I was blown away earlier today when I discovered the work of Rebecca Dart. She has a fantastic sense for funny appealing shapes, and powerful cartoon drawing. It wasn’t surprising to learn that she works in animation, and again, no surprise to see her credits on her IMDB filled with some of the crassest TV trash imaginable. It’s hard to adequately put into words how depressing it is to know that talent of this caliber exists within our industry, and the rampant cluelessness that results in these artists producing shit like this. It’s like hiring Velázquez or Vermeer to paint the lines in a parking lot – an utter, total waste of skill and talent. Though the animation world has no appreciation or use for such skill, she’s at least able to utilize her artistic voice in the comic books she makes.
The 1971 X-rated feature The Telephone Book screens Thursday evening, November 5, at the Egyptian Theatre. The film, described as a “biting satire on sexual morality about a girl who falls in love with the world’s greatest obscene phone caller,” probably isn’t for everybody. But it has developed a cult reputation over the years and was considered a source of inspiration for Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango In Paris while Steve Martin labeled it one of his favorite films of the Seventies.
The reason it’s on the Brew is because the climax of the film is an outlandish and humorously erotic piece of animation directed by my pal, animation legend Len Glasser. Len has an illustrious history in the field. A student of Franz Kline and S. Neil Fujita, he worked at Terrytoons on Tom Terrific and designed films and commercials for Ernie Pintoff before starting his own commercial studio Stars and Stripes Productions Forever, which produced some of the craziest and most creative TV spots of the 1960s. Here’s one of his well-known spots:
The Egyptian screening will be followed by a Q&A with Len, along with the film’s director/writer Nelson Lyon and producer Merv Bloch. The film was also recently released on dvd in Europe. Ordering details can be found on the film’s official website.
UPDATE: Designer Chris Mitchell, who wasn’t mentioned in the interview above, has written a blog post about his role on the end titles and more details about how the production happened. It’s a good complement to the interview.
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.
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.
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.
“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:
I’ve praised this blog before, but the Chuck Jones blog, run by Chuck’s grandson Craig, continues to be a treasure trove of artwork and new information about the director.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Worth checking out: a hi-res version of the Cartoonstitute short 3 Dog Band directed by Paul Rudish (Dexter’s Lab, Star Wars: Clone Wars). I wanted to like this short because there’s a lot to appreciate about it, including funny character movement, moments of visual inventiveness (the dj who flips his turntables into a bike), and a solid track at the end that is probably the best piece of music to ever accompany a Cartoon Network product.
At the same time, the characters have vague unappealing personalities, there’s little chemistry between the leads, and the attempts at humor fall flat (was the ending even supposed to be a joke?). It’s also a shame they couldn’t figure out what to do with the music. The last couple minutes come across as a fetishistic exercise in design and art direction that offers little in the way of entertainment value. By comparison, this is an example of how to properly end a cartoon with a musical sequence that rewards its audience.
In a shorts program, not every cartoon is going to be a homerun, especially when they’re produced in the completely nonsensical manner of allowing each director to only make one short. But when all is said and done, even the weaker shorts that I’ve seen so far from the Cartoonstitute program have their moments, and few appear to be offensively bad as so many TV animation pilots tend to be nowadays.
Jennifer: It is hard to sit down and work after you have worked a full day, but I always remembered something Bert would say, “Even if you just get one drawing done you are one drawing ahead.” So I’d try and get one scene’s worth of layouts done a night, or read a track, or just something, and we’d inch forward until we were done.
The Venture Bros. creator Jackson Publick and voice actor James Urbaniak recently appeared on “The Best Show on WFMU with Tom Scharpling.” The interview lasts a couple hours and there’s a lot of goofiness, but there’s also a lot of good discussion because the host, Scharpling, is a TV writer and producer (Monk, Tom Goes to the Mayor). The interview begins a little after an hour into the September 29 program, which can be listened to at the WFMU website.
Prepare yourself! That’s all I can say about David Sheahan’s Together! (2009). The first time I saw this film was like a punch in the face. It’s bizarre, unsettling, endlessly inventive, and wicked fun. In a nutshell, it’s a completely original take on traditional cartoon animation. The character animation of Candice is inspired, and the use of space and camera is dazzling. The multi-talented Sheahan also composed the music, and voiced the Spider and Candice (the words “I’m wearing a dress” have never sounded so disturbing). Sheahan made this as a graduation film at Pratt Institute, but his fully-realized vision of Together! pushes far beyond student film territory and into a realm of its own. Discover how a moth and roach come Together! exclusively on Cartoon Brew TV.
Twenty-one-year old Leo Campasso, an animator at Buenos Aires studio HookUp Animation, created Wild Wind in his spare time. The short is an experiment that combines pixel-style characters with traditional cartoon animation principles. The results are a lot of fun and prove that one need not associate pixel animation with stilted, boring movement . Interesting sidenote: Leo said in his email to me that he’s been animating since he was twelve when he got his hands on a copy of Flash 4.
A high-res version of the film can be downloaded here.
If I were in LA next Monday, I’d go to see this multimedia music/animation performance by The Decemberists at UCLA’s Royce Hall. With seemingly every other band using animation for their videos nowadays, the format is in need of some fresh takes like this:
On October 19, The Decemberists will unveil Here Come The Waves: The Hazards of Love Visualized, a special project that takes their ambitious and acclaimed song cycle to new heights for its final American performance at UCLA’s Royce Hall in Los Angeles. This unique live experience will feature The Decemberists in collaboration with four filmmakers–Guilherme Marcondes, Julia Pott, Peter Sluszka and Santa Maria–each of whom have created animation to accompany a section of the music. Flux commissioned the films and worked with Hornet Inc. who produced them. This is a one time only – not to be missed – live experience. The film will later be released on iTunes.
Tickets are available through Ticketmaster. This is the trailer for Here Come The Waves: The Hazards of Love Visualized.
This morning, an example of animation from South Africa. Animator Mike Scott created this video for the band Goldfish. Software and tools used were Photoshop CS4, Anime Studio Pro 6, Final Cut Express 4 HD, Macbook, Macbook Pro, Wacom Intuos 3 and Wacom Cintiq 12 WX .
There’s a lot of good stuff happening at the Ottawa International Animation Festival this week. Eric Goldberg, Henry Selick, David Silverman and Ronnie del Carmen will be speaking up there, Don Hertzfeldt, Suzan Pitt and Jim Blashfield are having retrospectives, and there’s the to-be-expected impeccable selection of shorts as well as features like Mary and Max , $9.99 and My Dog Tulip. Inbetween this animation frenzy, I hope you’ll take the time to check out the retrospective of filmmaker Stan VanDerBeek. His films screen Friday, October 16, and Saturday, October 17, at the Arts Court Theatre, both nights at 7pm.
It’s a disservice to label VanDerBeek (1927-1984) merely a filmmaker because he was so much more than that. He was a multimedia artist years before the term even existed. He was constantly getting his hands dirty with new technologies and trying to figure out artistic and educational applications for them. This included creating huge murals via fax machine, projecting film onto steam, and designing interactive multi-screen TV shows. No surprise that VanDerBeek was also a computer animation pioneer who starting experimenting with CGI in 1965.
His short films–often surreal, often funny, and always a visual free-for-all–combine animation, collage, cut-out, photography and video, with manic cutting that looks more contemporary than ever. Terry Gilliam has said in interviews that it was VanDerBeek’s cut-out films, and specifically Breathdeath (which will be shown in Ottawa), that inspired his animation style for Monty Python. I’ve personally been influenced by VanDerBeek’s work since I first saw it last year, and I recommend you check him out in Ottawa later this week. The screening will include examples of his analog and CG films, as well as rare film clips of VanDerBeek at work and at play.
This Thursday, October 15, Galerie Arludik (12-14 rue Saint-Louis en l’ÃŽle, 75004 Paris) presents a one-man show of the work of illustrator and character designer Peter de SÃ¨ve. The opening, from 6:30 to 9:30pm, will feature published and upublished pieces by de SÃ¨ve, some of which will be available for sale. A preview of the show’s artwork can be found at Peter’s blog here, here, and here.
The event also marks the official launch of Peter’s monograph–A Sketchy Past: The Art of Peter de SÃ¨ve–for which I wrote the introduction. I haven’t seen the finished product yet, but Peter tells me that it looks gorgeous, and I bet that he’s right.