Friday, January 30, 2015

Twice Upon a Time

On Saturday night at 2:15 A.M. Eastern Time (really early Sunday morning), Turner Classic Movies will run a genuine rarity.  Twice Upon a Time (1983) is an animated feature that uses backlit translucent cut-outs in stop motion produced by George Lucas and directed by John Korty and Charles Swenson.  The film has never been on DVD and rarely runs on television.

The film features voice work by Lorenzo Music and Paul Frees.  There are many names in the crew recognizable from other work, such as David Fincher (who did special effects), Henry Selick, Kaj Pindal, and John Van Vliet.

TCM's blog Movie Morlocks discusses the career of John Korty and the circumstances surrounding the making of the film.   Ward Jenkins collects a bunch of YouTube clips and interviews Harley Jessup, the art director of the film.

The 1980s were an odd decade for animation.  Disney was rebuilding, Don Bluth was attempting to overtake them and Bakshi was in his rotoscope period.  The decade also saw lots of independent animated features that were interesting but failed to have much box office success.  It wasn't until the later '80s, when Disney got back on track and Spielberg got involved with animation that a new normal was established.  Prior to that, films like Twice Upon a Time, Heavy Metal, Grendel Grendel Grendel, The Plague Dogs, Rock and Rule, The Adventures of Mark Twain and When the Wind Blows were looking to take animation in new directions, but due to inexperience and audience prejudices, they failed.

While these films had small, but professional budgets, this kind of film is made today on a shoestring by independents like Bill Plympton, Nina Paley and Signe Baumane.  If those types of films are interesting to you, take a look at Twice Upon a Time.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness

Mami Sunada's documentary on the creation of The Wind Rises, The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, is a fascinating film for a wide variety of reasons.

The main one is Hayao Miyazaki himself, a gruff, prickly personality who has a love/hate relationship with making animated films.  He has devoted his life to something that he has large doubts about.  He says, "Today, all of humanity's dreams are cursed somehow.  Beautiful yet cursed dreams.  I'm not even talking about wanting to be rich or famous.  Screw that.  That's just hopeless.  What I mean is, how do we know movies are even worthwhile?  If you really think about it, is this not just some grand hobby?  Maybe there was a time when you could make films that mattered, but now?  Most of our world is rubbish.  It's difficult."

I would love to know if Miyazaki thought this way when he was younger or if there has been a darkening of his view over time.  There are artists who create to escape from themselves; to imagine a world better than the one they live in.  Miyazaki may be someone who has created pleasant fantasies to counterbalance his tendency to pessimism. The film reveals that Miyazaki's original intention was to have Jiro, the main character of The Wind Rises, die at the end, but he changed his mind.  Miyazaki affirms life, even as he questions its result.

The inside of Studio Ghibli is a lovely workspace, with large windows providing natural light and a rooftop garden that Miyazaki visits often.  It was interesting to compare the technical process to what's common in North America.  No animation disks are used, just floating pegs on tables with built in light boxes.  The Japanese all use the pegs at the top, in contrast to the North American preference for bottom pegs.  The backgrounds are still painted on paper and shot on an animation camera, though the animation drawings are brought into the computer for colouring and compositing with the backgrounds.  I was aware that voices are post-synched to picture, but the voice of Jiro was not even cast until much animation had been done. In North America, characters and animation are built on top of voices.

I knew nothing of producer Toshio Suzuki before seeing this film, but I have nothing but admiration for him now.  He is the producer that every director wants and needs.  He is level-headed and patient.  He is an ambassador for the studio with merchandisers, distributors and the press.  He works very hard, but never seems tired or on edge.  He is the calm in the middle of any storm.  While Miyazaki seems intimidating at times, Suzuki is never less than friendly.  Of the two, I suspect that spending time with Suzuki would be a lot more pleasant.

Unfortunately, the film has very little of Ghibli's other director, Isao Takahata.  We never see any part of his Princess Kaguya in production.  We do, however, meet the young producer in charge of that film, Yoshiaki Nishimura.  Takahata is apparently famous for being unable to stick to a schedule.  Initially, Ghibli intended to release Princess Kaguya simultaneously with The Wind Rises, but Takahata was unable to make the deadline.  Nishimura is the one who had to deal with trying to get the film finished.  In the DVD supplement called Ushiko Investigates! (Ushiko being the studio cat), Nishimura says, "I believe many works in this world are unnecessary.  I think there are a lot of them like that.  At one point, I thought if I had the time to be making anime like that, I'd rather devote my energy somewhere else.  A Takahata-san movie will be a masterpiece for 10 years, 20 years.  I figured it would be a work you'd want to see again and again.  Create 100 things in 10 years or create 1 thing in 10 years."  At Ghibli, while money must play a role in shaping the films, it isn't the only standard that's applied.

The same DVD extra contains a moment so brazen, I am amazed that it was included.  John Lasseter visits the studio and on camera talks about his admiration for Miyazaki's films.  The two of them seem to have a warm, personal relationship as they talk to each other and move through the studio.  When Miyazaki is alone, Sunada asks Miyazaki, "What do you like about Lasseter-san?"  Miyazaki's response is "What do I like about him?  That's not the kind of relationship we have with each other.  I need Lasseter.  He's necessary."  The same man who can create the warmth of Totoro can be cold, calculating and inconsiderate.

If you wish to know more about Studio Ghibli and if you wish to get closer to Miyazaki, this documentary is essential.  It supplements the two volumes of Miyazaki's collected writings.  There are no documentaries about North American animation studios that are like it.  Even The Sweatbox doesn't come close, as everyone at Disney is always conscious of public relations.  No one speaks as bluntly on camera as Miyazaki.  Furthermore, if you have worked in animation, watch Toshio Suzuki show how a brilliant producer operates.

This documentary is a precious record of a great director and a great studio that have earned a lasting place in animation history and in the hearts of animation fans around the world.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Bye Bye PDI

When I started in computer animation in 1985, there were five studios that dominated the field: Robert Abel and Associates, Digital Productions, Omnibus Computer Graphics, Cranston-Csuri Productions and Pacific Data Images.  Three of those five companies didn't make it to the '90s.  I can't remember when Cranston-Csuri closed, but it was a long time ago.

PDI was the company that survived.  It was formed in 1980 by Carl Rosendahl, who was joined shortly by Glen Entis and Richard Chuang.  At that time, all software had to be home brewed.  There was no off-the-shelf software.  Every company that existed at the time had to invent (forget about re-invent) the wheel before they could do any work.

Take a look at this demo reel from 1983.  This was cutting edge stuff at the time.

PDI stayed at the forefront of the computer animation business.  It did many flying logos for broadcasters.  It moved into TV commercials, animating the Pillsbury Doughboy.  It created morphing software used in the Michael Jackson video Black or White.  It produced shorts like Gas Planet, and contributed computer character animation to the TV special The Last Halloween.

After Pixar got computer animated features off the ground and drawn animated features were suffering at the box office, Jeffrey Katzenberg of DreamWorks knew he had to get into the cgi game.  His way in was by partnering with PDI.  Initially a minority owner, DreamWorks eventually purchased the entire company.

Antz was the first film made by the studio, followed by Shrek, the film that really put DreamWorks animation on the map.  The PDI facility continued to create some of DreamWorks most successful films, such as the Shrek sequels and the Madagascar series.

Now, it's closing.  It's no secret that DreamWorks has been suffering financially of late.  The company has worked hard to diversify, buying existing characters and creating TV work.  However, it still needs to cut expenses in order to stay healthy.  Five hundred employees are expected to lose their jobs across all the DreamWorks facilities, but PDI is being closed. 

The last of the '80s companies is gone.  It held on longer and had a greater impact than its original competition.  With the closing of PDI, a chunk of living cgi history vanishes.  A lot of top talent passed through PDI through the years, and now it's just a memory.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Animatic T.O. Returns

Animatic T.O, the Toronto lecture series featuring animation professionals, is back on Wednesday, Jan. 14 at The Rhino, 1249 Queen Street West.  Doors open at 7 and the event begins at 7:30.  Admission is $10 at the door.

This event features the work of Genevieve FT, an illustrator and designer who has worked in comics and videogames.  See you there.


Thursday, January 08, 2015

Book Review: Funnybooks

If you ask anyone in North America to name a comic book company, they would probably name Marvel or DC.  Possibly they'd name Archie.  However, during the heyday of comic books, the 1940s and '50s when one comic sold over 3 million copies a month, a different company had 40% of the market, outselling all of the above.  The comic book was Walt Disney's Comics and Stories and the company was Western Printing and Lithography, distributed under the Dell imprint.

Historian and critic Michael Barrier is best known for his writings on animation such as Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in its Golden Age and The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney.  However, his interest in certain comics is longstanding and he previously wrote two books on this topic.  In his latest book, Funnybooks: the Improbable Glories of the Best American Comic Books, he has chronicled the complicated and surprising history of Western while focusing on several creators whose work has stood the test of time.  Carl Barks, Walt Kelly and John Stanley were three writer-artists whose work in comic books aimed at children transcended the target age group.

While most comic book companies of the time were located in New York City, Western had offices in New York, Poughkeepsie and Los Angeles.  While other comic book companies owned the characters they published, Western licensed the majority of its titles from other media: animation, movies and TV shows.

In the days before the internet, the dominant on-demand medium was print.  Movies, radio and television schedules were beyond the public's control.  Magazines, produced cheaply and frequently, were present at every newsstand and were there to be read at leisure.  There were general interest magazines aimed at adults and magazines specifically aimed at men, women and children.  Comic books filled the niche for children starting in the late 1930s and stayed a major part of childhood until the industry was worn down by attacks linking it to juvenile delinquency, the rise of television and the decaying economics of the newsstand.

While the vast majority of comic books were formula stuff, occasionally the stars would align allowing certain creators the opportunity to satisfy themselves while satisfying the market.  The three creators that Barrier focuses on all had that opportunity for varying reasons.  All three had experience working in animation, though only Barks and Kelly had story experience.  They were all draft exempt, making them valuable during the war years when other artists were disappearing into the military.  In Barks case, as he had worked on Donald Duck cartoons at Disney, his editors in Los Angeles figured he knew as much about portraying the character in comics as anyone.  Kelly and Stanley were lucky to be working for Oskar Lebeck in New York, one of the handful of editors in comics history who could not only recognize talent, but encouraged writers and artists to follow their muses.

Barks made Donald Duck and his supporting cast far more complex than the animated versions and brought a level of characterization that made superheroes pale by comparison.  Walt Kelly created Pogo for Animal Comics, and also illustrated fairy tales and adapted the movie characters of Our Gang.  John Stanley was handed Little Lulu, a single panel cartoon series created by Marge Henderson Buell for The Saturday Evening Post, and fleshed out Lulu and her friends into one of comics' greatest comedy series.

With his usual precision and thoroughness, Barrier has laid out the history of the company and its key creative personnel.  In addition to the aforementioned cartoonists, there is material about Gaylord Dubois, Roger Armstrong, Carl Beuttner, Dan Noonan, Moe Gollub, Jesse Marsh and Alex Toth.  Barrier writes about the many artists who crossed over from animation to comic books with varying success.  He explains the relationship between Western and Dell in detail and the careers of Barks, Kelly and Stanley are charted from their starts to their ends, with Barrier offering his insights on the nature of their best work and when and why they fell short.

While the publishing company may now be obscure, the work of these three creators continues to be reprinted.  Fantagraphics is reprinting Carl Barks' work as well as Walt Kelly's version of Our Gang and the newspaper version of Pogo.  Hermes Press is reprinting the comic book version of Pogo.  Dark Horse has reprinted John Stanley's work on Little Lulu as well as Tarzan, written by Dubois and drawn by Marsh.  Drawn and Quarterly has reprinted some of Stanley's non-Lulu work.  In addition, you can find work by most of these creators online at ComicBookPlus for free.

If you haven't read the work of these creators, you are missing some of the best that comics has to offer.  If you have read this work, Funnybooks: The Improbable Glories of the Best American Comic Books will provide a historical context and a critical perspective that will enhance your understanding of how this work came to be and why it is so good.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Song of the Sea






Song of the Sea is director Tomm Moore's follow-up to his first feature, The Secret of Kells.  Once again, he delves into Irish culture for his subject, this time with the legends of Selkies, humans who are able to turn into seals. 

Song of the Sea is one of the most beautiful animated features ever made.  While the recent flood of cgi features all start with brilliant pre-production artwork seen in dozens of "The Art of" books, the films themselves homogenize that art into a faux--'50s Disney style.  Because the techniques used to create pre-production art for Song of the Sea are consistent with the techniques used to make the final images on screen, the film is able to take advantage of its foundational art in ways that cgi features either can't or won't.  Each shot of Song of the Sea is worthy of framing.

The story resembles The Tale of Princess Kaguya in many ways.  Both films are about mystical creatures living in human families and the members of those families are insensitive,  thinking they know best for everyone else.  In both films, the conflict arises from people's blindness rather than from stock villains.

The Irish mythology is a little thick.  It may be that the writers took in this mythology with mother's milk and it's second nature to them, but the film's two main stories are not tied together as clearly as they might be.  One story is that of a family where the youngest child is a Selkie.  The other is a tale of character who steals her son's emotions and those of others, turning them to stone, so as to relieve them of the emotional pain they feel.  The Selkie's song is the key to fixing this situation, but it's something of a distraction from solving the Selkie's own situation.

It is refreshing to see a film true to the filmmaker's ethnic roots, as opposed to American films like like Aladdin or Kung Fu Panda, which appropriates other people's roots.  And Moore and art director Adrien Merigeau are to be commended for the look of the film and for maintaining consistency though production occurred at studios in several countries.

Any year that has given audiences The Tale of Princess Kaguya and Song of the Sea has to be counted as a good one.  Forget all the upcoming awards that will probably overlook these two films beyond the nomination stage, assuming they are recognized at all.  These are the ones to see.  They are both deeply felt and personal to the filmmakers.  I've grown increasingly bored with North American feature animation in the areas of design and story and it's satisfying to see that the rest of the world is willing to go its own way.