Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Disney Buys Lucas

You can read the details everywhere, so I won't bother with them here.

I have no doubt that Wall Street and investors will see this as a good move, as all they are concerned about is money.  However, I'm concerned with artists and Disney's trend is not artist friendly.

Why not?  Well, if you happen to be somebody working in computer animation in the San Francisco bay area, there is now one less employer in the market.  Pixar and ILM have been charged with collusion, cooperating to make sure that they didn't hire employees from each other.  Now they're the same company and they can do what they like with hiring policies and pay scales.  As neither studio is union, there is no floor to pay or benefits.

The problem goes beyond that, though.  While Disney and Pixar continue to turn out some original films, Pixar has already been strong-armed into making sequels because Disney needs to pay off the purchase price.  There will be many, many more Star Wars and Marvel films to pay off those purchases as well.

That takes money and oxygen away from original projects that potentially could become as big as Star Wars or the Marvel Universe.  The company is clearly committed to milking existing intellectual property and acquiring more of it than creating new intellectual property.  And so much of what Disney is buying is from the last century. 

Robert Iger is clearly looking backwards more than forwards.

But don't forget that the Muppets started out as a small troop of puppeteers on local television, Marvel started out as a handful of creators working out of their homes, and George Lucas got turned down by everyone until Alan Ladd, Jr. took a chance (but didn't realize the value of sequel or merchandising rights or he would have kept them).  What Robert Iger doesn't see is that great creations don't come from large companies, they come from people committed to their own ideas who work out of basements, garages, warehouses and other out of the way places.  Sort of the way Walt Disney started.  Remember him?

Which means that while Iger is busy grinding out Muppets, Marvels and Star Wars, the great creations of the 21st century will be happening elsewhere.  Seek them out.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Is That You, Popeye?

The above was created by artist Lee Romao.  You can buy a 7 by 10 inch print of this for $15, as well as well as getting the image on canvas, stationary, or iPhone or iPad skins.  Aren't you glad that Genndy Tartakovsky is making the next Popeye feature and not Spielberg or Zemeckis?

(link via Boing Boing)

Monday, October 22, 2012

Marvel Comics: The Untold Story

Sean Howe's book Marvel Comics: The Untold Story could just as easily have been subtitled The Never Ending Story.  It's never ending as Marvel's fictional characters die, are brought back, change their powers, get replaced, get cloned, make deals with the devil, but still go on and on.  It's also never ending because the creators behind these characters leave in disgust, get fired, sue the company and sometimes die on the job.

This book is a warts-and-all telling of the people and business behind the creation of the Marvel universe, known for characters such as Spider-man, the Fantastic Four, Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk and the X-Men.  While it is only tangentially related to animation, it shares the problems of work-for-hire and the callous way that corporations treat the very people who create the wealth.

For those who haven't followed the comics or the company, this book may be a maddening read, as the cast of fictional and real characters runs into the hundreds.  The size of the cast prevents Howe from going into depth on more than a few people, mainly the owners, editors and to a lesser extent, writers.  The artists, as usual, get short shrift.  Anyone interested in learning more about artists John Buscema, Gene Colan and similar mainstays of the company will be disappointed.  The artists are mostly bystanders while the dance of power and money goes on above their heads.

Martin Goodman was a publisher of pulp magazines, a now extinct breed of publications that focused on genre fiction with detectives, cowboys, aviators and similar action-oriented characters.  They were named pulps for the cheap wood pulp paper they were printed on.  After the success of Superman in Action Comics in the late 1930s, Goodman was convinced to add comic books to his list of publications.  Within the first few years, he published The Human Torch (created by Carl Burgos), The Sub-Mariner (created by Bill Everett) and Captain America (created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby).  He hired his wife's cousin, 17 year old Stanley Leiber to work in the comics division and in 1941 when editor Joe Simon left (with Kirby) after Goodman screwed them out of Captain America royalties, Leiber writing under the pseudonym Stan Lee inherited the post of comics editor.

With the exception of his stint in the military during World War II, Lee continued running the division and created nothing of value until 1961.  At that point, partnered with Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, newly successful characters appeared for about a decade.  However, both Ditko and Kirby walked away from Lee and Marvel, angry over their lack of control and compensation.  Once that happened, Lee spent the next 40 years promoting Marvel and himself but failed to create anything similarly successful.  His greatest accomplishment was keeping himself front and center as the ownership changed repeatedly, garnering millions for himself while not lifting a finger as President and Publisher of Marvel to compensate the artists beyond paying them by the page.  He even colluded with his competitor, DC Comics, to make sure that freelancers couldn't play the two companies off each other for higher pay.

It's fitting that Disney now owns Marvel as the companies have similarities in their histories.  The business people who have taken over both companies after their founders have earned far more than the creative people who built the company in the first place.  Eric Ellenbogan, a Marvel executive who lasted just seven months, walked away with a $2.5 million severance package, more money than Jack Kirby made from Marvel in his entire career.  That's hardly different than the $140 million in severance that Michael Ovitz walked away from Disney with, more money than all nine old men made over 40 years.  John Lasseter is rapidly becoming another Stan Lee, agreeing to corporate moves he formerly disdained (like sequels) and becoming a kibitzer of other people's work rather than remaining a creator himself.  For both companies, the '90s were an anomaly where artists actually shared in the money their work generated.  Marvel went bankrupt and Disney abandoned drawn animation and the artists who created it.  In both cases, the good times didn't last.

The book contains just two illustrations: an ad for the first issue of Marvel Comics and a photograph of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1965.  Undoubtedly, the publisher didn't want to deal with Disney's well-known reluctance to grant the rights to images it owns (see the delay in Amid Amidi's biography of Ward Kimball).  However, Howe has a tumblr blog which includes many illustrations and documents that should have appeared.  Somehow print attracts the copyright cops while the web escapes unscathed, more proof that the copyright laws are dysfunctional in the digital age.

Anyone who aspires to work for a leading comics or animation company and thinks they'll be entering a magic kingdom where creativity reigns supreme and the fun never stops should read this book.  Large media corporations share many of Marvel's problems. Artists are routinely taken advantage of, and the more artists realize this on the way in, the less likely they are to be disappointed.

The Rabbi's Cat

LCHDR by azmovies
This film screened in Toronto, presented by the Toronto Jewish Film Festival and The Beguiling.

The film is based on a series of comics by Joann Sfar.  Set in Algiers, where Sfar's own family once resided, it has a large cast of distinctive characters.  The widowed Rabbi has a daughter with her own circle of friends.  A cousin who travels with a lion pays a visit.  The rabbi is friends with a Muslim cleric with the same last name.  A Russian artist, a White Russian, an African waitress, the rabbi's mentor and his student are other well-developed supporting characters.

While not revealing too much of the plot, several of the characters go on a meandering road trip searching for a utopia that turns out to be a false one.  The irony is that the searchers are an ad hoc society closer to utopia than the place they are seeking, in that they are of varying religions, nationalities, races and species and get along, using words and art as their means of communication, not weapons.

The design work in the film is stronger than the animation.  There are several backgrounds that are frame-worthy.  The characters are rich and a pleasure to spend time with as they discuss life, philosophy and more mundane subjects.  However, the film lacks structure and narrative drive, as do Sfar's original comics.  The film evokes directors like Renoir and McCarey in its focus on people living and its rejection of melodrama.

I have to say that France is producing some of the more interesting animated features I've seen in the last several years.  When I attended a presentation by Gobelins, they mentioned that France releases about ten animated features a year.  While I'm sure that some of them are aimed squarely at children, it also includes films like Persepolis, Le Tableau and The Rabbi's Cat, which can be enjoyed by children, but speak to more adult concerns.  The last two are being distributed by GKIDS and will be screened in November in Los Angeles in order to be submitted for the Oscars.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Funny Feet: The Art of Eccentric Dance

I've always loved dance animation.  Whether it is Mickey in Thru the Mirror or Donald in Mr. Duck Steps Out or the dancing in Rooty Toot Toot, when expressive movement joins with music, you get an energy that leaves ordinary animation in the dust.  Dick Lundy, Les Clark, Ken Harris, Preston Blair, Ward Kimball, and Pat Matthews are just some of the animators with a genuine flair for dance.

Animated dance built on what was happening in live action films, and that was built on what had been done in Vaudeville and the English music hall.  Chaplin, Keaton, Stan Laurel, Groucho Marx, and James Cagney all used dance in their stage performances.  Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Ray Bolger, Buddy Ebsen, and the Nicholas Brothers were all influenced by the same tradition.

Betsy Baytos has worked as an animator and dancer and is making a documentary called Funny Feet: The Art of Eccentric Dance.  Her promo is below:

She's using Kickstarter to fund a trip to England to research music hall performers who fall into the eccentric dance category.

In addition to interviewing performers for the last 20 years, she has also interviewed artists Chuck Jones, Frank Thomas & Ollie Johnston, Ward Kimball, Myron Waldman (Betty Boop/Popeye) , Joe Barbera, Joe Grant and Al Hirschfeld (NY Times caricaturist).

Here's a clip from a Buster Keaton two reeler for Columbia.  Keaton and Columbia were not a good fit.  The studio was much more at home with the lowbrow knockabout of The Three Stooges than it was with Keaton's deadpan irony.  Elsie James, the woman in this clip, is a pretty crude performer with a tendency to mug.  However, I'm including this clip because after the three minute mark, there's about 20 seconds of sublime dance by Keaton, where he transcends Columbia's limited view of comedy.

I'm excited about the subject matter of Baytos's documentary and looking forward to seeing it.  Read more about it on her Kickstarter page.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Animation on TCM Reminder

If you receive Turner Classic Movies, remember that this Sunday, October 21, they will be screening an evening of animation co-hosted by Jerry Beck of Cartoon Brew.  Films include the two Fleischer features Gulliver's Travels and Mr. Bug Goes to Town; a selection of UPA Jolly Frolic cartoons; a selection of silent animation provided by historian Tom Stathes; and The Adventures of Prince Achmed, which is the oldest surviving animated feature as well as the first animated feature directed by a woman, Lotte Reineger.  You can find the complete schedule here and Beck has posted artwork associated with Gulliver and Mr. Bug on his site.

If you are interested in hearing about how Beck connected up with TCM and learning more about the early days of film collecting, you can hear him on a podcast called The Commentary Track.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

More Loomis

Andrew Loomis' 1947 instruction book Creative Illustration has been reprinted.  One in a series of instruction books by Loomis, a Chicago-based commercial illustrator of the 20th century, this book might be described as his magnum opus.  It's the first of his books to deal with colour and composition.

Sections include line, tone, colour, and creating ideas.  It is by far the thickest of Loomis's books and before this reprinting, copies sold for over $100.

Titan Books will reprint Fun With a Pencil next April, Loomis's most basic how to draw book.  All that will remain, should Titan continue, will be Three Dimensional Drawing, an expanded version of Successful Drawing which they have already reprinted, and The Eye of the Painter and the Elements of Beauty, a book published after Loomis's death.  Used copies of that start at $141.

Friday, October 05, 2012

Manolito's Dream

 I wrote about Txesco Montalt's work before, and here is a short that he created with Mayte Sanchez Solis.  Both of them worked on Pocoyo, one of the few pre-school shows I can watch without falling asleep.  Like Txesco's earlier work, it synchs beautifully to the soundtrack and while done in Flash, has lots of subtle shape-changing that gives it wonderful flexibility.

I'm also in love with the simplicity of the design.

The two are partnered in a company called Alla Kinda, and even their logo

exudes charm.  Their site is worth checking out.