Mar 14, 2014

Women In Animation



This Saturday, March 15, I'm moderating a panel at the Walt Disney Family Museum where I'll be talking with Claire Keane, Lorelay Bove, and Brenda Chapman about their experiences in the animation business, and their lives as animation artists.

Last October the museum also asked if I would write an essay for their quarterly on the subject of women in animation, past and present, which follows here.


In the 1970s there was one must-have for every aspiring young animator's bookshelf: Christopher Finch's oversized, heavy and beautiful The Art of Walt Disney.  Illustrated books detailing the history of animation, and more specifically, the Disney Studio, were almost nonexistent at the time; and at over 400 pages the Finch book was something I pored over for hours. I'd already fixed on the idea of being an animator, seeing it as the perfect career to marry my love of drawing, film, and performance.  I considered animation to be "the illusion of life": turning lines on a page into characters that lived and breathed in an invented world of color, design and graphic imagination.

Every page of Finch's book was filled with story sketches, animator's roughs, background paintings, and photographs– not just of Walt Disney, but also of his artists working at their desks, drawing just as I did and looking not much older than I was. But they were working on such memorable films as Snow White, Pinocchio, and Bambi.  Decades before I was born they'd managed to achieve the gold standard: working at the greatest animation studio in the world on films whose influence would long outlive them.

The old images fascinated me and I wanted to know more about them. One was particularly striking.  It showed a young woman, Retta Scott, animating on Fantasia.  While far from being an expert in either social history or 1930s studio-hiring practices, I knew that a woman employed as an animator in those days was rare, and that this had been the case from the beginning. The form of cartooning which preceded and inspired animated cartoons and newspaper comic strips, also had many more men than women employed in the field, and this disparity carried over into the new medium of animated cartoons. With rare exceptions, cartooning/animation work became a "guy's thing," though the intended audience for the cartoons and comic strips was both male and female.

So, by the mid-1930s, it seemed that any woman with artistic talent or experience who applied to a studio for work in animation was limited to a career in the "ink and paint" department, doing the crucial but creatively stultifying tasks of tracing animators' drawings on celluloid and painting the underside. This was by necessity an assembly-line sort of job, and while the women who did it were rightfully proud of their skills, the work certainly didn't allow for individual expression.  But there was Retta Scott, engaged in what was a traditionally male job. She was an anomaly—a female animator!  I later learned that Scott had worked in the story department as well as in animation, and in fact, there had been other women assigned to the story and development departments, including Sylvia Moberly-Holland, Bianca Majolie, and most famously, Retta's friend Mary Blair, whose career and influence would extend further than many of her colleagues'.

In the 1930s and '40s, a confluence of talent, opportunity, timing and connections were required for a talented woman to land a creative job at Disney.  This was also true for the men but to a lesser degree. It's impossible to know how many women who aspired to be animation artists were actively discouraged from trying, but certainly some were, as evidenced by the Disney Studio's 1930s form letter sent in response to women inquiring about jobs as artists. It stated that "women do not do any of the creative work in connection with preparing the cartoons for the screen, as that work is performed entirely by young men." While clearly untrue when one considers the placement of the women previously mentioned, the letter nonetheless expressed the company's attitude towards the idea of women artists in general.

This was unfortunate since not only were women at the Studio making artistic contributions, their work was also having a positive impact on the history of animation. The work of Mary Blair, in particular, caused a transformation in the look of Disney animation, and the opportunity for her to create stunning art was due to the direct involvement of Walt Disney, whose appreciation of her unique style and sensibility was not hindered at all by her gender. But Blair was a stunning exception; for most women, the opportunities to achieve personal distinction in animation were simply not available. Had it been otherwise, it's anyone's guess who else might have made her mark as Blair was able to.

Throughout my working life I've been asked the question, "Why aren't there more women in animation?" and I've never had an answer. I can only speak for myself and explain why I do what I do—a story that differs little if at all from that told by my female and male colleagues.  But while the question still gets asked, things have changed more rapidly in recent years than ever before. As a student at Calarts in the late 1980s, I was in a class where the guys far outnumbered the girls, and for the first decade or so I was able to tick off the names of all the other females who were somehow involved in animation.

Now, there are so many women working in the field that I can't begin to keep track of them all– many working as I do in story, but also in visual development, animation, character design, and every other classification. Online blogs by aspiring female animation students are even more numerous, and from a cursory check, show ever-increasing sophistication and range in personal style and storytelling ability.  It's a wonderful state of affairs for my industry and for everyone who's involved with the art of animation, and it'll be fascinating to see what the future will look like when a picture of a woman creating animation will draw no special notice at all.

Mar 12, 2014

Magic! Color! FLAIR! The World of Mary Blair exhibit is opening March 13, 2014


Is there anyone in animation who isn't excited by the work of Mary Blair?  Oh, probably a few misanthropes or those who go the contrarian route, but Blair's gargantuan reputation grows year after year for good reason. Many have spoken and written about her influence more eloquently than I ever could, but nothing beats seeing the real thing, up close and personal. To this end the Walt Disney Family Museum is opening the largest show to date of Blair's accomplishments both inside and outside animation.  Curated by Oscar-winning animator, writer (and Blair biographer) and NYU professor John Canemaker, this promises to be a must-see, and woe to the lover of Disneyana, animation, graphic art, illustration, midcentury design, and plain old genius who misses it.

 Here's a bit from the Museum's description to whet your appetite:


MAGIC, COLOR, FLAIR: the world of Mary Blair features some 200 works and explores all phases of Blair’s work by examining her artistic development in three major areas: “Learning the Rules”—her student days at Los Angeles’ legendary Chouinard School of Art, and her fine art regionalist watercolors exhibited in the 1930s. “Breaking the Rules”—her artistic breakthrough with boldly colored, stylized concept paintings for classic Disney animated features during the 1940s and 1950s, including Saludos Amigos (1942) and Peter Pan (1953); and “Creating New Worlds”—freelancing in the 1950s in New York where she became a popular illustrator for national advertisements, magazine articles, clothing designs, window displays, theatrical sets, and children’s books.
The exhibition includes Blair’s rarely exhibited student art, which was influenced by the illustrations of her mentor Pruett Carter, and her mid-to-late artworks from the 1930s as a member of the innovative California Water-Color Society which reveal an essential humanism and empathy for her subjects. The exhibition also showcases The Walt Disney Family Museum’s extensive collection of Blair’s conceptual artworks in gouache and watercolor—some of which have never displayed outside The Walt Disney Studios—that reveal the artist’s inexhaustible creativity in design, staging of imagery, visual appeal, and unique color sensibility. 

In addition, Canemaker's biography of Mary, The Art and Flair of Mary Blair, is now republished in an updated edition with a new cover and much-enhanced color reproductions.

The title page from the new exhibition catalog/book.


And there'll be a 172 page exhibition catalog in hardcover, also written by Canemaker. Preview and order it here.


A little digression here: in talking about this show with my coworkers, I'm disappointed to find a fair number of southern Californians haven't yet visited the Disney Museum, and there are also a few who aren't even aware it exists.  The latter I can't explain, but I have to ruefully acknowledge that as close as San Francisco is, given the schedules and demands of working life it sometimes seems that it might as well be located in Bangor, Maine.

Happily for all of us this isn't the case, and I would urge anyone with the least interest in Walt Disney and the animation arts to just get in the car and go. I've been guilty too, not having made the bay area trip for several years until last November, when I attended a panel on the work of Bruno Bozzetto with Canemaker, John Musker, and David Silverman, and saw their fantastic exhibit on Tyrus Wong. It was a one-day trip up and back, and absolutely worth it. The museum is truly an amazing place, and if animation folk want it to continue to exist, we need to support its mission and hopefully, attend its exhibitions and events.

Magic Color Flair the world of Mary Blair runs from March 13 to September 7.


The Walt Disney Family Museum
104 Montgomery Street
The Presidio, San Francisco
San Francisco, CA 94129
415.345.6800 

MUSEUM HOURS:

Open daily 10am–6pm, except every Tues, Jan 1, Thanksgiving & Dec 25



Jan 30, 2014

Michael Sporn 1946-2014 "The wind is rising...we must try to live."


Michael Sporn looking over Richard Williams' shoulder during production of "Raggedy Ann and Andy". Photograph by John Canemaker, from his book.


Last weekend, thanks in large part to three consecutive days off, I was finally able to watch a few screeners. One of them was Hayao Miyazaki's "The Wind Rises", which I'd been very much looking forward to(happily subtitled instead of dubbed-always the way I prefer to go).  I knew the basics of the story-that it was about the life of the designer of the Japanese Zero fighter plane, Jiro Horikoshi, albeit somewhat fictionalized, and that as a result it was a more "adult" sort of film from Miyazaki-but that was all.

The next two hours were a revelation. I loved "Spirited Away" and enjoyed the somewhat-contentious-among-my-friends charms of "Ponyo", but sitting through "The Wind Rises" gave me the same sensation I had watching my first Miyazaki films-"Totoro", "Nausicaä ","Kiki's Delivery Service", and "Porco Rosso"-the wonder of watching a graphically told story play out with absolutely no idea what might happen next, thinking, "I can't believe how beautiful this is".

And one of the first things I thought was "I wonder what Michael Sporn thinks about this. I have to visit his blog(or as he called it, Splog)". But my first stop upon pulling out my laptop was Facebook, where the first post I saw was one expressing sorrow that Michael had died.

What! Died? No...

Both Michael and I started our blogs in the fall of 2005; I quickly discovered his thanks to comments he left on my posts. Of course I knew who he was, thanks to John Canemaker's The Animated Raggedy Ann and Andy , a book that served as my introduction to Richard Williams, Corny Cole, Tissa David, the ins and outs of feature animation production, the animation artist's life, the history of some veteran giants in the business, and last but not least a great introduction to a gaggle of young artists just starting out-including Eric Goldberg, Dan Haskett, Tom Sito, and Michael Sporn.  All that, and fantastic illustrations and photographs. It's quite a book(in my opinion the most honest and accurate about the behind the scenes of animation production), and though out of print, still very much worth getting and reading, as are all of Canemaker's titles.


Of the young guys profiled in "Raggedy Ann", Haskett, Goldberg, and Sito eventually made their way to the once and future mecca of feature animation, Los Angeles. Michael Sporn stayed in his native New York and started his own studio-a studio that has remained in operation for 34 years. That's a pretty astonishing feat both personally and professionally. In fact, I doubt if any of the animation production houses that existed in 1980 exist today, or have for many years. The economy, changes in the tastes and whims of commercial production, dwindling funding for projects from PBS and other entities...all have contributed to a depressing attrition rate for independent-minded artists and companies. Add to all that the ever-skyrocketing costs of living and working in New York, and the fact that Michael maintained his studio and thrived is a wonderful thing.

From his "Doctor DeSoto", which was nominated for an Oscar in 1984.
Michael Sporn Animation, Inc. did so much work, in so many styles and on so many different projects-television, film titles-even an animated segment for a Broadway show. There's far more than I can detail here in this post right now-but go and have a google. Recently Michael had started work on "Poe", a personal project that looked fantastic.

From "Poe"
So I knew him from his profile in the book, I'd seen his work(often not knowing it was his)on television, but what I didn't know-until I began reading his indispensable Splog, was what an incredible animation historian, scholar, and fan he was.  I'd started my blog to discourse on animation's past, mostly, with a few posts thrown in on story-my gig-and whatever else. I've acquired ephemera from anything and everything that interested me, whether it came from Disney, Warner Bros, Bob Clampett...and I began to post these things I pulled out of my drawers. One I recall in particular was a candid photograph of a very uncomfortable Walt Disney, taken when he was testifying for HUAC.

John Canemaker and Michael Sporn in 2008 at an exhibition at MOMA; behind them are panels from Canemaker's film "Bridgehampton".

This and other things brought comments from Michael, and led me to what he had been posting about.Ye gods! The man had amassed an incredible trove of material-all the good stuff, from every studio-not just Disney, but UPA, not just America's cartoon industry, but Europe's...he just seemed to have a line on everything. And he'd worked with everyone and he was interested in everyone. Believe me, his blog is filled with years and years' worth of priceless material-in addition to his own archives, he was often lent incredible stuff from his friend and fellow New Yorker John Canemaker. if you have any interest at all in animation history and art, do yourselves a huge favor and search his posts.

Did I say animation? That subject garnered the lion's share of his focus, but he posted almost as often about life in New York, using photographs he and his friends took around the city. There's a whole book, or two, or five in that blog, and every one of them is a wonderful read.

One of many photos taken by Michael's friend Steve Fisher that he shared on his blog.

 Start anywhere, or do a search via keywords, or read the listed subjects on his sidebar and go to town.

Michael was opinionated. Honest, expressing his thoughts on all things including animation old and new in intelligent, often brutally tough terms. What does it say about a writer when you disagree with him vehemently about something, but like and admire him just as much or more at the end of some serious excoriation as you did before you started?

In 2009 I was in New York and shot him an email that I was in the neighborhood. He replied immediately, inviting me to drop by his Greenwich Village studio. I did, thinking I'd impose on him for just a few moments. Three hours later I hated to finally leave. We must have talked nonstop about everything under the sun. I felt as though I'd known him for years. I'm so grateful for that visit.

As is plain from a glance at my own sidebar, my posting has fallen off quite a bit since 2008. Some of the reasons for that are personal, but mainly it's been professional-the energy it takes to write the way I like to, on the subjects I want to, is harder to come by and I've found I've used what I do have on mostly offline pursuits. I'm always meaning to rectify that, but along with blogging less I also have done much less browsing-including, shamefully, two of the blogs I consider essential for their content on animation-Michael's, and Michael Barrier's. Fortunately for me Barrier's is possible to catch up with, but Sporn's output was so prodigious that I'd dip in, look around, enjoy myself, and just never got caught up completely. As a result I missed the odd posts he'd made that (barely) alluded to his illness, and completely missed the few photographs that clearly showed how sick he'd become. The posts I did read were still vibrant, angry, celebratory, and as full of the joy of life and art as any he'd ever done.

And yes, he'd written about the Wind Rises, and of course, he'd loved it as I was certain he would. In November he wrote:


With The Wind Rises he has made an adult film it’s the only way he could tell this tale. He also complicates the structure of the story, and despite the fact that he will not get the largest possible audience, he wants to be sure every aspect of the complicated story is told. This he does. He ignores a large section of the audience for the sake of making a richer story.
His work on the two films, in my mind, can only be seen as the work of a genius. His story is as full as it can ever become, yet he disappoints a small part of the audience searching for the obvious. I can only credit the man, the artist. I also take away very deep lessons about his artistry and what he wanted to do with it. I’ve seen Ponyo half a dozen times with full joy. With The Wind Rises, occurring post Tsunami and post nuclear meltdown, I am sure he has plenty to tell me, and I will see it again and again until I’ve gotten all of its pleasure.
Most prominently I believe he wants to be heard about man’s inhumanity to man. Despite all the natural disaster and chaos in our lives, he uses a man intent on carrying out the best war to get the full tale told. His method is enough to make me tear up, his story goes even deeper.


A few days later he posted:

Don’t worry, I’m not done with the blog.
I’ve got some things planned and it could be as soon as tomorrow that I pass them along.
I’ve had some weird stuff going on in my life and I’m just trying to get past it.
Hang in there.
Michael
Those conversations I was going to have with him are going to have to wait a while. I'll definitely talk about "The Wind Rises", and probably thoroughly embarrass him when I tell him again how much I love his blog and work, and how much he's been missed.

Michael Sporn 1946-2014

Nov 19, 2013

Diane Disney Miller 1933-2013

 
Sad news. By all accounts a very smart, gutsy, caring, determined woman: daughter, wife, mother, sister, philanthropist.
 
 
 

Outside the Walt Disney Family Museum.
 Here are Michael Barrier's impressions of his visit to the Disney Museum in San Francisco-the very existence of which is due to Diane Miller's vision and hard work.

Oct 22, 2013

Books: David Derrick's new picturebook-tigers and crocs!

A stack of worthy and notable titles has been growing on my desk, demanding attention and certainly deserving it but my gosh, it's been a busy year offline.

So the stack waits for proper reviews, but there's one that has a launch party coming up in the Los Angeles area on Saturday, October 26th (as of this writing four days away) at the Wildlife Learning Center, and I'd like to spread the word. It's a picture book written and illustrated by my friend, fellow story artist Dave Derrick:

 

Dave loves drawing, and he really loves to draw animals. This little story about a junior crocodile and tiger cub doing their best to out-boast each other is loaded with charm, done with gestural ink line and watercolor wash.

A detail of the cub. This guy suggests a self-portrait to me-in that way that certain drawings seem to look like their artists. Hard to explain, but I'm sure plenty will know what I mean.
 
 
 

 
 

The endpapers feature a panoply of the animals and birds of India, the story's setting.
 


 
 


Using this flyer-either printing it out or bringing it along on your phone-assures admission for Dave's launch event. Should be a fun time!

Sep 6, 2013

Devin Crane at Galerie Arludik, Sept 5-Oct 31

Where has the summer gone? For me it's been spent in a lot of work wielding the Wacom stylus, seeing films, and travel-my first vacation in 18 months.

Meanwhile there's been plenty to comment on, take note of and blog about-including this new show in Paris of paintings and drawings by my friend, Dreamworks visdev artist Devin Crane. It's just opened at Galerie Arludik. He's shown there before, several years ago, but this time there are some of his lovely drawings on display as well as his jewel-toned paintings. If you're going to be near the Île Saint Louis in the near future, go and check it out-they really must be seen in person.
La Belle et la Bete
19” x 24”(48.26 x 60.96 cm)
Graphite on Paper


Midnightat the Hotel Costes
17” x 28”(43.18 x 71.12 cm)
Acrylic on Wood Panel


 
 
Margaux
8” x 10”(20.32 x 25.4 cm)
Oil on Canvas
Devin Crane: Dreams, Fashion and Fairy Tales
Galerie Arludik
Paris, France
Thursday, September 5 - 21, 2013


Aug 22, 2013

The Imagineering Story: Disney's WED gets the Iwerks treatment in 2016

Have a look at this trailer, premiered at the recent D23 event and written up in Los Angeles Magazine by Chris Nichols:

It's being produced by a filmmaker with sterling credentials for the job, documentarian Leslie Iwerks-granddaughter of Ub and daughter of Imagineer Don.
 
This promises to be a must-see that I only wish weren't three years away. Behind the scenes footage of the early days of Disneyland and  EPCOT always gets me as it clearly does so many others: seeing Walt's pitching skills at their finest, giving us "tours" and glimpses inside Flower St. buildings with mind-bendingly talented men and women working away inside...great stuff, and fortunately there are still veterans from those years that appear in Iwerks' film to speak for themselves and their experiences, among them Alice Davis and Bob Gurr.
 
From the LA magazine post-a shot of Walt with-is it Anaheim city officials?-taken around 1949 or so. My guess based on his appearance. I should know better, but don't.The article credits the Orange County Archives.
 

Jun 26, 2013

A Blackwing Experience at the Chuck Jones Center



This must be from "The White Seal".


Tonight I'm participating in a swell shindig down in Costa Mesa, "The Blackwing Experience", arranged by Palomino, the people who've brought back the title character of this blog, the redoubtable Blackwing 602, in new and elegant versions. It's taking place at the Chuck Jones Center for Creativity in Costa Mesa, an apropos venue as the 602 was reputedly Chuck's drawing implement of choice.  I'll be part of a panel discussing the "evolution of the creative process in animation". Quite a subject, and should be fun.


To mark the occasion, here are the two drawings by Chuck that I own, bought for a few bucks at Collectors Bookshop in Hollywood in the late 70s. I believe a Blackwing figures prominently here.

Detail of a layout from "Rikki Tikki Tavi"

The larger layout. It's been a long time since I watched these specials, and I'd like to look them up again. 

May 13, 2013

Bob Clampett, 100 and counting

I was just visiting one of the most important animation blogs on the 'net-Michael Barrier's, to catch up, and saw he'd done a lovely post marking the 100th birthday of Bob Clampett, on May 8th. Good grief, I missed it. Of course, every day is a good day to remember Clampett-that wonderful, nutty, brilliant and lovable cartoon genius.  Following is my Bob Clampett birthday post from 2006:



I volunteered to work during the ASIFA annual cel sale in 1981; Bob Clampett happened to be there signing these preprinted drawings; his wife Sody was with him. I introduced myself, finally, after years of wanting to really meet him. In addition to being a fan, I mentioned I'd gone to Third Street with his daughters, thus the way he signed this paper, which I treasure. All we spent our time talking about was what Ruthie and Cherie were doing--both their mom and dad were just nuts about them, so proud of them. I saw Ruth once after that, when she worked at H.G.Daniels, the old art store that supplied the old Chouinard school, then later Otis. Now long gone.

I mentioned before that I've had a long relationship with the great Bob Clampett. It was 99.9% all from me to Bob and not the other way 'round, but nevertheless he was a formative influence on my little psyche. And in one of those bizarre details life throws at you, I discovered that two of my schoolmates at Third Street in Los Angeles had a closer connection to him--they were his daughters, Ruth and Cherie. These girls were very notable for their gorgeous red hair and freckles--perfect colleens...and I'd occasionally see them with their dad or mom Sody shopping on Larchmont(Hancock Park and its environs in those days was what an adult friend of mine, Cammie King, called "a little Peyton Place"; you'd run into everyone on Saturdays at Safeway or the dry cleaners. Small town L.A.).

I was just nuts for Cecil the Sea Sick Sea Serpent as a wee--really wee--child; although we moved six times before I was in the 7th grade, I managed to salvage my Cecil soaky as a kind of talisman from my earliest memories.

So I knew Clampett as a famous God of bizarre and cheaply made cartoons before I knew him as the director of some of the weirdest, wildest and most appealingly hilarious cartoons ever made at Warner Bros, starring another of my baby heroes, Bugs Bunny. That took a good while because the Bugs Bunny/Roadrunner Show, the venue through which I first saw the WB characters, was limited to later cartoons made well after Clampett left. I was probably 12 or 13 before I finally saw "Book Revue" or "Corny Concerto" as part of the KTTV afterschool series--the one with the cheap, handmade intro featurning a plastic Porky toy held in front of a backdrop of some kind. Great stuff and good times.

I think Bob Clampett was nuts in the best sense. He was certainly brilliant, and different, and he managed to translate his own personality and essence so strongly and successfully into film and art--and at such a young age, that I'd also be plenty comfortable calling him a genius. He's the only person in cartoons I know of who can make violence and hysteria happy things. You have to see the cartoons--especially with an audience--to get the full impact of this weird melange.

So happy birthday, Mr. Clampett. You're missed.

Feb 20, 2013

Adam and Dog: The ineffable beauty of drawn animation



Drawings of Dog by Minkyu Lee.
 
Drawing of Adam by Minkyu Lee.
 
in·ef·fa·ble
adjective
1. incapable of being expressed or described in words; inexpressible: ineffable joy.
 
One late night about eighteen months ago, my officemate and fellow story artist Justin Hunt walked in with an animation sequence under his arm. It was old-school 2D, immediately identifiable by the sandwich of paper and cardboard secured with extra-long rubber bands. Here was something novel! Surrounded by cintiqs and working on cg films in studios where prosaic objects like pencils and paper are barely in evidence, just seeing a sheaf of hand drawn animation produces plenty of thrills-and I hadn't even bugged him to flip it for me yet.  When he did, I became more and more interested; the drawings were lovely. Just based on that one short scene I wanted to see the whole thing, though I'd have to wait a while. And I wanted to know why and how it was being done.

It turned out that Justin was one of a small, tight-knit group of friends helping Minkyu Lee complete the animation for a short film he was writing, directing and storyboarding, and animating. And designing, and painting all the backgrounds.

I first wrote about Minkyu and his film "Adam and Dog" a year ago, just before it won an Annie award. It was in an earlier, slightly unfinished state at that time, but the elements that make it the wonderful film that it is were all solidly there. Now it's another year, and it's one of 2013's five nominees for the Academy Award for animated short.  It's a richly deserved nod, and as I'm one of the corny ones who actually believes the old canard that the real honor is simply in being nominated by one's peers(in this case, members of the animation branch of AMPAS), it's already a winner, as are the other 4 shorts in that category.  But this film is special to me; it pushes all my buttons, and I thought I'd have a go at explaining why. 
Adam, completely comfortable in his Eden. Drawing by Minkyu Lee.

 
 
 

It's not necessarily difficult to make drawings move, but it can be well-nigh impossible to make them real-to live, to breathe, to exist on their own terms in whatever world the filmmaker decides to present them. The Story of Adam and Dog is simple, and all the more powerful for being so: The Fall from the point of view of the first dog in Eden. Although, being a dog, he sees and understands nothing so much as the joy of finding and bestowing all his loyalty and love on the first human being he meets and bonds with(and eventually, it's hinted, the second one also).

What I've described has the potential for a charming story, and a sweet and clever short could have been made that was just that and nothing more. But-and here's the thing that's so difficult to describe as cogently as I'd like-in this case, this film has been crafted with every element contributing to a result that has the layered, emotional impact of the very best of any sort of animation, short form or long. Or any sort of film making, for that matter. What's called traditional character animation-that is, drawings and paintings in two dimensions-just aren't featured in this sort of style anymore, and by style I mean not just the lushness and soft, illustrative quality of its look, but the serious, thoughtful and truly unique pacing, the choices of shots, the editing. I think it was the pure film making that Minkyu employed that really bowled me over, beyond the visceral pleasure I took in seeing drawn characters inhabiting a believable world, living and breathing(the animation, by the way, includes not only Minkyu's work but also beautiful footage from James Baxter, Jen Hager, and Matt Williames, among others).


There's no dialogue, although there's plenty of sound-wind, rustling grass and trees, the shudder of various animals pounding through the forest or swimming through deep water. Dog wanders alone through Eden, acting in an immediately recognizable doggy manner: marking gigantic trees, play-hunting through tall grass, running and barking for the sheer fun of it-and none of this is played cute-at least, not by my lights; it's real and genuine. Dog's animation has no self-conscious posing, but neither is it "realistic" to the point of seeming merely copied from life. The dog goes day to day-or perhaps endless days, or an hour-alone, until he spies Adam-who sees him in almost the same moment. It's a more momentous exchange for dog than man, but eventually they become friends. The idyll of Eden can't last, however, and the dog must make a choice.

This is a micro story directed in macro fashion, made big without pretentious allusions or grandstanding. I can't remember when I've seen something done on this scale, in this form, fashioned with such wise taste apparent in every choice.  Even after repeated viewings I still tear up a bit, not because of a piece of lovely character animation-something I'm always a sucker for-but because everything that's going on-shot choice, length of shot, expression, color, perspective. movement-combines to produce that effect in me.

This is one of the things that I loved about animation when I determined to do it for a living; I mean specifically the sensitive, carefully calibrated story that is outside the mold one way or another. Or if done within a very commercial framework, manages to fire on all cylinders entertainment-wise while being a work of art at the same time, or, perhaps more realistically, having moments that satisfy on that level. This 15 minute short happens to be animated, but it employs an approach that at first viewing reminded me of Terence Malick (not surprising as it turns out, since Malick-along with Sofia Coppola, Tarkovsky and Godard-is one of many directors Lee admires), specifically the lyricism of "Days Of Heaven".


 
 And this is from a workaday visdev artist, on his own time, his own money(the budget is small by the standards of any short of this quality),with friends' help, To serve his own artistic vision. The result exhilarates, inspires and shames me in just about equal measure. I'm just very glad he made it.
 
 
I'll write a bit more with quotes from an email exchange between Minkyu and myself in another post. In the meantime, have a look at "Adam and Dog" if you can.  It's indeed an ineffable film.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 




Aug 14, 2012

Para-nimation

A model of the title character's house from "ParaNorman" on display at an Arclight theater.

There's a nice article about Laika in the New York Times today. While not tremendously in-depth, it's a neat bit of context for the release of the Portland studio's"ParaNorman" this Friday.
Moving Ahead in Stop Motion/With ‘ParaNorman,’ Laika Aims to Push Animation Boundaries

It's a wonderful and fairly astounding thing that not one but several studios are busy making animated features in this viscerally appealing, supposedly "throwback" technique.  At SIGGRAPH in 2008 Laika had a booth filled with puppets, sets and props from their then-unreleased "Coraline"; I could have stared at it all for hours, and the resulting film was a happy experience-different, moody, ambitious, and in many moments and respects very beautiful.

When I was launched on the Aardman/Dreamworks production "Flushed Away" in 2008 I went into the conference room to hear a pitch of the film and get my first assignment. Before they began the directors, David Bowers and Sam Fell, put a puppet of a character from "Chicken Run"-Fetcher the rat-into my hands. At that point it was going to be a stop motion, not CG, film. Looking at this little plasticine figure in his miniscule tatty clothes, charming, completely solid and three dimensional, was an inspiration; I just wanted to see him move-to act.
Artists have a tremendous soft spot for handmade things, don't we?

Jun 21, 2012

"Art of Brave" Book Signing and Talk at Gallery Nucleus This Saturday



This Saturday, June 23, Gallery Nucleus  is hosting an "Art of Brave" panel. Present, signing and speaking-and in the case of the two esteemed Pixar artists, showing-will be myself, story artist Emma Coats and visual development artist Paul Abadilla.

Nucleus, by the way, is a great space, and always has interesting art in its constantly changing exhibits and on sale in its store-often by animation artists exercising their creative urges outside of their day jobs. It's well worth a visit when in Southern California.



See you there!
Art of BRAVE Artist Panel & Book Signing
Opening Reception / Saturday, Jun 23 12:00PM - 3:00PM
Gallery Nucleus
210 East Main St, Alhambra CA 91801
Store 626.458.7482 Gallery 626.458.7477



Jun 20, 2012

The New York Times on the design of Brave's Merida


Matt Nolte's early sketch of Elinor tangling with Merida's unruly mane. c. Disney/Pixar
On June 15th the New York Times ran a very nice piece dealing with the design development of Merida, the heroine of "Brave". See it here.

And not only see, but hear: as is often done at the Times, there's an accompanying slide show of artwork with narration by production dsigner Steve Pilcher and directors Brenda Chapman and Mark Andrews.

I've been looking forward to seeing the finished film for some time, and will finally get my chance this Friday. I saw it three times (most recently in March of 2011), but it's existed for me mainly as the preproduction work and vibrant thoughts of its artists-the material for my book, "The Art of Brave". Tomorrow I'll post a little about writing it.

Mar 14, 2012

Trailer: "Longway North", aka "Tout en Haut du Monde"

At lunch today with several of my story colleagues the talk turned to films as yet unreleased, those in different styles and with potential we find exciting and inspiring-in other words, the usual banter. Johane Mate mentioned a trailer she'd seen for an upcoming French feature that really engaged her. It sounded like something I had to have a look at. Having just done so I think you should, too. Its english title is "Longway North":

Pilote Tout en Haut du Monde / Longway North from Sacrebleu Productions on Vimeo.


I just love the look of this. The director is Rémi ChayéDisney story artist extraordinare Paul Briggs points out that there's a production blog here. While I was turned onto this today, he had it up last night. Indefatigable Briggs! Be sure & visit his blog.

Mar 9, 2012

On Story: Life is in the details

If anything from my experience of the last 15 years or so has made itself clear to me as a story truism, it's that the importance of the smallest details matter.

The difference between a dull scene or stock character and one that breathes, that thinks, is in the details. Details spring out and suggest themselves when the story artist believes in a character's reality no matter how superficially unlikely the scenario they're placed in might be.

There are times when a story artist is given a sequence that's already laid out pretty extensively: the characters must say this or that, do this, that and the other thing, get from here to there. You might think that that would be a boring sort of sequence to work on. Not necessarily.

Of course one wants to be as creative as one can, but in putting a feature film together there's not always an opportunity to start from scratch(and if there always is, the film's probably in trouble). Does that mean there's no room for the story guy to have fun, to make an impression, to enhance or "create" the scene? Far from it. But you'd better believe in the characters you're working with.

If you do, wonderful things can happen. Some of it might wander off in a direction that will result in the kibosh being put on the sequence in whole or in part--a great big old redo. But sometimes (often enough if you're both lucky and inspired) a sudden, truthful idea will pop up out of nowhere and work so well it's just got to go in. No one planned for it until it struck--you didn't see it until you were least expecting it, surrounded at your desk by crumpled paper and worn down stubs. Suddenly it's there, and it seems exactly the thing the character should say or do at that moment. If it really is as right as it feels, it'll make it into the film. You'd be surprised how often that happens in spite of any and all obstacles.

This to me is the most exciting, rewarding part of my job, but it's not a daily occurrence--it couldn't be. Films just don't play with too much going on at every second, all the time. They flow in a narrative dance in any of a million permutations, all with one commonly understood goal: to tell you a story.

And I should mention that the function of your storyboards is twofold: not only are you designing the action within the frame, but most importantly you're responsible for setting the mood and emotion of the scene--that's how it's supposed to be, anyway. This really can't be stressed too strongly. The times that a completely flat, emotionless story sequence didn't work in boards but came to life in animation, out of nowhere, is exactly zero. Can sequences be plussed by animation? You bet, and they almost always are--hugely. The medium is about moving drawings/characters, after all. But plussing has to start from something. The drawings needn't necessarily be fancy, but they must certainly read and communicate.

We in animation have a big hurdle, a doozy: we have to take a two-dimensional, stylized design of a character and entice the audience into caring about it. I believe the key to doing that is to lend the characters your faith while you board them--to invest them with little parts of your life in the form of those little details.
All of this comes from you, from your own real, personal experience and your unique observations. To have to squeeze the wonky story-peg into a predetermined hole doesn't always work. Often these characters take over, just a bit. Or a bit more than a bit. To know when and how to apply your observation and build each character a soul--that's where your day to day story experience hopefully takes you.
It's why I do this job, why I love it. It's like climbing a mountain that grows as I grow. The mountain is impossibly huge, but it can be conquered at the most unpredictable times if you keep your imagination open and remember to mine truth from the little details of life.