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Saturday, April 23, 2005

I'm participating in a fascinating interview with a Russian animation fan. The interview will appear on his site in Russian so I am taking the liberty of printing one of my answers to his questions, in English.

The question was a doozy. One of the best I've ever been asked, Alexey, and that is the truth.

Why, I was asked, should anyone try to make good animation when it was possible to settle for animation of mediocre quality?

Here's my answer.

Why go for good animation when one can settle for mediocre? Good question!

But then, why build a beautiful and well made house when you can make a cheap and ugly one; why wear well cut clothing when you can wear a dirty T shirt and torn jeans; why eat a well cooked meal when you can have junk food; why make a lovely piece of music when one can simply make noise?

It all comes down to what delights the artist and the audience. The delight in watching artwork move is one of the joys of animation. It is the delight of seeing a piece of artwork coming to life.

Mediocre or poor animation does not create the illusion of life. This can be because of the technique showing, or because the production is poorly made and the story and animation weaknesses are glaringly obvious to the viewer. Animation is about MOVING things. But they can also move so much that there is a visual overload.

Overanimation was always a problem with cartoon animation and is starting to be with computer work as well.

A good piece of animation in any medium is a dance with art. It is a pleasure to behold if it is done well.A great deal of modern animation relies more on dialogue than on movement. This is a technique that covers for the lack of actual animation. The films may be entertaining, they may even have gripping stories, but they are not a joy to watch like a well animated film is.
This doesn't just apply to cartoons.

Well designed computer animation that moves well is a pleasant thing to watch. Poorly designed and over-rendered computer animation that does not move well is tiresome and annoying to watch.

Quality will out. It's no different in any medium.

Another marvellous find online

Here's a link to a wonderful literary magazine out of San Francisco. MCSWEENEY'S not only publishes new writers, they run writing workshops where kids of all ages can create original stories and learn to express themselves in writing.

They are a national treasure. They are also one of the best literary magazines around.

MCSWEENEY'S magazine caught my eye in a bookstore some years ago, and they are now online--and nominated for a Webby Award, at that.

IF ONLY THEY KEPT DIARIES: BARBIE, available on the McSweeney's homepage (scroll down to read it after using the above link), is hilarious.
The site is bare-bones but the writing is wonderful.

Friday, April 22, 2005


I know it's been another while. School year's ending. Three of RIT'S student films made it to the semifinals of the Student Academy Awards and we'll know the results next week. One of them was 'helped' by me, so it's a start....wait til next year, there are some good ones coming up! And I'm still waiting to hear whether I'll be writing a book on storyboard...since I actually want to have a long relatively lazy summer, perhaps murphy's law will work in my favor this time...

I am posting a link to a female cartoonist whose work I have enjoyed for a long time. There are relatively few female cartoonists, still fewer good ones. Nina Paley is one of the good ones.

Nina Paley's comic NINA'S ADVENTURES IN SANTA CRUZ didn't fall into the standard trap of 'female life history stories'--exalting the ordinary and forgetting to add humor--mainly because Nina's life is certainly not standard. And she certainly has a sense of humor!
Ms. Paley gave up the comic strip a few years ago for health reasons and I lost sight of her for a while.

Nina took up animation in FLASH and made a fascinating film, THE STORK, which I saw a few years ago. Now she's working on the Ramayana--with 1920's pop songs as sound tracks. It's certainly an original idea and her quicktime clips are up complete with plot synopsis and lots of other stuff on

Ms. Paley has apparently moved from California to Fort Greene, New York in recent months.

Check out her site. Glad to see she's back. But like most female cartoonists, she's never really been away--she just doesn't get the publicity some of the guys get.
I hope she does well in the East.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005


"You Americans always explain how you do a trick. We English never explain," my British Cartoonist Club friend Les Lilley used to say. I'd sent him the famous SPY magazine parody, Bunny Burgers, which had several ad agencies competing to represent a product of surpassing awfulness--but the lure of big money proved irresistible and none of them considered the offer a joke.

Les read BUNNY BURGERS, then informed me of the famous 1957 Swiss Spaghetti Harvest report on the British news show, PANORAMA. Many barfights allegedly resulted from this broadcast, since PANORAMA was a trusted news source, rather like the American SIXTY MINUTES. If some of the British public were too obtuse to figure out that a program about Swiss spaghetti broadcasting on April 1 was a hoax, PANORAMA figured that was obviously their problem. Of course, they probably were never trusted quite as much after that.

English humour can be absurd, as in MONTY PYTHON or Alice in Wonderland.
And there is the type of humour that depends on absolute poker-faced recitation; usually material that is taken out of context and presented with earnest sincerity. Though, of course, some of it doesn't appear to have any rational context.

I was promenading past the British Museum once and saw a strange window display in a bookshop.The titles were decidedly strange--oddly, the only book I remember clearly was DOES THE DOG CAUSE CANCER?

Of course I went into the shop. This was Jarndyce Books, and the owners had not only collected many such titles, they had even published a collection of some of the stranger ones.

I was working at the Amblin' Studio in London at the time, and what with the long hours some of us decided to declaim the poetry of Amanda McKittrick Ros at the top of our lungs, by way of relaxation. We used to do this near the Spanish animator's desk. His neighbors requested that we move on. We found an empty corner and would declaim horrible poetry and prose with theatrical gestures and booming tones.
None of us were fired.

Alfred Armstrong's Oddbooks site was once the only one on the Web devoted to Amanda--there have since been two others-- and it was a pleasure writing to someone with similarly odd tastes. Check out the rest of his site; it's a lot of fun, and I was even able to recommend to him one of my favorite etiquette books, What to Talk About.

I've just purchased THE LITTLE BOOK OF BAD TASTE, and found some more fine titles that may be 'new' to the odd book collectors out there, so here they are as a public service from blogwemust:

THE ROMANCE OF LEPROSY, E. Mackerchar, 1949.



SEX AFTER DEATH, B. J. Ferrell and D. E. Frey, 1983.

All I can say is, Trees died for this.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Notion Capture

I've not posted for a while...if anyone's still reading, I've got some more 'professional' news. I said I wouldn't do it after being trolled a few weeks ago. So I lied.

A group of students showed me the latest entry in the Let's-Eliminate-the-Animator Sweepstakes. The site is unapologetic, and blatant in its intent: the site announces that it is "Stealing from the Masters."

What masters, exactly? Why, the cartoonists who made such films as PINOCCHIO. Why, precisely, are these cartoon animators of interest to the new computer animation producers?
In the words of the site, they "use traditional animation principles and cartoon physics" and this is "more compelling than traditional motion capture".
Why bother to learn how to animate by yourself, when you can simply motion capture Jiminy Cricket and turn him into something else?

Leastaways, you can motion capture his hat. The inventors have been able only to work, so far, with inorganic shapes (including the broom from FANTASIA'S Sorceror's Apprentice sequence).

There are quicktime videos on the site explaining how they locate points on Jiminy's hat for this process.

There are a few problems with this system, however.
When he animated the scene in question, Ward Kimball did not draw the entire Cricket hat. He would have constructed it on his roughs, but the cleanup drawings used for the final film are only partial drawings of the hat. It does not resemble a three dimensional hat; only the idea of one. The action on the hat is not realistic; it 'pops' frequently from one extreme to another rather than smoothly transitioning as Jiminy runs and shakes his head.

The computer system was used to capture only the portions of the hat that show onscreen. In other words, the curve formed by the brim and opening of the hat is not constructed in 3D by the program; they only grabbed outlines. The 'motion capture' of the hat that results resembles a floppy bicuspid. It has a blocky shape with two points, rather than consisting of a cylinder based on a torus (if I was managing a computer 'grab' program, I'd make sure that I was using primitives in the construction.)

Well, when a witch's hat is assembled using the 'point system' for replacement, and placed on Jiminy's head instead of his usual top hat, the resultant 'cartoonmotioncaptured' action results in extremely poorly analyzed animation. The brim is illogically placed and appears to be flapping up and down rather than maintaining a consistent shape.

I think there is also a good reason why they did not try to motioncapture Jiminy's face or body, concentrating solely on the hat.

Cartoon animators do not make logical or truly three dimensional drawings. The illusion of the third dimension is created by fourth dimensional drawings--a series of drawings that create the feeling of a character moving through three dimensional space. It takes years to learn how to do this well.
Many of the drawings in cartoon animation are illogical; the professional term is 'cheated'. A left arm can become a right arm if the proper arc is followed. I taught a student to do this in his scene this past week and he and I were the only ones who knew he did it. The motion carried the action and it was accepted that a character could grab an object with his left hand, then cheat the arm into his right to make a better silhouette and arc.

Drawn Cartoon characters are distorted, the faces can morph into strange shapes on the breakdowns, or distort into something else altogether.

This is the opposite situations from computer animated characters, which have to be forced to distort. They are constructed in the round and are usually quite symmetrical.

If they want to make a going concern of this new system, they would do better to 'cartoon mocap' puppet films, which do have characters who work in three dimensions and obey the laws of the third dimension (unless you try to mocap George Pal Puppettoons, which have the same distortions as the cartoons since they used over five hundred replacement parts to create similar fluid action.)

I can only wonder who would want to boast to all the world that they were stealing artwork from other artists. It's apparently not uncommon to rotoscope pre- existing computer animation, and sooner or later someone is going to apply at a studio with a reel consisting of grabs of that studio's own scenes. I'd love to be a fly on the wall when that happens.

But of course, the implication of this system is that it is no longer necessary to hire animators at all. The audience will not notice the same moves showing up again and again. No need to learn all that tiresome cartoon physics, or study living forms in action, or create a new character of your own. And now, you don't even need to hire a human being to move around for your mocap session.

You can just Steal from the Masters.

Some people must really hate animators.

Friday, April 01, 2005


Professor Echte Pferdescheisse of Druling Technologische Institut in Druling has announced his latest scientific discovery, an entirely new ecosystem on the island of Pingo-Pongo.

The life forms on the previously undiscovered island resemble birds, mammals, and (more rarely) reptiles. The mammalian creatures lack a fourth digit on the forefeet, which generally are a lighter color than the rest of the body. They have large eyes and have developed a chameleonlike ability to blend in with their surroundings. At times they lengthen various limbs at will, particularly when attempting to reach desirable objects or retreat from threatening activity.
They respond well to music and have a peculiarly fluid manner of motion, perambulating in a rubber 'hosen' manner. The creatures also appear to be able to defy gravity at will. "This manner of locomotion shows that an entirely new form of physics also exists on this island" the Doctor has reported.

Vegetable and tree forms and other objects previously considered inanimate very commonly show signs of sentient life. This includes, but is not limited to, dancing rocks, stumps, bits of ocean-borne detritus washed up on the beach, wrecked automobiles, foodstuffs, and extraterrestrial bodies.

Doktor Pferdescheisse has received a sizable grant from the Druling Institut to continue his studies of these remarkable new life forms.