Feb 27, 2006

From "Fantasia"

I came across this as a color transparency in a film memorabilia shop, and had it printed up. I have no idea whose work it is, and I hope someone has a guess. From "Fantasia", the Pastoral sequence--it might be a storyboard panel, but is more likely visual development. Beautifully dynamic.

Feb 23, 2006

Cartoon Modern

A Tom Oreb study of Disney's Alice, done for a 50s commercial; image courtesy of Amid Amidi/Cartoon Modern

Since starting this blog and posting to it on a semi-regular basis I've been motivated almost every day to post something about other sites I've seen that have something special to offer. One reason I almost never do is that I hate to leave anyone out--all the blogs I've got linked over on the sidebar--and many more besides that I've not added yet--are well worth your time and trouble to visit. But just because I think that it's such a valuable resource, and in particular because I suspect that many of the people who'd love it don't know about it, I'd like to direct your attention to Cartoon Modern, the site run by Amid Amidi as a sort of supplement to his upcoming Chronicle Press book, also titled "Cartoon Modern: Style and Design in Fifties Animation".

If this one isn't on your daily or weekly round of blogging, it really should be. How on earth he has access to such a wealth of fantastic, inspiring material I don't know, but I do know he's mentioned that plenty of what he posts couldn't fit in the book--so it really is your only chance at seeing it. It's not only an education in great design, it's just plain eye candy. Yummy.

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Animation on "Pinocchio"; Michael Sporn has the goods

Legendary NYC animator and studio owner Michael Sporn's blog has a great post today: he's begun to scan the pages of the animation drafts from "Pinocchio". The drafts are the entire record of who animated what on each feature and short; Disney had these drawn up for their records, and they're fascinating for buffs and animators to study(in an earlier post I scanned the first page of "Nifty Nineties", a Mickey short that Ward, Fred Moore and several others in their wing worked on). Ward's particular character has always been known to be Jiminy Cricket--but quite a few other unsung artists did beautiful work on him as well. [Ham?]Luske, [Bernie?]Wolf, and "Towsley" all have nice animation in there.
You'll notice Ward did get the closeups.
Go see!

Feb 17, 2006

On story: Pitching

Grab yourself a pointer and step right up...

The story artist presents his work standing alone in front of a room filled with people, armed with only a pointer. This is it, the big moment: finally you get to present your version of a sequence to your peers, directors and everyone else there that's concerned with the production. You've been working more or less alone up to this point, and no one but you is responsible for how you're going to pitch this scene and get it over to your audience.
It can be nerve-wracking, but often as not it's exhilarating--the big payoff for hours of work done in solitude. A chance to flex your showmanship as you try and forget any self-consciousness about the drawings you've done and whether this thing works or not. Of course, you hope it does--you believe it does, and you're going to prove it as you pitch it.

The pitch is crucially important to the process of animated filmmaking. This process of working out the kinks and finding the gems in a story was pioneered by--who else?--Walt Disney, to make his shorts better, and eventually to tell long-form, feature length stories, beginning with "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs". Walt himself must have been one of the best pitch artists that ever was, according to eyewitnesses the night he held a core group spellbound with his one-man presentation of the Snow White story--sans drawings. But the artists he worked with weren't there to take notes only--they were expected and encouraged to give Walt back big returns on his initial inspiration. The drawings they did, sequence by sequence, were pinned up and held to the most severe scrutiny--of Walt, but also of everyone else who might have a better idea, or a thought on why something wasn't working. Other studios, one by one (often as the result of artists leaving Disney's to go elsewhere, like Shamus Culhane) picked up on the Disney system of working out the story on boards. But that's all decades ago. Are pitches still necessary? Don't we have everything worked out so smoothly by this age that we can skip or skimp on that step completely?

Even armed with all the bells and whistles of current animation technology, those tools can't do anything on their own. They sit, inanimate, waiting not only for skilled artists to operate them, but more importantly for good ideas worth doing. The story crew's function isn't just illustrating, it's conceiving, and each and every scene must be forced in turn to run the gauntlet, sink or swim, live or die on the reactions of people whose job is to know what's needed. The essential process of story remains the same today as it was over 70 years ago, yes. That's for no other reason than that it works so well. It isn't nostalgia--it's just a great system. And at its best, it's also the perfect meritocracy. A great idea is a great idea, and the stronger the crew, the more welcome those ideas are, from everyone in the room. It's amazing how well a group can work together when things gel and everyone's more or less in sync; I've been in situations where my own work was slowly being rethought in front of me(meaning I'd soon be ditching a few hundred panels I'd just sweated over), while I stood in front of it, still clutching my pointer as Lady MacBeth does her washcloth--but rather than fainting, I'd find myself getting truly excited about the possibilities for an even better scene that was possible.
That's how it's all supposed to work, mind you. Naturally all artists have healthy egos, take pride in their work and ideas, and want them to succeed rather than otherwise. I and every story artist I know have also had plenty of those times where a quick trip out the window without benefit of parachute seemed a happy alternative to remaining in the room one second longer--that's only normal, too.
But the weird, virtually magical thing often happens where suddenly the individual drawings don't matter quite so much, because the new idea or gag or business is so good, and you feel that--that's right! It has to be more like that! If you're still thinking mournfully of what a waste the now obsolete drawings are, you're missing the point--or the boat. It often seems our jobs as story artists is to produce reams of recyclables, and wear down a thousand prismacolors, all in the pursuit of something not fully tangible to any one of us alone, but very possible for the group: an entire film, start to finish, with a good story and characters that we care about, that make some sense, that just plain entertains.
The pitch is a vaudeville show, a shooting gallery, a juggling act, a ghost story around a campfire--with drawings. It's the ultimate low-tech, interactive experience, with roots that go back to most of us sitting in bed listening to out parents read us Dr. Seuss or Goodnight Moon. If we can conjure a movie for a few minutes with our 2D drawings and our voices--the fluorescent lights of a conference room notwithstanding--and get whatever we've come up with past all our colleagues and meet with their approval--all gimlet-eyed pros, well, then we might have accomplished something. But whether by critical comments from the rest of the crew, or by their tacit approval in the form of laughs or smiles, it's never accomplished alone. The listener has as much sway as the speaker. The audience in the person of the crew talks back to the screen, and questions, complains, approves, or challenges--and the screen in the person of the story artist has to reply. Everyone has the same goal: to make the story a movie, and to make it better.
That's why it's such a great system, and why it still works.

Feb 16, 2006


(prismacolor on that old-fashioned paper; not a self-portrait, btw!)

Feb 14, 2006

On story: simplicity

From the book "Paper Dreams": an unattributed story panel for "Lady and the Tramp"

Last night I went to see the restored, remastered, generally-spiffed-up rerelease of "Lady and the Tramp" at the El Capitan theater in Hollywood. I've seen it at least once before theatrically, but never in Cinemascope, the widescreen process it was originally designed for. Watching this film again under optimum conditions is a terrific experience.

It would be difficult to sell a story as simple as "Tramp" is today. Even among Disney features it's remarkable for how little happens, plotwise: A puppy starts life with a middle class young couple; the couple has a baby, the dog feels briefly unwanted; she meets a dog from "the wrong side of the tracks"(literally); they have a romance, some misunderstandings, and the story ends with them both as happy members of the family circle with pups of their own.

That's it.

And it's about as far as one can get from high concept. Not that there's anything wrong with high concept per se; "The Incredibles" is a great example of such a premise that adds up to a lot more than a one-line pitch: "retired, incognito superheroes with a suburban family lifestyle are jolted into action once more, with kids". In fact, a story as seemingly postmodern and slick as "Incredibles" actually has a lot in common with "Tramp"--more on that in a minute.

Where "Lady and the Tramp" succeeds is in taking a simple story and making absolutely sure that every character and every scene makes an impact on the audience. As leisurely as some of the pacing is, it's deliberate and crucial to establishing the mood--either of the time period, the time of day, or the characters' emotions. And there is very little dialogue--as well as the fact that it's not so much what the characters say, but how they act while saying it. The humor comes from context and expression, not from verbal jokes. When old bloodhound Trusty offers to launch into another rambling story and asks rhetorically if he's told this one before, and Jock the Scotty replies "Aye, ye have, laddie", the remark gets a big laugh--not because of any reference other than the familiar expression of friendly, slightly chagrined resignation on Jock's face. Which brings up another neat trick of "Tramp": it manages to tell the story of a dog, from a dog's point of view, anthropomorphizing dogs so that we recognize ourselves in them while at the same time keeping their essential dogginess front and center.

That sounds pretty simple, and yet with some films it can seem that it wouldn't matter if the characters were dogs--or whether they were birds or pillbugs. And it should matter. Admittedly there are different kinds of films where the humor and approach is slanted a different way and there's a different kind of story being told.
But speaking as a story person, the fun of using animals is partly in things like imagining how a cat might walk into a room versus a dog(as beautifully illustrated in "Tramp" with the siamese cats scene). And the fun for an audience is in recognizing those details. Even if the character is a human stand-in a la Disney's Brer Rabbit, his rabbity body can suggest poses and behavior he wouldn't do if he were a stork. Some things fall into the purview of the animator, but when story artists think like animators--imagining the scene playing out in their heads--gags, action and completely new ideas come out of the blue. Have a strong basic structure, a story that can be told well and clearly, and most of all, strong characters that one cares about, and they dictate to you what they're going to do next--you have the fun of reining them in. What often happens with this approach is that there's an excess of--you hope--riches; many scenes get cut, all sorts of things are changed...but if the characters are well defined and real, it'll be hard for the scene to go wrong. That's the ideal, anyway.

So getting back to "The Incredibles": on the surface it's a much more sophisticated and complicated film than the gentle, easygoing "Lady and the Tramp"--but the story principles are exactly the same, and what make both films work so well each in their own way. It all boils down to "what is this scene about?" Dialogue might get important points across, but more often it's there to express the characters' emotions, not describe what we're already seeing--and sometimes outright contradicting it to great effect. The basic plot was carefully constructed--really iron-clad; any number of various, interchangeable adventures could have followed Mr. Incredible arriving on the mysterious island, but what matters is how he, his wife and his kids will handle getting involved in whatever ensues.
The director of that film was also the writer, and had plenty of professional experience writing specifically for animation(one of his trump cards as a writer is knowing what to leave out of his scripts), but I would bet that he also anticipated and consciously left enough room to allow for alterations in the storyboard process to further the characters and story where necessary. The director/writer thought up loads of cool scenes, created opportunites for fantastic production design and certainly laid on the action, but he never lost the basic--and super simple--family dynamic and vivid personalities that made the action and the cool designs mean anything. Some people will watch nifty graphics and be satified with that alone; most will get plenty bored and never be tempted to watch a film twice, unless it puts across that X factor of simplicity and sincerity that will hold up whether its a sci-fi or an edwardian setting.

Animation feature production is by necessity a group endeavor, with the end result--or goal--being a single vision and cohesive piece of entertainment. It's organic and often unwieldy. Scenes are commonly tried, boarded, written and rewritten, and restaged by many different artists. Naturally enough, sometimes the story person finds that a scene has lost its meaning through these multiple versions and reboardings and edits...and so it always comes back to the most basic, simple question: what is this supposed to be about? It's a strikingly simple question, and the answer should be simple as well. Answering that honestly can mean taking a wild leap beyond what's already been done, but it can pay huge dividends.

Feb 9, 2006

Barney Google and Mabel Normand

More weirdness from my closets:

I bought this from a friend of a friend, Len Corneto, in 1990. Len was and is an authority on silent films, in particular his favorite actress from the period, Mabel Normand. For years he collected posters, stills, and all sorts of other stuff while doing research on Mabel for a book. However, he had major life changes and simply wanted to divest himself of everything he had concerning her; since he knew I was a cartoonist/animation person he offered me two small framed drawings Mabel had received as gifts: one from Pat Sullivan("Felix the Cat"'s owner/producer), and this charming little doodle by Billy DeBeck.
De Beck was a hugely popular newspaper cartoonist whose biggest hit was "Barney Google". In that series was the horse named Sparkplug shown here. Who knows under what circumstances DeBeck met Mabel(or if he even met her in person), but she treasured this enough to save it when she'd lost a lot of her things from formerly flush times. It was in a trunk of hers when she died of tuberculosis in 1930.
DeBeck's comic strip was made into animated cartoons several times, first in the 1930s, but this gift drawing from DeBeck to the beautiful comedienne must have been much earlier, perhaps around 1920 or so. That's his signature under the drawing of "Mabel".

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Feb 5, 2006

Ah, blogging

It seems "Blogger, Inc." was down for over 5 hours yesterday. A bit of a drag, as not only was I unable to access or edit my own posts, but more importantly I was denied the fun of looking at other blogs to my heart's content--when I actually had some time. Figures.

I am mindful that these pages are advertised as written by "a story artist", and so I intend to post on topics near and dear to the story person: pitching; drawing; thinking story; the value of watching films, observing life, reading. I hope this will be interesting. Obviously I can't be at all specific about my current or recent projects, but the details of various productions really don't matter--the principles are always the same.

I also mean to write about certain people who have inspired and helped me--as it happens, in story. Not that any of them lack tribute: Joe Ranft and Maurice Noble. There are others, but these two have as special a place in my heart as they do in hundreds of others. As for Maurice, if I had to call it all quits tomorrow working alongside him and knowing him a little would have made it all worthwhile.

Maurice waxes expansive as only he could do. c. 1997
So, that's my plan.
That, and to post some more funny old ephemera. There's a great big folder full of Disney strike handouts.

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Feb 4, 2006

More Disneyland poster graphics

I'd thought most of these were so common as to be of little interest, but apparently not, so here's a few more:

The Skyway--what a design!
And Monstro's certainly not bad either...I love the spout, and the great use of shadow. Mysterious! Terrifying! I'll admit this gentle little ride scared the pants off me as a kid--a small kid--and of course it was one of my mom's "favorites". Oh, dear. It took me years to figure out that it was because she could sit down, but still be "taking me on something". And the miniatures are charming...boring to a teenager, but for a five year old--lemme at 'em!

Favorite Storybook Land guide quote(from a high school-era visit I and some friends made): "Here we are passing Alice's village...there's the church...notice the tiny tombstones!" I kid you not.

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Feb 3, 2006

Prismacolor sketch

In the age of Cintiqs, pencil on paper still feels good.

Feb 2, 2006

Disneyland: Frontierland

One more of the large-format Disneyland attraction posters:

I chose to post this as it's a lesser-seen image.
What a great design: bold, full of interest, action, even the distant promise of adventure in the faraway fort--if you can get to it!
This part of Disneyland--the "Rivers of America" and Tom Sawyer's Island--were like separate vacation destinations of their own. Once a kid was able to get a ride on a keel boat or a raft to the Island sans mom or dad, he was free. The terrors of Injun Joe's cave with it's horrible howling, the underground tunnel to the fort--even the gated forbidden zone of the "indian village"--all these things added up to the ultimate runaway fantasy of kiddom.


Disneyland "Art of Animation" poster

Here's a copy of the Disneyland poster for the brief "Art of Animation" display that was stationed in--of all places--Tomorrowland from 1960-1966. One of the lesser designs for these gigantic sheets, but interesting for its subject.

Adjacent to the exhibit were bins of cels that customers could paw through at will (yes, that's how it was described to me by someone who was there, and bought plenty of them)--everything from "Alice In Wonderland" to "Peter Pan", "Sleeping Beauty", numerous TV programs and shorts, etc....all for just a few dollars each.
I wonder what the thinking was, doing this attraction in Tomorrowland? Perhaps it was just a space issue.

It'd be nice to see something like this return, wouldn't it? In more recent times my friends and I always looked forward to the corner area in Main Street with small displays of upcoming animation projects(defunct last time I was there--crowded out by the ubiquitous t shirt displays that so overran the entire Park). Hopefully it's an idea whose time has come around again, for good.
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a Fred Moore mystery drawing

I found this odd sheet of animation paper at the San Diego ComicCon several years ago. It isn't much of a drawing, but it does appear to be a sketch done by the person whose name appears to the right--signing their real, full name: Robert Fred Moore. The technique, and some of the handling of the figure(those thighs!)say "Fred", but why would this master of the fluid, graceful girl draw such a rigidly upright and especially faceless outline of a woman like this?
One person suggested that the rough outline of the woman's body looked like an old-fashioned candlestick telephone to Fred, hence the added word. Well...possibly.

But then a few days ago I happened to get a copy of an obscure 1946 Disney short, never meant for general public viewing: "The Story of Menstruation". It's pretty dull stuff, not even much good for a bit of kitschy fun, but one shot caught my eye. Here's a screen grab:


There's very little actual animation in the short, but there are several tableaux of girls standing around that look as though they're based strongly on Fred Moore's familiar style of posing his own girl drawings; if Fred did work on this, he likely designed the silhouette as seen here.
If anyone has any thoughts, drop me a line, won't you?