Tonight on ABC Family, a two-hour presentation of almost all of the Pixar shorts produced to date. It’s the first time that most of the shorts have appeared on TV. The program runs from 7-9PM ET/PT (and again from 9:00PM-11:00PM ET/PT). Two encore presentations will air on the network on Friday, December 18 at 10PM ET/PT and Saturday, December 19 at 6PM ET/PT. The shorts stretch back to the pre-Pixar short Adventures of Andre & Wally B all the way through Presto. A complete list of shorts being aired can be found in this press release. Of course, I can’t let this opportunity slip by without suggesting that you pick up my book The Art of Pixar Short Films, which was created to serve as a companion to the dvd Pixar Short Films Collection, Volume 1.
Every news organizations has reported the Tiger Woods car crash by now, but only the Chinese have recreated the event with glorious CGI animation. They’ve even animated the alleged domestic altercation between Woods and wife that led to the crash. I would totally be a regular viewer of American TV news if they animated their news stories like this.
Jeremy Hopkins attended the CTN Expo a couple weeks ago, and he’s posting videos from the event on his website XSheet.net. He currently has a couple vids with Don Bluth and Eric Goldberg, and he tells me that more are forthcoming. Here’s a thought from Bluth about the importance of preserving the technical history of animation:
After I did this interview with Canada’s National Post about trends in feature animation, I got to thinking about whether there might be the potential for three stop-motion Oscar nominations this year. That scenario is beginning to look like a distinct possibility with three top-notch contenders: The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Mary and Max and Coraline. Since the inception of the Animated Feature Oscar, there have been only two stop-motion nominees, Corpse Bride and Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, which took home the Academy Award in 2005.
Fox has announced that they are developing a primetime animated series with actor Matthew McConaughey based on his brother’s life. The show, Rooster Tales, is about “a beer-swilling, redneck sheriff who marries a much younger woman from Mexico.” According to McConaughey, “My brother’s life is so unbelievable, we had to animate it.” If this show doesn’t end up happening, you can always look forward to the Gordon Ramsay animated series that is being shopped around by Toronto’s Cuppa Coffee Studios. The brains behind that show promise to take “the essence of who he is and have a bit of fun with it.”
An impressive three animated films reached the top ten at the North American box office last weekend. Robert Zemeckis’s A Christmas Carol held steady in the number five spot with $15.8 million. Its total after four weeks stands at nearly $105M. In its second weekend, Planet 51 dropped to 7th place with $10.2M and a total of $28.5M. The film’s performance hasn’t been as disastrous as Astro Boy and should end its run in the mid-$40M range. Wes Anderson’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox went wide and settled for ninth place. It took in $7M and boosted its three-week total to $10M. The film had a better per-theater average than Planet 51 ($3,426 vs. $3,367), but it’s a disappointing performance for what I feel is one of the most charming and unique animated films in recent memory. Placing outside of the top 10, Disney’s The Princess and the Frog raked in $786,000 from just two theaters. Inflated ticket prices at the two theaters account for the large box office take. The film’s real test will be in a couple weeks when it goes wide, though there appears to be little doubt that Princess and the Frog will be a success.
Oswald Iten has a sweet and short observation on his blog Colorful Animation Expressions about how Eric Goldberg is incorporating a bit of Chuck Jones’s drawing flair into his design of Louis in The Princess and the Frog.
In particular, this comment by Michael Norton of the Harvard Business School stands out:
“AdriÃ ’s idea is that if you listen to customers, what they tell you they want will be based on something they already know. If I like a good steak, you can serve that to me, and I’ll enjoy it. But it will never be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. To create those experiences, you almost can’t listen to the customer.”
One of the key points in Norton’s study is making a distinction between understanding and listening to customers; the former is what AdriÃ does. Apply this to the idea of focus grouping in animation, and you might see where I’m headed. Norton is saying that if AdriÃ focus-grouped his food to satisfy the preconceived notions of his customers, his restaurant would be no different from all the others. The reason his restaurant is sold out year-round is because he surprises the tastes and sensibilities of his customers with an unpredictable personal vision.
In an increasingly homogenized culture, audiences (whether in a restaurant or in front of TV) crave experiences that are different and new. The entire purpose of focus groups in animation, however, is to ensure that audiences are given more of the same previously-successful ideas. But, look at many of the most successful animated series of recent years–The Simpsons, Ren and Stimpy, Beavis & Butt-head, South Park, Family Guy–and what they have in common is that they broke the mold of everything that preceded them. Focus groups (which I should point out are different from test screenings that can actually aid filmmakers) are a hindrance to the development of successful animation; an unspoken reason for their existence is largely to relieve execs of accountability for their decisions: “Well, I don’t know why the show failed,” they can say. “The focus groups loved it.”
“The trick is, from the business side, to try to be fiscally responsible so you can be creatively reckless.”
– Tom Rothman, president of Fox Filmed Entertainment, on why the $40 million budget of Fantastic Mr. Fox allowed them to be more creative.
Rothman’s comment couldn’t be more common sense, yet I’ve never heard an exec say this about an animated feature. The mega-budget Pixar/DreamWorks features are not a sustainable business model for other studios. When smaller studios without an established creative infrastructure attempt to emulate the model, like Planet 51 ($60 million budget) and Astro Boy ($65 million), they typically end up with a half-assed product that falls flat on its face at the box office. Audiences are increasingly demanding variety in their animated features, and the studios that figure out how to offer original and unconventional animated films that are modestly budgeted will find themselves amply rewarded. One of the major keys to keeping costs down and maintaining originality will be to implement a top-down creative strategy by hiring directors with a strong personal vision, like Anderson, instead of the usual approach that consists of building bloated creative teams. Mark my words, the $15-40 million animated feature will be the big thing of the next decade.
Filmmaker Nina Paley explains in the Wall Street Journal how she’s earned $55,000 from her animated feature Sita Sings the Blues by giving it away for free. The idea of offering content for free is still counterintuitive to a lot of artists, but I’m a firm believer that this concept will eventually become an important part in the arsenal of indie filmmakers. Nina is among the first within the animation community to prove that it works. A good starting point for understanding the concept is Chris Anderson’s recent book Free: The Future of a Radical Price.
Understanding the extent to which artists have lost control of the animation process in the past is vital to ensuring a robust and healthy future for the art form. With that in mind, here’s a page of Broadcast Standards notes from a 1978 episode of the Filmation series Fabulous Funnies. The notes are comical and absurd, but it’s utterly horrifying to think that any artist could endure working under such conditions. Would TV artists today be willing to put up with such maddening bull crap or is the community more enlightened?
(The names in the cc are telling: Margaret Loesch and Jean MacCurdy, who would soon thereafter gain great power as kidvid execs, and NBC up-and-comer Brandon Tartikoff.)
This is an impressively elaborate papercraft animation created by London-based Andersen M Studio for the New Zealand Book Council. I wonder if CG was used in the planning of this film. According to the filmmakers, no computers were used in the actual production: “The animation took 8 months to complete and is 100% handmade with a good old 10A scalpel blade.”
It’s the time again when critics start compiling their “best of” lists for the decade. We’ll probably do a few ourselves, though the roundup of American TV animation is looking fairly barren from this vantage point. How many shows debuted in the past decade that were entertaining, made a lasting impact on their audience, and have a shot at being remembered by future generations? A handful of American shows come to mind as standouts, most of which were cult favorites rather than mainstream successes–Invader Zim, Superjail, Venture Bros., Samurai Jack, Avatar: The Last Airbender, Yo Gabba Gabba. (A comprehensive list of TV shows can be found on Wikipedia.)
Compare this to the 1990s when we saw the debuts of TV shows that were cultural phenomenons like The Simpsons, The Ren and Stimpy Show, South Park, Beavis and Butt-Head, Batman: The Animated Series, Dexter’s Lab, Rugrats, The Powerpuff Girls, Spongebob Squarepants and yes, even Family Guy. It seemed like we were on the cusp of a new era of “creator-driven” shows that were free from the meddling impulses of network execs. It’s little surprise that these shows are the ones that audiences still discuss nowadays.
If the 2000s served any purpose, it was to highlight how unique the previous decade was; the Nineties were a genuine silver age of TV animation in which artists were allowed the freedom to experiment and the elbow room to fulfill their creative visions. The unfortunate byproduct of Nineties animation success was the introduction of a new breed of development and creative execs whose ignorance about animation art and process is matched only by their fearfulness of creativity and originality. These boobs spent the entire decade trying to come up with the next Spongebob, the next Simpsons, and the next Family Guy without the slightest inkling of how to foster the kind of environment that allowed those shows to exist in the first place. The dubious 2000s is their legacy, and it signals a depressing downward shift for TV animation in America.
I’m curious to hear your opinions. What’s your take on the last decade and what are your picks for the best new animated series of the past ten years?