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Sunday, May 25, 2008

The Reuben Awards

Well, the Reubens, the cartoon Oscars, took place last night in New Orleans. The National Cartoonists Society awarded the Illustrated Book category award to Sandra Boynton for Blue Moo.
It's a fine book. Sandra Boynton was also awarded the Milton Caniff Lifetime Achievement Award. I thought that I might have a chance when I heard of this special award...but apparently the NCS doesn't have a problem giving two awards to the same person in the same event.
Al Jaffee, the MAD cartoonist who created and still draws the famous MAD FOLD-INS, won a well deserved and long overdue Reuben. Dave Silverman won the Feature Animation award for THE SIMPSONS MOVIE, and Steve Silver won in television for KIM POSSIBLE. Here is a list of the other winners:

The NCS tried to make their awards system a little fairer by having individual chapters vote on the entries for one category each, rather than have the entire membership vote 'cold'. For example, I don't know anyone working in comics or sports cartooning. I would tend to pick a name that sounded familiar, which wouldn't be an accurate vote and might skew the award. If the individual chapters view the submissions, they can do so at meetings and discuss the candidates while actually looking at the artwork.

One drawback is that the awards are essentially determined by a small 'focus group' and not the general membership. The NCS used to be a New York based organization where everyone worked with and saw one another on a fairly regular basis. It is now a truly national organization, really a worldwide one. I don't know how to really solve the problem of determining Reuben winners. It's going in the right direction, but still not there yet.

The weakness in this system is that the category awards demarcations are too general. For example, of the three nominees in the Illustrated Book category, two (mine and
Jay Stephens' ROBOTS) were a textbook and a how-to, respectively, 'books with illustrations' and not really illustrated books in the traditional sense.
I would like to see a new category for CARTOON INSTRUCTION or CARTOON RESEARCH added to the awards, since there are so many of these books to choose from. Hans Bacher's DREAM WORLDS, the ART OF animation series from Pixar and Disney, would all be eligible for this new award.

Animation also needs another category: Online, or Web Animation. This is where animation is headed, like it or not. Perhaps the Television division will eventually change into a new Home Animation category.

Of course there are more important things in the world to worry about. And it will be one less thing to pack.

One good side effect is that PREPARE TO BOARD! has gone below 10,000 on the sales chart, making it an official best seller. Thanks, everyone who bought it as a result of the REUBEN publicity.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Countdown to the Canada move!

It's hard to believe that M-day is almost here. Things are proceeding at the same pace--methodical, with just a hint of panic at the start. Actually I did all the panicking back in December when I contemplated the sheer amount of stuff I had to pack up and move.

Well most of it is packed; the remainder (day to day stuff, including this computer) will be packed up just after Memorial Day. My neighbours purchased a cake (red with white frosting, like the Canadian flag...wait that didn't sound right--the Canadian flag doesn't have frosting...anyway, it's a red velvet cake with white frosting. I am going to make a Vegan quiche and provide wine and some bourbon and so on. If the weather continues cold and nasty, as it is at present, we'll have the function in the splendid lobby of this former hotel. (most of the furnishings are the 1924 originals...I'm going to miss them.)

Gizmo the cat managed to get herself jammed behind the upended animation desk today. The first sign of something wrong was a mad scrabbling sound just behind me. I looked back to see a cat's rear end, from the knees back, pointing straight up in the air; the rest of the cat was stuck behind the desk. The rear end was quite animated however. When I tried to rescue her she kept wildly scrabbling with the rear and unseen front legs; and managed to eventually right herself in a sitting position on top of the desk.

It's funny now, but there is a real danger of the cat hurting herself during this move. I will keep an eagle eye on her when I go onto the new place's balcony; and the first thing I 'm going to do when I get there, after she's unpacked--is put the netting on the railing and tie it on tight. Eventually, she will get out on the balcony no matter what i do. I hope that the concrete surface will prove uninviting to her feet.

So anyway, tomorrow I am going to Roycroft. I want to see the place again since it is not likely that I'll be heading that way again any time soon. It's the only time I can go.

I'll write more about it after I've been. There are earlier articles about it on this blog, if anyone is interested in the place. It's one of the nicest things about Western New York and it should be much better known.

Anyway, that's that...then the final packing starts after the party.

Friday, May 16, 2008

The New Apartment: Back to 1967

I've rented an apartment in Oakville that was built in 1967, on the cusp of the Decade that Taste Forgot, also known as the 1970s. First the good news. The building was better made than many of the others in the area; it has radiant heating in the floor, it's meticulously clean and well maintained, and it is in a terrific location.

As for the apartment itself. It was designed by people who decided that no one, ever, would EVER want to configure a room differently, or redecorate, ever ever again. It has an 18 foot long picture window. But it is not SYMMETRICAL and doesn't come in a STANDARD SIZE. That would be too square, DaddyO! In addition, ALL the windows slam into the walls. I've never, ever seen this before, not even in East Berlin. What were they THINKING? Who can put window treatments on windows that run directly into the corners of a room? It's completely impossible to use anything but the old fashioned curtain hooks and traverse rods, which I remember my parents swearing over in the Sixties. You can't use the tab curtains since there's nowhere to attach some of the brackets. In addition the 18 foot long balcony looks out on nothing more than the building across the way, which is lit up like a Christmas tree at night. So I ordered SIX different blackout drapes from online stores and a friend in my current place kindly took them up (since NONE were standard lengths--once again, I Gotta Be Me---who needs standard windows, man?) I got into the spirit of things by not having the center panels match. It'll match the furniture and the side windows will have pictures hanging in front of them, so I've created more wall space in this fashion. I purchased netting for the strange balcony to keep the cat from falling through the railings, which have iron rails that are spaced exactly as wide as a cat's head. How thoughtful. And there are huge spikes on the iron part of the balcony that were probably intended to guard the place from marauding dragons since it looks like an upside down portcullis. That'll get the cat's attention if she tries to jump over it--and she'd continue seven stories down, straight to the concrete. Gizmo is forbidden to go onto the balcony but I know she'll sneak out once or twice. The netting will eliminate most of the hazard anyway. There are no ledges or windowsills for her to sun herself on, so I'll put furniture in strategic locations or get some more cat trees.

The cheapness and lack of character in postwar construction never ceases to amaze me. The architects of that time were absolutely convinced that they had perfected interior design and that no one would ever want to use any style other than Swedish Modern Minimalist in any of their rooms or actually hang simple curtains instead of drapes.
So while it's not as bad as the horrors in James Lileks' INTERIOR DESECRATORS, (after all, I can cover up the windows) it has a few other design hiccups that are worthy of note.

The bathroom has one of those ghastly 'vanities' with fake marble. It's much too small and although it has some storage, it's pretty meager. And you would not believe the hall lights. These are the kind that do nothing but catch dust. Early Jetsons design style.

And believe it or not, there are plastic panels in the bedrooms. They are set into the walls, under the windows. They have no function whatever. It's 1967, Plastic is In, Baby. Which is why I will put the longest, heaviest drapes in the bedroom. The traverse rod there is ten feet wide. The window is 24" wide. I guess the drama queens of 1967 could make a splendid entrance from behind the extra wide drapes. The bedroom curtains are a pleasant floral pattern that will suggest wallpaper and deaden the sound and light from the street. I plan to put a large oak dresser in front of the hideous inset (which is at least a neutral colour.) The studio will have to look after itself with a simple Roman shade the last tenant left. I mean really...Canada was just as cold in the Sixties. Did they never hear of something called insulation?

Now, my furniture is Mission style, and I am bored by most buildings constructed after 1950, though I've spent some very happy times in one (many years ago in New York.) And to be fair, the new place is cheery and very well lit. This is not going to be the last stop, but it's a good stopgap til I get my legs under me at Sheridan and, more importantly, give them most of the artwork and books I've assembled over the years.
Sheridan has an archive and I have stuff that needs to be archived. It's a great match. But if I give them the materials before residing in Canada for twelve months, I must pay duty on it. So I hang onto the things for a year and give them as gifts once I have my first anniversary on the job. I hope that this can form a nucleus for a real animation collection similar to the Cartoon Research Library at Ohio State University which was developed from a donation of original art by the late Milton Caniff. (Hey, there's something about guys named Milt and cartoons...they all drawr real good!)

Meanwhile, I've spoken to the super about replacing the ceiling lights with my old fans. I'll get a new floor lamp for the living room since NO ONE was ever going to need a ceiling light there after 1967!
What struck me about this building is that it perfectly summed up the tenor of the times. They knew they had achieved plastic perfection, and nothing would ever change.
For me, it's not so much Back to the Future as Back to the Past. Give me a well kept 1920 or 30s building every time...the rooms can be configured the way YOU want, since they were designed in a less 'perfect' era.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Animation Books and Book Shows

Tina Price of Creative Talent Network sent a notice about the new animation book look in L.A. I can't make it this year. All my energies for the past year have been taken up with searching for a better job and now with the move. Once the move is over, I will see what I will see.
Here is Tina's announcement:

The Animation Book Look is a gathering of authors and artists from the
animation industry. Co-hosted by Van Eaton Galleries and The Creative Talent
Network, this year’s event will be held in Sherman Oaks, California, on May 17
from 1pm - 6pm. This free festival of book signings and artist sightings is the
only event of its kind in the country.The Book Look will bring amazing artists
and authors to the signing table. More than 75 books will be featured, including
children’s books, Artist’s Sketchbooks, and How-To’s and History-Of’s from
illustration to fine art.The Who’s Who of artists and authors include Jerry
Beck, Toby Bluth, Tee Bosustow, Stefan Bucher, Dave Colman, Craig Elliott, Gris
Grimly, Ryan Hungerford, Mike Kunkel, Jason Lethcoe, Rik Maki, Patrick Morgan,
Steve Niles, Brian and Phil Phillipson, Don Peri, Eric Pigors, Ragnar, Martha
Sigall, Stephen Silver, Bob Singer, Jim Smith, Tom Sito, Amanda Visell, Tony
White, Shigeru Yabu, and Willie Ito.The Animation Book Look signing and sales
event will be held at Van Eaton Galleries, 13613 Ventura Blvd. Sherman Oaks, CA,
on Saturday, May 17, from 1:00 pm-6:00 pm. The event is free, but RSVP’s are
suggested by contacting Van Eaton Galleries at (818) 788-2357. Visit for more details.And be sure and stop by
the CTN Table and say hi!!

Anyone who is in Los Angeles should visit this show and look at the smorgasbord of books on display. If it is anything like last year's show, it should be a lot of fun. And speaking of books, I have just received the incredible book of animation caricatures assembled from the yearly show at the Walt Disney Studio. This book, which was appropriately published on April 1, was intended to showcase the resurgence of drawn animation at that studio. It was published in-house and only distributed to employees.
It really should have been called the John Musker collection since his outstanding work is on nearly every page. The rest of us were just playing along. (Actually many other artists have remarkable work here, but John was so prolific an illustrator, his work makes up about eighty per cent of the book.)
I remember some of the drawings and people like it was yesterday and the drawings bring back pleasant memories of my time at Disney. Less pleasant memories are immortalized as well; Musker, in particular, got into some political material toward the end of his first stay at the studio.

The quality of the work (other than John's) deteriorates after management lays off most of the artistic staff. The layoffs and other developments are deliniated in a timeline inside the front and back covers.
And sadly the first ten years of the caricature show is unrepresented because the artwork from this show was not digitized. But it's a stunning book, and it will be one of my treasures.

How did I happen to get a copy if it was only distributed to employees? There are two reasons.

Along about last November I was contacted by Lella Smith of the Animation Research Library on the lot. She asked if they could have my permission to use some of my caricatures (including the ones of Frank and Ollie that became the 'official' caricatures of these legendary animators) in the book. Of course, I said, but don't you already own them? No, it turns out they didn't. I was promised a book in exchange for the use of the drawings, which was overpaying me by a lot.

Oddly enough five of the six drawings I did for the show are included here. I rarely participated since I was too busy working...I once asked John Musker how he could do up to seventy five drawings per show. It turns out he would sketch during lengthy meetings. Other, fancier pieces by John show up later in the book when he and Ron Clements were sitting idle in their offices awaiting their 'fate' as the management continued to play up the computer wing and destroy the cartoonists. John's drawings from 2004 to 2006 are a chronicle of an artistic massacre. There is one that has a computer evilly grinning and holding a card marked '2D' as the last "Survivor" at Disney's. But help is on the way.
2006's pages feature a very funny drawing of John Lasseter about to land on top of David Stainton like the Sumo wrestler in Bill Plympton's 25 WAYS TO QUIT SMOKING. (Stainton was the former head of Feature Animation, and a chainsaw manager par excellence.)

So what is my second reason for receiving this book?

You never really leave Disney. It's more of a living entity than a studio. Sooner or later, everyone comes back. I don't know if the reach will extend to Canada, but spiritually a part of me will always be there, I guess.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

SITA SINGS THE BLUES: Animation as Expiation

Some animators can detach themselves emotionally from the scene at the end of the work day. Others pour their souls into a performance so that they actually identify with the character. They live, eat, sleep, breathe the character until the project is done--and sometimes long after it's done!
And still others use their art as a sort of therapy. I'm in the last category and I suspect a sizable amount of our adult viewers might be, too. (By the way--It's okay to like animation after you reach adulthood--the USA is the only country that sees this powerful medium as 'kid stuff' anyway.)
Are things not going your way in your life? Frustrated relationship? Animators can make their own world where Everything is Fine, or get back at the person place or thing that annoys them through the magic of animated art.

Nina Paley, "America's Best-Loved Unknown Cartoonist" has achieved expiation (definition: "compensation for a wrong") through animation in her new feature SITA SINGS THE BLUES, which screened at the Rochester High Falls Film Festival last night. All artwork, eding, directing, and visuals were done by Nina Paley; she's one of a very small group of animators who create feature films singlehanded.

SITA SINGS THE BLUES would not exist without the computer. Ironically enough, Nina Paley had her life literally changed by a computer; she got the idea of making a feature film about the trials and tribulations of Sita, wife of Rama (the principals in Valmiki's Sanskrit epic of The Ramayana) after her ex 'dumped' her in one short, brutal email sent from India.

Yet this is anything but a computer-generated picture. The first sections to be completed were amusing Flash-animated shorts set to the 1920s recordings of singer Annette Hanshaw. Nina's cartoon style is breathtaking, and her art direction absolutely sublime. She graciously gave me permission to use some examples from this film in my art direction chapters of PREPARE TO BOARD! and that publication doesn't do justice to the color.

A viewer in the Rochester audience asked what connection Miss Hanshaw's recordings had to a 3,000+ year old legend. Well, after Nina was dumped she crashed with friends in New York City, one of whom played a Hanshaw '78 for her, and Nina was hooked. Many of Hanshaw's songs are about suffering women, Twenties style, but some depict the sexually liberated Flapper of the period. Paley used both types of song for soundtracks, complete with scratchy 78 sounds and needle drops. The music is part of the expiatory process.

The Sita films, which originally appeared on Nina's blog and in film festivals, illustrate important moments in the Ramayana but they had to be stitched into the fabric of a feature film along with the hand-drawn Flash animation that tells a barebones version of Nina's breakup with her 'ex', Dave. This animation is handled completely differently from Sita's tribulations: Sita and Rama appear as animated cutouts, paintings done in classical Indian style, and as beautifully designed Flash characters, caricatured with respect; the modern sequences are sketchy, boiling (mad) and extremely direct. The story point is quickly made. Dave rejects Nina in a brutal email sent from India when she is on the other side of the world. Dave has no character, even his voice is flat. He's the McGuffin that gets Nina thinking about Sita--and while there is no overt identification with the goddess, the theme of the 'woman wronged by her man' does carry through both stories.

The glue that holds the picture together is the extremely entertaining commentary provided by shadow puppets voiced by Bhavana Nagulapally, Aseem Chhabra, and Manish Acharya.
Their analysis of the Ramayana clarifies complicated character relationships and actions and keeps us motivated and interested in Sita's story, which is a lot less direct than Nina's.

Nina Paley has received some criticism (and hate mail) from people who could not possibly have seen the entire film. You can read about this on her blog.
It's difficult to know how people will react to art that involves religious figures. There are many examples of this sort of thing in the Christian canon, which has been prime Hollywood material ever since there was a Hollywood. But the subtext is not religion: it's the rebellion and redemption of the woman, not the Goddess. In fact, the last shot of the film shows Sita and Rama together back in Sward (the Hindu Olympus)--with a twist that I won't give away here.

I think that SITA SINGS THE BLUES is a very original movie and quite an achievement for the artist. It may be problematic getting major distribution for it; it's already on the indie and festival circuit.
I also think that this is a film that will be best viewed more than once.
You can visit the film's site here. See SITA, and judge this film for yourself.
And I'll be visiting the store for a SITA mug!