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Saturday, February 28, 2009

SITA SINGS THE BLUES can now be seen online

Animator NINA PALEY is one of a small group of people (of whom Bill Plympton is best known) who have created a full length, sound, feature animated film singlehanded. Nina did literally everything on this project except write and record the music, which is provided by Twenties singing star Annette Hanshaw.
SITA SINGS THE BLUES was held up from release by copyright issues that have now been resolved.
The entire feature can be viewed here.
Congratulations, Nina!

Friday, February 27, 2009

THIRD EDITION of Prepare to Board

I've just been informed that PREPARE TO BOARD! will have a third English edition. This is being published only six months or so after the second edition.

I'm of course delighted, but it helps to put things in perspective; the second edition was less than half the size of the first edition, and the third edition will be about the same size as the second.

The only difference between the second and third editions is that the rear cover will now state that I teach at Sheridan College rather than at RIT.

Monday, February 23, 2009

The Slumdog Oscars

I think that yesterday's Oscars proved that films with good stories can win out over 'high concept' films.

Not only did SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE win in all categories in which it was nominated--beating 'sure things' like THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON--but the beautiful Japanese hand drawn film LA MAISON EN PETIT CUBES won the Best Animated Short Film award, rather than CGI entries PRESTO and OKTAPODI.

Sean Penn won a well-deserved Oscar for his portrayal of Harvey Milk in MILK. I voted for him but didn't think he'd make it. Good job.

Every now and then people remember that story is what brings us in to the theatre, not special effects and explosions. Well, some of us anyway.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

A Succesful Fantasy Director Speaks Out

PAN'S LABYRINTH was my favorite film of 2006. Like CORALINE and SPIRITED AWAY, it is about a young girl who rescues (or attempts to rescue) a family member from a sinister fantasy world. But the first two films have more resonance than CORALINE because they contain symbolism that works according to the laws of their particular universes. While their 'myths' are in fact original, they are easily understood by the viewer. The Miyazaki film's themes and symbols make reference to contemporary environmental consciousness and also to Japanese mythology. This gives it an interesting design flavour, particularly in the bathhouse sequences. PAN'S LABYRINTH's universe is firmly grounded in European fairy tales and symbolism. The labyrinth of the title literally affects the main characters' lives, as this wonderful interview with Del Toro proves:

“The labyrinth is a very, very powerful sign,”
explained del Toro. “It’s a primordial, almost iconic symbol. It can mean so
many things, culturally, depending on where you do it. But the main thing for me
is that, unlike a maze, a labyrinth is actually a constant transit of finding,
not getting lost. It’s about finding, not losing, your way...
...I can ascribe two concrete meanings of the labyrinth in the movie. One is
the transit of the girl towards her own center, and towards her own, inside
reality, which is real. I think that Western cultures make a difference about
inner and outer reality, with one having more weight than the other...The other transit I can say is the transit that Spain goes
through, from a princess that forgot who she was and where she came from, to a
generation that will never know the name of the fascist. And, the other one is
the Captain being dropped in his own historical labyrinth. Those are things I
put in. But then, as I said, the labyrinth is something else. Each culture will
ascribe a different weight to it.”
Guillermo del Toro on Fairy Tales and Inspiration: ...Even
when I was a kid, funny enough, I used to be able to find those fairy tales that
felt preachy and pro-establishment, and I hated them. I hated the ones that were
about, ‘Don’t go out at night.’ There are fairy tales that are created to
instill fear in children, and there are fairy tales that are created to instill
hope and magic in children. I like those. I like the anarchic ones. I like the
crazy ones. And, I think that all of them have a huge quotient of
darkness because the one thing that alchemy understands, and fairy tale lore understands, is that you need the vile matter for magic to flourish. You need lead to turn it into gold.
You need the two things for the process. So when people sanitize fairy tales and homogenize them, they become completely uninteresting for me."

Other Miyazaki films such as PRINCESS MONONOKE are grounded in what could be cultural memory or traditional fairy tale, but is in fact original 'myth' created for the film.

Both SPIRITED AWAY and PAN'S LABYRINTH are picaresque adventures unified by 'original' -mythic structure. Both of these are far better films than CORALINE. The latter film is a collection of technical marvels with no underlying mythic theme to unify them. The characters have no real resonance in either of the film's two worlds.

Monday, February 09, 2009

All Frosting, No Cake

Many years ago my sister made her first cake. My father was so happy about his daughter's first baking effort that he decided to make genuine homemade whipped cream, the kind his father put on top of the five cent banana splits sold in the family restaurant during the Depression, in my sister's cake's honor.

Dad bought a pint of whipping cream and some caster sugar and whipped it up until there was nearly four inches of the stuff...but my poor sister's poor cake was a lamentable effort, only about an inch high. Nevertheless, Dad insisted on putting ALL the whipped cream on the thing.
The frosting completely swamped and drowned the main event. "Where's the cake?" I exclaimed as I went prospecting through the gargantuan whipped cream topping.
We ate it and all got sick afterward from the superabundance of fat and cholesterol.

This deadly dessert is, to me, symbolic ofModern animated features, where technique is the whipped cream and story is the cake.

I was going to write some criticism of two animated features I saw recently, but found that someone else wrote a much better one years before feature animation was a glimmer in Lotte Reiniger's or Walt Disney's eye.

So here are some wonderful excerpts from Mark Twain's essay, FENIMORE COOPER'S LITERARY OFFENSES, written in 1895 (the official birth year of motion pictures!) It is amazing how much these arguments apply to film stories. I am editing the word "Deerslayer" and a few points out so that Twain's argument may be applied to animation in particular. Here goes:

1. The rules (of literary construction state that)...A tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere. But the "_________" tale accomplishes nothing and arrives in air.

2. They require that the episodes in a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale, and shall help to develop it. But as the "__________" tale is not a tale, and accomplishes nothing and arrives nowhere, the episodes have no rightful place in the work, since there was nothing for them to develop.

3. They require that the personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others. But this detail has often been overlooked in the "__________" tale.

4. They require that the personages in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit a sufficient excuse for being there. But this detail also has been overlooked in the "___________" tale.

5. The require that when the personages of a tale deal in conversation, the talk shall sound like human talk, and be talk such as human beings would be likely to talk in the given circumstances, and have a discoverable meaning, also a discoverable purpose, and a show of relevancy, and remain in the neighborhood of the subject at hand, and be interesting to the reader, and help out the tale, and stop when the people cannot think of anything more to say. But this requirement has been ignored from the beginning of the "_________" tale to the end of it.

6. They require that when the author describes the character of a personage in the tale, the conduct and conversation of that personage shall justify said description. But this law gets little or no attention in the "___________" tale, as ____________'s case will amply prove.

9. They require that the personages of a tale shall confine themselves to possibilities and let miracles alone; or, if they venture a miracle, the author must so plausibly set it forth as to make it look possible and reasonable. But these rules are not respected in the "___________" tale.

10. They require that the author shall make the reader feel a deep interest in the personages of his tale and in their fate; and that he shall make the reader love the good people in the tale and hate the bad ones. But the (viewer) of the "___________" tale dislikes the good people in it, is indifferent to the others, and wishes they would all get drowned together.

11. They require that the characters in a tale shall be so clearly defined that the reader can tell beforehand what each will do in a given emergency. But in the "_______" tale, this rule is vacated.

I will venture to add one point to Twain's wonderful list. Characters in an animated film should have some discernable design relationship to one another and be from the same design universe unless the story calls for it. If a film (CORALINE) has grotesques for neighbours in both the 'real world' and 'other world' while she and her parents and one friend are designed and animated in a completely different style, how do you differentiate the Other World from the Real World? You are piling frosting on top of frosting until you have completely hidden the cake.
THE TALE OF DESPEREAUX is three or four cakes...I waited an hour for the story to start. Was it about a mouse, a rat, or soup? (I didn't wait long enough to find out if it was about a princess.)
CORALINE'S cake makes little sense and collapses like a fallen souffle the minute you try to puzzle out character relationships, motivation, or meaning.
But the frosting is little short of miraculous.
That may be enough for some people, but I somehow doubt that either film is going to do very well. Story remains undeveloped in these features while technique soars to magical levels. But it's all just putting more whipped cream on top of the same sad cake.
All the audience really wants is a good, understandable story, with characters that we are interested in, that is well told. Walt Disney knew that, and his heirs at Pixar know that. Give us more cake and less topping.

I'll let Mr. Twain have the last word.

A work of art? ______ has no invention; it has no order, system, sequence, or result; it has no lifelikeness, no thrill, no stir, no seeming of reality; its characters are confusedly drawn, and by their acts and words they prove that they are not the sort of people the author claims that they are...Counting these out, what is left is Art. I think we must all admit that.

Monday, February 02, 2009


It's official.

I'm writing a second book.

It's taken longer than I thought it would to get it going, but I'm very pleased to say that ANIMATED PERFORMANCE will be published in June, 2010 by AVA Publishing.

This is the same company that produced DRAWING FOR ANIMATION, by Paul Wells and Joanna Quinn. (see below.) AVA's books are beautifully produced, and they have decided to give my release the 'large format' which means that the illustrations will also be large and clear.

So why write yet another book on animation? Hasn't the topic been exhaustively covered?
Nope. Not even close.

I'm going to cover stuff that most other books leave out. I will show how to ACT in animation, not merely produce animation exercises. And no, it won't involve setting up a video can you possibly do this if your character is part fish, or is a tiny machine, or is a group of quarrelling octopi? The only other book on 'animated acting' wasn't written by an animator. I aim to correct this omission. The cover mockup gives you some idea of my subject matter: chapter headings include 'Animal Acts', 'Moving the Furniture' and so on. I will discuss how to animate groups of characters, creatures made of straw or wood, fantasy animals and monsters, and female, male, young and old human characters. Yes, there is a difference in movement, even in ways of speech. There will be a lot of information on dialogue animation that doesn't duplicate material in Dick Williams' or Eric Goldberg's books.

There will also be interviews with Ellen Woodbury (animator of PEGASUS and ZAZU for Disney), and my former SCAD student Jamaal Bradley, who was lead animator on the House in Sony's MONSTER HOUSE and is currently directing cut scenes for Valve Entertainment. We will speak about games animation as well as theatrical/television style acting.
I also will use my wonderful 1979 interview with Art Babbitt that has never been published until now. None of the material in the interview is duplicated in Richard Williams' book. I plan to scatter all interview segments throughout the book, rather than group them in the Appendixes, as I did with PREPARE TO BOARD!

So you might say that ANIMATED PERFORMANCE will fill in the chinks in the literature of animation.

Most of the drawings will be mine, but I have one very important additional contributor: my former RIT student Ignacio Barrios, who is currently a rigger at Blue Sky Studios, has agreed to use his beautifully modeled and rigged ape character from his master's thesis to illustrate some of my points. So ANIMATED PERFORMANCE will demonstrate the same exercises modeled by hand drawn and CGI characters, which can be useful to the reader, since about 90 per cent of current animation is done in CGI.

Sheridan College, unlike RIT, is extremely supportive of faculty who publish, and is even having a special 'author's day' today for its faculty members who have had books published recently. I will make the first (non Internet) official announcement of ANIMATED PERFORMANCE at this show. I plan to ask some of my current Sheridan students for permission to use a few of their drawings, and Professor Mark Thurman has given me permission to use his hilarious caricature of the 'flour sack' as well.
But you heard it here first!