Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Pixar and Miyazaki

"At the same time, though, Miyazaki's presence points up the limitations of Pixar, which are the limitations of American commercial entertainment generally. Pixar landed on this list, and in the penultimate slot, not strictly on its own merits (which are, as I've said, considerable), but because of its imaginative dominance of family entertainment, and its capacity to shape future moviegoers' sense of what animation (and entertainment) should be. Pixar represents the best of what American commercial filmmaking is. But Miyazaki shows what might be possible without Pixar's inhibitions (or constraints, take your pick).

"Factor out the few dark and disturbing moments in Pixar's films this decade (there haven't been many, really) and you're looking at a body of work that's fairly easy for even the youngest children to grasp and process, and ultimately not challenging compared to Miyazaki. In Pixar films, good characters sound (and usually look) conventionally lovable. Good and evil are clearly defined, and no "good" character's goal is left unmet. And no potentially confusing or disturbing apparition, incident or twist is left unexplained for long.

"Contrast this with Miyazaki's much freer and deeper approach to family entertainment, and you start to see the aesthetic gulf between his work and Pixar's (and, by extension, between the splendid array of animation that thrives internationally and the homogeneous, Pixar-inspired type that dominates U.S. screens). Miyazaki's films are just as visually imaginative as Pixar's and often more so — more painterly and less beholden to the rules of "realism." More importantly, they are never content to define characters as good or evil, or even mostly good or mostly evil, and be done with it. Through a canny combination of sharp draftsmanship, clean animation and simple dialogue, Miyazaki throws children (and often adults) off balance, leaving them unsure what to make of a certain character or situation and forced to grapple with what Miyazaki is doing and showing."

Read the whole article here.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

A Revised Survival Kit

I got an email from Amazon, informing me that there is now an expanded edition of The Animator's Survival Kit by Richard Williams. The cover is above and the contents for the additional material are below. If anyone has a copy of the revised edition, please leave your thoughts about the new material in the comments.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A Swedish Holiday Tradition

When I was growing up in New York City, every Thanksgiving and Christmas, Channel 11 would run March of the Wooden Soldiers with Laurel and Hardy. In those days before home video, it was the only way to see the film so you didn't want to miss your chance. As a result, the film became a local holiday tradition.

You may be familiar with the Disney TV episode "From All of Us to All of You." It first ran on December 19, 1958 and was re-run for years. It's a clip show, using old shorts and feature excerpts. Apparently, the show is a huge holiday tradition in Sweden. It's been running for nearly 50 years and is still attracting one third to one half of the TV audience on Christmas Eve day. Jeremy Stahl discovered this when he traveled to Sweden to celebrate Christmas with his fiance's family and has investigated the phenomenon in this article for Slate.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Txesco's Season's Greetings

I've written about Txesco, an animator who worked on the Pocoyo series, before. He's created this beautifully designed and animated holiday greeting. Take a look.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Archive Series: Animation

This book, the second in the archive series after Story, is a collection of animation drawings from the entire history of the Disney animation studio. Except for the introduction by John Lasseter, there is no text to speak of in the book beyond the captions identifying the drawings, which are the real stars of this book.

A book like this is at once both a revelation and a frustration. The revelation has to do with the craft and beauty of the drawings. Animation drawings generally have more life than the image that results from them on screen. The evidence of the human hand is all over them, where that evidence tends to get lost by the time the drawings are pushed through the production pipeline to arrive at the final image.

The frustration comes from the drawings that aren't in this book. Every drawing is a reminder of other scenes from the same film that one wishes to see.

There is no credited editor, so it's impossible to know how these particular drawings were selected and if there was an agenda behind the selection. The period up until The Rescuers is represented by a much wider selection of animators than I would have suspected. Besides multiple images from the nine old men (and somebody really likes John Lounsbery, not that I'm complaining), there are drawings by Ub Iwerks, Dick Lundy, Jack Campbell, Fred Moore, Norm Ferguson, Art Babbitt, Dick Huemer, Frenchy de Tremaudan, Ham Luske, Robert Stokes, Bill Tytla, Grim Natwick, John Sibley, Marvin Woodward, Bill Justice, Hal Ambro, Jerry Hathcock, Blaine Gibson, and Ted Berman.

It's the post-Rescuers films that present a much narrower selection. There are drawings by Glen Keane, Andreas Deja, Mark Henn, Eric Goldberg, Nik Ranieri, Pres Romanillos, Anthony DeRosa, Bolhem Bouchiba, Randy Haycock and Bruce Smith. There are, for instance, no drawings by James Baxter, Tony Fucile, Ruben Aquino, Chris Buck, Ken Duncan, Darlie Brewster, Will Finn, Dale Baer, etc. It's also interesting to see what features have been ignored. There's nothing from The Fox and the Hound, The Black Cauldron, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Atlantis, Brother Bear and Home on the Range. Of course, there are multiple pages devoted to The Princess and the Frog. Disney never misses an opportunity to plug their latest product.

Some of the drawings are clearly animator roughs while others are clean-ups. It may be impossible to identify the assistant animators at this point, but they deserve a great deal of credit for some of the drawings in this book. Similarly, there are some drawings that include effects, and the effects animator is uncredited.

There are a few errors in the book. A Mickey drawing from The Little Whirlwind is credited to James Moore instead of Fred Moore. Some drawings from The Three Caballeros by Ward Kimball are credited to Gerry Geronimi, who had most certainly stopped animating by the time of that film.

There are some mysteries here, too. There are two drawings from Duck Pimples credited to Fred Moore, though he's not on the credits of that cartoon. Credits are rarely complete and I'd dearly like to see the animator draft for that cartoon to know who did what on it. It is one of the most interesting Disney shorts of the 1940s, both in terms of story and animation.

There's also a pair of King Louie drawings from The Jungle Book by Frank Thomas that are extremely rough. They are from a song sequence when Louie is bouncing to the beat and it may be that the drawings are there to refer to earlier drawings in the bounce cycle. However, whoever included them didn't do Thomas any favours as they are unquestionably the worst drawings in the book and don't leave a good impression of Thomas.

This book will provide pleasure to anyone who enjoys looking at Disney art, whether a fan or an artist. The artist will also benefit from the draftsmanship and technique on display. This book isn't a guide on how to animate, but it most certainly is a guide on how to draw for animation.

I'm always interested in showcasing the work of lesser-known Disney artists, mainly because the famous ones had no monopoly on talent. Here are some images from the book (click to enlarge them). Above is Wendy as drawn by Hal Ambro. The beautiful linework in her face -- the soft thicks and thins -- adds a genuinely delicate quality to her appearance.

Below are two Goofys drawn by Bill Justice. Both poses are vigorous, with strong lines of action and the straights in the arms and right leg contrasting with the curves in the spine, the left leg and the golf club. Plus, if you haven't noticed, they're funny!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Princess and the Frog

In retrospect, it was the height of ignorance to think that because multinational corporations abandoned drawn animation, the medium would die. It may not have been as visible in North America as it once was, but smaller studios were happy to keep making drawn films as if nothing had happened. The Princess and the Frog is the third drawn feature I've seen this year (after Miyazaki's Ponyo and Tomm Moore's The Secret of Kells) and had circumstances not prevented me from going to the Ottawa festival, I would also have seen Paul and Sandra Fierlinger's My Dog Tulip.

Of the three I have seen, I'm sorry to say that The Princess and the Frog is the least interesting. Disney's return to drawn animation is also a return to Disney clichés. With the exception of race (and I want to come back to that), there's nothing in this film that Disney hasn't done before.

The truth, as everyone now acknowledges, is that people weren't tired of drawn animation, they were tired of being served the same stories over and over. That's why it's so disappointing that Disney has gone back to those stories. Without going into spoilers, the film is a gumbo of Broadway show tunes, Disney mysticism, lightweight romance and cartoon slapstick. The tone lurches all over the place and the film looks over-worked; it's as if the crew was so desperate for a hit that they pushed everything too far.

Except for one thing. One of my problems with Disney is that they choose settings for their art direction possibilities and then ignore everything else connected to the setting. This film is set in the 1910s and '20s in New Orleans. Racism was pervasive, not only on the personal level but also on the institutional level. It was in 1896, in the case Plessy v. Ferguson, that the United States Supreme Court ruled that "separate but equal" facilities for blacks and whites was constitutional. In reality, the facilities (including schools) were most definitely separate but never equal. There is no question that African Americans of the time were victims of a white society that used the law and violence in order to maintain a class system based on race.

I would suggest anyone interested in the truth of New Orleans during this time period read Louis Armstrong's autobiography My Life in New Orleans (and what an opportunity the film makers missed by not using Armstrong's recording of "A Kiss to Build a Dream On"). Armstrong's triumph over poverty and racism is far more interesting than this film. But let's be clear: this film doesn't exist to reveal any truths. It exists to capitalize on an under-served market segment: African-American girls who want a princess of their own.

I hope this film makes money because so long as Disney continues to make animated films, there is always the chance that a good one will result. A box office success will result in more employment for artists. But this year, besides Ponyo and Kells, I'd say I also prefer Sita Sings the Blues, The Fantastic Mr. Fox and Mary and Max to this film. All five of those films are more individual and more emotionally engaging than The Princess and the Frog.

If nothing else, this year has shown that animated features are bigger than just the multinationals, and the so-called "death" of drawn animation was not only exaggerated, it was also an opportunity for new voices to be heard. Perhaps this year we have entered a post-Disney or post-multinational age of animated features. Wouldn't that be nice?

Monday, December 07, 2009

The Peter Pan Wars

Greenbriar Picture Shows has a very interesting article on the fight between distributors and exhibitors over setting ticket prices for films in the early 1950's. Apparently, Peter Pan was point of contention between RKO, Disney's distributor at the time, and theatre owners. The U.S. Department of Justice got involved, holding hearings to determine if there was any collusion on setting prices.

John McElwee, the author, wonders if Disney's dissatisfaction with RKO's handling of the situation had anything to do with Disney setting up its own distributor, Buena Vista, shortly afterwards.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

A Guilty Pleasure

A guilty pleasure is something that's not good (or good for you) but that you like anyway. I have to admit that early Van Beuren sound cartoons are a guilty pleasure of mine. No one would compare them to the animation produced by the best of American studios, but they are the definition of the word "quirky." While occasionally, there are well drawn or animated scenes, the majority of them are clumsy, but they are clumsy in a way that provokes amazement, disbelief and most of all, laughter.

Steve Stanchfield's Thunderbean Animation has now collected the complete Van Beuren Tom and Jerry. These are not the cat and mouse cartoons that most associate with the character names, they are a human, Mutt and Jeff-like pair who starred in cartoons from 1931 to 1933. Because of the name confusion, when the cartoons were released to the home movie market, they were renamed Dick and Larry. The Van Beuren studio went out of business in 1936, so the cartoons became orphans and slipped into the public domain. They have suffered from endless duping, editing and retitling until Stanchfield began restoring them.

What makes these crude cartoons entertaining is their randomness. There is little logic in the cartoons from 1931 and '32 especially. Characters do things without reason, so you never know what's going to happen next. Tom and Jerry are barely developed. They seem to have different voices in every cartoon and their personalities and relationships are perfunctory at best. Often, they seem to be bystanders in their own cartoons, watching other characters carry the story and action.

However, the cartoons are driven by Gene Rodemich's jazz soundtracks and the animation, though weightless, is funny. These characters and cartoons are not believable in any sense of the word, but they amuse me. Animation is one of the least spontaneous art forms, requiring enormous planning. These cartoons come closer to being spontaneous than any others I can think of; many appear to be made up drawing by drawing, with no thought to what comes next.

Why, in Barnyard Bunk (embedded below) is there a skeleton in the outhouse? Why do ducks hatch from chicken eggs? What strange compulsion drives the mouse with the "Danger" sign? Does it matter? The walk cycles and dancing in this cartoon are ludicrous, but they make me laugh. These days, animation is either overly refined (see just about any recent feature) or barely expressive (see any recent TV animation). Funny movement seems to be a forgotten art. (Wait a minute. I'm sounding like John K. here...) When Grim Natwick said that many a cartoon was saved by a funny walk, he could have been talking about these.

And these cartoons may have been more influential than they are credited for. The cartoon Rabid Hunters looks like a warm-up for Porky's Hare Hunt, the first proto-Bugs Bunny cartoon. The Haunted Ship (one of four Waffles and Don cartoons on the set as a bonus) contains a quartet of drunk turtles singing "Sweet Adeline," and I have to wonder if that influenced Tex Avery's drunken fish singing "Moonlight Bay" in Porky's Duck Hunt.

Steve Stanchfield has searched for years to find the best prints of these cartoons, going to great lengths to restore original titles and missing footage. The gem on this set is a beautiful copy of A Swiss Trick, transferred from a 35mm original. This two disk collection contains every Tom and Jerry cartoon, liner notes and rare publicity artwork. No one but Stanchfield would have gone to the lengths he has to show off these cartoons.

This is not the first time he's laboured to revive the Van Beuren cartoons. He's also compiled the complete Cubby Bear, the complete Little King and a set of Toddle Tales and Rainbow Parade cartoons from that studio. Stanchfield has also put together sets of TV commercials, World War II propaganda films and various other collections. You can order Thunderbean collections here. I recommend them all.

If you're not familiar with Tom and Jerry, enjoy Barnyard Bunk below. The copy on the DVD set is better than this version I took from YouTube.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Two Contrasting Features

Within the space of a week, I had the opportunity to see two of this year's animated features, The Secret of Kells and Mary and Max. The first is directed by Tomm Moore of the Irish studio Cartoon Saloon and the second is the work of Australian Adam Elliot.

Both films were excellent, but for different reasons. Kells is one of the most beautifully art directed films I've ever seen. In some ways, its a feature that UPA should have made; it revels in flat design and is a riot of textures. It doesn't look like any feature that's been released to theatres in the recent past and stands out as a result.

I was frankly surprised at how expressive the animation was given the design. Some of the animators worked with a completely graphic approach while others kept to the designs, but moved the characters dimensionally. In both cases, the designs hold up and the characters come to life for the audience.

The Book of Kells is an actual illuminated manuscript of the gospels created circa 800 A.D. It currently is on display at Trinity College in Dublin. The illuminations in the book are the basis of the film's design. The film's story has to do with the people of Kells being threatened by a Viking invasion. The Abbot of Kells, himself a former illuminator, has decided that their best hope for survival is to surround their village with a wall to keep out the invaders. Brendan, the young nephew of the Abbot, is fascinated with the work of the illuminators and when an illuminator fleeing the Vikings arrives with the unfinished book, Brendan parts ways with his uncle over what their priority should be.

The film's story is not its strongest point, but it is far from weak. It is typical of coming-of-age stories where a youngster asserts his own values and attains independence from his elders. While most film protagonists perform heroic actions to defeat villains, Kells takes a more nuanced approach, counseling that sometimes flight is better than fight. The point of the film is that a society is more likely to survive by spending its resources on its art and culture rather than on defense. I wonder if this is the film makers' sly comment on the war on terror.

Mary and Max is a stop motion film about two outcast characters half a world apart. Mary is a young girl in Australia suffering from dysfunctional parents and a birth mark on her forehead which makes her the target of ridicule. Max is a middle-aged loner living in New York with a weight problem and Aspergers syndrome. These two become unlikely pen pals and manage to provide each other with comfort and advice while trying to survive in worlds where they don't fit in.

Adam Elliot previously won the Oscar for his animated short, Harvie Crumpet (2003). Like Chris Landreth (Ryan, The Spine), Elliot dwells on dysfunctional characters, but where Landreth displays them as an excuse to show off his technique, Elliot is genuinely sympathetic to his characters. The warmth he feels for them is what powers the film.

Stephen Rowley has written an excellent review of Mary and Max and his thoughts on Elliot's strengths and weaknesses mirror my own.
It is therefore not intended as a put-down to return to the thought that I started with, and note that Mary and Max is also carefully built around Elliot’s limitations. Elliot is a skilful writer and a designer, and as in his breakthrough short Harvie Krumpet he plays to those strengths by overlaying narration on top of his striking imagery. The whole story is driven by this approach, with most characters all-but-completely mute, except when we hear their written exchanges through voiceover. Elliot studiously avoids dialogue wherever possible, and he mostly makes it work because the writing is good and the approach thematically suits the story he’s telling here. Yet there are gaps (notably in Mary’s relationship with her husband) where the near-complete absence of verbal interaction between characters seems contrived and a little distracting. Actually staging a scene and telling us his characters’ feelings through actions and words, rather than a Barry Humphries voiceover, is a challenge Elliot seemingly doesn’t want to tackle.

Elliot seems, then, to be an animation director who actually animates only reluctantly, and in Mary and Max his other immense talents make it work. It will be interesting to see whether he can make a different kind of animated film, one in which he goes beyond the safety net of voiceovers and striking design. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he instead makes a Tim Burton-style transition to live-action, where he might be able to still use his strengths but shake off his limitations as an animator.
These features contrast in various ways, but I believe that they both point to viable approaches that are better than simply trying to make low budget versions of Hollywood films. Kells is based on local history and culture. Hollywood animated features regularly send their crews to foreign climes for research, but it tends to show up in art direction more than infuse the entire film. Kells is certainly more Irish than Disney's Hunchback is French.

Mary and Max could really take place anywhere. It's not location but point of view that sets this film apart. Adam Elliot's personality permeates the film. If a film has to work within a relatively low budget, a strong script and point of view can compensate for monetary limitations.

I suspect that when we look back at 2009, we'll see it as a banner year for animated features. Not only have the major studios released films (Up, Monsters vs. Aliens, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs), we've also seen new work by veteran directors like Hayao Miyazaki (Ponyo), John Musker and Ron Clements (The Princess and the Frog) and Henry Selick (Coraline). What's most exciting is that there are first features such as The Secret of Kells and Mary and Max that show that smaller players with something to say can make worthy films. That's what I find most exciting and I hope that we see more of it in the years to come.