Banjo, the Woodpile Cat

The 2D animation renaissance of the 1990s began in the 1980s. Did any one movie or TV show begin it – or was it the combination of the popularity of Mighty Mouse the New Adventures (1987), Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), The Little Mermaid (1989), and the introduction of The Simpsons (1987)? Some might credit the Don Bluth/Steven Spielberg An American Tail (1986) as the catalyst.

Certainly the 1979 exodus of Don Bluth, Gary Goldman, John Pomeroy and eleven others from Disney, in protest of the then-deteriorating animation department, could be considered the beginning-of-the-beginning. During the 1970s, Bluth and company – while still employed at Disney – tinkered away at nights and on weekends in a little garage in Culver City on a personal film. The goal was to learn how to make a classically animated film from scratch, and do it all by themselves without studio support.

Banjo The Woodpile Cat was that film – and it emboldened the group to break free of Disney and start making new films on their own. How successful they were, creatively, is a matter of opinion – and as for Banjo itself, no one considers it a classic but it’s always been a sweet little picture. Now Bluth has re-released Banjo on a two-disc DVD that is actually worth owning by any serious student of animation or Disney history.

In addition to a newly remastered version of the film, there is a great audio commentary track by Bluth, Goldman and Pomeroy recounting the making of the short. On the second disc is a 13-part documentary, The Story Behind Banjo, with the trio detailing their time at Disney, how they made on Banjo at night while animating The Rescuers, Pete’s Dragon and The Small One during business hours, what they learned and how it led to their departure from Disney. It’s a fascinating story. There is also a vintage TV newscast from 1980 with behind the scenes footage at Bluth’s newly independent studio, a separate on-camera “conversation” with Don and a collection of trailers for every feature and video game the Bluth studio ever worked on.

It’s a great package of material – and you can buy the DVD from Don himself off Amazon.com. Below is a excerpt from the middle of the short:

Mickey-Luke meet Minnie-Leia

As a post-script to our last post: If foot-long raging Mickey’s don’t turn you on, then how about these Star Wars/Disney statues (click thumbnails above to see full image). For $195 a piece you can choose from Mickey as Luke, Minnie as Leia (in the gold bikini from Return of the Jedi), Goofy Chewbacca or Donald as Han in Carbonite.

These limited edition statues (600 each) will be released the second week in June. 500 of each will be available at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, with the remaining 100 of each being sent to Disneyland. We empathize with Jeff Sparkman on cnet.com’s Crave, who is begging Disney and Lucasfilm to stop licensing this cross-promotional stuff. His latest piece is entitled, Dear George Lucas: You’re allowed to say no sometimes.

(Thanks, Ed Austin)

The 3-D Onslaught

3D Kid

Coraline was the first time I’d seen a film in 3-D in a very long time, and while I enjoyed the film immensely, the 3-D technology was a huge dud. The imagery on-screen was so fuzzy that I initially thought my glasses were defective and exchanged them for another pair. Apparently, it wasn’t the glasses though; that’s just part of the 3-D “experience”. Add to that an annoying strobe on close-up shots, tinted glasses that obscured details during the film’s darker scenes, and leaving the theater with a headache, and it ends up being a miserable experience that I don’t anticipate repeating anytime soon.

It’s too early to tell where 3-D will go, but every sign so far points to it being a corporate-induced fad just as it was in the 1950s. Having said that, I’m still fascinated by Hollywood’s shift to 3-D techology, particularly because animation now represents the second biggest category of 3-D releases, following documentary films. I’m also intrigued by the unique storytelling possibilities of the medium, though as yet I’m unclear as to what those may be. To that end, I’ve been searching for a solid source to learn more about the technology. I know there’s the MarketSaw blog which offers news about 3-D releases, but its uncritical cheerleading of every film doesn’t offer much insight into the art side of 3-D. Last night I finally stumbled across what I’ve been looking for–an amazing resource called 3-D Stereoscopic Film and Animation Blog which is run by a Bristol, UK-company called 3-D Revolution Productions.

Besides the informative blog, the company has all sorts of pages devoted to the technology such as 3-D film theory, how to build a 3-D camera, and an incredible piece of original research documenting every 3-D film ever released. In other words, if you’re at all interested in 3-D filmmaking, this blog and accompanying website is THE place to start your journey.

A chart that stood out on their blog is the one of 3-D releases throughout history. It’s surprising to see that 3-D never died out, and in fact, more 3-D films were released in the early-2000s than are being released today, though contemporary releases are obviously playing on a far greater number of screens:

3D Chart

There’s also an enlightening article that discusses the traditional 3-D effect of objects popping out at audiences–”negative parallax” is the technical term–and how the art of 3-D won’t develop until filmmakers move beyond these type of cheap tricks and recognize that:

“3-D movies are a different medium altogether — neither film nor theatre, but volumetric narrative visual entertainment of its own. A new medium with new rules — where the fourth wall can be broken at will and where serious drama is followed by visual puns and an opportunity to examine objects and scenery in volumetric detail.”

The author of the blog also shares this comment told to him in 2007 by Pixar director Pete Docter: “We have looked at 3-D in the past and have come to the conclusion that there is little to no way in which 3-D can indeed enhance the quality of our storytelling or enhance the character interaction in a meaningful way.” It leads to the question, What has changed in the past couple years that has convinced Pixar and other studios to create all their animated films in 3-D? Is it purely a response to market pressure and keeping up with Katzenberg, or have filmmakers found legitimate ways of using the technology to enhance storytelling? Perhaps I’ll discover the answer when I find a way to watch 3-D films without getting a migraine.

The Cat Piano Trailer

Here’s the stylish trailer for The Cat Piano, a just-completed animated short by our friends at the People’s Republic of Animation in Adelaide, Australia. The short is directed by Eddie White and Ari Gibson and its content described as, “a city of singing cats is preyed upon by a shadowy figure intent on performing a twisted feline symphony.” We offered White’s earlier short, Carnivore Reflux, co-directed with James Calvert, way back when we launched Cartoon Brew Films. That short can now be seen on YouTube. The guys at PRA are enthusiastic, young and skilled, which is a powerful combination. It’s commendable that they continue doing shorts inbetween their busy workload of TV commercials, music videos and long-form commissioned projects.

Chuck Jones’ Tom & Jerry

The Chuck Jones Tom & Jerry cartoons of the 1960s are a mixed bag. There are a couple of good ones (I really like The Cat Above, The Mouse Below and The Cat’s Me-Ouch for example) and a whole bunch of mediocre ones. But one thing that most agree is that the films themselves look great thanks to Maurice Noble’s layouts, Jones character designs and the first rate professionalism of his crew. MGM/UA released a laser disc boxed set of these back in the 1990s (which was marred by awful DVNR clean-up technology, which essentially ruined the cartoons one redeeming value: the animation). Now Warner Bros. is making up for that with two-disc DVD collection of digitally remastered cartoons. Tom & Jerry: Chuck Jones Collection features 34 Tom & Jerry shorts and two bonus documentaries: Peggy Stern’s Chuck Jones: Memories of A Childhood (which airs March 24th at 8pm on TCM) and an original doc, produced by our friends at New Wave Entertainment: Tom and Jerry… and Chuck. It goes on sale June 23rd.

For more information on Chuck Jones check out the new blog devoted to the director, by his grandson Craig Kausen: Chuck Redux blog

(Thanks, Dave Lambert and Larry Levine)

“Happy Up Here” video by Reuben Sutherland

A visually impressive Space Invaders-themed music video directed by Reuben Sutherland of Joyrider Films for Röyksopp’s new single “Happy Up Here.” At first glance, I thought it was a mix of live and CG, but upon closer examination, it appears to be almost entirely CG. It’s a fun piece in which the visual elements and cutting perfectly match the energy of song’s beats.

Evil Toons

EvilToons

Director Fred Olen Ray:

“So I’m sitting in this movie theater one day and I’m watching Who Framed Roger Rabbit and I see Jessica Rabbit come on and all the guys are going, ‘Va-va-va-voom, I’d have sex with that,’ and I said, ‘You know, I bet that somebody’d pay money to see a cartoon character rip a girl’s clothes off.’”

And with that bit of insight, Ray produced the adult live-action/animated feature, Evil Toons, a 1992 production that I’d never heard of until yesterday when I read about it on Richard O’Connor’s blog. Interesting note for animation fans: the animation in the film was created by none other than Oscar-nominated John Dilworth (creator of Courage the Cowardly Dog and the director of Dirdy Birdy).

Here’s the trailer to whet your appetite:

And an 11-minute commentary from the director offering insights into how he created movie magic:

Be a Nose! directed by Lars Edwards

NY-based animator Lars Edwards was recently commissioned by McSweeney’s Quarterly to create an animated trailer promoting the release of Art Spiegelman’s collection of sketchbooks, “Be A Nose!”. He came up with an eye-catching and distinctive piece of line animation, which can be seen below. Edward’s writes, “After finding a narrative theme in the mayhem of Be A Nose!‘s pages, I put together a small team of talented animators and we began recreating Art Spiegelman’s artwork. It was an amazing experience working with Art Spiegelman and McSweeney‘s on this project.” The animators on the project were Aaron Hawkins, Hanna Bliss, Brian Ellis, Jason Schwartz and Edwards.

The Last Screen Song

The cartoon below isn’t very good, but it’s been rarely seen — and that’s usually good enough for me. And it’s somewhat historically important, as it represents the last of a series of animated shorts that began in 1924 by Max Fleischer.

Fleischer began sing-along Song Cartunes in 1924 and it was an immediate success. His gimmick was a bouncing ball atop the lyrics on screen, to help audiences keep up with the song. In the sound era, Fleischer added popular singers and big bands (in live action). The original run ended in 1938. Famous Studios, Paramount’s successor to the Fleischer operation, revived the bouncing ball series in color, in a Noveltoon When G.I. Johnny Comes Marching Home in 1945. Paramount released bouncing ball cartoons through various Noveltoons, Kartunes and Screen Songs series for the next nine years (Candy Cabaret (1954) was the last).

In the 1960s, with Paramount having sold off their most well known creations to Harvey Comics, the studio was desperate for ideas. They began remaking earlier shorts; they tried adapting comedy records (“Abner The Baseball”), they even reinvented Casper as “Goodie The Gremlin”. Nothing caught on. The only thing they owned with audience recognition was “sing-along with the bouncing ball”.

Hobo’s Holiday (1963) was the last Paramount Bouncing Ball cartoon short. It was released in 1963 and hasn’t been seen since. Morey Reden, a Fleischer/Famous veteran animator, wrote and animated the film. He used The Big Rock Candy Mountain, a public domain song from the (1930s) Depression era, arranged here with a 1950s rock beat. It’s pretty lame. With references to “streams of alcohol” and “cigarette trees” the cartoon was naturally omitted from showing on Nickelodeon when the rest of the 1960s Paramount cartoons were shown on that network from 1989 through 1992.

So here it is. If you ever wanted to know what a Screen Song short might look like if they kept the series going into the TV era, here’s your answer:

Iwao Takamoto exhibit at Van Eaton

The Van Eaton Gallery is holding a special event on Saturday March 14th, a tribute to Iwao Takamoto. The exhibit not only showcases original character designs and artwork (non-Animation and Animation) by Takamoto, but other work found in his estate, including pieces by Alex Toth (original Model Sheets), Ray Aragon (Last Of The Curlews) and Floro Dery (The Last Halloween).

The event will also serve as a publication party for the new biography, Iwao Takamoto My Life with a Thousand Characters, copies of the book be on hand and will be signed by the author (Michael Mallory), as well as Willie Ito and Barbara Takamoto. You can check out the exhibit’s artwork online and pre-order books beginning March 5, 2009. The event is open to the public, March 14th from 5pm to 9pm, however you must RSVP because space is limited. The gallery is located at 13613 Ventura Blvd. in Sherman Oaks, California. The RSVP number is (818) 788-2357. For more information contact the Van Eaton Galleries.

Amid Talks Disney vs. DreamWorks

Amid Amidi

This morning I appeared on the Fox Business channel to discuss the rivalry between Pixar and DreamWorks. The other guest was esteemed animation director (and fellow blogger) Michael Sporn. It was impossible to say anything revelatory or original in the brief timespan of the segment and they managed to misspell my name onscreen, but I don’t appear on TV often so I’m posting the video here for posterity. The real excitement of the morning was in the green room where I tried to eat a bagel while sitting next to Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper and having his security detail breathing down my neck.

An iPhone Stopwatch for Animators

Program by Randy Cartwright

Veteran animator Randy Cartwright, who is currently working on Disney’s The Princess and the Frog, has released a useful iPhone application designed specifically for animators called the Animation Timer. He describes on his website what it does:

Timing is very important in animation. In order to animate convincingly you must know how many frames each part of an action takes.

Animators can use a stopwatch to time out actions but there has always been an annoying problem. Stopwatches show time as 1/100ths per second but movie film runs at 24 frames per second. To find out how many frames you need to do a tiresome calculation containing 41.66667 each time.

I’ve always wanted a stopwatch that would show the time in exactly the format I need so I decided, what the hey, I might as well make one, so here it is.

For more details, visit Randy’s Animation Timer website. The application is available for $2.99 on the iTunes store. Search for “animation timer”.

Academy Awards Talkback

The Oscar winners were announced tonight. The winner for BEST ANIMATED FEATURE FILM was Pixar’s WALL•E. For BEST ANIMATED SHORT, the winner was: La Maison en Petits Cubes – Kunio Kato. Jennifer Anniston and Jack Black presented the awards, and introduced an confusing montage of clips from animated features released in 2008 (which included scenes from Space Chimps and The Clone Wars, two films which their producers deemed unfit to submit for Oscar qualification – had they done so, five animated features would have been nominated instead of three).

Cool Japanese Cartoon Kitsch on eBay

This crazy image above is from a vintage Japanese jigsaw puzzle, currently being offered on ebay. It’s one of several nifty items recently listed by Japanese seller kenta_jpn.

There are several rare vintage books featuring classic “western” cartoon characters (and some 1960′s anime titles) featuring many wonderfully-off-model illustrations within each. There’s also a very cool Huckleberry Hound board game (aka “The Unique Dog Huckle Game”) made by Nintendo(!) in the 1960′s. These items are all “Buy It Now” listings — so I’m unsure how long they’ll remain available for sale or viewing – so go there now!

(Thanks, Andrew Harlow)

Cartoon Dump on Tuesday

No, it’s not a bunch of crazed furries. It’s Frank Conniff and the cast of Cartoon Dump, our monthly live comedy and cartoons showcase in Hollywood. This month we will have guest comedian Dana Gould (The Simpsons) adding to the madness. Join Moodsy, Compost Brite, Cue Card Goddess and me, Jerry Beck, Tuesday, February 24th at 8 PM, for an evening of hilarious comedy, demented songs, and really, really awful cartoons — at the Steve Allen Theater, 4773 Hollywood Blvd. (two blocks west of Vermont). Map here, reserve tickets here. See you there!

“You Look Good Enough To Eat!”

Wanna have fun? Check out the paintings of animation artist Nouar Boldy (aka Noir Nouar). Even better, check them out and meet the artist in person, Saturday night at the Jonathan LeVine Gallery in New York. The opening reception is tomorrow, February 21, from 7 – 9 p.m. The gallery is located at 529 W. 20th Street, suite #9E, between 10th and 11th Avenues. For more Nouar check her interview in Juxtapoz magazine and her delightfully designed website.