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Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Getting Ready

Work starts in earnest on the second, when term begins; but there is a lot going on this week at the college. Today I am at a departmental meeting that then breaks up 'by year' so that we can discuss things that need discussing. I've got to pick up a laptop computer and give my lesson plans to my second year colleagues Mark Mayerson, Michael Hitchcox, and Scott Caple. And I got my OHIP Canadian insurance card, which means I'm fully 'covered' in the new country's medical plan as of September 1. Which is good news...I'll probably need it. Some kind of sinus attack is making me unhappy every morning and I need a few minor tuneups before school starts. It's nice to get all your ducks in a row before the real excitement begins.
Yesterday I went on a pleasant walking tour of parts of downtown Toronto with NCS member and fellow cartoonist Patricia Storms, whom I met at the Doug Wright awards a while back. We found a good used bookstore right on Spadina avenue that had some unusual and rare Canadian cartoon books. "Mine!" Patricia said, rushing for one small book and then explaining to me that the interesting cartoons featuring a bear character were very well known in Canada. I'd never seen it so I'm afraid I can't remember the artist's name or the title of the panel cartoon. (Thanks to the readers of the blog, of whom I have at least two, for informing me about J. M. Simpkins' JASPER THE BEAR. Is this the first cartoon character to have a public park named after him? Take that, Yogi.) Not much else to say except that I'll be spending the rest of the week on my first presentation, which will be done in-class rather than in the lecture hall due to the cancellation of Monday's class for Labor Day. The big classroom goes into operation in Week 2. I was able to plan the remaining lectures around Canadian Thanksgiving, which also falls on a Monday; (October 13). It's a lot easier to do this midway through the course.
The weather has turned sharply cooler and this is in some ways a Good Thing; but I'll probably be forced to take the herb garden indoors within a week or so.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Canadian Exhibitions

It's been a busy week or two...most of it was spent getting ready for school in September, but the weekends have been spent exploring more of my new country's attractions. On the 16th and 17th I was honored to be one of the invitees to Lynn Johnston's 'farewell and hello' party for FOR BETTER OR FOR WORSE, in Cottage Country.
A word about Cottages: These correspond to the USA's "cabins in the country". Everyone here in Oakville seems to 'go to the Cottage' on a weekend. So I was thrilled to be able to go to one, myself.
Lynn actually doesn't live in a cottage; it's a full sized, very nicely laid-out house on a pretty lake. Other small houses nearby correspond more to the 'cottage' description than her very comfortable home. Many are located on nearby Lake Nipissing, (pronounced with the accent on the first syllable, thankyouverymuch.) Lynn's friend went into hysterics when I got it wrong.
She kindly drove me up to Lynn's house; and we toured the city of North Bay after the party.
The area is lovely in summer, but in the spring a lot of the dreaded Black Fly and No-See-Ums are about. These legendarily bloodthirsty things bite and generally make life extremely unpleasant in May and June. There's always a catch to a beautiful area...
The North Bay waterfront had two wonderful carousels that Lynn and her husband helped create. This one,
is a loving recreation of the great turn of the 20th century carousels; each handcarved horse is sponsored by a local business or resident. Many artists contributed to this gorgeous work of kinetic art. Lynn's characters are painted on two of the central panels and she sponsored one horse as well. (I wasn't able to ride on it but sat next to it on a horse named "Pearl". All the horses can be seen on the carousel's website.)
Next to this fine carousel was an extremely amusing one that featured Canadian animals. I rode on one of the carriages and photographed the beavers, moose, and other folk-art styled carvings and will try to post some of them in the next blog entry when the pictures are back. It takes a while to get film developed nowadays! but it will be worth the wait.
On Wednesday I went to the Canadian National Exhibition. Blog regulars might remember the ghastly 'cookbook' illustrations I printed from a 1956 CNE handout a while back. Well, the CNE had many more wholesome historical items on display in a special show, right next to the "Quilt of Belonging", which has a square representing every nation on the planet (as of 2003, when the quilt was finished). *Most remarkably, the quilt also has squares representing the First Nations of Canada (called Native Americans in the USA.) The work is superb and the quilt is a very pretty sight.

I took in a Gypsy Horse show performance at the Ricoh Stadium that featured trick riding by a young pair of pigtailed, blonde sisters in addition to some excellent acrobatic work by their elders.
There was also a Farm complete with live pigs, cows, ostriches, horses and chickens; the wonderfully named "Horse Palace", an artist' display, a surprisingly neat midway (Canada seems to have very little litter, which is a good thing) and guest performers including, of all people, Mickey Rooney.
I didn't stay long enough to catch his show but admire his spirit.
My one criticism of the event was that the "Sitting Pretty" exhibit on the history of the toilet was a bit too subdued. If you are going to do a history of the toilet, hyperbole should be the order of the day, not modest, half-hidden little cubicles. Something like the Mr. Rooter Marching Toilets...or the infamous marching toilets complete with the Toilet Bowl Queen from Pasadena's 1998 DOO DAH PARADE, which I had the honor of participating in. But I was marching that year with the Howl-a Lujah Chorus of bassett hounds, walking two of Ron Clements' pets on red ribbons--I was certainly not elected Toilet Bowl Queen!
I will post pictures of the carousel, etc. when I have them back. Meanwhile, another trip is planned for tomorrow...more anon!

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

FJORG at Siggraph

SIGGRAPH, the biggest computer graphics and animation show in the world, has just concluded its second FJORG competition in which sixteen teams consisting of three animators each has completed a short animated film to a pre-set story (with pre modeled and rendered characters and supplied dialogue) in just 32 hours.

The contest ended on the 12th and judging is today.

The FJORGERS must create the story, plan the scenes, animate them, and render the finished film with final track while dealing with 'distractions' such as fire eaters, belly dancers and visiting animators (thanks to Tom Sito for the heads-up about the contest ending!)

Two of the teams are comprised of RIT students, all of whom were in at least one of my animation and drawing courses; it'll be fun to see what they do and how they do.

Here are the RIT teams:

Team Rocketpants: Neil Bonsteel, Brianne Francisco, Riannon Delanoy

The Re-Animators: Wes Storhoff, Ignacio Barrios, Brian Monroe

Their topic this year was THE SADDEST STORY EVER TOLD.

Last year's competition was won by this outstanding film from Ohio. (The team was from Bowling Green University.) It's economically told, uses the provided characters and simple elements (no time wasted on modeling new materials) covers the subject matter ("An Impossible Escape") and is very well directed. And it's also very funny.

Watch this space for the names of the winning animators, either today or tomorrow!

Update: You can view each of the films by clicking on the "Animation" link underneath the team name on the left side of this page.

Sunday, August 10, 2008


The fourth Doug Wright Awards ceremony was held at the Toronto Reference library on Friday, August 8. The winners are listed in the link; I particularly liked THE MAGICAL ADVENTURES OF LONG TACK SAM, the first 'graphic novel' adapted from a motion picture made by the same artist!
The Doug Wright award is named for Doug Wright, whose strip NIPPER (also known as Doug Wright's Family) ran for over three decades in Canadian papers. It had one strong advantage over most comics of the day--it was entirely without dialogue, an advantage in a bilingual country. And it was beautifully drawn.
There was also a special award called THE GIANTS OF THE NORTH. Lynn Johnston was the seventh inductee to this special panorama.
The logo for the award (and the awards themselves) were beautifully designed by Seth, who is also the book designer for the COMPLETE PEANUTS books published by Fantagraphics Books and a famous cartoonist in his own right. Seth looked rather like he could play Hildy Johnson in THE FRONT PAGE without any costume change; he dresses rather like a newsman of the Thirties complete with snappy fedora and tailored suit.
Lynn Johnston took the stage and looked at the GIANTS OF THE NORTH logo, which features three bearded men flanked by two Castor Canadiensis.
"I wonder which one of these characters is female?" Lynn enquired. There was a general intake of breath.
("The beavers, of course!" I whispered to the man in the next seat, who did not react. Canadians are generally very polite. I'm not acclimatized yet.)

Lynn then proceeded to give an amazing lecture on comics, comic artists, and the future of FOR BETTER OR FOR WORSE. The last comic of this famous strip will run on August 31, but that is not the end of the story. Here's a brief summation paraphrasing what she said. Lynn has graciously given me permission to print some exciting news. Any errors in the report are mine.

The Hardest Story

"Story comes from within you. I had a personal connection to most storylines...they were based on people I knew...The hardest story I ever wrote--the best story I ever wrote--was when Lawrence (Michael Patterson's high school friend--n.b) 'came out'.
...I remember the anguish of a small-town editor in the Southern states. He was harrassed. He had to drop the strip...he liked it, but he wrote me 'My kids were harrassed at school, the dog was spraypainted...I have to drop the strip.'"

(The 1992 landmark series where a teenager tells his best friend that he is gay resulted in many American papers dropping FBOFW, but "for every one that dropped it, two more signed on!" There was laughter and applause as Lynn stated this. Here's some of the criticism she received.)

Lynn: "There is a 'code of ethics' for comics. My strip was seen as 'family friendly' but the syndicate approved the story line. Nowadays, they would probably be less upset..."

"...Gary Trudeau (Doonesbury) got away with it...I was nailed to the wall! There were 7000 letters. We made three piles: "Yes" (approve), "No" (rational) and "No" (inflexible). Very few of the 'noes' were rational--most were inflexible..."

"...April (the younger daughter) has been accepted at Guelph University!" (laughter from audience and applause) "You'll have to read about this on the last day."

(The story wraps up on August 31--n.b.)

"...The drawings were becoming stiff. I couldn't move. And I couldn't make jokes about little kids any more. Michael has children...but I have no grandchildren...and I couldn't really see it any more. It's better to end it when it's time. It all comes full circle."

For Better or For Worse: The Sequel

(The Universal Press Syndicate suggested that the strips be rerun, starting from the beginning.)

Lynn: "New material drawn in the old style will be added when the strips repeat. I want to go back and fix things! I draw so differently now...but you do the best that you can possibly do."

"...The comic strip page is called 'real estate'. Other syndicates are going after my papers! (There is only a certain amount of space on the comics page, and every new strip displaces an older one. --n.b.)
"The clouds are gathering! If it is going to run again, it's going to be the best I can make it."

Killing Farley

"...He's coming back. He'll be coming into the strip again, soon....All comics are written eight weeks before publication. Farley died on the same day that Timothy McVeigh blew up the Murragh building in Oklahoma City. You can't judge what the reaction would be...(Lynn told me that she received more negative mail when Farley died than when the grandmother died; she knows now that this was a reaction to the current events, not a mistake in priorities.--n.b.)

"...Farley is appearing in a new children's book, FARLEY FOLLOWS HIS NOSE. There will be a stuffed Farley toy. And a group of Ontario veterniarians licensed him for the FARLEY FOUNDATION, which pays the bills for sick pets when the owners cannot afford to."

"...The Twin Towers came down at the same time as Michael and Deanna's wedding. Deanna's dress designer said, 'You can't have them get married!' But the strips are already in the works, they can't be changed. The response was: "We're glad you didn't stop the wedding...we needed to see something funny."

"...The characters grew as my own children grew. The setup naturally mirrored that. My usual response to a gag is "And then what happened?" It's easier (to amplify the situation) than write a gag-a-day. That will drive you crazy. I developed the characters, but they were fantasy. Real life is BORING! There are times when you think you are brilliant, but how often does that happen? Everything (in the strip) was scripted. The characters developed as individuals; they weren't my own family."

On legacy strips:

Lynn worked with a staff of two other artists; she penciled and inked the main characters herself, one staff artist inked the backgrounds and the other did the color work. This will not be the case when the strip is reissued.

Lynn: "I can do it all myself now. The early style is much simpler....I tried to make it a legacy strip, I contacted an animator and spoke with him about his taking it over. You need to be an animator, have an animator's sense of perspective and body movement...we decided it would not work. 'It's your dream, he said..."

On newspapers and Web cartoons:

"...The newspapers are in trouble. It's not like it used to be. There was more space. There's now talk about the Web. Anyone who wants to test their mettle can put their mistakes on the Web and get feedback...(comic strips) are a little play. Anyone who doesn't work for an audience isn't going to make it. (The Web) is great for comic strip artists and animators."

On the difficulty of drawing cartoons:

"Someone young might not have the determination to do this for 25 years. They drop out."

(Audience member: "Why? Don't they drink as much?")

Lynn: "Six weeks dailies, 8 weeks Sundays. Six weeks dailies, 8 weeks Sundays. Jim Davis (Garfield) wants to put this on a shirt! (You must have strips ready this far ahead of publication--n.b.)
"...A lot of young people will shine for two or three years and then they just can't take it. It's a different era. I'm thrilled they can't make it!" (laughter from audience) I'm extremely competitive."

"...(Cartoonists are) the most generous, kind, warmhearted group of people. There aren't that many of us. We are very supportive, very strong. But it's a hard, competitive job."

On Fame and Cartooning

"...I'd like to take what I've done and do something good with it. The stupid thing about being famous is it's just crap. It's the sugarcoating on the M&M--and the good stuff is inside. It's really not good for you, not good for your family..."

"...I would like to do something for the betterment of society, rather than retire or disappear. Take whatever I've got and push forward....I don't know what I'm going to be doing, but I'm on my way!"

The Giants of the North--and the Giantess

Monday, August 04, 2008

And why not a few more photos?

Erchless (pronounced IRK-less) was the home of Oakville's founder, Mr. Chisolm. The mansion is now a museum. The gardes on Centre Island reminded me of Charlottenberg in Berlin. The Toronto Islands are really lovely, at least in the summer. In winter, they get the gales from the lake. There is also nowhere to buy food on the entire island, but the ferryboats go directly to the quay, and there is a small airport. The cottages are owned by artists who fought the city for years for the right to stay in their homes; a compromise was reached where they stay, and we get to meander all over the islands. The shot of the dog in the bike surrey was taken in front of the island's club. Most of the houses are delightful and very well kept up.

Some pictures of The Toronto Islands.

As promised, some pictures of where I live.

Kerr Street, Oakville, was formerly a bit of a dive. There are still a few low rent shops there, but it's safer now than it used to be. There is a jazz club directly behind me and a great little gelato store directly across from the French furniture store in the photo.
The Queen Mary apartments are a little better looking than most 1960s buildings, but the grounds are definitely the most photogenic part of the building. And Gizmo is the most photogenic member of my household. She's standing in front of the stereo, which is on a metal shelf concealed behind the old screen. This was originally a temporary measure; I am going to keep it there permanently since it looks more inviting and has better acoustics than a wooden cabinet.

Friday, August 01, 2008

A Preston Blair Moment

Hello again everyone; it's been a while since I've posted, and since a lot has been going on I really have no excuse not to write.
I have pictures too; and will post a few, I promise.
Thing is, I've been working very hard on a special project for Sheridan and have spent additional time getting my course outlines ready. This was a tall order since it involved working within a planned program; my storyboard classes have to provide a foundation for layout and character design and animation, just as they do in actual productions. Assignments had to synchronize with the ones in the other classes, and this was a bit of a tall order since I'm not familiar with how and when they are given out. Mark Mayerson gave me a rough outline which helped greatly. So it took a bit of rewriting and conferring with colleagues before my course outlines were in a shape that looked reasonable. Naturally they will be subject to change as soon as actual students test drive the assignments; but I'm reasonably certain that the workload is reasonable for them as well as me.
So....I've been doing some more exploration of Toronto, but not too often. The weather has been crazy, with very heavy thunderstorms alternating with bits of sunshine, which kind of discourages me from walking in the forest.
Now yesterday was balmy, lovely and so on; the perfect day for a bicycle ride. Naturally that was also the day that the forty year old plumbing in this apartment jammed so amazingly well that it was necessary to get someone with a fifty foot 'snake' to dislodge the accumulated detritus so that I and my neighbour could use our sinks. It took all day to get a plumber out here, which is good actually, since it's a holiday weekend and no one at all will be available during that time.
As if that wasn't exciting enough, Focal Press's new animation book editors informed me last week that my book PREPARE TO BOARD! was to have a second American edition. Unfortunately they informed me too late for me to have time to get permission from Disney to use four pieces of copyrighted artwork that appear in the first edition. Disney have never denied me permission when asked, but it is an absolute necessity for me to notify them by mail and receive permission for the use of the artwork in any new editions well in advance of publication; *update: Focal have informed me that they will hold the printing until the end of the month so that I can get the letter from Disney. It usually takes about 30 days. So there's a chance that the second edition will contain the four copyrighted illustrations. I don't mind replacing my own work so much--I have adequate substitutions; but I was very sad to note that Ken O'Connor's illustrations for FANTASIA that appeared in the first edition cannot appear in the second one. I have no non-Disney artwork by Ken, and so his interview will have only the portrait with the "Gluteus Maximus" statue illustrating it.
I repeat that this is not Disney's fault. They allowed me to use their illustrations in the upcoming Chinese edition of the book, since I had adequate lead time to get written permission from them. They do not do business over the phone or on email; my request must be in writing. Therefore I need about a month's lead time to get the legal matters settled. There are other changes to the book that are actually for the better. Nina Paley allowed me to get much higher-resolution images off her SITA website, so the color illustrations from this film are much better in the second edition. It makes a difference and keeps a generous art donor happy. I also replaced a very pixelated image from Bill Robinson's senior film with a much better render of his character that was in his project files all this time. And I replaced a typo in the back of the book where Dave Block was credited for a book instead of his brother Bruce. I even asked if they could put in a recommendation for Francis Glebas' upcoming book for them, DIRECTING THE STORY. I helped Francis get this book published and worked as a sort of unofficial copy editor, so I can assure you all that it's worth getting and doesn't duplicate materials in PTB.
You animation geeks out there might be aware that this gives PTB a sort of Preston Blair moment. Blair wrote the first good book on animation technique in 1942. He used a lot of copyrighted characters from MGM, Disney, and Warner short cartoons. The studios made him change the artwork, and while some (like the dancer RED HOT RIDING HOOD) survive in subsequent editions with a new hairdo, and the Owl from BAMBI is intact, more famous icons such as Bugs Bunny, Tom and Jerry, and his own Wolf had to be redesigned and redrawn. The first edition of Blair's book (originally called ADVANCED ANIMATION) is fabulously rare and can be viewed here. Click on the links to see Part Two.
What I don't understand is this: Blair not only removed the famous characters, he also redrew the ones that were one-shot character types that appear in any number of studios' cartoons. Perhaps MGM was hoping that Meathead the Dog would become a star and Warners had plans for Beaky Buzzard, who knows.
I have no idea if PREPARE TO BOARD!'s first edition will become as rare as the Blair. It's unlikely, since the press run of the second edition is half the size of the first. If anything, the second edition will become the rarer of the two.
So the reprint of the book is a bittersweet moment for me. I was really delighted to be able to give Ken O'Connor his much-overdue 'due' as a storyboard artist. Perhaps PTB will have another edition and I'll be able to put them back. Time will tell. Meanwhile, to paraphrase Yogi Berra, I'd like to thank all the people who made this day necessary.