A Year with Three Stop-Motion Oscar Noms?

Possible Stop Motion nominations

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.

Idiots at the Helm

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.”

(via Animation Guild blog)

Thanksgiving Weekend Box Office Report

Fantastic Mr. Fox

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.

1939 article on Disney’s Ugly Duckling

Last night a friend gave me an early Christmas gift of an old issue of Street & Smith’s PIC magazine, cover dated April 4th, 1939. PIC is an odd, oversized LIFE magazine knock-off, with plenty of articles covering Hollywood and Broadway. This issue featured a 3-page spread on the current (and last) Silly Symphony short, The Ugly Duckling (which was released on April 9th). I scanned the pages for you (click thumbnails below to read), but please excuse the fact that my scanner was barely able to scan the oversize pages. It’s a nice pictorial, giving the public a glimpse behind the scenes with story sketches and model sheets – once again stating that Disney cartoons are “never written, but drawn”.

(Thanks, Mark Trost)

Rare Footage of Bakshi working on Fritz the Cat

This 1970 German documentary on Robert Crumb contains rare footage of Ralph Bakshi in his studio during the making of Fritz the Cat. Young Ralph is shown in the studio, walking through New York and looking at one of his animators flip through drawings. The documentary was loaded onto YouTube in three parts (embeded below) and is NSFW (not safe for work, due to naked hippies). Bakshi first appears a little after 6:30 in part one:

(Thanks, Rogelio Toledo)

The Sunday Funnies 11/29/09

This week’s round-up of animation-related comic strip gags:

Mark Tatulli’s Lio from Friday Nov. 27th.

Mike Peter’s Mother Goose and Grimm from Wednesday November 25th.

Above: Arlo and Janis from last Sunday November 22nd. Click panel above to read entire strip. Below: Scott Hilburn’s Argyle Sweater from Friday, 11/27.

If you spot a national comic strip making a clever reference to animated cartoons of any era, forward the link to us for our weekly round-up.

(Thanks this week to Wayne Daigrepont and Jim Lahue)

Lost UPA Cartoon: Howdy Doody and his Magic Hat

Gene Deitch has written this plea before, but he’s not ready to give up hope. The first cartoon he ever directed – for UPA no less – is apparently a lost film. Writes Gene:

“The short animated film that I consider my seminal work appears to be lost and gone forever. It is not listed on any roster of animated films. Technically, it does not exist. The only evidence that it ever did, beside my word and a very few living witnesses, is a magazine article in the also vanished Colliers magazine, with one barely representative illustration (above, click to see it larger).”

The name of this hopelessly obscure little film is also weirdly surrealistic: HOWDY DOODY AND HIS MAGIC HAT. Surrealistic because the film had nothing to do —really — with the grotesque television puppet Howdy Doody. So what is the origin of this artistic tragedy? Here’s the story: The Howdy Doody production organization, Kagran Corp, paid us at UPA-New York, in 1952, to make the film, hoping to establish their string puppet star into a movie star. We disappointed them. They felt we screwed them, and they got the ultimate revenge: They destroyed the negative. They destroyed my seminal work of animation art! I ultimately got that information from a most reliable source: my best friend, and the one-time voice of Howdy Doody and his entire gang, Allen Swift. Allen told me that Bob Smith, the creator of Howdy Doody, hated my film so vehemently that he ordered it wiped it off the face of the earth!

What had we done, and why? We, the then masters of modern animation — the purveyors of progressive design, got it into our eggy heads to influence Kagran to transform Howdy Doody with elegant graphics; to give children something better than the schlocky look of their immensely popular TV show. To this day I don’t know what made us think we could get away with it. We were delighted to take Kagran’s money, and the opportunity it gave us to show our stuff.

When I claim my so-called HOWDY DOODY film is a work of art, I don’t mean that it was all my art. Cliff Roberts was the graphic designer, and Duane Crowther the animator, and I can’t even remember the name of the great young avant garde composer. We were all proud of our film, feeling it was a landmark, that would not only rejuvinate the ugly H.D. but would become a classic film for us.

My personal contribution was partly the storywritten in collaboration with my long-time friend, William Bernal, ( a cowboy rough-rider variation on the magic talisman that endows victory, but that is lost and forces the hero to win without it), plus my visual conception, layout and direction. Coping with the low budget, I decided to do it as paper cut-out animation with special camera effects of my own invention, which became the basis of my filming technique throughout my career and to this day. That’s why the ‘HOWDY DOODY AND HIS MAGIC HAT film is still so important to me. Others have since done these same multiple exposure depth effects, overlapping dissolves and backlit glows since those early days before computers existed, but without a copy of this simple little 1952 bag of tricks filmette, how can I prove I did it first?

When I left UPA New York to pursue other glories, I did manage to get a 16mm print, and I eventually brought that print with me on my first trip to Prague, 50 years ago in 1959 — to impress the communist-repressed locals my skills. It worked, and I won my incredible wife in the process. But in that first trip, nothing like that was assured. I had only a few days to stay here, and according to US Customs regulations at the time, I could not carry films to America in my luggage, so the Czechoslovak Air Cargo outfit shipped my film back to Bill Snyder’s office. It arrived. It was not confiscated by the Czechs, yet when I returned, Snyder could not find it. I had my mind set on more urgent matters, and assumed it would turn up. It never did.

Snyder and his assistant repeatedly told me the print could not be found. I had returned to Prague and had no chance to get to New York during that time – the early 1960s. When I did get there, I could not find it in the Rembrandt Film’s store room. Later, after Snyder died and his company was taken over by his son Adam, our close friend, neither he could find it.

So this possibly lone 16mm film print slipped from my grasp. Many colleagues tried to locate a print, but to this day, nearly 50 years later, it appears to be hopeless. So my first UPA film, “Directed by Gene Deitch,” seems to be lost forever.

Only the Kagran Corporation, now also defunct, could have derived satisfaction, that this brazen little animated movie, which dared to meddle with the design and name of their beloved character, has been erased from history! – Gene Deitch

If one 16mm print existed, surely others were struck from the negative. And what of the negative, or any original art? If anyone has any clues as to the existence of anything related to the film (not the Little Golden Book), please contact us.

Stop Motion Matinee

For those enjoying Fantastic Mr. Fox and all others who might want to catch up on the history of stop-motion animation, I’m happy to announce the release of Stop Motion Matinee from my friend Tom Stathes. This is his first professional release through his Cartoons On Film website. It comes complete with beautiful packaging designed by the infamous David Gerstein and produced in collaboration with Ray Pointer of Inkwell Images. This DVD collection is an exploration of early stop-motion animated films and includes high-quality transfers of these historic classics:

The Automatic Moving Company (Bozzetti, 1912)
Revenge of the Cameraman (Starewicz, 1912)
Dinosaur and the Missing Link (O’Brien, 1917)
Chip in the Land of Whiz (Kinex Studios, 1929)
Creation (O’Brien, 1931)
and concluding with Starewicz’s surreal mini-feature masterpiece, The Mascot (1933).

Read a full description, complete with synopses and images, and see a video trailer on Stathes’ blog. For ordering info visit cartoonsonfilm.com

Bunin’s Alice

It’s becoming an annual tradition in Los Angeles – just as last year, the Cinefamily/Silent Movie Theatre on Fairfax Ave. is running the classic Lou Bunin stop motion/live action Alice In Wonderland. Made in 1949, but released in 1951, the film was originally suppressed by Disney for fear of its potential upstaging of their own animated Alice. This rare showing of the beautiful MOMA-restored 35mm print will screen Saturday night at 5pm and 7:30pm. For advance tickets, a clip from the film and more info, click here.

Early Animation Wiki

I am happy to announce the creation of a new resource for cartoon research: The Early Animation Wiki. This site is the creation of faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates at the University of Toronto, and is designed to collect data on the early days of film and television animation. Nic Sammond, Associate Professor of Cinema Studies at the University of Toronto, says:

“The goal of this wiki is to support a robust community of scholars, historians, and collectors of animation-as well as animators-who can share their wisdom and knowledge about this rich and amazing art form. The Early Animation Wiki is attempting to chart the beginnings of animation, with a focus on the careers of animators and the rise (and sometimes fall) of studios. That this leads toward the present day is inevitable, but our initial focus is on building a useful tool for studying the early days of animation.

“It may be a bit of an exaggeration to say the website is ready for use. The Early Animation Wiki is now online, but the first thing it needs is contributors. As you will see, many of its entries are incomplete, and there are quite a few entries missing as well. Also, it isn’t yet as open as other wikis. We hope eventually to add video content and more graphic features to what is, at the moment, a very text-based resource. What we need from you now is the benefit of your knowledge, expertise, and critical and constructive suggestions. I hope you will lend as much as you can.”

if you’d like to contribute, contact Sammond via the site.

Thanksgiving Leftovers

Here’s a couple of odds and ends I didn’t around to posting this past week. First up, Chris Jones spent six years making The Passenger and has a blog detailing everything about it.

Next, this short below by Christophe Lopez-Huici is Not Safe for Work (but that’s okay since most of us have the day off). I don’t know why I like it, but the combination of the music and crude stop-motion sorta works for me. More by this animator here.

And finally, this controversial commercial from the UK, created by Mother, for airline pollution activists, Plane Stupid:

Snow White in Apples

An appropriate Thanksgiving Day post: food artist Prudence Staite was commissioned by Disney to recreate scenes from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs as publicity for the current Blu Ray release. Staite used 14 different varieties of the fruit to make the six scenes – four of them are posted on the BBC News website.

Oh, and don’t forget The Apples In Stereo, but I digress…

(Thanks, Yazzydream)

What Animation Can Learn from a Restaurant Owner

This business case study of Ferran Adrià‘s restaurant elBulli restaurant has nothing to do on the surface with cartoons, yet the conclusions of the study can be applied equally well to the animation industry.

In particular, this comment by Michael Norton of the Harvard Business School stands out:

“Adrià‘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 Adrià does. Apply this to the idea of focus grouping in animation, and you might see where I’m headed. Norton is saying that if Adrià 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.”

Not So Mighty

Mighty B

A Brew reader reports that Erik Wiese, the co-creator of Mighty B, hinted on his Facebook today that Nick has cancelled the show. Wiese wrote:

“Goodbye Bessie. Goodbye Happy. It was good knowing you.”

In case you’re curious, here are Nick’s top-rated programs from a few weeks ago. It’s a more revealing comment about the stagnant creative state of Nick than anything I could write:

#1 — SpongeBob’s Truth or Square
#2 — SpongeBob’s Truth or Square
#3 — Fanboy & Chum Chum
#4 — SpongeBob
#5 — Fanboy & Chum Chum
#6 — SpongeBob
#7 — SpongeBob’s Truth or Square
#8 — SpongeBob
#9 — SpongeBob
#10 — Penguins of Madagascar
#11 — SpongeBob
#12 — SpongeBob’s Truth or Square
#13 – iCarly Movie

Quote of the Week: Tom Rothman

From the November 2 issue of The New Yorker:

“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.

How to Make $55,000 by Giving Away A Film

Sita Sings the Blues

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.

A Page From TV Animation’s Past

Broadcast Notes
(click to enlarge image)

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.)

CTN wrap up

One last post and a few more snaps from CTN yesterday:

Peter De Seve signs copies of his new book A Sketchy Past for a huge crowd. NOTE: Stuart Ng has Peter’s new book in stock and available NOW. Amazon won’t have it until March (and Ng’s copies have an exclusive signed illustrated bookplate).

Two kings of modern day good-girl art: Dean Yeagle and Bill Pressing

Jerry Beck and Lou Romano

The final day of the CTN event was as exciting as the first two. Everyone I spoke to agreed that this was a successful first effort and all praised Tina Price for creating such an artist friendly evironment. The whole thing felt less like a Comic Con and more like a party for cartoonists and animators – a great way to spend the weekend with old friends or making new contacts. I picked up a lot of sketchbooks, prints and art that I will write about in a separate post later this week.

Mish-Mish in National Defense

We’ve posted about Mish Mish cartoons before – but here’s a new one you gotta see. The character was the star of a popular Egyptian cartoon series of the 1930s by the Frenkel Bros. – who apparently were so taken with American cartoons they literally traced animation, character designs and ideas directly from them. This one, National Defense, is a World War II epic presented in two parts. In the musical first half, the animators borrow from Bosko and Buddy, mix belly dancers and dancing hooka’s, and possibly the worst caricatures of Laurel and Hardy, Eddie Cantor and Charlie Chaplin you’ll ever see. The second half takes place on the battlefield and it’s probably the funkiest animated propaganda ever made. The crude animation only adds to the charm. No matter what you think of Mish Mish, they don’t make ‘em like this anymore!

(Thanks, Milton Knight)