Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Pixar and Miyazaki

"At the same time, though, Miyazaki's presence points up the limitations of Pixar, which are the limitations of American commercial entertainment generally. Pixar landed on this list, and in the penultimate slot, not strictly on its own merits (which are, as I've said, considerable), but because of its imaginative dominance of family entertainment, and its capacity to shape future moviegoers' sense of what animation (and entertainment) should be. Pixar represents the best of what American commercial filmmaking is. But Miyazaki shows what might be possible without Pixar's inhibitions (or constraints, take your pick).

"Factor out the few dark and disturbing moments in Pixar's films this decade (there haven't been many, really) and you're looking at a body of work that's fairly easy for even the youngest children to grasp and process, and ultimately not challenging compared to Miyazaki. In Pixar films, good characters sound (and usually look) conventionally lovable. Good and evil are clearly defined, and no "good" character's goal is left unmet. And no potentially confusing or disturbing apparition, incident or twist is left unexplained for long.

"Contrast this with Miyazaki's much freer and deeper approach to family entertainment, and you start to see the aesthetic gulf between his work and Pixar's (and, by extension, between the splendid array of animation that thrives internationally and the homogeneous, Pixar-inspired type that dominates U.S. screens). Miyazaki's films are just as visually imaginative as Pixar's and often more so — more painterly and less beholden to the rules of "realism." More importantly, they are never content to define characters as good or evil, or even mostly good or mostly evil, and be done with it. Through a canny combination of sharp draftsmanship, clean animation and simple dialogue, Miyazaki throws children (and often adults) off balance, leaving them unsure what to make of a certain character or situation and forced to grapple with what Miyazaki is doing and showing."

Read the whole article here.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

A Revised Survival Kit


I got an email from Amazon, informing me that there is now an expanded edition of The Animator's Survival Kit by Richard Williams. The cover is above and the contents for the additional material are below. If anyone has a copy of the revised edition, please leave your thoughts about the new material in the comments.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A Swedish Holiday Tradition

When I was growing up in New York City, every Thanksgiving and Christmas, Channel 11 would run March of the Wooden Soldiers with Laurel and Hardy. In those days before home video, it was the only way to see the film so you didn't want to miss your chance. As a result, the film became a local holiday tradition.

You may be familiar with the Disney TV episode "From All of Us to All of You." It first ran on December 19, 1958 and was re-run for years. It's a clip show, using old shorts and feature excerpts. Apparently, the show is a huge holiday tradition in Sweden. It's been running for nearly 50 years and is still attracting one third to one half of the TV audience on Christmas Eve day. Jeremy Stahl discovered this when he traveled to Sweden to celebrate Christmas with his fiance's family and has investigated the phenomenon in this article for Slate.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Txesco's Season's Greetings


I've written about Txesco, an animator who worked on the Pocoyo series, before. He's created this beautifully designed and animated holiday greeting. Take a look.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Archive Series: Animation

This book, the second in the archive series after Story, is a collection of animation drawings from the entire history of the Disney animation studio. Except for the introduction by John Lasseter, there is no text to speak of in the book beyond the captions identifying the drawings, which are the real stars of this book.

A book like this is at once both a revelation and a frustration. The revelation has to do with the craft and beauty of the drawings. Animation drawings generally have more life than the image that results from them on screen. The evidence of the human hand is all over them, where that evidence tends to get lost by the time the drawings are pushed through the production pipeline to arrive at the final image.

The frustration comes from the drawings that aren't in this book. Every drawing is a reminder of other scenes from the same film that one wishes to see.

There is no credited editor, so it's impossible to know how these particular drawings were selected and if there was an agenda behind the selection. The period up until The Rescuers is represented by a much wider selection of animators than I would have suspected. Besides multiple images from the nine old men (and somebody really likes John Lounsbery, not that I'm complaining), there are drawings by Ub Iwerks, Dick Lundy, Jack Campbell, Fred Moore, Norm Ferguson, Art Babbitt, Dick Huemer, Frenchy de Tremaudan, Ham Luske, Robert Stokes, Bill Tytla, Grim Natwick, John Sibley, Marvin Woodward, Bill Justice, Hal Ambro, Jerry Hathcock, Blaine Gibson, and Ted Berman.

It's the post-Rescuers films that present a much narrower selection. There are drawings by Glen Keane, Andreas Deja, Mark Henn, Eric Goldberg, Nik Ranieri, Pres Romanillos, Anthony DeRosa, Bolhem Bouchiba, Randy Haycock and Bruce Smith. There are, for instance, no drawings by James Baxter, Tony Fucile, Ruben Aquino, Chris Buck, Ken Duncan, Darlie Brewster, Will Finn, Dale Baer, etc. It's also interesting to see what features have been ignored. There's nothing from The Fox and the Hound, The Black Cauldron, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Atlantis, Brother Bear and Home on the Range. Of course, there are multiple pages devoted to The Princess and the Frog. Disney never misses an opportunity to plug their latest product.

Some of the drawings are clearly animator roughs while others are clean-ups. It may be impossible to identify the assistant animators at this point, but they deserve a great deal of credit for some of the drawings in this book. Similarly, there are some drawings that include effects, and the effects animator is uncredited.

There are a few errors in the book. A Mickey drawing from The Little Whirlwind is credited to James Moore instead of Fred Moore. Some drawings from The Three Caballeros by Ward Kimball are credited to Gerry Geronimi, who had most certainly stopped animating by the time of that film.

There are some mysteries here, too. There are two drawings from Duck Pimples credited to Fred Moore, though he's not on the credits of that cartoon. Credits are rarely complete and I'd dearly like to see the animator draft for that cartoon to know who did what on it. It is one of the most interesting Disney shorts of the 1940s, both in terms of story and animation.

There's also a pair of King Louie drawings from The Jungle Book by Frank Thomas that are extremely rough. They are from a song sequence when Louie is bouncing to the beat and it may be that the drawings are there to refer to earlier drawings in the bounce cycle. However, whoever included them didn't do Thomas any favours as they are unquestionably the worst drawings in the book and don't leave a good impression of Thomas.

This book will provide pleasure to anyone who enjoys looking at Disney art, whether a fan or an artist. The artist will also benefit from the draftsmanship and technique on display. This book isn't a guide on how to animate, but it most certainly is a guide on how to draw for animation.

I'm always interested in showcasing the work of lesser-known Disney artists, mainly because the famous ones had no monopoly on talent. Here are some images from the book (click to enlarge them). Above is Wendy as drawn by Hal Ambro. The beautiful linework in her face -- the soft thicks and thins -- adds a genuinely delicate quality to her appearance.

Below are two Goofys drawn by Bill Justice. Both poses are vigorous, with strong lines of action and the straights in the arms and right leg contrasting with the curves in the spine, the left leg and the golf club. Plus, if you haven't noticed, they're funny!


Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Princess and the Frog

In retrospect, it was the height of ignorance to think that because multinational corporations abandoned drawn animation, the medium would die. It may not have been as visible in North America as it once was, but smaller studios were happy to keep making drawn films as if nothing had happened. The Princess and the Frog is the third drawn feature I've seen this year (after Miyazaki's Ponyo and Tomm Moore's The Secret of Kells) and had circumstances not prevented me from going to the Ottawa festival, I would also have seen Paul and Sandra Fierlinger's My Dog Tulip.

Of the three I have seen, I'm sorry to say that The Princess and the Frog is the least interesting. Disney's return to drawn animation is also a return to Disney clich├ęs. With the exception of race (and I want to come back to that), there's nothing in this film that Disney hasn't done before.

The truth, as everyone now acknowledges, is that people weren't tired of drawn animation, they were tired of being served the same stories over and over. That's why it's so disappointing that Disney has gone back to those stories. Without going into spoilers, the film is a gumbo of Broadway show tunes, Disney mysticism, lightweight romance and cartoon slapstick. The tone lurches all over the place and the film looks over-worked; it's as if the crew was so desperate for a hit that they pushed everything too far.

Except for one thing. One of my problems with Disney is that they choose settings for their art direction possibilities and then ignore everything else connected to the setting. This film is set in the 1910s and '20s in New Orleans. Racism was pervasive, not only on the personal level but also on the institutional level. It was in 1896, in the case Plessy v. Ferguson, that the United States Supreme Court ruled that "separate but equal" facilities for blacks and whites was constitutional. In reality, the facilities (including schools) were most definitely separate but never equal. There is no question that African Americans of the time were victims of a white society that used the law and violence in order to maintain a class system based on race.

I would suggest anyone interested in the truth of New Orleans during this time period read Louis Armstrong's autobiography My Life in New Orleans (and what an opportunity the film makers missed by not using Armstrong's recording of "A Kiss to Build a Dream On"). Armstrong's triumph over poverty and racism is far more interesting than this film. But let's be clear: this film doesn't exist to reveal any truths. It exists to capitalize on an under-served market segment: African-American girls who want a princess of their own.

I hope this film makes money because so long as Disney continues to make animated films, there is always the chance that a good one will result. A box office success will result in more employment for artists. But this year, besides Ponyo and Kells, I'd say I also prefer Sita Sings the Blues, The Fantastic Mr. Fox and Mary and Max to this film. All five of those films are more individual and more emotionally engaging than The Princess and the Frog.

If nothing else, this year has shown that animated features are bigger than just the multinationals, and the so-called "death" of drawn animation was not only exaggerated, it was also an opportunity for new voices to be heard. Perhaps this year we have entered a post-Disney or post-multinational age of animated features. Wouldn't that be nice?

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Peter Pan Wars

Greenbriar Picture Shows has a very interesting article on the fight between distributors and exhibitors over setting ticket prices for films in the early 1950's. Apparently, Peter Pan was point of contention between RKO, Disney's distributor at the time, and theatre owners. The U.S. Department of Justice got involved, holding hearings to determine if there was any collusion on setting prices.

John McElwee, the author, wonders if Disney's dissatisfaction with RKO's handling of the situation had anything to do with Disney setting up its own distributor, Buena Vista, shortly afterwards.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

A Guilty Pleasure

A guilty pleasure is something that's not good (or good for you) but that you like anyway. I have to admit that early Van Beuren sound cartoons are a guilty pleasure of mine. No one would compare them to the animation produced by the best of American studios, but they are the definition of the word "quirky." While occasionally, there are well drawn or animated scenes, the majority of them are clumsy, but they are clumsy in a way that provokes amazement, disbelief and most of all, laughter.

Steve Stanchfield's Thunderbean Animation has now collected the complete Van Beuren Tom and Jerry. These are not the cat and mouse cartoons that most associate with the character names, they are a human, Mutt and Jeff-like pair who starred in cartoons from 1931 to 1933. Because of the name confusion, when the cartoons were released to the home movie market, they were renamed Dick and Larry. The Van Beuren studio went out of business in 1936, so the cartoons became orphans and slipped into the public domain. They have suffered from endless duping, editing and retitling until Stanchfield began restoring them.

What makes these crude cartoons entertaining is their randomness. There is little logic in the cartoons from 1931 and '32 especially. Characters do things without reason, so you never know what's going to happen next. Tom and Jerry are barely developed. They seem to have different voices in every cartoon and their personalities and relationships are perfunctory at best. Often, they seem to be bystanders in their own cartoons, watching other characters carry the story and action.

However, the cartoons are driven by Gene Rodemich's jazz soundtracks and the animation, though weightless, is funny. These characters and cartoons are not believable in any sense of the word, but they amuse me. Animation is one of the least spontaneous art forms, requiring enormous planning. These cartoons come closer to being spontaneous than any others I can think of; many appear to be made up drawing by drawing, with no thought to what comes next.

Why, in Barnyard Bunk (embedded below) is there a skeleton in the outhouse? Why do ducks hatch from chicken eggs? What strange compulsion drives the mouse with the "Danger" sign? Does it matter? The walk cycles and dancing in this cartoon are ludicrous, but they make me laugh. These days, animation is either overly refined (see just about any recent feature) or barely expressive (see any recent TV animation). Funny movement seems to be a forgotten art. (Wait a minute. I'm sounding like John K. here...) When Grim Natwick said that many a cartoon was saved by a funny walk, he could have been talking about these.

And these cartoons may have been more influential than they are credited for. The cartoon Rabid Hunters looks like a warm-up for Porky's Hare Hunt, the first proto-Bugs Bunny cartoon. The Haunted Ship (one of four Waffles and Don cartoons on the set as a bonus) contains a quartet of drunk turtles singing "Sweet Adeline," and I have to wonder if that influenced Tex Avery's drunken fish singing "Moonlight Bay" in Porky's Duck Hunt.

Steve Stanchfield has searched for years to find the best prints of these cartoons, going to great lengths to restore original titles and missing footage. The gem on this set is a beautiful copy of A Swiss Trick, transferred from a 35mm original. This two disk collection contains every Tom and Jerry cartoon, liner notes and rare publicity artwork. No one but Stanchfield would have gone to the lengths he has to show off these cartoons.

This is not the first time he's laboured to revive the Van Beuren cartoons. He's also compiled the complete Cubby Bear, the complete Little King and a set of Toddle Tales and Rainbow Parade cartoons from that studio. Stanchfield has also put together sets of TV commercials, World War II propaganda films and various other collections. You can order Thunderbean collections here. I recommend them all.

If you're not familiar with Tom and Jerry, enjoy Barnyard Bunk below. The copy on the DVD set is better than this version I took from YouTube.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Two Contrasting Features

Within the space of a week, I had the opportunity to see two of this year's animated features, The Secret of Kells and Mary and Max. The first is directed by Tomm Moore of the Irish studio Cartoon Saloon and the second is the work of Australian Adam Elliot.

Both films were excellent, but for different reasons. Kells is one of the most beautifully art directed films I've ever seen. In some ways, its a feature that UPA should have made; it revels in flat design and is a riot of textures. It doesn't look like any feature that's been released to theatres in the recent past and stands out as a result.


I was frankly surprised at how expressive the animation was given the design. Some of the animators worked with a completely graphic approach while others kept to the designs, but moved the characters dimensionally. In both cases, the designs hold up and the characters come to life for the audience.

The Book of Kells is an actual illuminated manuscript of the gospels created circa 800 A.D. It currently is on display at Trinity College in Dublin. The illuminations in the book are the basis of the film's design. The film's story has to do with the people of Kells being threatened by a Viking invasion. The Abbot of Kells, himself a former illuminator, has decided that their best hope for survival is to surround their village with a wall to keep out the invaders. Brendan, the young nephew of the Abbot, is fascinated with the work of the illuminators and when an illuminator fleeing the Vikings arrives with the unfinished book, Brendan parts ways with his uncle over what their priority should be.

The film's story is not its strongest point, but it is far from weak. It is typical of coming-of-age stories where a youngster asserts his own values and attains independence from his elders. While most film protagonists perform heroic actions to defeat villains, Kells takes a more nuanced approach, counseling that sometimes flight is better than fight. The point of the film is that a society is more likely to survive by spending its resources on its art and culture rather than on defense. I wonder if this is the film makers' sly comment on the war on terror.

Mary and Max is a stop motion film about two outcast characters half a world apart. Mary is a young girl in Australia suffering from dysfunctional parents and a birth mark on her forehead which makes her the target of ridicule. Max is a middle-aged loner living in New York with a weight problem and Aspergers syndrome. These two become unlikely pen pals and manage to provide each other with comfort and advice while trying to survive in worlds where they don't fit in.



Adam Elliot previously won the Oscar for his animated short, Harvie Crumpet (2003). Like Chris Landreth (Ryan, The Spine), Elliot dwells on dysfunctional characters, but where Landreth displays them as an excuse to show off his technique, Elliot is genuinely sympathetic to his characters. The warmth he feels for them is what powers the film.

Stephen Rowley has written an excellent review of Mary and Max and his thoughts on Elliot's strengths and weaknesses mirror my own.
It is therefore not intended as a put-down to return to the thought that I started with, and note that Mary and Max is also carefully built around Elliot’s limitations. Elliot is a skilful writer and a designer, and as in his breakthrough short Harvie Krumpet he plays to those strengths by overlaying narration on top of his striking imagery. The whole story is driven by this approach, with most characters all-but-completely mute, except when we hear their written exchanges through voiceover. Elliot studiously avoids dialogue wherever possible, and he mostly makes it work because the writing is good and the approach thematically suits the story he’s telling here. Yet there are gaps (notably in Mary’s relationship with her husband) where the near-complete absence of verbal interaction between characters seems contrived and a little distracting. Actually staging a scene and telling us his characters’ feelings through actions and words, rather than a Barry Humphries voiceover, is a challenge Elliot seemingly doesn’t want to tackle.

Elliot seems, then, to be an animation director who actually animates only reluctantly, and in Mary and Max his other immense talents make it work. It will be interesting to see whether he can make a different kind of animated film, one in which he goes beyond the safety net of voiceovers and striking design. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he instead makes a Tim Burton-style transition to live-action, where he might be able to still use his strengths but shake off his limitations as an animator.
These features contrast in various ways, but I believe that they both point to viable approaches that are better than simply trying to make low budget versions of Hollywood films. Kells is based on local history and culture. Hollywood animated features regularly send their crews to foreign climes for research, but it tends to show up in art direction more than infuse the entire film. Kells is certainly more Irish than Disney's Hunchback is French.

Mary and Max could really take place anywhere. It's not location but point of view that sets this film apart. Adam Elliot's personality permeates the film. If a film has to work within a relatively low budget, a strong script and point of view can compensate for monetary limitations.

I suspect that when we look back at 2009, we'll see it as a banner year for animated features. Not only have the major studios released films (Up, Monsters vs. Aliens, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs), we've also seen new work by veteran directors like Hayao Miyazaki (Ponyo), John Musker and Ron Clements (The Princess and the Frog) and Henry Selick (Coraline). What's most exciting is that there are first features such as The Secret of Kells and Mary and Max that show that smaller players with something to say can make worthy films. That's what I find most exciting and I hope that we see more of it in the years to come.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Patterns of Motion


I've always been fascinated by Disney's Woodland Cafe (1937) and this scene in particular. Like Mother Goose Goes Hollywood a year later, this cartoon looks both forward and backward in its animation style. There are some scenes that could have been done as early as 1933 or '34 and others, like the above, that point towards the 1940s. The cartoon concludes with an upbeat jazz number, "Everybody's Truckin,'" played by a band of grasshoppers who are drawn to resemble the black jazz bands of the time. The shot above is from the song.

This shot has always been the highlight of the film for me. While the surrounding animation is full of energy, this shot just explodes off the screen. This shot is animated by Ward Kimball and I thank David Nethery (see comment below) for confirming that.

I wanted to know why this shot stands out for me, so I took a closer look. You can click the images below to enlarge them.


The shot is 56 frames long, entirely on ones. That's three and a half feet of 35mm film, or two and a third seconds. Given how short the shot is, the animator could have gotten away with a cycle, but there are no repeat drawings in this shot.

After the first slap, which we pick up in progress, everything is animated on a 7 beat, meaning that every 7 frames, the bass gets slapped. The spacing between the sixth and seventh drawings in the pattern (for instance frames 5 and 6 or 12 and 13) is wide, resulting in an accent where the bass gets slapped hard. The right hand and arm are foreshortened and exaggerated in their slapping motion.

There are major and minor slaps alternating, mirroring the ONE two THREE four of the musical rhythm. The right arm, the tapping right foot and the bouncing body are all in synch, which is no surprise. What is a surprise is that the character's head and the bass, while still on a 7 beat, are actually delayed 2 frames. So the hand slaps the base on frame 20 but the head and the bass don't hit their extreme drawings until frame 22.

This is something that probably shouldn't work. It's out of synch! And yet, besides the fact that it does work, it actually adds energy and interest to the shot by breaking up the rhythm so that not everything is hitting the beat at the same time. How did the animator figure this out? Had the character been broken into levels (or if it was done today with cgi), it would be easy to experiment by shifting some elements forward or backward in time, but the character is done as a single drawing, so this delay had to be thought out in advance. This knowledge may have been commonplace at Disney at the time, as they had animated so much to music, but it's hardly common knowledge today.

There's still more movement, as the character tilts towards screen right until frame 27 and then starts tilting back towards screen left. It's this tilt that prevents the possibility of using any cycles in this shot, as the character is never in the same position twice. Nothing on the character ever stops moving and the background adds more optical excitement by changing colours.

In many ways, this shot is optical overload, but it is justified by the tempo of the music and the shot's placement at the climax of the cartoon. It points to possibilities that were later explored by animators like Rod Scribner.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Cordell Barker's Runaway



The saying goes that comedy is a man in trouble. There is no shortage of trouble in Cordell Barker's films. In The Cat Came Back and Strange Invaders, a character arrives who is first welcome and then is revealed to be a source of chaos, destroying the lives of those around it. Both films end with the trouble-making character multiplying. In the first film, the main character accidentally kills himself while trying to get rid of the cat, and is then haunted by 9 feline ghosts. In Strange Invaders, the alien child calls down more of his brethren after destroying the home and marriage of the main characters. While it turns out to be a dream, the woman is pregnant with multiple children who resemble the alien child.

These films are structurally very similar and both keep the chaos localized. The main characters are unfortunate victims, but their problems are not typical. While we can identify with their frustrations, the films say little about our own lives.

With Runaway, Barker has expanded his view to encompass the whole of human civilization. The runaway train is carrying all of us and we're doomed. This is the blackest of comedies and far more biting than his previous films. While the forces of nature initiate the chaos, it becomes fatal due to the human follies of vanity, sex, greed and technology.

The train consists of four cars. The engine is manned by the Captain, a pompous, vain individual who is more interested in women than in his responsibilities. He is a stand-in for those who lead us. His fireman is the bureaucracy that allows leaders to function. The next car is the capitalist class, all wearing stovepipe hats, sipping drinks and playing billiards. This car contains a woman and her small dog. The next car consists of the lumpen proletariat, guzzling beer, dancing and wearing paper party hats. The caboose contains more bureaucrats, all asleep.

The dog runs into the engine. The woman follows it to reclaim it and the Captain leaves his post in order to flirt with her. The dog bites him and the woman, though meaning well, drags him off to take care of the bite. The driverless train then hits a cow walking on the tracks, hurling the fireman into the absurdly complex machinery, itself a comment on the technology our survival depends on. As he rights himself, he accidentally pulls a lever which causes the train to increase it's speed. The train is now out of control.

The first casualties are those in the caboose. As the train makes a turn, the caboose is flung into space with the inhabitants oblivious to what has happened. As the train attempts to climb a hill, the fireman runs out of coal and tells the passengers that they aren't going to make it.

Here's where the film gets interesting. The capitalists offer money to the proletariat in exchange for things to fuel the engine. Though the proles were completely happy before this, money warps their values and they are quick to give up everything they've got, even selling the clothes off their backs. The capitalists, having nothing left to buy from them, cut the proles' car loose from the rest of the train and steal back the money before the proles hurtle to their doom. Capitalist exploitation doesn't get much more explicit than this.

The engine still needs more fuel and the fireman informs the capitalists that he doesn't think they're going to make it. Only when their own survival is at stake do they finally panic (and never consider using their own possessions for fuel!). At this point, the train is precariously balanced at the top of a steep hill, threatening to fall backwards. The Captain and the woman emerge from a bathroom where she has tended to his wounds, and as the Captain walks back towards the engine, the balance is tipped and the train once more goes forward.

But when the captain returns to the engine, he turns his attention to the woman once more, ignoring his responsibilities. The train hurtles into the air and crash lands, killing all the people. The only survivors in the film are the cow and the small dog. Nature, it seems, will survive human folly. That is the only hope that the film allows.

Having concluded that human endeavors are doomed to self-destruct, is there anything left for Barker to say? Will he be limited to variations on this theme? At the rate he makes films, it will be another decade before we find out. In the meantime, though, we have a film whose laughs are marinated in pessimism. Runaway would fit nicely on a double bill with Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove.

Friday, November 13, 2009

So Long Sally


Thanks to my friend, the noted animation historian Jim Korkis, I was alerted to this page. Sally Holmes was a Disney employee and when she left the studio, the artists she knew drew personalized farewells in her copy of the book on Fantasia.

Besides the fact that these drawings are great, they include work from lesser known Disney artists such as Cliff Nordberg (pictured above), Hal King, Jesse Marsh, Judge Whitaker, Marvin Woodward, George Kreisl as well as artists whose names weren't known to me. Of course, there are drawings by some of the heavyweights like Ward Kimball, Fred Moore, Eric Larson, Milt Kahl and Marc Davis.

Take a minute to look at some fun artwork and envy whoever it was who purchased the book recently on Ebay.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Germans in the Woods

Germans in the Woods from Rauch Brothers on Vimeo.

In time for Veterans Day (in Canada, called Remembrance Day), here is a film from the Rauch Brothers. Quoting from an email I received from Mike Rauch:
In honor of tomorrow, Veterans Day, Rauch Brothers Animation has posted "Germans in the Woods" to the web. In this animated documentary, 86-year-old World War II veteran Joseph Robertson remembers a German soldier he killed at the Battle of the Bulge. Produced in collaboration with national oral history project StoryCorps. Created with pencil on paper, Photoshop, and AfterEffects.
I think one of the more interesting developments in animation has been the creation of animated documentaries. Animators routinely interpret audio tracks, looking to find the emotional core of a person's speech. Shifting that skill from fictional to real dialogue extends what animators do while providing an opportunity to visualize events beyond the reach of a camera.

I'd like to thank Mike and Tim Rauch for the opportunity to share this film.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Clarity, Logic and Entertainment

Last week, the 4th year students at Sheridan had a screening of their story reels. I mentor 10 of those students, out of 108 this year.

I've been looking at my students' reels as they developed since September, but it's always different seeing work with an audience. It struck me that there are three stages the students have to tackle in order to make a successful film, and various films were already at different stages.

The first is clarity. Can an audience understand what's happening on screen? I've asked students to explain something I don't understand about their films and their explanations make sense, but what's in their heads hasn't been communicated on the screen. Things, often important things, get left out. Clarity is pretty easy to achieve once a storyboard or story reel is shown to a few people, as they inevitably ask questions about things they don't understand.

Logic is a bit tougher. Getting the events of a film and the characters' behavior to be consistent and logical takes some doing. Some films have problems with tone; they signal to the audience that they're one type of film and then become another. That could potentially work in a longer film, but it's tough to get an audience to make a sharp emotional turn in less than two minutes. Other times, a film starts off with a theme and then contradicts itself by the end. Sometimes, there's a lack of consistency in terms of plot or character; events don't make sense based on what an audience would expect.

Logic is harder to fix than clarity. It sometimes means tearing up a story and rebuilding it, which can be a lot of work. It also means sacrificing something that the film maker probably wants to keep and getting a student to give something up is often a difficult task.

The toughest problem is entertainment, and you're never really sure what you've got until you get an audience reaction. I had a couple of students doing films that built up to punchlines. While they were clear and logical, the punchlines didn't get the expected response. Reworking the endings to evoke a laugh is going to be difficult as entertainment isn't as clear cut as clarity or logic.

If I could wish for anything for animation artists, it would be for more audience contact. Stand-up comics get good by constantly honing their material based on audience reaction. Actors or directors who start out in theatre do the same. Even bands that play bars get feedback.

Animators (especially those working in TV or games) exist in a vacuum. Feature animators have it a little better but still have to wait years to learn whether what they've done is successful or not. Animation people as different as Walt Disney and Bob Clampett viewed their films with audiences on a regular basis, measuring their intentions against the results. It took both of them years to solidify their ability to entertain, as it did Chuck Jones, Tex Avery and Friz Freleng.

People with the ability to entertain an audience are the ones most in demand. While some people may have a flair for it, I believe it's like any other skill and can be honed through practice. The problem for animation artists is that they have so few opportunities for audience feedback.

The Sheridan students now have their own experience of watching their films with an audience as well as feedback from friends and instructors. The films generally get better between the story reels and the final films as the students continue to polish their work. However, I wonder how much better the films would be if the students had more experience with audience reactions and I wonder the same about the whole animation business.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Mary and Max in Toronto

Adam Elliot's stop motion feature Mary and Max will have its Toronto premiere at the Bloor Cinema from November 20 to 25. It will screen on Nov. 20 at 7 p.m, Nov. 21 at 9:15 p.m, Nov. 22 at 7 p.m, Nov. 23 at 4:15 p.m. and 9:30 p.m, Nov. 24 at 9:30 p.m, and Nov. 25 at 4:15.

The film is paired with Cordell Barker's new NFB short, Runaway.

Elliot's earlier film, Harvie Krumpet (2003), won the Oscar for Best Animated Short.

The Bloor Cinema is located at 506 Bloor Street West at Bathurst.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Wild Life

The new issue of Flip is out, featuring an interview with Howard Baker, a director who does straight-to-DVD features for budgets as low as $3 million. That's an area that's very interesting to me and one that I think has potential for different kinds of films. However, the real surprise was his reel. At 7:50, you can see a clip from the canceled Disney feature Wild Life. I have no idea how much of this feature actually exists, but this may be all you're ever likely to see of it.

Pitch Bibles

As a follow up to my review of David Levy's book Animation Development From Pitch to Production, I'd like to point out a blog that Steve Schnier, creator of Freaky Stories, has assembled from his own pitch bibles. If you are thinking about pitching, you'll see some good examples of the kinds of materials you'll need at Steve's blog.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Before the Fall

The article below dates from about 1981, though I no longer have a record of what Canadian publication it appeared in. Though no one knew it at the time, it was published at the peak of Nelvana's promise. The studio's trajectory had been on a steady climb with its TV specials and it was working on its first feature, known originally as Drats and later renamed Rock and Rule.

By the time the feature was finished, it almost finished the studio. Nelvana had been forced to sell of its share of the film in order to raise the money to complete the film, which had gone over budget. Had the film turned into a hit, Nelvana would not have benefited except in the area of reputation. The distributor, United Artists, lost all interest in the film after a disastrous test screening in Boston, so even that potential benefit failed to appear.

After the film's completion, the company was essentially bankrupt, but Michael Hirsh managed to bring in enough service work to keep the doors open. Eventually, he would prove his genius for sales by finding well-known properties that TV networks and distributors were happy to purchase animated versions of. The company prospered to the point that it was bought by Corus, a Canadian cablecaster, making Hirsh, Loubert and Smith millionaires. Of the three, only Hirsh is still involved in animation. He took over Cinar after a major financial scandal crippled the company and has successfully turned it around, renaming it Cookie Jar.

Nelvana today bears no resemblance to the company portrayed in this article. The young, enthusiastic and talented crew who were bent on changing animation are long gone and the company is now a division of a public corporation focused on its bottom line. The failure of Rock and Rule (and unfortunately it deserved to fail) changed the course of Canadian animation history for the worse. To date, no Canadian studio has accomplished what Nelvana was trying to do, so the promise of 1981 remains unfulfilled.






Thursday, October 29, 2009

Happy Birthday Ralph Bakshi

Today is Ralph Bakshi's 71st birthday. Below is a publicity pamphlet that accompanied the release of Heavy Traffic. I still feel that Traffic is Bakshi's most satisfying film and one that pointed in a direction that too few have followed. Persepolis may be the only animated film I can think of that's similar.

Note that the film was rated X at the time of release. Current versions are rated R, though I have no memory of what's been cut. Regardless of the rating, what makes the film groundbreaking for me is the combination of cartoony designs and realistic emotions. Besides breaking animation's family friendly stereotype, Bakshi also showed how much more a cartoon was capable of.

Most of the film is on YouTube. One part is missing, and I suspect that it's the Maybelline sequence that Mark Kausler animated, as there is some explicit sexual content there. The film is also available on DVD for $10 U.S. It's not a great transfer, but the film is worth seeing in any condition.



(Click to enlarge.)

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Musker and Clements Interview

I'm sure that there will be many interviews coming to publicize The Princess and the Frog. Here's one that deals with some technical issues, the crew and the possible futures for drawn Disney animation.

(link via Jim Caswell.)

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Gene Deitch's 50th Anniversary

Gene and Zdenka Deitch

Gene Deitch has now been in Prague for 50 years and The Prague Post commemorates the occasion with this article on Gene and Zdenka.

(link via Fantagraphics Flog! blog)

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Animation Development

Animation Development From Pitch to Production by David Levy is a very good book about a very bad process.

What's good about it is that Levy does not minimize the difficulties of pitching and maneuvering a creation through the broadcast bureaucracy. He interviews creators and development executives about the various stages of the process and he is as quick to point out mistakes made by creators as those made by broadcasters. Levy has pitched his own material for over ten years and he is not shy about relating his own experiences, including those with unhappy endings or those where he later recognized he was at fault.

If you are interested in selling a show to television, this book is the best preparation in print that I'm aware of. If you've just toyed with the idea, this book will let you know what you're up against and perhaps persuade you that there are better ways to spend your time.

The development process is a badly flawed process on multiple fronts. One of the ironies is that development executives are paid salaries where the people who create ideas to pitch to them create these works for free. Should an idea be accepted for development, the amount of money a creator can expect to see to develop a script or bible will be minimal and the process will take a long time, meaning that creators can't afford to devote their full time or attention to the idea in question.

Development executives seem to know everything a successful show needs except how to create one in the first place. They are also unwilling to devote time to determining if an idea is worthy or not, so creators are forced to start off with the barest descriptions of a show. Should a creator put effort into a more detailed proposal, the odds are that the executives won't bother to read it and may also consider the creator someone who isn't willing to collaborate. On the one hand, executives want creators with a vision; on the other hand, they want creators who will be happy to take direction. In effect, creators are asked to suck and blow at the same time and the proportion varies depending on the executive, the broadcaster and the day of the week.

These executives are powerless to actually put anything into production, so their notes are questionable to begin with. Should they like something, they have to sell it to their superiors and there is no guarantee that the development people share the taste or prejudices of their bosses.

If a creator is lucky enough to move to a pilot or a series, the creator has to hire a lawyer to negotiate the right to continue on the production and for a share of profits or royalties. It's a certainty that the creator will have to give up ownership of the property in order for it to go forward.

The system is set up so that major corporations have a creator work for peanuts until such time that they think that there's money to be made, then they take ownership of the property and allow the creator to continue contributing for as long as it is convenient. The corporations would no doubt point to all the money they spend on development, but the majority of that money is spent on their own employees, not the creators who bring them the material they need to survive. The entire process is so drawn-out and stacked against creators that it's a measure of creators' optimism and commitment to their ideas that anyone bothers to pitch in the first place.

Anyone who watches television knows that the results are nothing special. The majority of shows fail, even with all the work that goes into their creation. Except for pilots, usually made on a shoestring, the development process completely divorces the idea from the execution, which can often be crippled by budget, deadline or choice of subcontractors, something the creator will not have final control over.

Levy is the eternal optimist; someone who feels that his career has been enriched by pitching and development. It has led him to some successes and to some employment opportunities on projects he didn't create, so who is to say that he is wrong? My own feeling is that any creator committed to an idea would be better off figuring out a way to develop it without interference, even if that means the idea isn't realized as animation. From my perspective, as someone who managed to get a show on the air, the compromises are too high a price to pay.

In any event, I do wish that I had the chance to read Levy's book before my series was sold and went to air. There is valuable information here about what to expect and I recommend this book for that reason. I hope that one day the book will be a historical curiosity about a process that didn't survive the changing media landscape.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Not Attending Ottawa

I had plans to attend the Ottawa International Animation Festival next week. In particular, I was looking forward to the feature films that will screen there. Unfortunately, some family business has come up that must be dealt with during the festival, so I am unable to go.

I'm mentioning this in the advent any of you would be looking for me there. For those who are going, enjoy the festival.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Alice in WTF?

I have no idea who created this, why they created this, how they created this or if it ever ends. If you are one of those people who enjoyed Alice in Wonderland while (how shall I put this?) under the influence, I suspect that you will find this an enjoyable experience.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Frederator Aggregator

Let’s get one thing straight: Paying artists is always a positive thing. But the manner in which the guys at Channel Frederator are doing it continues to reflect their lack of regard and respect for the filmmaking community upon which they’ve built their brand. Seriously, in what universe is $50 considered an acceptable fee for anything nowadays? Have they been misinformed that filmmakers can time travel back to 1964 to make all their purchases?

Here’s a reality check—the last time I went out to lunch with Channel Frederator founder Fred Seibert, our lunch bill ended up being over fifty smackers. In other words, this paltry amount isn’t even enough to fill up Fred’s tummy for one afternoon, yet somehow it’s supposed to represent a filmmaker’s reward for months of blood, sweat and tears. They’ve also announced that every month they’ll pay the filmmaker of the most viewed film a whopping $200. Guess what? That’s still less than what we pay every single filmmaker on Cartoon Brew TV.

-Amid Amidi on Cartoon Brew

As you can see from the above, Channel Frederator has started paying a small amount for animation it will host on its site. Amidi is somewhat outraged at the amount. I think that Amidi is missing a fundamental aspect of Fred Seibert's business model and I think that the animation community doesn't yet understand how to function in the online world.

If you want to understand what Seibert is doing, I'd recommend that you read three books: The Long Tail and Free by Chris Anderson and What Would Google Do by Jeff Jarvis. Seibert's Next New Networks is practically a textbook case arising out of these books.

The long tail occurs when shelf space becomes infinite. In a brick and mortar store, space is limited so the proprietor focuses on those items that sell the best. That way, each square foot of space produces the maximum amount of income. However, in the online world, space is infinite and the cost of servers and hard drives is continuously coming down. Therefore, it's possible to offer a much wider variety of merchandise. Items that might only sell once or twice a year could not be carried in a brick and mortar store because they wouldn't produce sufficient profit, however when shelf space is unlimited and the cost approaches zero, a retailer might as well carry everything. The long tail consists of those items that, individually, do not add up to much in the way of sales, but if you have enough of those low-selling items, they can add up to a profitable business. Online retailers of this type are aggregators. The gather up anything in their category and make money by tiny profits on thousands or millions of items. Examples of long tail businesses are Amazon and Ebay.

The cost of duplicating something digitally is close to zero. With servers and hard drives becoming cheaper, the cost of hosting things also approaches zero. This is the thinking behind the book Free. Free is the most attractive price, so if you can afford to make something free, you're sure to find interested customers. The trick is to find something that you can sell while you're giving away the free item.

Jeff Jarvis says that the way to succeed in the online world is to build a platform that other people can use to form communities or do business. Google is the obvious example, but so are Amazon and Ebay. Amazon is a platform for anyone who wants to sell a book, whether a multinational conglomerate or a hobbyist in a basement. Ebay has created a worldwide market for any item you can think of.

Channel Frederator, now part of Next New Networks, is a classic aggregator. They gather up anything they think has the potential to attract a viewer. They don't have access to libraries of material from Disney, Warner Bros, Nickelodeon, etc. so they'll take material that's in the long tail and try to gather up enough of it to keep pulling viewers to the site. As recommended by Jarvis, they've built a platform that animators can use to reach an audience.

The material is available to viewers for free. What Next New Networks does is sell the viewers to advertisers. This is exactly the model that broadcast TV and radio have used for years.

Amazon or Ebay don't pay you to list with them, because the expectation is that you (and they) will profit from that listing. Channel Frederator is paying, though a pittance, but the amount is besides the point.

What's missing is the animation community's understanding of how to take advantage of Channel Frederator.

What Channel Frederator supplies is a piece of internet real estate. It is worth exactly zero, as anybody can start a blog or upload to YouTube for free. The valuable thing that Channel Frederator supplies is an audience. People interested in animation will go there looking for something to watch. It's likely that putting your film on Channel Frederator will result in more views, at least initially, than putting your film on YouTube, because Frederator is more focused. YouTube has everything, but your video is the proverbial needle in the haystack without some other kind of marketing to direct the audience to it. At Frederator, the audience for animation is already there.

Rather than complain about how little Frederator is paying, animators need to work the system. They should be using exposure on Frederator to drive to the audience to their own sites, where they sell something. Free points out that you can't charge for things that are abundant, you can only charge for things that are scarce. Therefore, while the audience can watch your film for free, you want to sell DVDs of it and include an autograph and quick sketch with every purchase, giving your viewer something they can't download. You can also be selling T-shirts, coffee mugs, etc. And of course, there should be a "donate" button on your site.

If you've got a reasonably good film, you'll probably make more from selling swag than from what Frederator is going to pay you. Furthermore, you should be collecting email addresses from your buyers, so that every time you release a new product, you've got a list of people to notify who have already bought something from you. By definition, these people like you enough to pay something for your work. They are a valuable resource.

If Frederator is willing to gather an audience for your film, carve off as much of it as you can and then monetize it.

Now, before you do this, I suggest that you read Frederator's Terms of Use. In particular, I want to quote the following:

Ownership; Licenses

We do not claim ownership rights in your User Submissions. However, by uploading, submitting, emailing, posting, publishing or otherwise transmitting any User Submission to any of the Sites, you hereby grant us a non-exclusive, worldwide, royalty-free, sublicensable, perpetual and irrevocable right and license to use, reproduce, modify, adapt, prepare derivative works based on, perform, display, publish, distribute, transmit, stream, broadcast and otherwise exploit such User Submission in any form, medium or technology now known or later developed, including without limitation on the Site and third party websites, podcast, video game consoles and services, video-on-demand and television. You represent and warrant that you own or have the necessary licenses, rights, consents, and permissions to grant the foregoing licenses to us. We shall own all right, title and interest in and to all derivative works and compilations of User Submissions that are created by us, including without limitation all worldwide intellectual property rights therein. You agree to execute and deliver such documents and provide all assistance reasonably requested by us, at our expense, to give us the full benefit of this section.

If you can wade through what's above you will note that while they don't claim ownership of your work, they claim perpetual non-exclusive use of it. They also have the right to modify it and prepare derivative works from it. They can place it on game consoles and all of the above are without any additional compensation. So, they can use your film forever, they can cut it or add to it, they can ship it with the next version of the Playstation or XBox. They can do all that and more without asking you for permission.

Note that they can develop derivative works. In historical terms, imagine that you've created a film called Porky's Hare Hunt with the prototype of Bugs Bunny. Frederator decides that the core idea is a good one but you didn't make the most of it, so they turn around and derive A Wild Hare from your film, only now, they own the new version of Bugs Bunny (not you), and they continue to use your film as a Bugs Bunny DVD extra or as part of a package of Bugs Bunny cartoons they sell elsewhere.

Would Frederator do any of the above? I have no idea. However, they have the legal right to. More than the $50 fee they're willing to pay, the Terms of Use are the part of the deal that smells the worst to me.

Some artists will inevitably complain that they don't want to deal with selling stuff, they just want to create their work. While in the past you could sell that work to a studio and receive a reasonable paycheque, those days are rapidly coming to a close. The economic model for film and TV as it existed is crumbling. Fred Seibert (and Cartoon Brew TV for that matter) will not pay you enough to create your work. We may see the studio jobs in animation vanish the same way that journalism jobs are vanishing. If that happens, we may all be reduced to creating work for free and then selling something related to the that work. Certainly, if you want to retain ownership of your work, that's what you'll be doing. However, if you want to maintain control over your work, you won't be contributing to Channel Frederator.

(This article is about strip cartoonists, not animators, but the lessons it talks about are ones that animators should be thinking over seriously.)

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Bill Mechanic Speaks

If you have any interest in the way the film business operates or the climate that exists for independent films, you must read this talk given by Bill Mechanic, former head of Fox and now an independent producer. It's the keynote address to the Independent Film & Television Production Conference and is essential reading.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

ScribeMedia.org

Fred Seibert at left.
ScribeMedia.org is a video site focusing on the business, technology and culture of the web. There is a six part, 90 minute interview with Fred Seibert, called "Building Digital Entertainment Brands," which talks about Next New Networks, his collection of internet channels. Other videos are on "The Power of Online Storytelling," "Maximizing the Monetization of Online Video Content," "Independent Filmmaking in the Digital World," and "Hollywood 2.0 -- Content and Commerce."

All the above links are to talking heads videos. I wish that they were transcripts instead, as they would be searchable and easier to speed read for relevant information. However, the interviews are with industry professionals, so their insights are worth hearing.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Michael Hirsh Profile

Canadian Business profiles producer Michael Hirsh, a founding partner of Nelvana and currently the head of Cookie Jar. Whether you like the shows he's produced or not, there's no question that Canadian animation would have been significantly different without Hirsh.

(link via Paul Teolis)

Sunday, September 20, 2009

It's Clobberin' Time!

Rich Johnston, Nikki Finke and the N.Y. Times are reporting that the estate of Jack Kirby has filed for termination of copyright on the characters he co-created for Marvel Comics. Will this have an impact on Disney's intended purchase of Marvel?

There is no single person in the history of comic books who created more successful characters than Jack Kirby. There is no one in the history of comic books who received less of his rightful financial due than Kirby. I have no idea how this will play out, but I hope that the Kirby estate realizes millions from this. I'm only sorry that Kirby himself isn't alive to benefit from it.

9


(There are spoilers below.)

9 is a post-apocalyptic fantasy that suffers from huge huge logic holes and underdeveloped characters. This is a shame, as the film has strong art direction and what Variety would call "solid tech credits."

The story is about a scientist who invents a machine for the betterment of mankind and has it taken away from him and subverted by a military government. The machine is used for war and then turns on humans, wiping them out. Somehow, the scientist ends up being the last man alive. I would think that either he would be drafted to stop the doomsday machine or would be killed by an angry mob, but it appears that he's left alone to build dolls. Why he considers this the appropriate response is never explained. There's a streak of mysticism running through the film, as the scientist imparts a piece of his soul to the nine burlap dolls. After the ninth, the scientist has apparently run out of soul and dies.

I have to assume that numbers one through eight were unsuccessful prototypes, because the scientist leaves instructions explicitly for number 9. Based on the image above, 1 through 8 have specific tasks to perform, but they don't cooperate with each other or know what to do. 9 himself is responsible for a colossal blunder which exists only for the convenience of setting the plot in motion. That blunder is even more convenient in that a device the scientist has invented to save the world also fits perfectly in the doomsday machine, making it even more powerful. Way to go, scientist!

At the end of the film, 9 frees the parts of the scientist's soul that were embedded in five of the dolls. The souls ascend to heaven, causing a rainstorm. The implication is that somehow, the rain will renew the earth and there are hints that the raindrops contain bacteria to start the evolutionary process over again. I can only wonder why the souls of billions of humans who died previously were not capable of causing this rain.

Furthermore, the future for the four remaining dolls is uncertain at best. They seem incapable of reproducing, sexually or otherwise. Will they eventually wear out? Will they perish through accidents? Some dialogue states that the world is now theirs to remake, but the appearance of the bacteria-laden rain implies otherwise.

If the characters were memorable, these questions wouldn't matter quite so much. However, the characters are not well developed. While they have voices by Elijah Wood, Christopher Plummer, Martin Landau and Crispin Glover, the actors have nothing to work with. These characters have no arcs and have less personality, with a few exceptions, than the 7 dwarfs. That's a handicap that the animators can't overcome.

An audience enters a film through the characters. When characters are weak and underdeveloped, the audience has no reason to identify with them or care what happens to them. This reduces the impact of the various action sequences of the film. They are well directed and animated from a technical standpoint, but don't have the effect they should because the audience is not invested in the characters' fates. What makes it worse is that the film is almost all action sequences in order to pad out the slim plot.

The artists who worked on this film have done their jobs well. The film's shortcomings are not in the visuals, which are consistently good. As often happens, the artists have been let down by the script. Good art direction and slick production values are not enough for an audience. If they were, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow would be considered a classic instead of a film most people have forgotten.

Starz, the Toronto production company responsible for the bulk of this film's visuals, is developing into a first class studio. Because they are a shop for hire, they're stuck with the scripts they are handed and are in no position to demand rewrites. Eventually, they may get lucky and work on a hit, but it's a shame they have to trust to luck. The artists on this film have done work to be proud of, but it can't overcome the script's deficiencies. I hope someday they work on a film worthy of their talents.

Friday, September 18, 2009

A Gaggle of Guests

(Updated at the bottom.)
Paul Fierlinger
It's only the second week of classes at Sheridan College, but due to a variety of circumstances, we've been lucky to have three industry guests in three days.

Paul Fierlinger was in Toronto to attend the Toronto International Film Festival screenings of his new feature My Dog Tulip. I was able to reach Paul and arrange for him to speak at the college, but the notice was so short we wedged him into a first year animation lecture and then spread the word to students from other years.

My Dog Tulip
Fierlinger spoke about his long career as a freelancer and independent film maker, urging the students to be original and to use their originality as their main selling point. He said that except for corporate logos, he never did a job that wasn't in his own style. It wasn't enough for him to say that his style was better, he had to show the client (often with sample animation) that his approach would work better than a design approach they put forward.

Fierlinger was very bullish on the internet, urging students to find communities that exist on line and figure out ways to serve them through animation. He mentioned a friend who was a 5th grade teacher who made simple animations for his students as a hobby, and now other teachers were now requesting copies and the friend was making several hundred dollars a week marketing the shorts while continuing to teach.

Fierlinger stressed the power of the internet, both in terms of making sales but also for doing research and for collaborating. Fierlinger was able to research the location of My Dog Tulip without traveling to England thanks to the internet and he found Shay Lynch, the composer for his next film (on John Slocum, the first man to sail around the world solo), after hearing his work on The Animated Life blog on the New York Times.

Fierlinger has been freelancing continuously for 51 years and his example is a good one for animation students, who often only think of landing a job at a studio. His determination to work with his own artistic style and his ability to deal with adult content in films like A Room Nearby and Still Life with Animated Dogs, point in directions that students need to consider.

Don Hahn
On Wednesday evening, Don Hahn made an appearance at Sheridan College. The event was held in the large theatre on campus and over a hundred students were still turned away. Hahn did a presentation about Walt Stanchfield, artistic inspiration and the production process. After his presentation, he signed copies of his recent books. Hahn was also in town for the Toronto International Film Festival, where his documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty was screening. The film is about the revival of Disney animation in the 1980s and '90s.

Walt Stanchfield was a Disney animator who taught drawing extensively at the studio. Stanchfield's notes on various drawing and animation topics have circulated in photocopy form for years, and Hahn has compiled the notes into a recently published two volume set called Drawn to Life. The presentation on Stanchfield included lots of his art and several videos of him teaching at the Disney studio.

Hahn showed a great many pieces of illustration art that inspired Disney's original artistic crew and more recent work that had an influence on the newer generation.

Not by design, Hahn started off by taking the opposite tack from Fierlinger, saying that animation is a team sport and talking about the pleasures and necessities of collaboration. He stepped through the entire production process, showing sample art and video for each step. He showed rejected character designs and played a bit of the first version of "Circle of Life" to make the point that you want to fail fast and fail often. It takes going down wrong paths before you find the best solution and the collaborative process allows for many more variations to be examined before the best solution is found.

Hahn was enthusiastic for the future of animation and drawn animation in particular, saying that he greatly admired what he had seen on The Princess and the Frog, but should it fail at the box office, Disney would still continue to make drawn features. He talked about how international animation has become and the many opportunities thanks to that and technology that were not available when he started. He was excited to see what films would be made in the next 10 years by the people who were currently students.

Hahn was asked what his most pleasant working experience was and he answered that it was working on Atlantis. While he admitted that the people had to judge for themselves how successful the film was, he said that he was working with people he had known for 10 years and very much liked. By contrast, the toughest working experience he had was on Beauty and the Beast, where the production had to deal with Howard Ashman's death, having its budget cut and Hahn having a child during production.

Joe Haidar
The last guest of the week was Joe Haidar, a veteran animator who has worked in Canada, England and the U.S, including 15 years at Disney. Joe was in Toronto to visit friends and family and brought along Animated American, a live action and animated short film he co-directed with James Baker and that was produced by Susan Cohen.

I had Haidar as a guest in my second year lecture, though many third and fourth year students sat in. He screened the complete film and then talked about how the film was made. When he and Baker were laid off at Disney, they decided to do something for themselves rather than just look for another job. The two wrote the story and then brought in screenwriter Tim Talbott to polish the script. The live action was shot over 4 days and then Haidar and Baker did the bulk of animation themselves over more than a year.

Haidar was surprised and sorry to discover that people from live action were far more cooperative and generous in helping the film get made than people in animation. He also mentioned that when they started the film, they realized that they knew hundreds of artists, but no business people and he suggested to the students that they don't limit their professional relationships to other artists.

Animated American is currently playing festivals and Haidar and Baker are planning to do a live action feature as their next project together.

The best thing about these guests is their varying viewpoints. Fierlinger is the lone independent, Hahn is the corporate team player and Haidar is the new director looking to launch his own projects. If nothing else, they demonstrate that animation, as an occupation and a medium, has greater possibilities than many people realize.

(Update: Paul Fierlinger posted his impressions of how My Dog Tulip was received at the Toronto International Film Festival here. The Globe and Mail has an article dealing with both My Dog Tulip and Waking Sleeping Beauty here.)