Inspired by Mick LaSalle’s MONSTER HOUSE review, Nick Tam has posted some excellent thoughts on today’s state of animation criticism. There are solid ideas throughout the piece, but I thought the following section stood out in particular:
I think that’s the problem with animation. It’s a technology story. The critics who mishandle it think about it as an experimental bastard-child offspring for kids, a testbed for ever-improving methods marching and heiling towards some indeterminate horizon of progress. The Hollywood execs play into their hands, and the end result is the flooding of the CG market that we’ve seen all year.
You’ll often hear the same films referred to over and over as being the landmark advances of the form. You’ll read that Steamboat Willie gave as sound as we know it, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was animation’s induction into feature-length territory, and Toy Story did the same for the digital age and shifted the mode of thought from drawing to sculpting. Framing the history of animation as a series of technological advances is really easy to do.
But it’s also a post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. While these films were undoubtedly seminal in method, that’s not why we remember them. We remember them for the echoes of a wishing well and a toy in a spacesuit falling with style. That such masterworks of storytelling were also technical pioneers is a happy coincidence.
Oscar-nominated animation director Michael Sporn has a thought about all the negative reviews that the Nickelodeon feature BARNYARD is receiving:
Too bad. When you have a live-action auteur like Steve Oedekerk come in to write and direct an “animated feature,” surely you’re on the right track. Why should the director know anything about the craft?
Speaking of prints, the image above is a vintage lithograph that I picked up in San Diego (click on it for a larger version). The company that I purchased it from, Century Guild, had tons of these German lithos that were based on larger poster designs. It’s hard to believe that in the 1910s and 1920s, you could walk down a street in Germany and see illustrated posters like this plastered around town. The artwork is by Paul Scheurich (1883-1945), who apparently was one of the leading poster artists in Germany. I was surprised by how stylized it was for the time that it was done. Everything about it is just works: the guy’s funky posture and odd proportions, the bold colored shape that makes up his body without any use of line, the meaty hands with great line details, and the incredible design of his face (dig those dot eyes and wild nose shape). I have no idea what the poster is actually selling – maybe a German-speaking Brew reader can let us know – but I think the ad is great from a visual standpoint. Below are a few more Scheurich posters that I found online. Man, what I wouldn’t give to see an animated feature that looked this cool.
UPDATE – Brew reader Holger Pfläging offers a translation of the poster. He says: “The poster is advertising a company wich posts announcements and ads in the subways and elevated railways of I don’t know which German city. The upper card says: “Hollerbaum & Schmidt – Posters” the lower says: “Postings on elevated railway and subway – U. Thiemt & Co.” Thanks Holger!
UPDATE #2 – Florian Satzinger writes: “Thank you for this great post. Scheurich’s art reminded me of the Austrian artist Josef Danilotwatz (1877-1945). The atmosphere of Danilowatz’ “caricature paintings” and the feathery brush strokes are stunning. Last year we posted some of Danilowatz’ illustrations out of the book “Motor in der Karikatur – Ein lustiges Kinderbuch fÃ¼r Erwachsene”, ROB Verlag Vienna (1925), on our site HERE.
UPDATE #3 – Benjamin Leng and Patrick Walter both wrote to tell me the hilarious translation of the last Scheurich poster at the bottom of the post. It says, “Let’s go to the Butchery-Exhibition at the Zoo! There will be free sausage, beautiful bulls and fine piglets.”
UPDATE #4 – JJ Sedelmaier writes, “Regarding German poster design, check out the work of Ludwig Hohlwein. He’s the top! He influenced scads of his contemporaries and modern graphic designers as well, even the likes of Seymour Chwast. His breakdown of color and dramatic art direction is awesome! The ‘drawback’ is that much of the work towards the end of his career supported a politically incorrect cause (Hello, Adolf. . .)”
The boys at Fleet Street Scandal – Kevin Dart and Chris Turnham – have posted a comprehensive set of photos from the Comic-Con with lots of animation folks that you’ll surely recognize. If Frank Espinosa’s comic ROCKETO was the hit of the 2005 Comic-Con among the animation set, I’d say Kevin and Chris were the hit of the ’06 Con. It seems everybody I ran into in San Diego had bought one of their illustration prints, and with good reason: both of these guys are super-talented with sophisticated graphic sensibilities combining good draftsmanship, color and design. I believe they do CG in the game industry, but they should be working in animation, and preferably producing their own independent animated shorts. Their prints can be purchased online at Fleet Street Scandal.
Studio Ghibli has released Paul Grimault’s classic French feature LE ROI ET L’OISEAU onto dvd in Japan. The production story of this film is almost as convoluted and legendary as Richard Williams’s THIEF AND THE COBBLER. Grimault started the film in the late-1940s, and didn’t finish a version that he was satisfied with until 1979. Over the years, different cuts of the film have been released under titles like LA BERGERE ET LE RAMONEUR and THE CURIOUS ADVENTURES OF MR. WONDERBIRD. One of those earlier versions was an influence on Ghibli directors Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata when it opened in Japan in 1955. Now, as a way of saying thank you for the childhood inspiration, they’re introducing Grimault’s animation to a new generation of Japanese filmgoers.
Studio Ghibli is not only releasing LE ROI ET L’OISEAU onto dvd, but also giving it a limited theatrical run at the Cinema Angelica in Shibuya, Tokyo. It’ll run through September 22. In conjunction with the dvd release, there’s also a Paul Grimault exhibition at the L’Institut Franco-Japonais de Tokyo which runs through August 31. Ghibli has a website about the film HERE (in Japanese). Be sure to check out the film’s incredible TRAILER.
Mick LaSalle is quickly becoming a household name; in the past week, his awful MONSTER HOUSE has been picked up all over the blogosphere including Boing Boing, Cinematical and SFist. Toronto-based writer Jason Anderson, apparently jealous of LaSalle’s infamy, decided to write his own article showing a profound lack of understanding about the animation art. Yesterday, he had an article published on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) website that explains to the world how MONSTER HOUSE and ANT BULLY are revolutionizing animated filmmaking. His classic line is that MONSTER HOUSE offers audiences a “taste of the future technologies that will someday make Pixar’s classics seem as quaint as Dumbo.”
Here are some of the choice cuts from Anderson’s piece:
“While Pixar set the standard, recent films like Warner Brothers’ The Ant Bully and Sony Pictures’ Monster House are pushing big-league Hollywood animation into promising new territory.”
“Though Cars has been a box-office leader this summer – second only to Disney’s live-action phenomenon Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest – Over the Hedge, The Ant Bully and Monster House strike a far better balance between form and content, tweaking the Pixar formula and moving beyond its limitations.”
“[MONSTER HOUSE] does, however, have the best-rendered cast of CGI Homo sapiens to date…”
“At the screening I attended, the children in my row frequently seemed to be on the edge of tears. Sure, they might require psychotherapy in later life, but they’re getting a taste of the future technologies that will someday make Pixar’s classics seem as quaint as Dumbo.”
Pixar story artist Jeff Pidgeon wrote a letter to SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE movie reviewer Mick LaSalle, in which he completely dismantled LaSalle’s inept review of MONSTER HOUSE and exposed his utter cluelessness about the animation art form. Jeff has posted the excellent letter on his blog HERE. He also posted LaSalle’s brush-off response, which was:
Thank you for a thoughtful message. I appreciate it. (Don’t agree with it, any of it, but I appreciate being accurately quoted and not being cursed at.)
So, ANT BULLY tanked. The Warner Bros.-distributed, Tom Hanks-produced film collected a meager $8.1 million (estimate) from 3,050 theaters, or as Box Office Mojo puts it, “the weakest start ever for a high profile computer-animated feature.” I’d predicted this film would flop back in June and I think most everybody else in the industry had similar feelings about ANT BULLY’s prospects for success. WB, however, had been expecting a stronger opening for the film. Warners distribution exec Jeff Goldstein commented yesterday about the film, “It’s much less than what we had wanted. The marketplace is crowded. The kids have been bombarded.”
Brian of the Hell on Frisco Bay blog notes that August 21, 2006 marks the 100th anniversary of Friz Freleng’s birth, and he’s officially calling on the blogging community to make that day a Friz Freleng Blog-A-Thon. Here’s Brian’s rules:
I invite anyone, whether animation experts, enthusiasts or newbies, fans of Freleng or not, to watch or rewatch at least one of his cartoons between now and August 21. On that day, post something about Freleng or one or more of his films on your website, and send me the link. You may name the cartoon(s), character(s), or aspect(s) of Freleng’s style you want to discuss in the comments section below, or leave it as a surprise for the rest of us.
Sounds like fun. We’re in at Cartoon Brew…who else is in?
From Paul Johnson’s invented history of the Disney strike to Mick LaSalle’s broad dismissal of a hundred years of animation accomplishments, it’s been a busy week for keeping track of misinformed animation commentary. Jaime Weinman has written a nice summary of what’s been said and explores the root cause of such statements.
There’s also a great thread going on at the CGTalk forums about Mick LaSalle’s comments. In that thread, Pixar lighting artist Jeremy Birn points out a link to A.O. Scott’s review of MONSTER HOUSE in the NY TIMES, where Scott pulls a “Mick LaSalle” and exhibits a similarly woeful lack of understanding about the animation medium. He writes:
Like Robert Zemeckis’s “Polar Express,” “Monster House” (for which Mr. Zemeckis served as an executive producer) uses the digitally captured movements of real actors rather than computer-generated algorithms as the basis for its animated images.
If Scott had any intention of writing with accuracy, he would have compared the digitally captured movements of real actors to the work of computer animators, not to “computer-generated algorithms” which implies that CG animation is an automated process created by a machine. To their credit, Mick LaSalle and A.O. Scott at least know they’re watching computer animation, which is more than can be said for USA TODAY’s Scott Bowles, who describes MONSTER HOUSE as “stop-motion animaton.” How are we supposed to take the opinions of critics like A.O. Scott and Scott Bowles seriously when they can’t even get their facts correct about how animated films are produced?
Thad Komorowski has posted three examples of animation acting – one each from Disney, WB and MGM – all created without the aid of rotoscoping or performance capture. The foolishness of commentaries by critics like Mick LaSalle and James Lipton becomes only more evident when they are presented with actual examples of the animation medium’s expressive potential. LaSalle believes that the animated film has never “had the ability to show the human face. There was never any point to a close-up in an animated film — there was never really anything to see.” Really, Mr. LaSalle? I think Rod Scribner and Bob McKimson proved you wrong about sixty years ago, as evidenced in the clip from TORTOISE WINS BY A HARE. James Lipton thinks that Robert Downey rotoscoped is a better performance than anything an animator could create. Perhaps he should look at Ken Muse’s anguished animation of Tom in HEAVENLY PUSS. We haven’t even begun to examine all the stellar animation in feature films, but even in these short films, the inanity of LaSalle and Lipton’s opinions are exposed.
I didn’t think of doing this but somebody found Mick LaSalle’s review of THE POLAR EXPRESS. An excerpt is below. If anything can be said to his credit, LaSalle is consistent…well, consistently blind.
It’s also an enchanting, beautiful and brilliantly imagined film that constitutes a technological breakthrough. The one profound limitation of animation — the rigid faces that don’t allow for emotional nuance — is overcome through a new process that allows actors to record their performances digitally onto a computer. These performances — the gestures, the subtleties of facial expression — are then used as the template for the computer-animation process.
It looks like the SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE’s Mick LaSalle isn’t alone when it comes to film critics who make uninformed sweeping generalizations about the animation art form. Take for example this recent comment (found on Shannon Tindle’s blog) by INSIDE THE ACTORS STUDIO host James Lipton regarding the use of rotoscope in A SCANNER DARKLY:
In theory, if you rotoscope a really good performance by a really good actor, it ought to be much more effective than an animated performance that’s been drawn or computer generated to match a voice.”
Lipton’s comment reveals a very obvious bias: he believes that an animator is incapable of creating a performance that can compete with a live-action performance. Ironically, Lipton asserts that the only way to achieve a great performance in animation is to have it performed by a live-action actor and then rotoscoped, or in other words, remove the animator as the person who gives life to the character. Comments like Lipton’s and LaSalle’s only serve to illustrate the uphill battle that the art form still faces; with so many stellar examples of animation created over the years, there are still plenty of critics out there who maintain their petty prejudices about the art and remain largely oblivious to animation’s unique and powerful qualities as a communication medium.
UPDATE: Animator Kevan Shorey offers his thoughts on Lipton’s quote and the frustation of working in a medium that is so poorly understood by the mainstream.
Tomorrow evening, July 28, illustrator/toy designer James Jarvis will be having an art show/book signing at Meltdown Comics (7522 Sunset Blvd., LA, CA 90046) from 6-10pm. On display will be numerous pages of development and prepatory drawings (example below) from his recent book project VORTIGERN’S MACHINE AND THE GREAT SAGE OF WISDOM. Reportedly, there’s interest right now in transferring Jarvis’s work to animation. His drawings and toys definitely lend themselves to CG design, and I can imagine his stuff working well if it was animated properly. For more info about the show, visit MeltComics.com or call 323/851.7223.
A prominent Pixar animator emailed me last night with the subject header “This is real” and a link to this must-read-to-believe SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE review of MONSTER HOUSE. I don’t know anything about the reviewer, Mick LaSalle, except that I’ll never be able to take another word this guy writes seriously. It’s one thing to have a subjective view of a film – it’s another to be so glaringly ignorant of the art form you’re discussing to completely dismiss one hundred years of accomplishments and proclaim something so obviously inferior as a technological advance. Here is the most egregious part of LaSalle’s review:
Animated films always had the advantage of being able to go anywhere and show anything, to defy the laws of physics and follow the imagination as far as it could go. But they never had the ability to show the human face. There was never any point to a close-up in an animated film — there was never really anything to see. But with the motion-capture process, real actors give their performances with computer sensors attached to their face and body, and that recorded information becomes the template for the computer animation. If an actor is bug-eyed, the character will look bug-eyed. Moreover, if the actor is thinking or is full of doubt, the technology will be able to render subtle qualities of pensiveness or doubt in the animation.
Imagine what Disney might have done with this in the creation of the Seven Dwarfs. Imagine all the things that will be done with this in the future. “Monster House” looks like the ground floor of something important.
So the only question that remains is, Who’s going to break the news to Ollie Johnston, the last of the Nine Old Men, that all those classic Disney features he animated on were a waste of time because he never had the ability to show an emotive human face? Poor guy, if he’d only had motion-capture to help him animate.
UPDATE: Storyboard artist Jenny Lerew weighs in with an eloquent response to Mick LaSalle’s less-than-eloquent review.
“Montreal -40Â°C” is a recent music video directed by Louis-Philippe Eno for the Montreal band Malajube. It doesn’t break much new ground, but it creates a nice mood within a sparse setting and the integration of live-action and animated elements is well executed.
I could write about everything that happened in San Diego during my two-day Con visit, but nothing could possibly say as much as this photo of my new Comic-Con buddies and I. Click on it for its full-size glory. Thanks to Gabe for the photo.
Winsor McCay is misspelled. Max Fleischer is erroneously credited for Felix the Cat. The Three Little Pigs was released in 1933, not 1932. Alice in Wonderland was released in 1951, not 1957. Carl Stalling was a composer, not an animator. It’s Carl Eduarde, not Edwards. It’s Grim, not Jim, Natwick. It’s Tytla, not Tytler. It’s Ted Sears, not Wears.
What’s particularly disgusting about Johnson’s text is not only the factual inaccuracies, but that he may have deliberately falsified history to promote his personal agendas. For example, his description of how the Disney strike happened is a complete fabrication, but it makes sense that he would write something like that after reading this Wikipedia article about Johnson, that says, “In his Enemies of Society (1977), following a series of articles in the British press, he vehemently attacked the trade union movement for what he saw as its violence and intolerance, terming them as ‘red fascists.’ He also at this time started to inveigh against liberal and left-wing causes.”
Check out Mark’s blog for more of his thoughts on Johnson’s book.
The Ottawa International Animation Festival is right around the corner and the selections for its 2006 edition were announced last week. The full list of films in competition and showcase screenings can be found HERE. My immediate thoughts are that (a.) the selections look really solid and (b.) I’m glad that there’s far fewer films being screened in Ottawa than at Annecy. The Ottawa festival takes place September 20-24.
Chuck Jones once said in an interview that when he wanted to draw believable human characters, he would pattern his drawing after Sam Cobean’s because his “characters always looked to me more like life than life itself.” Prior to becoming a NEW YORKER cartoonist, Sam Cobean had worked in the animation industry at Disney and Columbia. One of Cobean’s earliest print assignments – a WWII-era US military training pamphlet – has now been posted on-line HERE. Subject matter aside, I think Cobean’s drawings are absolutely amazing: funny, direct and super-appealing. If I’d seen any comic book in San Diego with drawings of this caliber, you can bet I’d be raving about it right now.
Animation Guild president Kevin Koch has written a fascinating post on the Guild blog about how to predict an animated film’s final box office gross based on the opening weekend take. Here’s Kevin’s formula and how it applies to recent CG features:
Total Domestic Gross = Opening Weekend x 3 (for a movie with no legs)
TDG = OW x 4.3 (for a movie with great legs)
Just for fun, here are the opening week multipliers of most CG features:
Polar Express — 7.4
Toy Story — 6.6
Shrek — 6.3
Jimmy Neutron — 5.8
Antz — 5.3
A Bugs Life — 4.9
Finding Nemo — 4.3
Toy Story 2 — 4.3
Shrek 2 — 4.1
Monster’s Inc. — 4.1
Hoodwinked — 4.1
Over the Hedge — 4.0
Ice Age — 3.8
The Wild — 3.8
Cars — 3.7 (so far)
The Incredibles — 3.7
Robots — 3.6
Dinosaur — 3.6
Shark Tale — 3.4
Chicken Little — 3.4
Valiant — 3.3
Ice Age 2 — 2.9
Final Fantasy — 2.8
Doogal — 2.1
In the 1920s, some kids around the Los Angeles area contributed drawings and stories to “The Junior Times” which was an insert of the LA TIMES newspaper. A number of these kids went on to become famous animation artists, including Ed Benedict, Fred Moore and Bob Clampett. I’d never seen an example of Clampett’s work from this paper, but Filboid Studge’s blog has unearthed a 1926 comic (“The Innocent Pussy”) by a 12-year-old Clampett. He also found a 1928 short story by Clampett. If you like this sort of historical crap, you’re definitely going to want to check this out.
Ok folks, the news that everybody’s been waiting for! ANIMATON BLAST #9 will debut in San Diego this week!!! It’s been a long four years since the last issue and I couldn’t be more thrilled that we managed to finish this new edition in time for the Comic-Con. My printer in Canada says the issue looks terrific and they’re FedEx’ing a batch down to San Diego today. BLAST 9 should be on the convention floor first thing Friday morning. I’m getting less issues sent down than I’d hoped so if you want to make sure you get a copy in SD, make sure to pick it up early. The exclusive seller of BLAST 9 at the Comic-Con is Stuart Ng Books (booth #5113). The rest of the issues are also being sent down from Canada, and if you’ve pre-ordered an issue, I’m expecting that they’ll be shipped the week of July 31-August 4.