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Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Count Down

It's a little hard to believe that in thirty one days, Gizmo and I are leaving for our new Canadian home.
Thirty days is a round number but I'll start the countdown now.
This weekend I'll pick up the apartment keys and measure the windows for the curtains. There's a window treatment on the useless picture window in the living room, but I have to get something for the three others. While I'm at it I'll bring a compass to get some idea of where the sun hits this building...I was told 'eastern' exposure, but the flat has two exposures.
I've contacted a pet food supplier for Gizmo's rather poorly distributed but excellent food, a bed manufacturer for the delivery time on a new bed, and the cable company. All three things (special cat food, bed, and cable and telephone service) will be in the flat by the first week of May.
There's not much more to say except that classes are nearly over, I have all my stuff in boxes except for the things used on a day to day basis. (George Carlin's routine, "Stuff" has never been so funny.) The movers have sent the contracts. Once I'm up there there's plenty of time to inquire about my new courses and get into the culture of Sheridan and maybe even see a little of Ontario before the real work starts in August.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Animation Desk Redux, or Re-desked

The operation was a success! and the patient didn't die!
I now have a very sturdy birch plywood top to where the swivel used to be on the old animation desk. The top and 'ears' are disassembled and waiting to be reconfigured on metal shelves that rest next to the wooden desk (which is uncharacteristically standing on end in preparation for the move.) It makes an attractive sculpture and will be a very nice computer desk. Two neat holes have been cut in the rear of the top shelf section to allow free passage of the mare's nest of cables one needs to set up this system.
And I got a floor plan for the apartment that gives accurate measurements for the rooms--the desk will fit, and there's room for a small shelf that will hold the computer tower and backup system. The fit will be Snug, but it will be a better use of space than the much larger room I'm moving it out of.
I had a crazy conversation with Bill Matthews about my new place. It seems that Bill, who was one of the founders of the Sheridan animation program in 1967, lived in that very building, and on the same floor, while working to get the program started. We have ascertained that we are not sharing the same apartment, albeit at different points in time.
Now this might sound like Synergy, Serendipity, or oogie boogie magic, but in fact there is a simple explanation. The Devonshire apartments are a good deal nicer looking than the unit across the street, which also dates from the late Sixties. There are very few apartment buildings in Oakville. The ones near the college now probably did not exist then. And the Devonshire is wonderfully located; the bus is right outside the door, it's five minutes from the train station, and within walking distance to the library, a pool, a cultural centre, and the lake. It would be a logical choice for someone who didn't want to drive too much but still keep a short distance between themselves and work.
But it is a rather remarkable coincidence all the same.

Women in Animation (and live action)

"There were no female animators at Disney's in the Golden Age (except for Retta Scott)."
I've heard this statement from men and women --many of whom should know better.
"We had a lot of female assistants," one younger animator said to me once. The thing is that if you were assisting at Disney's in the Golden Age, you were also animating. If your animator allowed you to accumulate 70 feet of footage on approved scenes, you would be promoted to animator...and how easy it was, under this system, to not count scenes as 'animation' so that the promotion would forever be in the future.
I hope to have some information on some of the unknown women of The Golden Age At Disney Animation in future posts.
Meanwhile, I can write about a few working today whom I know personally.
Ellen Woodbury (supervising animator, ZaZu in THE LION KING, Pegasus in HERCULES) is currently a sculptor in Loveland, Colorado. Ellen's stonework reflects her animation training--some of them really do seem to be alive! Her work can be viewed at the Creative Talent Network. While you are at it, check out the work of the many other talented women and men there.
Carole Holliday was an animator on THE GOOFY MOVIE while I was a supervisor in France. I told my superiors that Carole's animation was good, and that her storyboards were even better. This might have influenced their putting Carole into the Story department after GOOFY MOVIE wrapped. She was, I believe, the first African American woman to work there.
Carole has just informed me that she has added another string to her bow; she has produced a short live action film with her own production company (Crowded Metro Films)
The film, WITT'S DAUGHTER is a lovely looking and beautifully photographed little film. I look forward to seeing the entire film and hearing how it does on the festival circuit.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Ollie Johnston, 1912-2008

It's been a sad week for animators. First we lose Andy Knight, now news has come that Ollie Johnston (the last of the famous "Nine Old Men") died on April 14 after a long illness. Ollie was 95 years old.

I first met him when I was in my freshman year at Cal Arts. I'd gotten the idea of animating an albatross--a gooney bird. I was pretty sure that this amusing creature, which crashes on landing, had never been animated before.

"I hate to disillusion you," Brad Bird said one day as I was happily working away on a walk on the bird, "but they're animating an albatross in THE RESCUERS, the new Disney feature. Ollie Johnston is animating it, and he is one of the artists coming to our show this spring to see our pencil tests."

My reaction was something along the lines of "NUURGGGHHH" (sound of extremely fast inhalation and incipient panic attack.)

Ollie and Frank were genuinely interested in our work. I recall that Marc Davis was there too at the screening, but can only remember one thing Ollie said to me after it was over and he'd seen my albatross test. As he and Frank were exiting the room, Ollie turned, looked back at me, and said behind his hand in conspiratorial fashion:

"Stick with it. We need more women in this business!"

I did stick with it, and became friendly with Frank, Ollie, Marie and Jeanette after I landed my first job at Zander's Animation Parlour. Since I'd actually gone to work before my senior screening and graduation, I wrote to Frank Thomas after I found out from assistant Ellsworth Barthen how to reach him, and asked for a crit.

"Your test shows great ambition and some difficult angles...perhaps when you have improved the animation, staging, cutting and direction, your work will improve."

Blunt criticism, but absolutely true.

Ollie and Frank continued to go to the Cal Arts shows. They really loved this crazy artform and did not want the knowledge of a lifetime to die with them, so they wrote one of the most important books ever published on character animation, Disney style: THE ILLUSION OF LIFE.
I think they went on to write one other book that was at least as important as this one. I refer to their moving and wonderful book on the making of BAMBI. What an achievement!

I was proud to count both of these fine gentlemen as my friends. They also encouraged many other female students at Cal Arts to 'stick with it'. Thank you, Frank and Ollie, for being great artists and just great, period.

Thank you too, Captain Hook, Mr. Smee, Baloo, Thumper, Doorknob, Queen of Hearts, White Rabbit, Pinocchio, Seven Dwarfs, Bambi and Thumper...
I will think of Frank and Ollie whenever I run these films.
Donations to the World Wildlife Fund may be made in Ollie's memory.

Your scenes really are there forever.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Andy Knight

I am extremely sorry to announce that talented animator, producer, storyboard artist and layout man Andy Knight died of a massive stroke on April 11 while on a trip to France.

I worked with Andy at Hahnfilm in 1988 on WERNER BEINHART and BENJAMIN BLUMCHEN--I was amazed at how fast this young Canadian artist could turn out background and character layouts--it was almost as if he was animating.

Andy's company, "Red Rover" was a well known and very successful Toronto commercial animation company. Andy was just on the verge of signing contracts in France with a variety of producers for a number of original productions he'd created.

He was 46 years old.

Addendum: Andy's funeral was on April 21. Donations in his memory can be made to
Plan Canada (Foster Parents Plan)

Friday, April 11, 2008

Great Fleischer blog and it's about time too!

Forgotten by everyone but history geeks, of course.

This is a fantastic blog about the Fleischer studio. Learn about Disney's biggest rival in the Thirties...if the brothers had made up with the union and not fought amongst themselves, they could STILL be giving Disney a run for their money....Sigh.

Lillian Friedman Astor was the first female animator in a commercial studio. Read about her here, then read about the other fantastic Fleischer people.

Most famous animator you've never heard of.

Here is a rare interview with animator Dan Haskett.

Kitty Movers

Moving Day approaches and things are going to start falling into place when they are not falling down. Gizmo the Cat got into the swing of things by being sick in interesting places, then climbing into a closet and getting locked in for a while (she didn't make a sound, she is too trusting. ) I had visions of finding a mouldering carcass after I returned on Sunday from my latest Canadian trip. Fortunately Miss Stupid came out the second time I went looking for her in the studio. Giant fun.
She was very affectionate when I was lying in bed reading a book. Then I hear the unmistakable 'rupe rupe' sound. "Get onto the floor!" I said. Gizmo did, and left a present. I have no idea what prompted her to gift me with some of her lunch. Hope she doesn't make a habit of it.
She isn't stressed at all. She has been lying on top of some of the picture boxes and playing with the empties, and purring a lot. Clearly the slow move was a good move when one has to do it with a cat. The gradual change in the apartment excites her curiosity rather than frightening her.
There was an almighty crash at two AM today. The unmistakable sound of a huge and very heavy box falling to the floor, which actually vibrated. I did not turn on the light but yelled at Gizmo to stop being a jerk and get back to bed. Now there are three huge cats living upstairs and it is quite conceivable that one of them got frisky and kicked over a television or something. Kitty Radar ensures that Gizmo starts skipping and running around at the same time as the 19 pounder upstairs. Jacques is so huge that it sounds like a human being moving around when he galumphs down the hall.
Maybe that's it. I couldn't find any huge boxes out of place today; I've deliberately stacked them so she can't knock them over. It'll be even more fun when I have to put the cat in her carrier, listen to the pathetic howls, and then have her sit still for a two or three hour trip to Canada at the end of May.
I can't wait. Can she?

Friday, April 04, 2008

The Uncertain Art

I've been teaching for eight years now. It's hard to imagine that one quarter of my career would be spent outside studios (though I still work in the industry, it's not the main 'bread and butter' job any more.)
During that time there have been more animation books published than, I believe, were published in the previous twenty. Some of the books are long overdue, particularly UNFILTERED, the new book on Ralph Bakshi, and STEPPING INTO THE PICTURE . THE ART AND FLAIR OF MARY BLAIR, which profile Maurice Noble and Mary Blair respectively, and DREAM WORLDS, a wonderful book on animation art direction by Hans Bacher. I've ordered them all even though I know books weigh a ton that will be duly added to my already-topheavy shipment to Canada. These are important works on subjects that weren't covered in most early animation books.

There are great books on the art of animation, but only a few on the history, and these still tend to be studio-specific. The Walt Disney studio is of course the best documented, with Warner Brothers catching up fast.

The books that deal with general animation history are generally flawed. Some are America-centric, some have historical errors, and all of them are out of date. This field changes so rapidly that the best source for animation history turns out to be the Internet. Wonderful things turn up on YouTube--who'd have thought I'd be actually able to show SORA NO MOMOTARO in a history class that dealt with propaganda animation, or this charming early sound cartoon (KURO NYAGO) from Japan? (Warning: This tune will stick in your head all day!) These cartoons were only names in a book before. Thanks to the Web, they can be shown and analyzed and compared with contemporary work. KURO NYAGO was made the same year as SKELETON DANCE!.

New animation DVDS are also full of good things. The Disney and Warner studios have put some great artwork from their productions on as 'extras'--this is even more remarkable when you realize that their main market is a family audience, not educators or historians. There's a little something for everyone.
So I don't want to kvetch or bite the hand that is feeding us such wonderful goodies, but I do want to bring up one thing: the history in some of the recent reissues is highly skewed. The most surprising was on a recent release: one animator was the subject of the 'extra' but most of the clip was spent discussing another animator and another picture!

Now, the opinions of the artists on these discs are to be respected, but are they to be considered the last word, the official history, of the subject? Until a better source comes along, these will be seen as the 'accurate' version of events. And some, as I mentioned before, are skewed. There is no definitive history of animation and this book may never be written. Animation is a young artform, but it blossomed into gorgeous variations on the themes before it was ten years old. It needs an encyclopedia, not a single volume, and much of it would have to appear on disc rather than in print.

Or maybe a website with the right links would handle this ever-expanding art in the most up-to-date fashion? Has someone already done this?