What’s most disappointing is that the good fairies and Maleficent are the most interesting characters in the film. The king and queen have longed to have a child. When they finally do, they are forced to give up all contact with her for 16 years in order to protect her life. In the interim, they have no other children. Imagine the psychological stress these parents would endure and how their loss would colour their entire lives. That’s meaty material, but the film ignores the Queen entirely and the king is barely more fleshed out. When it comes to the climax of the film, the royal family is literally asleep, unable to influence events in any way. When the king and queen are finally reunited with their daughter, the sum total of the emotion displayed is a hug.

The two kings are more poorly developed than the two kings in the Fleischer version of Gulliver’s Travels. It isn’t often you can credit the Fleischers with better character development than Disney, but it is absolutely the case here.

The princess is stuck in the woods for 16 years. Has she had contact with anyone besides the three fairies? Has she ever encountered men? She dreams of romance, so she has to be aware of them. She can see the castle from the woods. Has she never been curious to visit it, just as a tourist? If the princess has any thoughts, the audience is not privy to them. In dramatic terms, she has no motivation; she seeks romance, but only in the most generic way. Unlike later Disney heroines like Ariel, she does nothing to find or sustain her relationship. The prince finds her in the woods and she falls instantly in love. Is it possible to be more passive?

The prince is over-matched by Maleficent if not for the fairies. Every step of the way, they use magic to allow him to escape and battle the dragon. Why don’t they cut out the middle man and just battle Maleficent themselves? What’s worse, they put the inhabitants of the King’s castle to sleep, so why don’t they do the same to the inhabitants of Maleficent’s? That would have saved everyone a lot of effort.

There are many Disney features done while Disney himself was alive that suffer from story structure problems. What was usually present, though, were memorable personalities. Many claim that Sleeping Beauty suffered due to Disney’s interest in Disneyland and the studio’s TV work. That may be so, but the film looks like the studio forgot everything it knew about story and character when it made this film. The fact that nobody could see this or stop it, plus the fact that so much money was spent to finish the film, resulted in major layoffs and marginalized the animation department. While some people celebrate this film, I see it as a self-inflicted wound.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

101 Dalmatians: Part 20A

This is the climax of the film where Cruella and the Baduns attempt to stop the truck carrying the dogs back to London.

While it is an exciting sequence, what strikes me is how little the dogs have to do. They have been active characters before this - searching, fighting and avoiding capture - but there's nothing left for them to do. Except for Perdy catching a pup by the tail as the truck tilts dangerously, the dogs are literally just along for the ride. While the audience has been asked to identify with the dogs as protagonists, now the audience is stuck rooting for a truck driver who has no history with the audience and no idea what's really going on. It's a bit of an odd turn for the film to take.

It's also something of a disappointment that the bad guys are the authors of their own misfortune. Again, after the dogs have worked so hard to rescue the puppies and return home, why not give them the opportunity of striking the final blow? Instead, the bad guys cancel each other out and the dogs ride home to safety.

There are some interesting shots where the backgrounds recede behind the characters riding in vehicles. If they were done as traveling mattes, the matte work is excellent as there are no matte lines visible. Those lines are visible in later films like The Rescuers, so why are the shots here better? Perhaps they were done using the multiplane camera, which would not require matte work as the entire shot would be done in camera. Does anyone know?

This part of the film really belongs to Cruella. While her henchman have done most of the dirty work until now, she is the main villain in the chase. In shot 158, her car crashes through some trees and parts of it get stripped off, the resulting look in shot 160.1 is very much a nod to the California hot rod culture of the 1950s. Big Daddy Roth, anyone?

Prior to those shots, in 149-154, the car lands in a snowbank and instead of animating the snow, someone decided to use the live action footage from the model shoot of the car. The live action images were transferred directly to cels and painted. As a viewer, these shots have always called attention to themselves and taken me out of the story momentarily. For one thing, the texture of the snow in these shots doesn't match any snow in the rest of the film. For another thing, there are registration problems. You can clearly see the live element weaving relative to the painted backgrounds they've been inserted into.

The film leaves Cruella, Horace and Jasper stuck in the snow without a way home. Are the arrested? Horace and Jasper are guilty of burglary. Cruella is guilty of attempted murder of a truck driver. Are they fined? There's no doubt that Cruella has broken the speed limit and driven recklessly. We'll never know.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Richard Williams Interview at Spline Doctors

Richard Williams (left) and Ken Harris

Spline Doctors has an audio interview with Richard Williams where he talks about his experiences with animators Ken Harris and Milt Kahl. Williams also talks about the creation of his new instructional DVD series.

(link via Alan Cook.)

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Emru Townsend

Emru as I remember him.

Emru Townsend passed away last night after a lengthy battle with leukemia.

I can't remember how and when I first "met" Emru. He was probably the one to contact me in the days when the internet was mostly usenet groups and email lists. He approached me to write about the production of Monster By Mistake and I was grateful for the opportunity. He was the editor of fps, a Canadian magazine devoted to animation and my TV special was an early example of an all-cgi half hour. He gave me another chance to publicize the show when it went to series and I continued to write reviews for fps thereafter when it migrated to the web.

Emru and I were also members of Apatoons, a private publication about animation that's been going on longer than The Simpsons.

I only met Emru face to face two or three times, and I think that all the meetings may have taken place at the Ottawa Animation Festival. The one thing that struck me about Emru in person was his great baritone voice, one that was made for radio.

Emru was someone who made things happen. Lots of people have ideas or complain that the world is deficient in some way. Emru turned ideas into reality. Creating a magazine from scratch and getting it distributed is not an easy task, and it doesn't get any easier when the subject matter is animation. Emru attracted people like a magnet and was able to organize them so that there was a tangible result.

That organizational ability served him well during his illness. He used all his media savvy to publicize his situation; he needed a bone marrow transplant and had to find someone who was a match. He and his family (especially his sister Tamu), mounted a campaign that included a website and blog, email lists, newspaper articles and radio interviews, all focused on publicizing the need for people to provide samples for the bone marrow database. His ethnic group, the Afro-Caribbean community, is under-represented and one goal of his crusade was to register more people in that community so that they would have an easier time if they were unfortunate enough to be in Emru's position. For all the work that Emru did with fps, with the Siggraph organization, with the larger animation community, it will probably be dwarfed over time by the work done by him, his friends and family to expand the bone marrow database. We'll never know how many lives that database may save in the future as a result of their efforts.

Emru's illness was not easy or pleasant. In addition to the effects of the disease itself, he suffered with the problems associated with chemotherapy: exhaustion, fuzzy-headedness, and mouth sores. It suppressed his immune system, so he spent time in hospital wards where he could only be visited by people wearing masks and gowns as he was in danger of infection. There were other complications having to do with his heart rate and his legs swelling. Through all the treatments and over 40 transfusions, Emru wrote about his illness. There was no self-pity in those reports; Emru approached his illness like a journalist, documenting everything he went through dispassionately. This is what's known as grace under pressure.

Emru found a match for the transplant and underwent the procedure in September. Unfortunately, it didn't relieve his condition. He knew several weeks ago that there was nothing else doctors could do for him and that it was only a matter of time. Time ran out yesterday evening.

I've lost a friend, animation has lost an advocate, and the Townsend family now has a hole it in that will never be filled up. Emru is survived by his wife Vicky, his son Max, his sister Tamu, and his parents and in-laws. I know something of what they went through and I don't envy them the pain and uncertainty that has dominated their lives since Emru got sick. There's nothing left to say except that I hope that his family can find solace from how much we'll miss him and most especially from the way Emru lived his life. We're richer for having known him.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Joe and Bill Explain It All

Here is a CBC news clip from 1961 where Joe Barbera and Bill Hanna explain the production process for making TV cartoons. It's a shame that the clip is in such poor shape.

One of the interesting things is the casual sexism. "Girls" do ink and paint, but a "man" paints the backgrounds. Welcome to the era of Mad Men and Wilder's The Apartment.

If you can identify any of the artists who appear on screen, please comment.

(Thanks to Chris Walsh for pointing me to this.)

Housekeeping and Items of Interest

I've updated the template to this blog so that "older posts" appears at the bottom of each page. This has also allowed me to add links to the mosaics of 101 Dalmatians and Pinocchio. Previously, only a portion of those entries was accessible through the tags and now all of them are. Thanks to Alan Cook for pointing me in the right direction, even though it took me weeks to finally get to this.

I've also added a category called "Favourite Entries." Right now, the only thing there is the major research paper I wrote for my Masters degree. Other items will eventually be added. I regret that Blogger puts the most recent entries first. If you're interested in following the feature mosaics or my paper, you've got to start at the bottom and work your way to the top.

I've added all my old links and tested them, but if you note any problems with the new set-up, please leave me a comment and I'll do my best to correct them.

Clay Kaytis at The Animation Podcast has added the second part of his interview with Eric Goldberg. Most interesting to me were Eric describing the making of Pocahontas and his feelings about computer animation. All of the interviews that Clay has done are worth listening to. They are a major resource for artists and historians and I wish that this technology had been around in the 1930s and '40s so that we could be listening to Fred Moore, Norm Ferguson, Emery Hawkins, Rod Scribner, etc. As we're now in a period where studios are less interested in publicizing artists than they were in the '90s, we're lucky that Kaytis and others are doing their part to put faces and voices to the work that we see on screen.

Kevin Langley has published some emails that he received from the son of Lantz and UPA animator Pat Matthews. Matthews is one of dozens of animators whose work deserves greater recognition and study. Though his animation is broad and vigorous, his drawings are solid and controlled. He was the Preston Blair of the Lantz studio in that he was the animator the studio turned to whenever sexy girl animation was needed. Matthews' anonymity is due to working for two studios whose work has been under-represented on DVD and his early death. He also worked at studios farther off the beaten path, such as Mexico City, at a time when animation appreciation was even more United States-centric than it is now. Kevin's entry includes embedded videos of the UPA cartoons Robin Hoodlum and Rooty Toot Toot, both of which Matthews animated on, as well as a compilation of Matthews' animation at the Lantz studio.

Will Finn has written an interesting entry on story and the role of villains within them. As a professional story artist himself, he offers some alternate ways to look at the story structures of some very well-known films. We are in a period when far too many studio features are being made according to formula and Will argues that there are possibilities that are being ignored.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Various Links

Over at, there's a review of Madagascar 2 which includes this interesting take on modern family films:
Many know it as the Fox/Dreamworks design, and it goes a little something like this: hire yourself a group of recognizable voice actors, preferably from mediums (TV, music) that provide some conceptual crossover appeal; take your spec screenplay and strip it of anything remotely resembling complicated characterization or narrative; insert multiple examples of lame pop culture quipping, everything from tempered Top 40 hits to fame whore in-joking; offer up a few mindless musical montages; and don’t forget the borderline offensive toilet humor and bodily fluid/noises jokes. Wrap it all up in a ribbon of riot act ridiculousness, a level of ADD inspired attention spanning that will leave the underaged spent and the adult feeling they got their Cineplex-inflated money’s worth, and you’ve got a F/D derivative. And a big fat hit, probably.
At Cinematech, Scott Kirsner wonders why Disney is pushing the Blu-ray version of Sleeping Beauty so hard while not making it available for downloading.
My point: why spend all that marketing money to remind people about the existence of a 50-year old movie if you're not going to offer it in all the formats people might want to watch it in?

Also, Apple said last year that there were 500 million active iTunes users, and about a million new downloads of the software every day. The most optimistic projections about Blu-ray players envision that there will be about ten million of them in use by the end of this year. (And yes, that includes those built in to Sony's PS3 game console.)

So you're going to spend millions of marketing dollars to sell to a potential audience of 10 million instead of 500+ million? I own some Disney stock, and that don't make sense to me as a shareholder.
The New York Times reports on Disney's high end approach to merchandising.

The most expensive piece of clothing sold by the Walt Disney Company six years ago was a $75 sweatshirt embossed with a mug shot of Mickey Mouse. By Magic Kingdom decree, home furnishings were required to exhibit at least one Disney character, leading to children’s play rugs ($65, in Pluto) and nightlights ($9.95, in Winnie the Pooh).

Disney still peddles all those things. But now the company also sells $3,900 designer wedding gowns — no characters in sight — and women’s cashmere sweaters “inspired by Tinker Bell.” Interior design offerings include $2,800 leather club chairs and $6,000 chandeliers patterned after the Art Deco décor in Mr. Disney’s former office. One of the company’s new products: couture soap.

Welcome to Disney, the “lifestyle brand.”