Jan 31, 2007

As good as animated


Groucho and Margaret Dumont, his greatest straight man; from my big fat collection of original marx stills

Here's an original photograph from the first Marx Bros film, "The Cocoanuts", circa 1929[for sticklers, no, I won't count their lost silent "Humor Risk").

"Cocoanuts" had been a hit live show on Broadway and on the road for the Marxes so it was a natural project for their first sound film. They shot in New York's Astoria studio while simultaneously appearing on Broadway in the show that would become their second film, "Animal Crackers". By our standards--indeed by the standards of the mid-1930s--it's a crudely-shot and recorded film, more a record of the stage show than anything remotely filmic. Here Groucho's holding an important real estate map for Margaret Dumont's perusal. One detail that gives you an idea of the problems they had with very early sound recording: the paper Groucho holds here is damp, as in wet.
All the paper in the film--and there's plenty of it in many scenes--had to be soaked in water before filming as the crackling of the dry paper sounded like exploding conflakes run amok on the soundtrack. This eliminated the grating sound but made for very odd-looking documents. Watching Groucho doing his routine with Chico, trying to unfold a sopping map the size of 24-field paper...well, that's something. He manages it, though--of course. Did anything ever nonpluss Groucho? I actually crossed paths with The great man at my dentist's office, of all places, when I was a kid. I was in abject awe of him, even though he was then very, very old and fairly doddering, with his beret dwarfing his head.

I'm posting on this somewhat atypical topic because this photograph was handy this morning--and also because I believe the Marx brothers--eldest Chico("the Italian"), mute Harpo, cynic Groucho and baby brother Zeppo were and will always be one of the most brilliant, unique and inventive bunch of ex-vaudevillians ever to grace the medium of film. They occupy that rare niche that is inimitability: not to be copied. Their comedic stew is as fresh today as it was in the 1920s--an unbelievable achievment. It's rare that human beings exist that can't be caricatured in animation directly, so extreme are they already; the Marxes qualify. That said, their great films--the 5 they made at Paramount, and the 2 best of their MGM period--are fertile fields for any animation story person--any animation artist--to watch and learn from, even if nothing they do can be applied exactly as is. One comes away from watching their films with an exhilirating sense of freedom and fun. They are a tonic for anything that ails ya.
Obviously I'm a fan. If you haven't given them a try, though--start with, say, "Monkey Business", or "Duck Soup". Or "Horsefeathers". Well, any of them.
There's brilliant movement, dialogue, gags. Just a suggestion.

Jan 29, 2007

The Ropes at Disney's



Thre's a great piece of animation history posted this morning over on Cartoon Brew--the pamplet for new hires of 1943 "The Ropes at Disney's". The copy scanned is courtesy of the wonderful folks at the Van Eaton gallery.
Jerry Beck writes of the info presented in the book with a wry suggestion that working at Disney's in the early 40s wasn't necessarily "the happiest place on earth"--but I have to disagree. While he points out the draconian statement that the Studio makes employees pay for personal phone calls, I'm reminded of my first job at fairly liberal Warner Bros--where some artists used the phone so much that the long distance bills went sky-high and a couple of guys were at least confronted with those bills. And that was when we had our own phones--that only took about 3 years. Until then there were, I kid you not, wall phones for our use--about one for every 20 artists or so, and if a call came in for you from your mother, girlfriend or doctor, etc. it had to go to the main switchboard as there were no extensions. The receptionist would get on the PA system to let the entire studio know about it so you could find a wall phone to regale your colleagues with your business, personal or otherwise. I got to hear a lot of guys fileding job offers from Ralph Bakshi(then working on staffing "Cool World") or chatting with John K about the Ren & Stimpy pilot they'd been working on every few minutes.
Anyway, the simple fact that the workers at Disney's had any access to their own lines had to be exceptional--another reason it was the Tiffany's of studios. I'm pretty sure WB of the war years had, well--the WB setup of 1990.

All in all, reading through the pamplet just makes me wish--again--that I had been able to work at Disney's in 1943. Also that if I'd lived back then that I'd been male, as the other glaring thing is the presentation of the cute illustrations throughout: a goofy everyman animator gets down to business, while his female counterpart--an ersatz Fred Moore type--does little but innocently strike various alluring attitudes, the better to be ogled. She does make use of the studio library, so we know she's a serious girl--when she's not penning personal letters to the goofy guy(given as an example of a timewasting no-no).
It's all wonderful stuff and in good fun(there's actually a pretty arch sense of humor for this kind of guide--another proof that this was a different kind of sweatshop).

Some other interesting tidbits: artists were paid every two weeks; Disney's boyhood buddy Walt Pfeiffer was the got-to man for admission into the storied, males-only Penthouse Club; women got 10 days paid sick leave--men only 5(girls and boys, can you guess why that was? A rare example of reverse bias in the workplace!); employees paid "a minimal cost" towards their health insurance, and overtime nights for production were as well organized(and no doubt frequent) an occurance as to be planned for Tuesday and Thurday nights--I call that civilized!

It's tremedous fun to read through it--I almost paid 20 bucks for a xeroxed copy on Ebay a year ago--thanks to Mike Van Eaton and Jerry Beck, now I don't have to, and neither do you. Take a walk down nostalgia lane, then, and see how much--and how little--has changed in 60 years.

images from Cartoon Brew, courtesy of Mike Van Eaton

Jan 24, 2007

Closing Credits to Ernie Kovacs show



Here's one of those videos I couldn't get to post yesterday. Simple as it looks(and it was damned hard to do--the medium technically was as crude as could be, making even simple editing a problem), the thing on display here is the imagination and goofiness of Kovacs' stuff(even the credits)at a time when most TV was, well...he was unique. He's had a huge influence on me--and on a lot of other folks, including many artists.

ADDENDUM: Those new visitors to this blog who admire the particular genius of Kovacs as I do might like to read my previous post about him here.

Jan 23, 2007

Ernie Kovacs...


Kovacs somewhat skeptically regards his partner in crime and comedy--the television camera
...was born in the bowels of Trenton, New Jersey on this day in 1919.

Writer, actor, lover of UPA cartoons, doodler and prodigious loser at cards, his motto was "nothing in moderation". Look up what little there is on Youtube(I can't get the embedding to work today, for some reason).

Jan 21, 2007

The Artisanal Approach

Allow me a bit of a ramble here.

The New York Times has been writing a lot of articles on animation recently on almost a weekly basis. Naturally, from my perspective this is a great and good thing to see.
Today's story--making the front page of the Sunday Arts section-- details the background of a new animated feature being made in France, "Persepolis". It's based on a series of graphic memoirs by by Iranian expat Marjane Satrapi. I haven't read the books, just thumbed through them, but I think it'll make an interesting film to say the least--especially if it closely follows the style of the original artwork. And Paris is full of skilled animators that could give it as distinctive a type of animation as the style suggests.

a page from the first volume of "Persepolis"
If done well, a feature like this will be a must-see--a completely serious, truly graphic story in feature form. I can't wait.

There are some statements in the piece that are somewhat odd to me, however. Here's one:

“Persepolis” is a rarity in France: an animated feature that was entirely produced here, rather than being farmed out to Asian animators. The filmmakers favored an artisanal approach that includes hand-tracing the images on paper, an art long lost to computer animation software.



Have there really been any feature films in France that have been "farmed out" to Asia? Surely the writer is confusing televison work with features?
And the strange arms-length description of the dominant form of animation for the last 100 years as "artisanal"--making it sound slightly quaint, like illuminating texts or writing on foolscap with a goose quill. Admittedly my knowlege of the current state of French feature animation production isn't extensive, but as far as I know the art of 2D animation is far from foreign to the many talented working artists there. Someone show this lady the Gobelins website, stat!

The style of the animation references altogether reminds me of articles I've read in the past often containing statements that sound much more like quotes from a press kit or offerings from publicists than definitive facts about animation production that would have come from an filmmaker--or are well understood by the reporter.

Perhaps this is all cavilling over nothing, as the real point of the entire piece is to feature the author/artist, Ms. Satrapi, and give the backstory of her autobiographical comic. But the hook it's hung on is the A word--animation--and there's to me little sense that that's what's of true interest to the reporter. It was ever thus...or was it? While the accepted wisdom is that Walt Disney, that most famous of all animation producers/studio heads, promoted himself over the acknowledgement of his artist's individual achievements, a suprising number of articles on the Disney studio in its heyday of the 30s-50s actually did make mention of individuals and emphasize their importance to production.

Given that, one would think that 50 years later a much savvier public might be expected to have an interest in what real animation artists actually do, and who they are. I think they would.

Animated films are like none other in the history of filmmaking: more collaborative and labor-intensive than any other form, requiring more people of as high a caliber as can be got. By necessity the end product is a puppet show, an amazing magic trick of behind the scenes manipulation--orchestrated most often by producers and directors, but implemented and very often strongly influenced by every artist involved along the way. And as far as 2D/3D goes, it would be great to have it made clear once and for all that no matter how a film is animated--that is to say, what tools are used to give the illusion of life on the screen--every one of those films involves drawing, by artists. The visual development is drawn and/or painted. Storyboards are drawn; via tablet or paper, it's the same process. If no other important fact is added to the press kit, that one should be.

The knowledge of any of this isn't necessary for the enjoyment of an animated movie, but when the time comes to give out information and write articles about "how it's done", it seems that that would be the right time to bring this sort of thing up. If anyone's interested. I know I was, back then, and I know many kids(and adults)are now. When the opportunity comes along to actually educate the public about just how amazing animated films are--beyond the money spent on them or the sheer numbers involved--it would be wonderful to see it grasped. Why should we insiders keep it all to ourselves?

Jan 12, 2007

a Friday recommendation



New post finally up on Dave Pimentel's blog.

To quote a great line from a great film: "Read it. Learn it. Live it."
By the by, in discussing this post with me Dave mentioned yet another blog which is one of his favorites--and from which he found the inspirational artwork for his post: Didier Ghez's Disney History blog.

Have a great weekend!

Jan 8, 2007

del Carmen, Casarosa, Tadahiro



Here's Ronnie del Carmen holding a book that's the print version of a three artist show he participated in last year, "Three Trees Make a Forest"-with his friend and colleague Enrico Casarosa and the exquisite Japanese artist Tadahiro Uesugi.

All three of these guys are seminal influences--on me, and doubtless on thousands of others, hundreds of whom are working in animation. Ronnie is a story artist, and his masterful use of space coupled with his very appealing characters made each new sequence he did something to pounce on--and if possible, to xerox. Enrico is another in this vein, very different but with lines that also come alive immediately. Tadahiro is just...something else again. Look them all up.

You can check the book out here. I swiped the gleeful photo from Ronnie's own page, incidentally. Is that Pixar's building behind him?

Barrier again; some more essential reading

I had missed any updates from Mike Barrier's site these last few months, but he's back at updating again, and his latest is a must-read--a review and musings on the recent Disney exhibition in Paris I noted a couple of posts ago:

"Once Upon a Time/Walt Disney".

I'm aware that there are those who find Barrier too pedantic, or his opinions just wrong here or there. Well, when it's artists and people who love and research animation and opine about it as we all do that's bound to be the case. Personally, even if and when I strongly disagree with a statement of his I never feel annoyance towards the author because he clearly arrives at his take through careful analysis and, most importantly, a genuine love of the art form--and he knows what he's taking about. Also, if he makes an error, he corrects it--and will even change his mind if presented with an angle he hadn't considered before. That's a rare thing.

Barrier's unique among the many as most of his research was done first hand--he interviewed Disney artists and Warner Bros. directors before virtually anyone else did, in many cases decades before. He published a magazine, Funnyworld(with not only his own articles but priceless pieces by the likes of Dick Huemer) and that magazine's focus on mainstream animation was a mind-boggling surprise in an era when almost all the writing one could find on animation dealt strictly with the "serious" stuff: from Fischinger to McLaren. If you could dredge up a brief piece on, say, such a pandering populist as John Hubley you'd almost faint from relief.

Now, I respect and have enjoyed many very abstract and non-cartoony pieces of animation, but I hate to see any art form described in such a way that it's dull to read about--and that was the slant most of the film studies crowd took towards Hollywood studio animation. Everything was semiotics: symbolism, Freudian, Jungian, Bettelheim stuff. Little or nothing about individual artists, what they contributed, an understanding of actual studio feature or short filmmaking--everything had to be psychoanaylzed to be worthy of discussion.

Barrier never thought this way. Neither did Leonard Maltin, another early adopter of a more pertinent understanding of Golden Age animation achievement. The third in this triumvirate was John Canemaker; an Oscar-winning instructor today, he was the first to publish a book that covers so much of the real animation experience it's still a must-read: "The Animated Raggedy Ann and Andy". His later works too are all essentials. Taking up where Maltin seemed to leave off is the youngest of the animation scholar/authors, Charles Solomon, who's also contributed titles that should be on everyone's shelf, most notably "Disney That Never Was".

So, I've wandered far from my original intent--to suggest you read Barrier's review of the Paris exhibition--but I'm currently reading yet another animation-related title, Neal Gabler's "authorized" biography of Walt Disney. So far I've been underwhelmed, but it's a big tome, and I'll wait until the finish. I will say this; I don't think that Michael Barrier's upcoming bio of Walt been trumped in any way by the existence of this title. Whatever else it turns out to be, it'll be a product of someone who knows and cares about the brilliance of the Disney's studio's achievements.

And I'll probably find much to debate in it as well, I'm sure.

Jan 5, 2007

Olivia Ruiz - La femme chocolat



I caught a tiny glimpse of this video(by one of France's most popular recording artists of the moment)last night, and thought it looked charming. It reminds me of the happy days when MTV was chock full of clever/cute/crude/odd videos like this with animation in them. Now it's all reality shows.
Anyway, the main reason for this posting is to inspire nostalgia in the rest of you--and make you think of chocolate.

Jan 3, 2007

Disney in Paris-a post about a post; or Who's going to make the reservations for Montreal?


image courtesy of animated-views.com

Animation historian Michael Barrier has been busy finishing his soon-to-be published (and soon-to-be definitive, most likely) biography of Walt Disney, so he hasn't been updating his blog as frequently as I'd like. But he's finally back--and without his mention of it I'd have had no idea where to find this great blog entry about the incredible exhibit of Disney animation art, artefacts and influences currently on view in Paris:

Il ├ętait une fois, Walt Disney (Once Upon A Time…Walt Disney).

The terrific report is via a blogger that's new to me, Animated Views' Ben Simon. As Barrier points out, though the Paris exhibit is soon to close, the whole thing will move in March to Montreal.
Who's with me? Road trip!

Jan 2, 2007

A Mary Blair Christmas in Gouache


Click to enlarge. Sorry about the very slight cutoff at the top and right--the old scanner trouble, you know; maybe this year I'll finally get a larger one

This was supposed to go up on the blog Christmas Eve, but I couldn't find it. The original painting, which I bought from Grim Natwick's estate sale at Howard Lowery's for all of 300 dollars, used to hang year-round over my mantle. It was the best thing I owned; next-best being the two Fred Moore unsigned watercolor drawings I've posted here before. Who knows exactly what this was done for--a Christmas card? A stand-alone painting? Some other commissioned design project? Whatever its purpose, it's absolutely gorgeous.

What you see posted here I was finally able to locate in the Blackwing archives this afternoon: a laser copy of the original--which I am both sorry and happy to say I sold to a highly worthy person. Happy, because I knew that this would be treasured just as much as ever by its new owner; sorry, because--well, who would ever want to sell such a painting? But at the time I had to part with it.
In 1997 while still in my collection it was part of a gallery show of Mary Blair's work--the largest show to date that I know of. I was ineffably happy and so proud to see the little card with my name alongside this beautful painting. Nada mas!

Enjoy!

Jan 1, 2007

Grizzly Flats: a long time ago and not too far away...



Back around 1983 my childhood buddy Lara Rossignol took this picture of Ward Kimball standing in front of his locomotive at his home. She gave me a mounted copy, and I had it framed. It's a shame I didn't get a better photograph of the photograph, but I wanted to put it up in any case. Suffice to say the actual thing isn't this fuzzy, but this has a certain haunting quality and it's still a great pose. Lara has always had a great eye.

Lara had gone to see Ward on assignment to take a portrait for school(she was at Art Center in Pasadena at the time). She knew about my visits some years earlier to Ward's fabulous home and asked me for his phone number...I told her it was 'in the book', and that cold-calling Ward might result in anything. Fortunately he welcomed the visit and enjoyed the whole experience--as I think this photo shows.

Recently Lara (long since working as a professional fashion and entertainment photographer) told me that she'd not saved any of her proofs or negatives from this visit--this is apparently the only print. A year or two after it was taken yet another friend, Steve Hickner, was working with Ward at Disney feature animation; he was doing a rare consulting job on a TV special for them. Steve had seen this photograph and asked me if I wanted Ward to sign it for me(Steve had a prodigious collection of signed artwork--mostly comics--that he'd amassed for years. I never usually did that sort of thing, which I could kick myself for now). Of course I said I'd love it if it was possible.
I wasn't there when he did; he was apparently surprised to see this and enjoyed it all over again. It says "To Jenny! from Ward Kimball ETC." which was a habitual signature of his.