Friday, May 28, 2010

Dumbo Part 5

After the emotional confrontation over Dumbo's ears in the last sequence, the film takes things down a notch by following Casey Jr. as he pulls into town. There's an explicit quote from The Little Engine that Could here.

What follows is one of the most interesting sequences in Disney history, and one thing that makes it interesting is how little discussion it has provoked. While the crows later in the film have been the subject of much debate, the racial overtones of this sequence seem to have escaped notice.

Why is this sequence in the film at all? What follows it is a circle wipe to the circus parading down main street. That could easily have followed Casey Jr. pulling into town. There's a bit of humor in this sequence with Dumbo trying and failing to do the work of the older elephants, but the gags are generic, doing nothing to give us a better idea of who Dumbo is as an individual. This sequence seems to be here to make a comment on race and class. That's relatively unusual for a Disney film (though it does pop up in shorts like Who Killed Cock Robin?). This is the first Disney feature to be set in contemporary times, so this sequence is a reflection of what was on the artists' minds.

The only humans we've seen previously are in sequence 3. They are all white and wearing uniforms that clearly mark them as circus employees. When we get to this sequence, the only humans we see are black. As they are disembarking from a railroad car, we know that they are also employees, but they don't get uniforms. The roustabouts are the ones who do the heavy lifting, regardless of the weather. Why aren't the rest of the employees helping? I guess the work is beneath them. Let's not forget that the circus wintered in Florida, at the time a Jim Crow state.

The lyrics of the song are worth noting:

Hike! Ugh! Hike! Ugh! Hike! Ugh! Hike!
We work all day, we work all night
We never learned to read or write
We're happy-hearted roustabouts

Hike! Ugh! Hike! Ugh! Hike! Ugh! Hike!
When other folks have gone to bed
We slave until we're almost dead
We're happy-hearted roustabouts

Hike! Ugh! Hike! Ugh! Hike! Ugh! Hike!
We don't know when we get our pay
And when we do, we throw our pay away
(When we get our pay, we throw our money all away)
We get our pay when children say
With happy hearts, "It's circus day today"
(Then we get our pay, just watching kids on circus day)

Muscles achin'
Back near breaking
Eggs and bacon what we need (Yes, sir!)
Boss man houndin'
Keep on poundin'
For your bed and feed
There ain't no let up
Must get set up
Pull that canvas! Drive that stake!
Want to doze off
Get them clothes off
But must keep awake
Hep! Heave! Hep! Heave! Hep! Heave!
Hep! Heave! Hep! Heave! Hep! Heave!
Hep! Heave! Hep!

Swing that sledge! Sing that song!
Work and laugh the whole night long
You happy-hearted roustabouts!
Pullin', poundin', tryin', groundin'
Big top roundin' into shape
Keep on working!
Stop that shirking!
Grab that rope, you hairy ape!
Poundin'! poundin'! poundin'! poundin'!

Note the use of the word "slave." Note also that they are illiterate and aren't paid on a regular basis. Happy-hearted? The visuals and the rest of the lyrics seem to dispute that. The song is nothing less than an extension of work songs sung in the fields by black slaves to dull the strain and boredom of work. Once this sequence is over, the roustabouts vanish from the film.

There's also an explicit parallel drawn between the elephants and the black workers. Except for one shot with camels, it appears that the elephants are the only circus animals helping to set up the big top. Shots 25 and 26 explicitly show the tigers lounging in their cage while the elephants exert themselves.

While the film is ostensibly about Dumbo, a freak who is persecuted, this sequence makes it clear that Dumbo is just an extreme case of an ongoing problem. Everyone in this film is judged on the basis of appearance, not as an individual.

One of the most interesting things to me about the early Disney features is how dangerous the environments are for the characters. We're living in a time now when entertainment is routinely made bland to protect children from upset. In 1940, the audience had weathered the greatest economic reversal in memory and was warily following a European war. The audience didn't have to be reminded that life was hard, dangerous and unfair.

Animation-wise, shot 22 by Hugh Fraser has Dumbo descending from the railroad car on a vibrating gangplank. The animation doesn't really work as Dumbo comes off as weightless. I'm sure that a higher budget would have caused the scene to be revised.

Jack Campbell's work on the roustabouts is excellent. Despite the fact that they have no faces, they do have a real presence. You can feel their exertion.

Steve Bosustow, later the head of UPA, has several shots of elephants here.

The effects animation in this sequence is excellent. The rain is well done and Disney always makes it a point to show the drops hitting surfaces. Cheaper animation generally just overlays the rain on the scene without showing the drops making contact with anything. The use of rim lighting on the elephants and the roustabouts is beautiful and the use of aerial perspective on shots like 57 and 57.1 adds a tremendous sense of depth.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Dumbo Part 4

(Revisions down below.)

It's a shame that the Dumbo draft that Hans Perk has posted (and it's all available now on his blog) is missing many animator identifications. We can guess that Art Babbitt handled the stork in this sequence, but it remains just a guess. We're fortunate, however, in knowing what Bill Tytla animated in this sequence.

This sequence keeps the audience in suspense over Mrs. Jumbo's baby until the baby is finally revealed. It's a two stage reveal, first showing us a cute elephant child and once he sneezes, showing us the ears that are his curse and finally his blessing.

The female elephants are never named onscreen, but are named in the draft. They are Matriarch, Prissy, Catty and Giggles. They are successors to the seven dwarfs in that their names describe their personalities and that they look similar, so must be differentiated by the way they move. Needless to say, Tytla is up to the task.

No explanation is ever given as to where Jumbo, Sr. is. The lack of a male role model for Dumbo or a male counterbalance to the female gossips leaves the role open for Timothy when he later enters the film.

Revision: I think that the use of space in this sequence is very important, and my previous writing about it didn't do it justice. All space on film is constructed. Even if a film is a single shot, there's a frame around it that excludes things. Once you add cutting and camera movement, a film maker is either carving up space or implying relationships by connecting things in space.

It's a cliché, and a useful one, to start a sequence with an establishing shot, showing the audience where everything is. It would be unsurprising to follow shot 11 of the stork looking into the elephant's car with a wide shot showing how many elephants are present and what their spatial relationship is. Instead, the sequence director or the layout artist made the decision to keep the space fragmented. At screen left, we have the four elephants. In the center, we have the stork and Dumbo. On the right, we have Mrs. Jumbo. Center stage is logically where the most important action occurs, and we have the stork concerned with procedure, getting a signature, speaking his poems and singing "Happy Birthday."

Once the stork is gone, Dumbo is center stage. At this point, the left and right become two poles of a magnet. At first, they have an equal attraction for Dumbo. Both sides express obvious pride. In shot 60, Dumbo looks from his mother to the others, and is equally pleased. Interestingly, it is the matriarch, not Mrs. Jumbo, who is the first to actually touch the child. Once his ears are revealed, those on screen left radically change their view.

This results in shot 62, the only shot in the entire sequence to show all the characters at once. Mrs. Jumbo slaps one of the others and removes Dumbo to her side of the screen. For the rest of the sequence, Dumbo is always shown with his mother in the frame. The only other shot with Mrs. Jumbo and the four is 77, where she pulls the pin to shut them away.

The cutting communicates the gap between Mrs. Jumbo and the others. Dumbo begins suspended between the elephants but ends connected spatially to his mother with the four excluded from their space.

The cutting is basic. There are no bravura layouts here, but clearly a lot of thought went into how this key moment -- the revelation of Dumbo's ears and the reaction of the community to it -- was to be staged. That's typical of so much of this film. It doesn't dazzle like Pinocchio or Fantasia, but within its tight budget, the creative choices are invariably effective.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Monday, May 17, 2010

Dumbo Part 3

In this sequence, we learn that the stork carrying Mrs. Jumbo's baby is running behind schedule.

The entire sequence is animated by Art Babbitt. The acting does not require flashy animation, but what's there demonstrates Babbitt's skill. During shot 1, a flying cycle, the stork's entire body stretches and squashes with the beating of his wings. The wing upstroke takes 12 frames while the downstroke takes 8 frames, giving the downstroke a definite accent that is timed to the music.

The rest of the sequence is all about weight. While we haven't seen the contents of the stork's bundle yet, we suspect that it's Mrs. Jumbo's baby and the way that Babbitt handles the weight of the bundle reinforces our belief. The bundle appears heavy when the stork drops it on the cloud. Babbitt also gets great contrast in timing in shot 3 between the stork's slow scanning of the earth below and his fast lunge to prevent the bundle from falling. That's contrasted with the slow lift, emphasizing the weight of the bundle yet again. The bit is repeated twice within the shot.

Shot 8 is another that's all about weight. For a third time, the stork has to stop the bundle from falling. There is a slow lift. The stork grabs the bundle with this beak, uses his wings to hold the bundle from the bottom and then waddles over to the edge of the cloud. That waddle is a very expressive piece of movement clearly showing how difficult it is to move this bundle. At the clouds edge, the stork leaps, and the weight of the bundle rapdily pulls him downward.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Incentives and Motivation

Daniel Pink is the author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. It's an excellent book and I recommend it. The above clip is a summary of some of the book's findings and obviously has repercussions for creative fields like animation. It also ties into the bottom-up vs. top-down aspects of comics and animation that I mentioned in the addendum to my post about TCAF and Animation.

(If the text is too small to read on your screen, you can either hit the fullscreen button at the bottom right of the video, or you can watch the video on YouTube here. And doesn't this presentation beat the heck out of Powerpoint?)

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Dumbo Part 2

This sequence is pretty much just exposition. The circus is leaving its winter quarters and the animals are being loaded onto Casey Jr. However, the sequence still emphasizes the parent-child relationships. The babies we have seen delivered in the previous sequence are with their parents and all are quite happy to be together and to be boarding the train.

Shot 9, animated by Hugh Fraser, appears fairly straightforward, but actually conveys an enormous amount of story and character information. The lead elephant is as happy as all the other animals we've seen boarding the train. Then comes Mrs. Jumbo, looking depressed. She stands out from all the animals due to her contrasting emotional state and facial expression. She once again looks up at the sky, echoing movements from sequence 1, shot 27, so we know that she's still looking for her baby. The elephant behind her taps her rump. After her surprise reaction, Mrs. Jumbo looks annoyed. Don't they understand what she's going through? Her melancholy returns and the following elephant pushes her into the railroad car. These last bits of animation set up the self-centered nature of the other elephants. Their lack of support will later manifest itself in the ostracism of her child, Dumbo.

It's interesting that Casey Jr. is anthropomorphized. He (it?) is the only object in the film brought to life. The fire engine used by the clowns later in the film is not alive. This could be due to Walt Disney's own fondness for trains or could be due to the popularity of the children's story The Little Engine that Could, a story that went through various incarnations between 1906 and 1930.

The stills below are from shot 19, animated by Poul Kossoff. It's a beautiful layout, with the overlapping hills contributing to the sense of space and perspective. The movement of Casey Jr. travelling down the track does nothing to draw attention to itself, but the animation is devilishly hard. The winding path and the reduction in size need to be carefully done so that the perspective and relative sizes of the cars stay consistent. The drawing problems are of a mechanical nature, but that does nothing to lessen the effort behind them. This is one of those shots whose success renders it invisible, but don't doubt the animator's skill or perseverance.

In the comments to Part 1, Steven Hartley asked about effects animator Cy Young. I know that Young was Chinese-American. According to Alberto Becattini, Young was born in 1900, worked at the Bray Studio from 1924-1934, at Disney from 1934 to 1941 and then finished his career working for the United States Air Force until 1962. He died in 1964. Below is a two-colour cartoon Young made in 1931 of Mendelssohn's Spring Song.

Monday, May 10, 2010

TCAF and Animation

Last weekend, the Toronto Comic Arts Festival was held at the reference library at Yonge and Bloor. The picture at left is only a portion of the festival. There were three more rooms of exhibitors and three rooms to house panels on various subjects.

The enthusiasm and productivity in the comics field these days is staggering. Besides publishers who are specializing in graphic novels, there are hundreds of individuals who are creating work that they self-publish in print or on the web. The work, of course, is of variable quality, but the energy level is high. No one attending could doubt the health of the field or its prospects for the immediate future.

Animation artists are some of the people who are gravitating towards comics. Certainly, at Comicon International in San Diego, artists from studios like Disney and Pixar have been publishing and selling personal work. Canadian animation artists are also moving in that direction, including some Sheridan graduates.

Sam Bradley (at left) and Nick Thornborrow were there selling The Anthology Project, a collection of work by 15 artists (several of them Sheridan grads) in a full colour hardcover collection similar to the Flight volumes. Copies can be ordered here (and are available in these stores) and you can see art samples here. A second volume is already planned.

Paul Rivoche, comics artist and designer for many WB superhero animated shows was once again at TCAF, meeting fans and selling collections of his artwork. Paul is currently working on a graphic novel adaptation of The Forgotten Man: A New History of The Great Depression by Amity Shlaes.

I had the pleasure of meeting Graham Annable for the first time. Graham is currently doing story work at Laika (he helped board Coraline) but has been doing is own comics and animation for years. His YouTube channel has 10,000 subscribers and Dark Horse has recently published The Book of Grickle, a compilation of much of his comics work.

Graham's animation work is minimalist and his humour is deadpan. Both work well with the limitations of being an independent animator. His work on YouTube is the basis for a videogame that will be available come June.

While it was great to see animation people taking advantage of the possibility of comics, the vibe on animation was not all good. I ran into a veteran storyboard artist, who told me that he called several management-type folks he knew and suggested they attend TCAF, looking for properties. Of the four he called, only people from Starz, an American company, said they'd be attending. Hollywood regularly treks to San Diego to look for ideas, but Canadian producers and broadcasters can't be bothered to look in their own back yards.

The panel Indie Comics and Indie Animation (from left: Jay Stephens, Faith Erin Hicks, Troy Little, Meredith Gran and Graham Annable) came down firmly on the side of comics over animation. Hicks and Gran are both working on comics full time now and not sorry to be out of the animation industry. Hicks is working on a graphic novel for First Second, Friends with Boys, and Gran has done some animation to promote her web comic Octopus Pie. The general feeling was that the freedom in comics was preferable to the assembly line nature of the service work that Canada seems to specialize in. As Stephens, Little and Annable have all gotten animation projects off the ground based on their comics work, it's clear that the animation industry in Canada is ignoring the talent it employs and in some cases actually driving it away.

Comics are definitely ascending at the moment and Canadian animation, at best, is standing still. Talent will flow towards the greater promise and unless Canadian animation can figure out a way to generate some excitement and provide greater creative opportunities, its long term health doesn't look promising.

Addendum: Something I've realized is that comics right now are a bottom-up phenomenon. Because the barrier to entry is low, the field is being driven by the large number of people who expressing themselves through comics. It's been this work, dating back at least to the 1980s that's allowed the field to hit a critical mass where mainstream publishers and bookstores are now invested in the field.

By contrast, due to the high cost of production, animation is a top-down phenomenon. As there are always fewer people at the top than at the bottom, and as business people are generally conservative --preferring to imitate proven successes rather than take chances-- animation has much less variety. It's more difficult for individual artists to have an impact on the wider field.

However, in the 1960s and '70s, comics were a top-down field as well. The field was dominated by just a few companies (Marvel, DC, Archie, Harvey) who turned out a narrow range of material and imitated themselves and each other. In the 1970s, newsstand sales tumbled and eventually the direct market and comics shops were born. The changing economics of the shops vs. the newsstands left some room for niche comics like Cerebus, Elfquest, Hate, Eightball and Love and Rockets and publishers like Fantagraphics. It was from these roots (and the earlier underground comix of the '60s) that produced the graphic novels of today.

The urge for self-expression was always there, but only when the economics of comics changed did the artists have room to begin pushing up from the bottom.

My hope (which might be a vain one) is that now that the economics of film and TV are beginning to change due to the web, animation artists will get the same chance as comics artists to start pushing the industry from the bottom up.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Love & Theft

Metamorphoses animation isn't as common as it once was. It's tough to do in cgi and so much other animation consists of moving around digital cut-outs. Shape changing, whether it's stretch and squash or metamorphoses, is one of animation's strengths, as is synchronizing to music.

This film is one of 10 shorts competing at the Cannes Film Festival. The NFB and YouTube have partnered to put them all online. Several of them are animated, with this one being my favorite. It's directed by Andreas Hykade and comes from Germany. You can register and vote for the films here or just watch them here.

(Link via Jim Henshaw.)

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Dumbo Part 1

(Click any image to enlarge.)

Here we go again. I'm hoping to complete this mosaic by September, before my teaching load increases.

For me, the two crowning achievements of the Disney studio are Pinocchio and Dumbo. That's not to say that I don't admire other films in whole or part, but I don't think that the studio ever bested these two.

I enjoy creating these mosaics because they force me to take a closer look at the film. Rather than get caught up in the story, I'm seeing the cutting continuity and getting a much closer look at the animation, not only learning who animated what but also seeing the poses and the spacing between drawings.

Of course, none of this would be possible without the generosity of Hans Perk, who has collected these studio documents at his own expense and is unselfishly sharing them with us on his blog.

The stories that Disney based his early features on were well known. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was a famous fairy tale and Pinocchio and Bambi were well-known novels. Dumbo's origins are murkier. While the film credits a book by Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl, nobody knows the book. Animation historian Michael Barrier has researched the authors, the book and how it found its way to the Disney studio in a fascinating article that can be found here.

The film of Dumbo gets off to a rousing start with its credit sequence. In 1941, most movie credit sequences consisted of some kind of background motif and a choice of font. There were exceptions to this (the titles for Preston Sturges' The Lady Eve (1941) include animation), but titles were fairly conservative at this time. Dumbo's titles are a riot of colour and combined with the musical fanfare definitely suggest a trip to the circus.

The opening sequence is heavy on special effects. The rain in the early shots is live action superimposed on painted backgrounds. The multiplane camera was probably used to get a sense of depth in the clouds. The effects animators continue to deal with the parachutes even when character animation is present. For instance, in shot 22, Harvey Toombs takes care of the bears while Miles Pike deals with the parachute. The same is true for shot 27. Bill Tytla animates Mrs. Jumbo while Cy Young animates the falling parachutes.

Storywise, the titles and the opening tell us that we're in Florida, the winter home of the circus and that Spring, with its new offspring, is here. With the exception of the sleeping hippo, all the other mothers are thrilled with their babies. This strengthens the disappointment Mrs. Jumbo feels when her child fails to appear.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Toronto Comic Arts Festival

If you are in Toronto this coming weekend, get to the reference library at Yonge and Bloor for TCAF, a gathering of independent and alternative comics artists who will show their work and participate in many panel discussions. Admission is free. Guests include Daniel Clowes, James Sturm, Seth, Chester Brown, and Jim Woodring.

There are several panels that relate to animation, including:

The Spirit of Indie: Where Comics Meet Video Games
Saturday, May 8th, 2:00 – 2:45pm, The Pilot

There’s more to the game industry than blockbuster, multi-system titles just as there’s more to comics than Batman. This panel
seeks to explore the ways in which independent comic artists and game developers have influenced each other and spurred each other on to explore the possibilities of their medium. Cartoonists/game contributors and creators Scott Campbell, Jamie McKelvie, Jim Munroe, and Miguel Sternberg will be interviewed by games journalist Matthew Kumar.

Spotlight: Graham Annable’s HICKEE
Saturday, May 8th, 12:30 – 1:15pm, Novella Room

Join Graham Annable (creator of Grickle, storyboard artist, Coraline) and frequent collaborator Scott C. (Double Fine Action Comics) in a multimedia exploration of his career in pleasantly twisted visual storytelling, ranging from comics to feature film storyboards to indie animation and illustration.

Indie Comics and Indie Animation
Sunday, May 9th, 3:30 – 4:30pm, Learning Center 1

Four cartoonists who are also animators discuss the ins and outs of the interplay between the two mediums. What’s different? What’s the same? How do the two affect each other and what’s the difference between working on independently-driven animation and comics and corporate pursuits? Featuring Graham Annable, Meredith Gran, Faith Erin Hicks, Troy Little, and Jay Stephens. Moderated by Matt Forsythe.

Walt's People Volume 9

If you live in the United States, the ninth volume of interviews of people who worked with and for Walt Disney is now available from Xlibris. The book will be available through Amazon in a matter of weeks. This volume, edited by Didier Ghez, contains interviews with Berny Wolf, Art Babbitt, Bill Melendez, Ken O'Connor, Thor Putnam, Art Scott, Ken Anderson, Les Clark, Joe Grant, Walt Peregoy, Frank McSavage, Jack Bradbury, Burny Mattinson, correspondence with Ollie Johnston, and more.

Volume 10 is already in the works. These books overflow with history, technique, and opinion and each works as a stand alone volume if you're intimidated by the thought of trying to catch up.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Fourth Anniversary

Just a note to acknowledge that today is the fourth anniversary of this blog.

Sheridan Industry Day 2010 Addendum

Kevin Parry has posted the opening title to Sheridan's industry screening last week. Besides Kevin, Andrew Murray, Andrew Wilson, Allison Neil and Adam Pockaj were responsible for the concept and execution of this piece, including the voices. It has a playfulness and a spontaneity that exceeds many of the films produced over the course of the full year and it's a reminder to all of us that if we have fun making a film, the odds are that the audience will have fun watching it.

Sheridan College Animation Intro 2010 from kevinbparry on Vimeo.