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Thursday, December 28, 2006


Killing with Kindness

My upstairs neighbour phoned me in tears yesterday afternoon. Even though we live one floor apart, this is frequently how we communicate. "Something terrible has happened," her voice sobbed in the tiny receiver.

I immediately thought that her husband, a young lawyer, had had a serious accident, or that her malaria (contracted in Uganda last summer) had flared up.
It seemed that the fine and unseasonable weather in Ohio this past month led the keepers of the rare bonobo chimpanzees in the Columbus Zoo to let the animals out of their winter enclosure for a bit of an airing. Zoo policy is to give the chimps as much sunlight as possible for their mental and physical health.

But this is Ohio in December, and the weather took a damp and chilly turn. All of the bonobos fell ill with colds. This rapidly progressed to pneumonia, and Monique feared that the entire troop was infected.

One bonobo, Mambo--a 26 year old male in the prime of life, and a great favorite of Monique's--he knew sign language and could talk to his trainers----died on Christmas Eve. Another chimp, a baby named Jo/T, was near death in the hospital from the same disease.

My neighbour studies bonobo chimpanzees (working with this troop and also in Africa) and has an impressive list of credits that would shame even the most well travelled animator. Monique displays pictures of famous chimps on her walls the way other people would display family portraits. For Monique, bonobos are family.

They are close family to all of us actually. The bonobo is the closest relative to the human being; far more human like in proportion and facial expression than the common chimp, pan paniscus.

And Mambo could talk to humans.

I did not know what else to do so I grabbed a yahrzeit candle from the cupboard. This simply means 'year's time' in German. The candle burns for 24 hours and is used on the anniversary of a death, starting at the first year. I didn't know the rule for nonhumans but decided that the psychological advantages outweighed the religious ones.
So I brought the yahrzeit candle to Monique's apartment. Her husband Eric answered the door gravely. At least he was all right. Monique was sobbing into a phone while sitting on the sofa.

The candle was set to burning and I invited the pair to dinner that evening to cheer them up and also to hear more about the matter.
When I got back downstairs I gave Gizmo a treat--some turkey and potato wet canned food. She ate it with avidity since it had the high smell that resembled tuna--and Gizmo is a tuna junkie.

To my horror I then heard the familiar and dreaded whee--gasp--whee--gasp sound that means Gizmo is having an asthma attack.
I was absolutely frantic when I saw her, in what is known as the 'meatloaf position' with her tongue sticking out of her open mouth.

This meant it was a very serious attack and could be fatal. I ran for the phone to call Monique to get us to the emergency hospital, but Gizmo would not survive in this condition for the time it took to get there.

Fortunately she recovered and immediately asked to play. I said No. I also said no more poultry, ever. It's an allergen, and I've learned my lesson. The treat nearly did the poor cat in. She will eat rabbit for the rest of her life.

Monique and Eric arrived for homemade Chinese food that turned out pretty well, considering. She was a bit more composed since one of her pupils had travelled to the zoo to see the chimps. Only Mambo had succumbed. The other chimps, save for Jo/T, had not developed pneumonia and were being treated. Jo/T was in hospital and very near death.

Now, Jo/T is only a baby. She is about four years old, and the love of life this little creature showed in the movies Monique ran on the computer would shame a human child. Jo/T loves to spin round and round til she is dizzy and do somersaults over her mama.
She, too, was a great favorite of Monique's but was too young to talk.

I did the only other thing I could do; get out my one remaining bayberry candle from Georgia and light it in one of the Roycroft candle holders. I explained that a bayberry candle was traditionally burnt on Christmas Eve but we'd make exceptions here. The saying was that ' a bayberry candle burnt to its socket puts luck in your life and cash in your pocket'.

It couldn't hurt.

So we toasted poor Mambo's life in some good French wine and wished for Jo/T's recovery. If you and I can think good thoughts about a young and very rare chimpanzee at this festive season, it could not hurt as much as the treats that the keepers --and I--thought we were giving our beloved friends.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

the end of the year

2006 is winding down. It is time to take note of the good and bad things that happened in this interesting year.
Normally one does this in an attempt to better oneself. That is why there are New Year resolutions. But 2006 was a seminal year for the world of animation. Industries do not make resolutions, but studios do, and did.

A major studio made a major resolution--and like its human constituents, it made it at the end of the year. Most humans do not take the year's end ritual seriously and their resolutions, if they are observed at all, generally affect only a small coterie of friends . The resolution made by the studio will affect all of us in the animation field for a considerable time to come.

The animation community has rumoured that the Walt Disney Feature Animation Studio will now, once again, exclusively produce hand drawn animated films, while newly acquired Pixar (actually the dominant partner in the equation) would continue to produce computer generated films exclusively. This, if it is true, is the logical outcome to the merger of the two studios earlier this year.

Like most simple solutions, it is anything but. Projects already in development at Disney in CGI (by decree of the previous Chair, Michael Eisner, who recently declared '2D dead') would go into turnaround. LIFE WITH WILBUR ROBINSON, which will be released in March 2007, will be the last Disney Feature CGI film. Inevitably that means layoffs and downsizing until they get their headway again.

Some animators have reminded me of the Frogs who Wanted a King from Aesop's fable--they yearned for a strong hand, another Walt, and if only their leader would arrive, all would be blissful with steady jobs and interesting work for all, forevermore. They were unaware that a strong leader might want different followers.

Animators who came of age during the fat times of the Nineties have a harder time adjusting to the shifts and swings of employment than older artists who remember the seasonal and projects-end layoffs that were standard before.
Humans have a tendency to believe that good times will go on forever. It's as true in animation as in economics.

Disney 'Old Man' Frank Thomas was having none of that. Once, during one of the earliest layoffs, I wrote him to say that many people were worried about their job security.
"We never had any!" Frank said crisply. "My goodness, when a feature ended you had to call the Shorts department and ask if they had anything on a Goofy film or something so you wouldn't get laid off! I made myself 'indispensable' so they wouldn't fire me, but there was never any guarantee!"

The changes in the Disney studio's philosophy in the past few years remind me of the constant religious shifts in the court of Henry VIII as he courted a European sovereign or a wife. It is dangerous to be of the wrong persuasion when the king's mind has already been made up.

The king in this anecdote is John Lasseter, who is the most powerful man in animation right now. He is also the most powerful man who has ever been in animation. I wonder if anyone else has studied the deeper implications of the Disney-Pixar merger.

Lasseter is now head of Pixar, Disney Feature Animation, Disney Television Animation, and the animation board of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Even Walt Disney never ran two studios simultaneously.
The changes are just beginning at the older studio. Pixar remains more or less unchanged, since it is the one literally calling the shots.

Thirteen years ago it was Pixar who was the junior partner, the dubious spinoff with an untested product. Disney, the grand old lady of animation, now has to re-establish its reputation with new, hand drawn films that will bring back the old magic.

But, no matter how many 'd's' it has, animation is only motion on a screen if there is no intelligence directing it, no meaning to the movement---in other words, no story.
Pixar's people all trained with Disney veterans and they use storytelling methods that were originally developed at Disney in the 1930s. Artists are the kings there, but no one rules save one. Management keeps their distance and lets the artists make the movies.

Disney Features became a victim of corporatitis in the past few years. Artists were subordinate to executives who sometimes had no background in art, and who were sometimes Hollywood players.

True, this happens in live action as well, but animation IS the artists' work. It can't be saved with the voices or caricatures of big stars, or the latest rock music. It stands and falls on the performances of its artists--especially the story artists.

So Disney's resolution is to somehow resurrect their old spirit along with the older medium and get back to making fun, wholesome entertainment for a mass audience (no more 'targets' of fourteen year old boys, thankfully.)
I believe that they will keep this resolution, though there will be some rough patches at first. It is painful to read of old friends who are no longer there, or who are worried that they may no longer be there. Time will heal the wounds. After all, it is not the only studio in the world. But it is true that when Disney sneezes, the animation industry catches cold. The resolution will have a knock on effect with other studios if one condition is met.

All they need is a hit picture with a good story.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

This is the Web version of my card. The drawing is also the 'half title' of my book. Never use a drawing once if you can use it twice.
And yes, I'm shamelessly exploiting my pet. But(1) She is way cute. And (2) perhaps she will help sell a book or two and therefore pay for the vet bills, gourmet cat food, etc. and (3) She is way cute.

Here's the poster for the show I'm curating early next year. I'll not be the main speaker--one of my Senior advisees will be doing the talking--but it will be fun showing some of the prizewinning films from past years.
One of them won an Oscar.

The Museum wants mainly cartoon art, so I'll ask some of the illustration students if they have any comic drawings that might be suitable for framing and exhibiting on the walls.

The animation and the speech will take about an hour, and it's free! So if anyone is reading this, and anyone is in New York City in January, come on by and see the films and say hello!