Mar 30, 2006

Hyperion or Burbank?

Here's an interesting photograph I found on Ebay:

I just salivate over these old, casual shots of animators at work. The reverse has "old studio" penciled on it, and the seller, Howard Lowery, said it was taken at the Disney Hyperion studio. The artists are also identified on the back; from left to right, as "Sandy Strother, animator, Frank Folmer, 1st assistant, and Paul Coulter, 2nd assistant". I know nothing about any of these men, and if you do, please feel free to comment or email me and give me some background on them.

I was wondering if this was in fact the "old" studio--meaning the first feature studio in Silverlake, or instead the Buena Vista location; those awnings and windows sure look like Burbank to me. Any thoughts, anyone?
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Mar 29, 2006

Drawings from a super artist

Very exciting blog news this morning. Right here, fresh off the desk:

Dave Pimentel

self-caricature by Dave
I love Dave's drawings. He has a wonderfully fluid line, unerring eye, does caricature like nobody's business, and also has great sensitivity toward his subjects: male, female, animal, vegetable, kid or crone. His stuff always evinces acting. I've learned a lot from him, and have been bugging him to post his own work. He also teaches life drawing at Dreamworks, passing along the Walt Stanchfield approach while incorporating his own take; earlier class notes are up on his pal Jim Hull's Seward Street, but he tells me he'll post future handouts and examples on his new blog. Watch for them!

He's a very busy man(head of story); full life, family and all the bells and whistles, but as I've pestered him, it takes less time to post than it looks, so hopefully once he's got the bit well and truly chomped on he'll share more of his work, and talk about what inspires him. He's a great animation friend to know.

"and now, your host--"

A bit of biography:

Me in 1968. Guess where?

You'd think someone would have taken a picture of the parade, wouldn't you? But I guess my dad had his hands full.
"The happiest place on earth"? Well--most of the time. Dig those crazy shoes! This same year(we lived up in Orinda, near San Francisco, at the time)we took another tourist sourjourn--to the Haight-Ashbury district of S.F., "the Haight". Yes, to see hippies, yippies and Deadheads. I can remember that better than this parade.
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Mar 28, 2006

New blog o' mine

Somehow when I find myself writing about the likes of Fred Moore and posting his work, I feel a leetle less sanguine about putting my sketches up an inch away.
So, I just started another blog. I get such a kick from what amounts to peeking in other artists' sketchbooks in their blogs, and I hate to leave off posting drawings altogether. Nothing earthshaking planned, just doodles and whatnot, and maybe the odd story sketch that's gone into the public domain.

Here 'tis: Blackwing Sketchbook

Mar 25, 2006

Bits & Pieces

Christmas in March-the Moore family card, date unknown

Due to circumstances beyond my control I wasn't able to go to the UPA event at the Egyptian theater tonight; a major letdown as I'm sure that that particular assortment of shorts won't be around again. I'd seen "Tell-Tale Heart" plenty of times but that "Man Alive!" short I posted the storyboard drawing for here isn't a common one. Also missed the panels with the veterans of the studio and apparently some behind the scenes footage(always a big favorite with me). Shucks.
So, apropos of nothing other than that it's unusual and neat, here's one of Fred Moore's Christmas cards up.
I just got an email from Michael Barrier, in answer to one where I'd asked him about Fred Moore's brief (but influential) employment for Walter Lantz in 1947. He mentions that Fred worked on the opening credits of "The Egg and I", a Universal film(also, of course, Lantz' employer). Funny thing; on a shelf in my studio is a well-worn book, one of the few I've saved from my mother's library, and one of my all-time favorites: "The Egg and I".
So incredibly popular was author Betty MacDonald's account of her disastrous first marriage and early life on a remote chicken farm that a major motion picture was rushed into production almost immediately, starring Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray. And Fred Moore worked on the credit sequence? I've been a fan and aficionado of Betty MacDonald as long as I have of Fred Moore; never in my wildest dreams did I imagine they might be professionally connected, however about six degrees of separation.

Main title card from "The Egg and I"

And last but hardly least, I was pleased to be one of a party at lunch last week with a guy I much admire (but hadn't met until then), Clay Kaytis, whose Animation Podcast is a model for and a forerunner of an increasing number of spectacular animation info sites. He did it first and he continues to do it well; it was exciting to hear about what's coming up very soon on the Podcast. Big, big exciting guests.
So if you don't already--go subscribe.
Clay is a natural historian...what he's doing is incredibly important for our industry and the history of film. That sounds grandiose, I know, but it's true. And what's especially satisfying is that this has started a trend where the interviewer is now sometimes also a currently working animator and artist. Think for a moment: for all the excellent and much-needed scholarship that's been done to date, how much of it was done by artists? The answer is, virtually none. The reason is--animation is so bloody labor intensive. When the day is done there aren't many hours left, and so to be able, as Clay has done and others, to do something like contacting, interviewing and then podcasting....that's deserving of a big note of thanks. So, thanks, Clay.

And finally, here's something that's of a piece with the screen shots in the earlier post. On the same recent DVD release as "The Reluctant Dragon" is a wonderful short shot for RKO exhibitors, to promote "Snow White" before its release. It's basically a tour of the old Disney Hyperion studio. At one point we see--who else?--Fred Moore showing the camera how he draws Mickey Mouse; he's doing it with what looks like a china marker(the better to show up on film where a 2B wouldn't, we're told), and what's really tantalizing, he's clearly gabbing away during the shot...what do you suppose he's saying as he draws? We'll never know. I also think it's interesting to see Fred's ultra-casual attire at Hyperion, for (mostly) private view; at the bigger, shinier Buena Vista studio, coats and ties became de riguer--even off camera. I've been told that Hyperion had no air conditioning in the animators' rooms, so maybe the dress code was looser for practical reasons, too, at the older location.

Mar 24, 2006

Maurice's friend Scott Morse has a book out soon...

"Kettle Drum", by Maurice Noble/courtesty of the website

Courtesy of Jeff Pidgeon's latest entry on his blog, I'm passing along a Publisher's Weekly reprint of an article on Scott Morse's "Noble Boy", his graphic memoir of Maurice Noble. I hear Scott will be at APE up in S.F. the weekend of April 8-9 unveiling this long-awaited "picture book" fantasia-riff on the master.

When I went to work at Turner Feature Animation's development wing, it was in an unprespossessing building on Olive Street in Burbank, right next to a dentist's office and the Talleyrand, a time-warp of a restaurant. There were about four projects aborning at Turner: "The Red Shoes", "Wolves", "Ray Gunn", and a "pirate musical". A very long, long pirate musical with about 45 characters in the main cast. They call it development hell for a reason, folks.
For the first year or so at Turner I was put on this pirate project(my second year was spent on a more interesting one, "Ray Gunn"-from the ridiculous to the sublime!). The main attraction of the pirate thing was the chance it gave me to work closely with Maurice, show him my stuff, and to peek over Scott Morse's shoulder, painting away like a madman. Lou Romano, Ricky Nierva, Don Shank, Mike Stern and god only knows how many other amazing talents were in and out of Maurice's office on a regular basis too, no matter what project they were engaged on, for the advice, occasional goodnatured browbeating--and always, the sheer pleasure of Maurice's expansive company.
At one point I shared an office with Scott, which gave me an opportunity to glimpse him at work. His metier was doing small paintings("comps"), using Cel-Vinyl paint in squeeze bottles, applying theories and techniques that were his own, and incorporating things Maurice had shown him at Chuck Jones Productions.

Watching Scott do his seemingly effortless array of scenes, all in beautiful color schemes and composition was an education. I'd see him do painting after painting, then be in the room as he showed his work to Maurice. Here's where the education really started. The first time, I'd fully expected Maurice to ooh and ahh at these little masterpieces, or at the very least sign off on them without much discussion. After all, he was extremely fond of Scott, always encouraging to all of us, and almost always in the most positive and mild of tempers.
But despite his gentle appearance Maurice was no pushover, no simple grandfatherly type who nods benignly a la the "Aged P." of Dicken's "Great Expectations"; he was a genius, a master artist who expected the utmost from anyone he gave two hoots about and who garnered a paycheck on his watch. In particular he'd demand plenty from anyone he knew was talented enough to go further and do better than he thought they had. As good as Scott's paintings were, as often as not Maurice would tear a few of them apart: "Why did you put that there(jabbing a finger over some object)? What's that supposed to mean?"
And he'd wait for the answers, because he wanted answers. Or, with a dismissive wave of the hand: "This is just pretty. Do it again." This, in response to little gems I had thought couldn't be improved upon.
Now, the vast majority of what Scott did suited Maurice just fine; he'd love them. He was one of his protege's biggest fans, you might say. But he wasn't easy on him. And of course Scott took all this with total concentration, understood exactly what was going on, thought hard about where he should go from there, and set to reworking this or that piece that Maurice thought could be better--or, maybe he'd defend something, and argue for it, which of course was exactly what Maurice might also expect and welcome. But in any case, it was clear Scott knew he was getting the ultimate compliment, as I also saw that the more experienced the artist, the tougher Maurice was on them. I mean really tough--as tough as he'd have been in 1953. As far as I could tell, there was no drop off in Maurice's acumen or his chops in any way whatsoever. This, in his late 80s. He might have had to squint at the paintings through a photographer's loop to see them as well as he needed to, but I saw him rough out layout compositions that were so unerring in their rightness that you'd swear a man in his prime had drawn them--which was pretty much the case. In contrast, take a look at some of the work that a few animation legends, now gone, did in their retirement years to realize how singular this was.
And I suppose the reason for the disparity is that Maurice never did retire. At 90 he seemed like a man cut down too early. He was not only still actively working on projects, but traveling to places in the far east. He still had a lot to give. He also had a refreshing lack of sentimentality over his illustrious past(there aren't many people on the credits of "Snow White", but he's there; sometimes in all the justified hoopla he receives for his work with Chuck Jones, his earlier accomplishments on "Snow White" and "Bambi" aren't even known). I miss him every day.

Everyone he came into contact with will continue to give back, often with things they've learned directly from him. He was so proud of all his guys--he never stopped encouraging them to do bigger and (always) better things. Scott's up at Pixar now, where Maurice was flown in on occasion to have a look around and hook up with his old, young friends there. He'd be pretty satisfied with that, and with all the books Scott's published in the last half-dozen years.

I haven't read "Noble Boy" yet, but I'll be first in line for a copy.
It can be ordered here from Amazon.

Mar 23, 2006

Reluctant Dragon, part one

All this thinking about Fred Moore lately has me hopped up to do two things: rewatch as much of his animation as possible, and look again at the few behind-the-scenes glimpses we're lucky enough to have available of him and his coworkers, mainly from "The Reluctant Dragon", which I put on last night. I'd forgotten that the titles were as charming as the best parts of that compilation feature. Here's the title card for the animation credits:

The caricatures are surely by T.Hee(who's credited on story). The accompanying signatures are the artists' own. This looks like nothing so much as a college yearbook, and with the lilting, wacky "Reluctant Dragon" theme playing over it, is a very appealing lead-in to the film proper.
There's always been a lot of accepted wisdom that Walt Disney promoted himself as the guy who did it all--including, supposedly, all the animation--the "drawing". While quite a few clueless reporters and feature writers seemed to have some vague idea that Walt was somehow responsible (in the holding a a pencil sense) for all of the Disney Studio's animation(and of course as boss and instigator of every project, he was), it's interesting to note that long before cartoonists and animators got much individual recognition, this title card is a heck of a graceful presentation. Could it have been partly motivated by Walt's gratitude for all these men, who worked through the strike when this film was released?

Both Fred Moore and Ward Kimball appear--unnamed--as themselves in "Dragon". Originally(as per the drafts)Fred had actual lines and a bit more screen time--why that was cut, if it ever existed in a release print, is unknown--it was a brief enough exchange, with (if I remember correctly) Fred explaining a bit about the Moviola machine he's working with, before all three--Kimball, Robert Benchley, and Fred--watch "How To Ride A Horse" on the moviola. The cutting of this business results in a rather bad edit, with an abruptness that doesn't exist elsewhere in this fairly slick film. It also seems--I'd have to run it again--that the shots of them gathered around the moviola both before and after the Goofy cartoon are exactly the same! But it was late, and I might have been too punchy to notice a difference.
What a kick this must have been, to show this film to their families--not many people have home movies of themselves at work in Technicolor.

Benchley sneaks into the animator's room; Ward is about to notice him and, in closeup, upon seeing famed humorist Robert Benchley(he of the Algonquin Round Table--crouching down in front of him)drawls the priceless line: "Weeeelll...what goes on, pal?"

a cropped shot--Benchley was at left of frame--of Kimball and Moore again, at the end of their sequence; they're looking offscreen as a transition, hearing Norm Ferguson panting away as "Pluto". Fred's doing his best Dick Powell impression here.

Mar 21, 2006

Fred Moore-snapshots from life

Fred Moore, early 1940s

For anyone who loves beautiful, expressive and charming drawing, Fred Moore is the best friend we never met. Ever helpful with his examples, always entertaining with his work. His style is about as far from "impersonal" as it's possible to be. Everything's always in the right place in his drawings; there's never a feeling of stiffness, coldness or worry. If that sounds like a lot of anthropomorphizing of some two-dimensional marks on paper--it is. His work was completely alive, and one of the most profound poignancies of the art of animation is the real, breathing life that continues to exist when the artist himself has long ago left the scene.

I had a unique privilege recently, treated to a viewing of some of the most wonderful Fred Moore work--stuff I've never seen published anywhere before. Roughs, studies, caricatures, posed-out scenes that were cut before being finished--all sorts of treasure that must be a small fraction of the life's work of this unique artist. Thanks to the great generosity of animator James Walker, I'm going to start posting as much of it here as I can, from his collection. There are also some more items from my own collection I intend to post, along with excerpts from the interviews I conducted about Fred in the early 1980s.

For now, here's some images you don't see every day: the artist himself. I feel less odd than I otherwise might about posting these personal shots for several reasons. First, simply because he was so seldom seen, as were most of his colleagues at Disney's and elsewhere--and as a matter of pure historic interest I'd love to see off the cuff snapshots of every animation great that ever lived, from Mary Blair to Bill Tytla to Ward Kimball. And there's an added impetus--that of his much, much too early death. The guy was just forty-one. No time to enjoy any public, wider recognition of the kind accorded Kimball, Thomas and Johnston, Chuck Jones, et al. As a result many people are curious about Moore and want to know more about him--something, anything. In that spirit, posting these photographs seems appropriate.

Incidentally, the post that started it all on this blog--my first of any length on Fred Moore--is here: "One sketch--long caption: Fred Moore musings"

Fred about age 17, pre-Disney(barely): a star player on the lightweight basketball team

...and a drawing he did for a classmate that same year; althouth the style is quaintly dated to our eyes, and a far cry from what Fred would become famous for in ten years, the drawing's lines are sure and fluid, and it's obvious he did it effortlessly; there's no underdrawing or hesitiation at all.

Approximately ten years later, clowning in a crib at his home; one of his girl watercolors is on the wall at the rear

And another ten years on; a prematurely aged Moore, an unidentified friend, and animator John Sibley pose at Disney's in the late 40's-1952 period.

All photographs are from the private collection of James Walker, with the exception of the high school class photograph and the sketch, which are from the author's collection.

Mar 18, 2006

The World of Tomorrow

Just because it's Saturday, and also because this one is a bit rarer than the other attraction posters:

Mar 15, 2006

On Story: no reason to sacrifice characters to a pile of pages or plot

Michael Barrier makes some sharp--and challenging--comments about the point of great character animation in his most recent post. He describes his friend, animator Milt Gray, flipping some of Ollie Johnston's animation of "Jock" from Lady and the Tramp, and being startled by the amazingly lifelike performance that sprung off the pages. Barrier continues:

"The great virtue of Disney films like Lady and the Tramp was that they showed that such animation is possible. Their great vice was that they seemed to say, in a louder voice over time, that such animation is possible only in children's films.
As a result, the temptation, if you're making more "adult" films, is surely to shrug off the Disney animators' lessons; but there's no way, if you're doing that, to achieve the emotional strength of their best work. A lot of animated filmmakers seem to think that they can work around that problem by making "story" their mantra, or by simply ignoring the question of how to give animated characters a vivid presence on the screen. But such dodges never succeed. It's only by meeting head-on the challenge of making the characters in their films as real as the best live actors that animated filmmakers will ever escape from the ghetto to which they have been, so far, rightly assigned."

Tough words...but I know what he's talking about, and I suspect most of my colleagues do, too.
To turn Barrier's premise inside-out, though, there have been some Disney films where "story" took a backseat to characters. In that category I'd put "Sword in the Stone" and "Jungle Book", both films I saw and loved as a kid and still love--but mainly for the performances of such as Shere Khan, Archimedes, Merlin and King Louis--not for the relatively weak story/plot and the corniest gags that are in them. Were the characters in those films not as entertaining and real as they are, there'd be pretty much nothing there but color and movement.

It's been said by wiser heads than mine that in the latter days of the nine old men, they were actors without a worthy stage, much like Laurence Olivier giving it his all in "Boys From Brazil" or "The Betsy". Feature animation was in a general doldrums; the kidvid ghetto was going full bore on TV, and there was no guiding hand at the world's most sophisticated animation company. It seemed to operate on the inertia of a more energetic time.

I think there are definitely pitfalls in having a story "mantra" that ignores just who's doing what in a film, though it's never intentional to sacrifice personality for plot--the aim is almost always the opposite, in fact.
Maybe there's a perception among non-artists of animation as having some sort of special needs, since our characters aren't seen in early development as castable flesh and blood actors, but are drawings and designs.
Of course the very, very early, embryonic beginnings of a feature film are a story's premise. If there isn't any story there to tell, well, that's trouble. It needn't be at as big as an epic, it can be small and even personal--but in the end it has to connect with a wide audience, and more than plot it's characters who carry that burden.
So to continue and develop that premise, assuming the story has something to work with it really does depend on the characters(that goes for the great shorts as well: Bugs Bunny trapped on a desert island is a hell of lot more interesting than Barney Bear trapped on a desert island or a Genericized Rabbit in that situation).

The story of a father fish looking for his lost son...okay. The story of a terribly neurotic, xenophobic, keep-to-the-reef father fish forced to plunge into deep seas, teamed up with various creatures he'd never want to deal with, but does it anyway, struggling all the while? Much better.
One doesn't want the plot running the characters, one wants the characters to be the plot--to make it their own one of a kind story, if you will. But(remembering "Sword in the Stone")they still need something worthwhile to do, and in a long-form story it probably can't be a one-set premise(never say never, but to generalize). No "Waiting For Godot"s. Pinocchio should get out of Gepetto's workshop. But personally I don't see any way forward in any story without nailing down the characters first. I have to know this person if I'm going to make drawings of them, and especially if I have to have them do or say anything.
Ideas come from drawing; good drawings--great drawings--come out of acting, the old "acting with a pencil" canard. It's really true. The more you know and love the characters, the more options for entertainment you'll have. They'll take over a scene in the same way novelists describe, with their characters. If you're taken in an entirely new direction, and it's going to work, it might be a very good thing when strong characters hijack you.

Mar 8, 2006

It's raining cool blogs today

Well, well, the small space of one morning I discover that two of my former classmates have stinkin' great blogs--and all the more splendid as they're both story artists:

Jim Capobianco


Mark Kennedy!

Here's my lame attempt at recreating a caricature Mike Giaimo did of Mark back in the day(Mike was our 1st year character design teacher); the original was better than this, of course(as a matter of fact, I think it was done with no lines at all, just flat marker color-shapes), but all these years later I still can't get that "banana with a hair flip" image out of my brain. Keep in mind that Mark was about 17 then; he's probably wearing his hair differently these days.

Jim is at that boutique studio up north, Pixar, and Mark is across the concrete divide at Disney FA, where he's been for a while heading story. I guess they now both work for the same boss(I still have to pinch myself about that one).

Anyway, they're both very nice guys in addition to cool artists. Also funny. So bienvenue fellas!

Mar 6, 2006

From the horse's mouth

Last week I was happy to finally find the restored DVD of "Lady and the Tramp" waiting for me in my mailbox(the same version I saw last month at the El Capitan).

Of course it's a must-have, with some very interesting extras--we plunged right into Disc 2, sampling such things as original boards from a 1943 version of the film that was leagues apart from its eventual incarnation; most of an episode of the "Disneyland" television show with Walt introducing his new film, and giving a not-bad description of the production process that for once didn't short the story department. One minor peeve I had was the completely unnecessary "juicing up" digitally of the old story panels: while the story sketches was pitched offscreen, the decision was made to "animate" characters to simulate movement during pans, and there was an overuse of the Ken Burns effect: constantly drifting or zooming into and across the panels, some of which might have worked but in the main was(for me, anyway)distracting, giving the thing a slightly seasick presentation. There was also some head-scratching material featuring Kevin Costner talking about how important storyboards are to his projects. That's great, but I would have liked less of a live action focus and much more material about the specific artists who did story on "Lady and the Tramp".
I also wondered why, apart from a few fleeting shots that are already years old of various recent Disney story crews engaged in pitching(no one identified), more time couldn't have been spent with the present-day story artists I know are over there, with plenty of hard-won experience and I'm sure plenty to say re "Tramp" or just story in general. Maybe next time?

Anyway, there was one wonderful moment where Walt, about to describe the storyboarding phase of the film, looked straight into the camera and told us what it's all about.

"At the Disney studio, we don't write our films; we draw them".

Allow me a brief moment here while I get up off the floor and back into my chair.
Seldom has the essential difference between the live action and animated film production process been put so plainly and directly. Keep in mind that the Disney studio certainly used written material--Bambi, Pinocchio, Alice--even "Happy Dan, the Whistling Dog", one of the sources "Tramp" sprung from--was a written story first. But the job of making the story work for animation was best served by the storyboard process.
So go check out this film again, and those extras, and see what you think.

Mar 5, 2006

Academy Awards night-in 1962

I was digging through some boxes in our basement looking for some old art books when I came across these--just in time for tonight--an unused pair of tickets to the ceremony:

I love the fact that they're a real, iridescent "gold", too.

For a rundown of who was nominated and won that night 44 years ago, see here. Incidentally, they have the date wrong on that page, as you'll see from studying the tickets--the actual event was on the 9th, a Monday, not a Sunday(as it always was until a couple of years ago).
And they cost a whopping $12.50 in 1962--including the "Fed. Tax". I think it's at least $350 per person now, isn't it? And that's for the nosebleed seats.

The Academy Award nominees for "cartoon" short subject in 1962 were:

The Hole (Storyboard, Inc.; Brandon Films)
Icarus Montgolfier Wright (Format Films; United Artists)
Now Hear This (Looney Tune Series) (Warner Bros. Cartoons, Inc.; Warner Bros.)
Self-Defense—For Cowards (Self-Help Series) (Rembrandt Films; Film Representations)
Symposium on Popular Songs (Walt Disney Productions; Buena Vista)
"The Hole" won. It's the only one of the nominees I've seen, as far as I know. And it's by the wonderful team of John and Faith Hubley. A very topical and timely piece in '61.
several hours later: A big Congratulations to Nick Park, Steve Box and John Canemaker. These animators worked on, and won Oscars for--extremely personal films, a great achievement that hardly ever happens for any filmmakers. Cheers, guys. And congratulations to all the nominees.

Mar 2, 2006

Andrea Blasich

He's just been noted on Cartoon Brew, but I want to add another rave here. Obviously a talented 2D artist--but what's really nuts are his wonderful sculpts. Not just that he can do them so well, but the choice of characters and poses--marvelous.

Andrea's 'Madame Mim'
His blog: Andrea Blasich