Dec 31, 2005

Happy New Year--and Merry Christmas, again--from Disney's in 1955


This is the front of the Disney Studio's 1955 Christmas card. It's quite a beautifully done thing; printed on a soft, high-quality paper, it's a large card that opens into a double-spread of the brand-spanking-new Disneyland, with a calendar running down the sides. I was unable to scan the entire thing, as it's just a bit longer than my scanner is. Great artwork--I don't know whose...anyone have any ideas?


May your fifty-years-on New Year be merry and bright!

Dec 29, 2005

Auld Lang Syne: Entree to the Disney Studio c.1981

I found this while tidying up recently:

The reverse is a map of the studio:

When I was issued this pass the studio was a completely different place than it is now. The animators were sitting at their huge desks in the Animation Building that "Snow White" had built for their predecessors, working on "The Black Cauldron". The charming, faux-1900 houses used in every Disney film of the 1960s still stood, as did the western street, and a beautiful, large town square had been recently refurbished and embellished at some cost for use in "Something Wicked This Way Comes". The commissary was dirt cheap--the prices seemed almost unchanged since Walt's time--and the entire lot had a lovely, low-key feeling.

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Michael Barrier is well worth reading

I'd not noticed til this morning that Michael Barrier had graciously noted the existence of the Blackwing Diaries over on his site, in his December 19th entry. An honor!
While I have never spoken personally to Mr. Barrier(we've exchanged a few emails over the last year or so), his Funnyworld was, and remains, the finest magazine I know devoted to cartoon animation. Amid Amidi's Animation Blast is also excellent, and catching up fast to that distinction, but Barrier owns the award for writing on animation at a time that couldn't have been less encouraging, the mid-late 1970s. Long before the Illusion of Life, long before Of Mice and Magic, Barrier was devoting space in his magazine to both Disney and Warner Bros. animation, taking the styles of both Milt Kahl and Rob Scribner seriously as performance(the only other attention paid across the spectrum to the arts of animation was in Danny and Gerald Peary's 1980 The American Animated Cartoon, an anthology with priceless essays and interviews).

The most refreshing thing in Funnyworld was how honest and opinionated its various viewpoints could be, particularly Barrier's, without ever--in my opinion at least--descending into the kind of snideness of a John Simon or a Richard Schickel. I still disagree heartily with some of Barrier's opinions, but he expresses them so well that even a viewpoint quite opposite to my own is a pleasure to read--sometimes a slightly infuriating pleasure, but always laced with respect. And often extremely funny, in a dry vein. I made one particular trip to the Margaret Herrick Library at the Motion Picture Academy simply to be able to read out-of-print back issues of Funnyworld; one reviewed both the film and book detailing the production (by the aforementioned John Canemaker--he too a pioneer in animation scholarship) of "Raggedy Ann and Andy". I burst out laughing at one dead-on description(by Barrier)of the design of Raggedy Ann, and its limitations:" ...there are times when Ann, with her pop eyes and flat face, comes periously close to looking like a friendly fish". Ouch! But true.
His particular Grail (which he writes about frequently) is that of true animation performance; a living, breathing being brought to life via the pencil...the same thing that's brought 99% of animation artists to the trade...and what all animators strive for.

I myself have never worked as an animator, spending the majority of my career in story, but one brief, pre-Calarts idyll taking a union assistant class from Dale Oliver exposed me to the pure pleasure of the moving line, even though we were limited to doing careful inbetweens of scenes Dale himself had worked on--from "101 Dalmations", "Jungle Book", and "The Rescuers". I love the look, the reality of animation at its finest; at CalArts Glen Keane brought his sequence--all rough animation, virtually no cleanups-of "Part of Your World" to screen for our dept.; the beauty--not of the music, which is certainly pretty and catchy, but of Glen's rough, fat lines describing a young woman's yearning face, her 'spontaneous" gestures, her eyes--how was he able to do that? I admit, I cried at the exquisiteness of it. The way I cry watching scenes from "Bambi", or at--this will really out me as a geek--the credits cards in "Pinocchio": seeing the names of such amazing, everyday-joe, brilliant artists as the animators on those pictures...will the bar ever be set that high again?

So, back to Barrier: this is what he writes about. He's working(almost finished--but can still use some particular details, if you have any--go take a look at his blog) on a biography of Walt Disney right now; I am sure it will be the seminal book.

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Dec 28, 2005

head study


I've been watching mid-thirties films since I was a teenager and fell in love with Carole Lombard...this doodle was done after coming back from "Kong", thinking about tough depression era actresses like Sylvia Sidney and Joan Blondell.

Dec 27, 2005

The Brilliance of Winsor McCay


Among the gifts I was lucky enough to receive this year was the enormous volume Winsor McCay, His Life and Art, a much-revamped edition of a book originally published in 1987, compiled and written by John Canemaker. Everything that Canemaker publishes is worth owning; his writing is elegant, his scholarship extensive, and his frankness refreshing.

I first discovered Winsor McCay in a pile of damaged books, magazines and various other ephemera at Collector's Bookshop, back when it was in a bank building on Hollywood Blvd. There were stacks of damaged copies of a large format book of "Little Nemo In Slumberland", cheaply priced. I loved the drawings at first sight, took the musty, flaking thing home, and spent hours in Slumberland with the products of McCay's pen and wild imagination. There's never been anyone like him as an artist, and it's almost impossible to believe he had as little formal training as he apparently did (although, according to Canemaker's research, what he did have was certainly good instruction, all too difficult to come by now).
Talk about appeal...there's so much eye candy on any one of his pages that it fills one with a real, palpable sense of pleasure. His ink lines, his characters and his worlds are amusing, charming, exciting, delirious, beautiful...and fun. I've also always gotten a kick from his curious, idiosyncratic use of dialogue punctuated by lots of "Um!"s and "Yes!"s at the end of sentences...strange but somehow plain and real in his small-faced characters' mouths.
A short time after discovering that dilapidated Nemo, I saw "Gertie the Dinosaur" and "The Sinking of the Lusitania", two startling achievements in animation that couldn't be more different. Even back in that stone age of my understanding of animation, his films were eye popping. Smooth, brilliantly accurate drawing, not to forget in the case of the immortal Gertie personality. Gertie has never dated, at least not in the many screenings I've attended with various audiences(not always the usual fans either), because she is so charming, and shows a naughtiness and sense of humor one wouldn't normally expect of a dinosaur, never mind one from 1914.

McCay seems as though he was a strange man...ordinary in many things, save his imagination and incredible artistic ability; when he drew, he drew as a giant would--even his political cartoons present an authority that is godlike in its masterful presentation...no mere doodles, they. Although speaking of doodles, there are some priceless illustrated letters in the new book that are no less wonderful for being dashed off. If you give a toss for drawing, you really want this book, believe me.

Dec 26, 2005

a little Christmas sketching


I happened to have my moleskine book in my bag yesterday. When you arrive early and have naught to do but meditation, peoplewatching and drawing(which is meditation for me), well...

Obviously I didn't want to be too intrusive, so I'd have a quick look and immediately scribble down the face or head; like an airport, you naturally get a lot of backs and 3/4 rear profiles. The little girl at the bottom and the older man with the great head of hair and brows are the most like, I think.

Dec 23, 2005

more sketchbook



Funny--looking at these now, if I didn't know better, I'd think I'd done them on the Cintiq, but it's just plain old marker on paper.

Dec 19, 2005

Bill--now William--Wray

Just go take a look:
California Painter William Wray: Little Christmas show
He's entered things since that post, of course, but anyway--nice going, Bill. I'm sure he doesn't remember me and I have only a vague recollection of seeing him around Spumco in '91 or so, but I absolutely knew his paintings. He's had a huge influence on animation--or should I rather write cartoon--art ever since "Ren & Stimpy" first aired...now he's going for a whole 'nother bowl of cherries. Very beautiful stuff.

Dec 18, 2005

Art and New York

As every person interested in animation must know by now, Pixar is the subject of an exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art that opened last week. I've read the coverage in my daily paper (the NY Times), with an excellent, thoughtful review as well as a glamour followup photo spread(albeit a tiny one)in today's "Sunday Styles" section. I just dropped by MOMA's website to check on the length of the show, and do please go there now is you haven't already. To see a slowly changing banner across the top of MOMA's page with pastel renderings from Nemo is strangely moving...or really, not so strange. It's a terrific honor for the studio--by which I mean of course what the studio is, the artists.

I see that it runs through the first weekend in February...great, as I had tentatively planned to be in NY that weekend for another event.
Manhattan is so different now from my first steps there attending NYU as a fine art major (part of my circuitous route to Calarts)...but there is nothing like that wonderful garbagey smell, the sound of traffic between the tall buildings, the cold, the lights, the hot air from the subway, the sound of wheels on wet pavement. People actually dressed in clothes other than t-shirts and jeans. A strange and mythical place.
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Dec 10, 2005

"Last night I dreamt I wore a Maidenform again..."




I certainly have to hand it to whomever thought up this long campaign for the ubiquitous Maidenform bra. These are just two examples of slightly risque whimsy from the early 60s. Whatever happened to imagination in advertising, anyway? You'd think it migrated solely to europe and asia.
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Lilo studies



Back in late 2002/early 2003 I was storyboarding on a DisneyToons project, "Stitch Has a Glitch". What could be more fun to draw cold, than Chris Sanders' designs of these characters? My mouth watered at the chance. We had access to all of his and Dean's original boards, and this was done after spending time with all this stuff on my first day, extempore. Rough, but just fooling around, seeing what came out.

Dec 9, 2005

"hauteur"


Ink, marker, pencil, right? No! This quickie by yours truly(by the way, all drawings posted here are mine unless captioned otherwise)is digital.

Drawn directly on a Wacom Cintiq tablet. The screen acts as the "paper". It feel less odd than you'd think.

Dec 7, 2005

ephemera of the Disney Strike, 1941

More nostalgia--and more bitter than sweet:



The descripton on the back of this 3x5 photo reads:

"On 13th day of 24-hour picketline. Art Babbitt, Disney unit chairman of Screen Cartoonists, takes his turn on line at the the studio. On his right is Betty Hammer, on his left Mannette Lambertson"

Mannette! Betty! Where are you today?

one sketch--long caption: Fred Moore musings


I've got this thing for Fred Moore.

Yes, me and about 5,000 other animation geeks, professional and otherwise.
Fred: by all accounts a likeable, ordinary guy with a natural drawing ability and a predilection for cartooning women in a style all his own-immmediately recognizable. His achievments include redesigning Mickey Mouse into the appealingly boyish character he became, and likewise refined and animated much of the dwarfs in "Snow White".
Like most artists what he drew somehow seemed to physically resemble him and took on his brash, pixilated personality. When I became aware of him there was nothing at all about him in print, save one or two lines and drawings in the Finch book, "The Art Of Walt Disney", but the appeal of those was enough to make me determine to find out more about him. A brief conversation with Ward Kimball started me on the best treasure hunt of my life: Ward suggested I call Ken O'Brien at WED("He was a big fan of Fred's", Ward drawled with more than a hint of amusement). I did, and interviewed Ken, as well as Art Babbitt, Ollie Johnston, Larry Clemmons, Carl Urbano(who'd gone to high school with Fred and his brother), and of course, Ward himself.

These were priceless experiences, a kind of time travel. My motivating question, "what happened to Fred Moore?" was answered very quickly. I knew beforehand that he'd died very young in a car accident, but the greater mystery for me--as it's been to many other animation lovers--was why someone with such sterling provenance and amazing talent had faded so fast fom the pinnacle he reached at Disney's in 1933-39. The brief answer, well known today, is that his talent and his health were ruined by alcoholism, but that's a bald-fact answer to a complicated set of circumstances. What I really learned from Fred's former colleagues was quite a lot about the optimism, opportunities, genius and frustrations of more or less inventing your own job description--as Fred did. He seemed to be as intuitive an artist as it was possible to be: self-taught, self-improving, an innate sense of the ever-elusive "appeal" so desirable in all things drawn and gestured, a natural grace.

When sitting across from these titans of animation, asking about Fred and Disney's, I was very young, a teenager, and I couldn't grasp all of the adult nuances of the business of animation then as I could now. I do remember coming away from hours spent with Ward and Art feeling as though I were in a trance. Clearly, to have one's heart's desire and animate at the best studio in the world during the "golden age" wasn't all a bed of roses. This seems absurdly obvious now, but even though I had a pretty good idea of history, I just didn't have the life experience to interpret it at 18. Many times I've wished I could go back and do it all over again, but sadly all but one of my generous interviewees are dead.

Ward, Art and Ken O'Brien (Fred's assistant in the early 40s at Disney; he was loyal to Fred to the extent that when Moore was fired in 1946, O'Brien quit too, and accompanied Fred to Lantz' studio for two years) all lent me materials to copy; Ward showed me some of his incredible collection of hilarious drawings, collected in voluminous scrapbooks. Several books--fat as phone directories--contained nothing but daily (often hourly) gag drawings of Fred, Ward and Walt Kelly by Kelly himself (curiously not nearly as many that Kimball saved were by Kimball--or perhaps those were in other books).
Some of them I've seen in other people's collections(Mike Giaimo brought one of the Fred/Ward/Kelly series in to show our first year character design class, which he taught at CalArts in 1987-88), so Ward made multiple copies of his favorites which he'd photographed for me to use in an article I wrote for the last gasp of "Funnyworld"...alas, it gave up the ghost before the issue went to press. I've often wondered what exactly I should do with this article; it's certainly got a larger niche to fill now than it did then.
For the moment, though, I'll just post this one classic sketch of an unforgettable episode circa 1940 or so. Ward brought a stag film to work--supposedly because Kelly asserted he'd never seen one. Kimball couldn't let that go unanswered, so he brought in a 16mm special: "The Plumber". The resulting drawing shows the various reactions to this brief entertainment, as Kelly drew it. Ward told me Fred was disgusted and shook his head, grousing, "I like it the old-fashioned way!" (a quote forever burned into my memory). Surely Ward's attitude is a wee bit exaggerated here. Kelly, of course, expresses shock. And Ward assured me this was pretty basic stuff, not to mention a terrible print. Boys will be boys...plus la change!

Dec 6, 2005

Fred Moore, through and through


click to enlarge the model sheet

Gibson could draw anything



Who knows what the meaning of this cartoon is--a tiger going rounds with an elephant? But it's hilarious, isn't it? And masterfully drawn. If a tiger could box, this is how one would look doing it.
I haven't seen too much of Charles Dana Gibson's animal drawings; like most people I'm familiar with his slices of society life and exquisite portraits of feminine beauty. This is from a book in the collection of the Smithsonian.

Dec 5, 2005

"simple and appealing" never gets old



Found several vintage greeting cards at the swap meet last Sunday--here's one.

Funny how after years of dismissal such purely enjoyable illustration is finally not only appreciated, but practicably a glut on the market, with hundreds of current artists working in these styles. Well, it's great, as it's all good stuff, and it's interesting to see how modern illustrators adapt vintage influences as their own.

Dec 2, 2005

Images of ineffable beauty


Last night I was at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences' theatre for a centenery celebration of director and producer Michael Powell, which included a rare appearance by one of his choicest collaborators, the 91-year-old master cinematographer Jack Cardiff.
Of all the films of Powell's to screen, they chose "Black Narcissus", a classic in every possible respect. Justly famous for its drama as well as its photography(which won Cardiff an Oscar), this typically unclassifiable film has to be seen on the big screen to be truly appreciated, although any screen will always do for Powell & Pressburger films in a pinch.
I discovered Michael Powell's genius on a 25" Magnavox: a CBS Late Movie presentation of "Stairway to Heaven"(real, and UK/original title "A Matter of Life and Death"). While innocently settling down for what I thought would be an average "Here Comes Mr. Jordan"-esque fantasy, I instead was immediately at the edge of the couch with my eyes wide open for the next 2 & 1/2 hours--even though I'd set the film to record via the VCR. I kept expecting to give it up and go to bed, as I was exhausted, but was up til 3:30am. It's that good.

Back to last night's screening.

I've seen "Black Narcissus" many, many times, and might shamefully have skipped this time if it weren't for the presence of Cardiff: 91, hale & fairly hearty, and all his faculties sharp as can be. including humor. He was interviewed by David Thompson, who also presented two video addresses, one by Martin Scorcese, the other by Scorcese's longtime editor and Michael Powell's widow, Thelma Schoonmaker. The combined effect of these two, each loving "Mickey" Powell in their own ways as well as sharing a passion for the films, had tears running down my face. I had the good luck to meet Michael Powell and Thelma in 1984 when they were here in Los Angeles for a LACMA tribute to Powell & Pressburger(Powell's longtime partner in their production entity The Archers, the screenwriter and sounding board for Powell's direction and co-producing duties).
How often is it in life that one finds oneself face to face with an icon, particularly one that is hugely, personally important to one's entire love of cinema? I'll tell the story some othe time to keep this entry a bit shorter, but suffice to say I let him know that I considered myself in the presence of a great, great man and artist. Of course, he was charming and dare I say, moved...it was an awfully long dry spell for him(as Thompson made very clear in his opening remarks); after his "Peeping Tom" in 1960--the "Psycho" of Britian--he was essentially vilified as a perv and a schlockmeister, and it was such a commercial catastrophe that his filmmaking career was over. This with over 20 years left to live. It wasn't until the mid-70s that such fans as Scorcese, Coppola, and Ian Christie(who wrote a wonderful monogram for the BFI away back in 1978 or so)revived general interest in Powell.

All of the films Michael Powell worked on have value, and many are astounding: "The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp" and "The Red Shoes" must be seen, also "I Know Where I'm Going!" and "A Canterbury Tale"...then there are the early, wartime action/thrillers with Conrad Veidt--and not forgetting the film Powell directed much of, Alexander Korda's "Thief of Bagdad". No animation artist should leave any of these titles off their list of must-sees. You won't be sorry.