I saw Tim Beckhardt‘s Pellet Gun in Ottawa a couple weeks ago. It’s a student film from RISD. I liked the crisp linear style and it made me chuckle even though I didn’t get it. Tim explained it to me afterward, and the explanation was quite reasonable, which made me wonder why I didn’t get it in the first place.
Wow, how quickly times change. A few years ago, while I was researching my book Cartoon Modern, I traveled all the way to Montreal to see the NFB short The Romance of Transportation. Today, it’s available instantaneously and free-of-charge on my iPhone.
If you have an iPhone, be sure to check out the newly released NFB iPhone app. Dozens of great and classic NFB animated shorts are available on it including Richard Condie’s The Big Snit, Norman McLaren’s Begone Dull Care, Caroline Leaf’s The Street, Ryan Larkin’s Street Musique, Gerald Potterton’s My Financial Career, Peter Foldes’s Hunger, and, of course, Colin Low’s The Romance of Transportation. More recent films like Chris Landreth’s Ryan and Theo Ushev’s Tower Bawher are also on there.
The app is a bit rough around the edges, but it is well-intentioned, offers terrific content, and did I mention, FREE! One of its nicest features is a “Watch Later” option that allows you to pre-download films and watch them off-line for up to 24 hours, which is perfect for subway and plane trips.
This is what they did for Halloween at Pixar yesterday. (PS: “Michael” is none other than Alex Woo.)
UPDATE: Mike Frederickson and Nick Pitera were impressive yesterday too:
UPDATE 2: Here’s a photo gallery of different costumes worn by Pixarians at the studio’s Halloween show.
A little creative treat for Halloween: Ivan Guerrero has been taking crappy Marvel TV cartoons from the Sixties and re-editing them into Marvel Zombies, based on the limited-run comic series from a few years back. He told me that Arthur Suydam’s covers for that series inspired his approach to the animated tribute. See also his zombiefication of Thor and The Fantastic Four.
The book cover illustration above by Rachell Sumpter is responsible for one of the more intriguing animated feature announcements I’ve heard in a while. Director/producer Jonathan Demme has optioned the rights to the Dave Eggers novel Zeitoun, and inspired by its cover, he’s decided to make it as an animated film. Demme told The New York Times:
“I was staring at the book and there’s this wonderful line drawing on the cover, the character of Zeitoun in his canoe, paddling through a submerged neighborhood. And I suddenly imagined, What if we could do an animated film and visualize the experiences of the Zeitoun family and all of New Orleans?”
Eggers’s story is in the thoughtful vein of recent features like $9.99, Perspepolis and Waltz with Bashir, and has little to do with the conventional animated fare being churned out by the major studios. It is a true-life account of an Arab-American man, Abdulrahman Zeitoun, and his harrowing experiences in New Orleans immediately following Hurricane Katrina. Demme says that he is currently “deep, deep, deep into researching” how he’s going to produce the animation for the film, and that he wants to stick with a hand-drawn style.
And now a personal note to Jonathan Demme: Mr. Demme, if you’re reading this, I beg you not to use cheap Flash/AfterEffects-style animation. Don’t Waltz with Bashir this film, and compromise the personal impact of the story with mechanical movement. Maintain the integrity and vitality of the graphic illustration that initially drew you to the project, and bring it to life with the nuance and lushness that only traditional hand-drawn animation can provide. Look at the works of Koji Yamamura, Frédéric Back, and Sylvain Chomet to understand the unique storytelling possibilities of the animation medium. Prove to the world that not every live-action director has a clumsy, heavy-footed, Bob Zemeckis-like approach to the art form.
(Thanks, TStevens, for the story link)
Yowp: Stuff about Early Hanna-Barbera Cartoons is a blog that’ll tell you more about Hanna-Barbera cartoons than you probably cared to know. The blog creator, who is anonymous, knows his stuff, and gives us insidery opinions of this sort: “Here’s where you wish someone like Foster or Maltese was guiding the dialogue because Shows’ lines come off as trite and obvious.” His obsessiveness (I can only assume a guy does this blog because no girl would ever obsess over early H-B like this) is not entirely without merit. He also highlights pieces of animation that serve as fine lessons for anybody creating limited animation, such as this lovely two-drawing cycle of Doggie Daddy driving a car.
John Canemaker‘s next book is available for pre-order on Amazon. Two Guys Named Joe: Master Animation Storytellers Joe Grant and Joe Ranft will be released in August 2010. John gave me a preview of the book a couple months back. It is an intimate look at the accomplishments and struggles (both personal and professional) of two animation giants. If you think you already know these guys, you’re going to be in for a surprise. Needless to say, it’s guaranteed to be one of the must-haves of next year.
Jeff Katzenberg on why there won’t be a second installment of Monsters vs. Aliens:
“I’d like to tell you there’s a perfectly rational, clear and easy answer as to why not, but there isn’t. There was enough of a consensus from our distribution and marketing folks in certain parts of the world that we would be pushing a boulder up a hill.”
Who said that a concerted effort by the international community wasn’t a good way of stopping Katzenberg from making bad films? If one good thing came out of the film though, it’s this poster by Nate Wragg created for the MvA TV special, Mutant Pumpkins from Outer Space, that debuts on NBC tonight:
UPDATE: Nate Wragg has uploaded the other poster he created for the MvA TV special onto his blog.
My favorite recent post is this letter that Chuck wrote to his daughter Linda following his brief stint working at the Disney studio in 1953. In it, Jones gives his perspective of working at the studio, and it sounds not so different from a lot of contemporary feature animation studios:
At Disney’s it was always necessary to be certain places at certain times. God knows why, nothing ever happened, so it was nearly impossible to work there without a timepiece. You could get along without talent, but not a watch…. Ah..I think this was a good mood–I mean move to return here [to Warner Bros.], I had not realized how much I missed the sweetness of my own solitude. At Disney’s aloneness or desire to be alone generates suspicion, you are always surrounded by people, drifting in and out, exchanging hackneyed pleasantries or just sitting, staring with baleful intensity at one’s own navel. What a waste! What a waste of wonderful talent!
Jones also offered an unflattering opinion of Disney director Ham Luske:
I went to Disney’s with respect for Hâ€¦ Lâ€¦., I could not fathom him but I felt that there must be some pretty strong talent there, not evident on the surface perhaps but still waters run deep etc. etc. If I still think this then I am the only one who has recently worked there who does. Walt adjudges him a work horse, stolid, unimaginative, but able to get things done if someone else has injected the life and the spark into the material. Many others think of him as simply and purely a dolt and a dull dolt at that. I saw too little of him to make any judgment, but I can no longer assume that he has talent. Isn’t that a pity?
It’s particularly interesting to read this letter in context of Chuck’s later opinions of working at Disney, which can be found in this terrific article by Wade Sampson.
Noteworthy new book about The Simpsons–The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History by journalist John Ortved draws on eighty new interviews to create an oral history about the creation and day-to-day production of the show.
Ortved wrote an interesting article for The Daily Beast in which he talks about how Fox and James L. Brooks refused to cooperate with him for the book:
Brooks sent a letter to every current Simpsons employee, and all the former ones he thought mattered, asking them not to speak to me. The writers’ agents sent denial after denial for interview requests and eventually stopped responding altogether…There was one “D’oh!” in James L. Brooks and the Gracie Films master plan: Many people don’t like James L. Brooks. No one gets as successful as Brooks in Hollywood without making enemies, but people carry a special dislike for the man whose power and smart media control has managed to project an image of an avuncular, loveable neurotic for the better part of 50 years.”
Reviews of the book–Entertainment Weekly, NPR–have generally been positive, with the biggest complaint being that it falls apart towards the end. This is an almost inevitable byproduct of writing a book about a studio or show that is still in progress. David A. Price’s otherwise well-researched The Pixar Touch: The Making of a Company also suffered towards the end when it attempted to put newer Pixar efforts into context without the participation of key figures.
I’m still curious to read Ortved’s book for its documentation of the early years. No doubt, there will be many more histories of The Simpsons in the years to come. This is only the first, and it appears to be a solid start towards chronicling the most successful animated TV series of all time. If you’ve read the book, please share your thoughts in the comments. The book can be purchased on Amazon for the discounted price of $17.82.
Jérémy Clapin’s Skhizein, a poignant short that grows on me every time I see it, is now available for online viewing. It’s also available for purchase in a limited edition of 500 dvds.
Imagi, an animation studio that thought it could compete with the big boys, has suffered a major blow after the abysmal opening of Astro Boy which debuted in 6th place with
barely over $7 million. UPDATE: The actual opening weekend box office gross for Astro Boy was $6.7 million.
Hong Kong-based Imagi entered the animation industry with grand ideas, but little production know-how and the uninspiring idea of applying TV production models to CG animated features by preparing the pre-production in the US and animating the films in Asia where labor is cheap (well, cheaper, since Astro Boy still cost a ridiculous $65 million). The company’s first film, TMNT, debuted modestly with $54 million in 2007. Astro Boy will have difficulty matching even half of that figure.
Even more embarrassing, Astro Boy is a big flop in its home country of Japan, where it barely made it into the top ten on its opening weekend, and dropped out of the top 10 in its second week. Perhaps the lesson to be learned is that when you attempt to Westernize a distinctly foreign product, you end up alienating everybody. The more important lesson is that just because you’re basing a film around an existing property doesn’t guarantee a hit. The other part of the equation is that you also have to make a good film that people actually want to see. Then again, it also helps if the property you’re remaking isn’t an obscure mid-century relic that no normal human being under the age of 35 (and definitely no teenager) has heard of.
As readers may recall, Imagi was experiencing major financial difficulties late last year, which resulted in the loss of many of their top talents in the LA studio. They were given a temporary reprieve after Chinese investors stepped in at the last minute. The tradeoff, according to The Hollywood Reporter, was that the company had to revamp its production slate (Tusker was dropped), and begin searching for a “hero concept of Chinese origin” to produce as an upcoming feature. (Their next feature, Gatchaman, was already well into production, and is still slated to follow Astro Boy.) The Chinese are keeping Imagi on financial life support for the time being, but it’s becoming obvious that they lack the vision and passion for animation that results in films that audiences will pay to watch.
It’s been a tough year in San Francisco. First, The Orphanage shut down, and then we reported earlier this month that Wild Brain is a goner. The Business of Animation blog, run by an anonymous industry vet, has posted more about why the Bay Area Wild Brain was shuttered. Apparently, it was at the urging of one particular female exec:
How did this happen? Well, I cannot say for sure. But the rumor going around is that when the previous CEO left, they brought in a woman to run the company. She was a TV producer down in LA and her big bright idea was to shutter the SF office. Supposedly she put the kibosh on any incoming projects, just to guarantee there was no work to support the studio.
The woman in question who was brought in to run the company is Marge Dean, and I’ve heard a similar tale from my sources that corroborates this version of the story.
Equally enlightening is a reader comment from the same post. It was written by an anonymous person who worked at Wild Brain in its earliest days. The comment is worth reposting in its entirety:
I guess the saying might be that they always took the opportunity to do the wrong thing, but that might be a bit harsh. They had, in the start, an esprit de corps, since I was one of the original 7 or so with the company.
“We few, we merry few…”
And yes, we took chances, we got creative, and we got things started and done since it was all of out asses on the line. Once it got too big, once money came into the picture, then you really could see the divisions, especially during the Dot-Com blizzard of cash and idiocy. Once the bottom fell out, so did all barnstorming and chance taking. The joy was sucked out of it. Wounds never healed. Backs remained stabbed.
We need that kind of company in the Bay Area again, like the early days of Colossal or the ‘Brain. Small enough to take chances and try new approaches, but egalitarian enough to avoid the layers of fat and mindless loyalties.
UPDATE: Reader “Judas P. Foxglove” offers another perspective in the comments about what’s happening at Wild Brain:
Wildbrain was not “shuttered” in the traditional meaning of the term. The studio moved to Los Angeles, the recognized epicenter of animation in this country. Anyone who is bemoaning a prudent business move (during a recession mind you) is probably someone who has a lot of sour grapes. All things change and everyone who lives and breathes in this world has suffered the consequences(or reaped the benefits) of change around them.
For what its worth, and what isn’t mentioned in this post, is that Wildbrain Studios in Los Angeles is as vibrant and creative a place as any that I have ever worked for – and I’ve been in the industry for over ten years in three different cities. And when the productions we are working on are released they are going to knock your socks off.
Here’s a shocker: people aren’t willing to spend their hard-earned money to see a Broadway musical with a lead character that looks like this:
Variety reports that DreamWorks is shuttering Shrek the Musical early next year. Despite Katzenberg’s best efforts to milk the Shrek franchise, the musical has only been filling about 60% of audience capacity and dipping to as low as 49% capacity last month.
After the stress of judging the Ottawa International Animation Festival (more about that soon), I decided to unwind for a few days in the much more lively Canadian city of Montreal. Even there, I couldn’t escape cartoons. I stumbled upon this large and unconventional graffiti mural that incorporates vintage cartoon characters like Bosko, Honey, Betty Boop, Buddy, and Krazy Kat.The mural, which is a good eighty feet long, gives more visibility to these characters than anything their parent studios have done with them in a long time.
If you want to see the piece in person, it’s off of rue St. Catherine, a few blocks east of rue St. Denis. Otherwise, click on the image below to see my quick-and-dirty stitch job of the mural.