I saw a movie last night I highly recommend, "The Illusionist".
It's the sort of film that makes me feel viscerally why it is I love movies, and why I want to make them. It also happens to be a very low-budget production by typical standards(the average of a studio release now hovering somewhere around 60 million), I believe "The Illusionist" was made for under 20 million--an amazing accomplishment.
But imagination and intelligence are there in abundance, and the very mixed, date-night audience was held in rapt attention, the kind of vibe that you seldom get: a room filled with people all paying total attention to the screen. It was sold out too, a good sign...although that owed something to the fact that it's playing in a very limited release this weekend.
Your mileage, as they say, may vary, but if you want to see or love underplayed acting, mystery, restraint as a form of tension, and old-style wonderful make-believe--and if you love animation the odds are you do--I'll have to think you'd enjoy this. If you don't, that's okay too, mind you--I can also understand if it simply isn't someone's cup, but in any case, give it a chance. It'll probably open wider soon.
Why am I bringing this up in an animation blog? Well, some of the most delightful bits in "The Illusionist" are the humblest--the sleight of hand performed in real time in front of the camera(the magic performances advised and no doubt staged in some instances by the incomparable Ricky Jay). And animation has a sort of bond with magic, stage magic. Some of the earliest forms of animation were put to use in magic acts of the last and previous centuries, via magic lanterns and other effects. And all magic depends upon--can't in fact work without--the audiences' suspension of disbelief, a delight in experiencing something that can't be and believing it to be real. That's a fair definition of film animation, too.
It's perhaps not so odd, then, to discover how many animation artists are interested in magic, or are magicians themselves.
The first one I met was Joe Ranft.
Joe on the road--Route 66, in fact, as part of "Cars" research--getting a barber's once-over. From pixarroom.free.fr
Joe was our story teacher at Calarts--it was both his first teaching experience and our first as students in such a class. He taught us from 1st year through 2nd. Joe's gifts as a story guy and teacher are worthy of an entire post dedicated to that subject alone, but apropos of magic there's one particularly wonderful memory I have of him.
One night after the evening class had ended, a few of us TAs and others had been mixing cocktails and had a pleasantly tipsy buzz on when it came up that Joe (who was hanging out as he did before making his drive back south from Valencia) knew magic.
All over that like a seagull on a potato chip, I begged and begged Joe to please, please do some magic--and he agreed.
I believe he had a half-dollar on him(what self-respecting magician wouldn't?), someone produced some cards, and I have never had such fun watching magic done. Close-up magic is just that: we were all leaning over the table in the design room, crowding around him, staring directly at his hands while he produced the most deft effects I've ever seen. I remember the frisson of amazement and sheer joy I had, the back of my neck tingling watching him do impossible things.
What I remember too as specially impressive was how once he'd agreed to do magic, his demeanor changed. Always affable and sometimes just the tiniest bit shy in his manner, he transformed himself into a Joe that was completely different. His professional magician's persona was put on, and we got a real performance, very serious. His little audience (about 3 or 4 of us) was utterly in his thrall.
Upon finishing he just as quickly became just Joe again. Also magic!
Since then I've met other animation artists who grew up amateur magicians. There's a very strong corollary there, especially for animators and story artists, as Joe was: the art demands a strong performance ethic, an understanding of exactly how to direct the audience's attention where you want it at all times(or risk losing the joke/moment/trick), and a desire to delight and hypnotize your audience. Joe was a natural teacher; He had the furthest thing from a bombastic personality, but he was totally committed to his craft and that shone through brightly and clearly. He also had a genuine enthusiasm to see anything grow: a student's talent, an idea or a sequence--same thing. He'd give anyone's questions serious attention.
He'd say "this doesn't work at all--here's why". He'd laugh loudly and infectiously if he liked something--or loved it. if you were lucky. He was one of the most lovable personalities I've ever known, and surely ever will.
Of course I've nothing like the years upon years of close contact with him that his friends at Disney and later Pixar had; I hadn't seen him in at least 12 years when he died. But I'd thought about him often (which says everything about him, nothing in particular about me).
I always looked forward to seeing him somewhere soon, at any time...at some function up north or down here--and I knew that if we did run across each other I'd greet him with a running jump and a hug. Not because I do that to everybody(I'm shy, too), but because he was just that sort of person. I wanted to tell him what I was doing now, thank him for all he did for me, ask about his kids and wife and his life up there, all sorts of things.
He might well have been embarrassed, but I wouldn't have been, because after all these years I still have huge wells of affection and gratitude for him and I am sure he'd have understood that. Because I was just one of hundreds of people who felt exactly the same way. And embarrassed or not he'd have gone out of his way to be kind to me as he did with everyone else. I'm sure I'll continue to be inspired by his example for the rest of my life.