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Saturday, December 04, 2010

Happy Holidays

As always, I've made a card for the New Year, since that applies to all men, women (and cats), and isn't restricted to one religious denomination. (Some time differences may apply.)

Here is this years' card; it features our late family dog Peaches, who died in 1982, and my current friend Gizmo, who nearly died this year of cancer but somehow beat the odds, and is still here.

I hope that all of us can make the same statement (at least the beating the odds bit and still being here) in the New Year.

The new Year celebration does not only mark the passing of chronological time. Several of my friends died this year (not all of them members of the animation community) and they will be remembered at this time, as they are on a daily basis.

Happy Holidays.

I've been a neglectful poster...

...and both of my remaining readers may be mildly upset at this. It's been a really fast semester, and a busy one, at Sheridan...and I do seem to be on Facebook a lot more than here. I like the interactivity, and the ability to learn about artists in all media that you might not have met otherwise.

The truly remarkable thing about Facebook is that it allows you to post your work, portfolio, and credentials online in a venue that 'overshoots' the usual studio watchdogs. In other words, it's a fulltime, permanent animation jobfest and you can show your work to just about anyone, anytime and anywhere. Small wonder that studios are starting to recruit on Facebook for talent. DreamWorks has just created a Facebook page for 'top animation students' (hope I got the name right.)

It would be really nice to have a Facebook page for the Sheridan animation program; I've even offered to administer it. There is plenty of student material on Youtube to link to; the page would simply serve as a focus and updates to the program (such as visiting lecturers, festival wins, etc.) could be posted there.

In the meantime we are coming down the wire to the end of fall semester. It seemed to go remarkably quickly this time. Possibly because I had an additional class to take care of (first year story lecture). Possibly because I am a bit more used to teaching the other class now, though you never really teach the class the same way twice. Student years appear to have their own 'cultures' and some vary dramatically from section to section.

So a quick update: The book may or may not be doing well; it at least has received good reviews. I did another podcast for "Sam" Heer on November 18, the day before I flew to L.A. to participate in the second Creative Talent Network Expo on the 19th and 20th. Sheridan may have a booth or table at this event next year. (That would be very good, since the event is an excellent networking opportunity and lots of potential students were talking to me at my half-table setup.) Due to the intricacies of California and Canadian tax laws, I wasn't able to sell any books! C'est la vie. I had a few on display, and gave copies to Glen Vilppu and the Walt Disney Studio, where I did a short presentation along with former student and current Disney animator Jamaal Bradley.

Gizmo is still alive.

I guess that covers most of it.

Again, my apologies for the absence of really has been that kind of year.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Animated Performance is finally shipping in the USA. actually is listing it as 'in stock'. still doesn't do this; and is asking people whether they want to cancel the order.
I am disappointed that this should be happening, but the book will, I hope stand or fall on its merits, and not be overly affected by distribution problems.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

A disappointing 'festival'

Last year I waited for four hours in line for Toronto International Film Festival tickets to Don Hahn's WAKING SLEEPING BEAUTY. The only reason I stuck it out that long was because of that film.
The festival booth was inconveniently located, poorly run, and very slow.
This year, the TIFF allegedly had online and telephone ordering.
Neither system works.

I couldn't have stood in line, not even for a few minutes, this past week even if I had wanted to; there were school meetings and preparation for the new school year to attend and attend to.

So now, it seems that the TIFF have taken the sales for ILLUSIONIST 'Off sale'. I don't know if that means it sold out, or if they can't make their Byzantine and very stupidly designed ordering system work. So the hell with it, and with them. I will see the ILLUSIONIST either on a studio screener, or in a theatrical release. And I'm really quite serious about never bothering with TIFF again.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

New book and so on

Hello all,
Well, I have been spending so much time on facebook that I really am not 'here' much any more...but I have had an interesting summer, and so here I am again. I apologize for the long absence. Maybe someone still reads this, maybe not.

At any rate, I spent two weeks in Taiwan at a university, helping judge a number of scholarship applications; and this was such a pleasant experience for both parties (other than the climate, which was hellaciously hot) that I will be invited back again next year, so they tell me.

And my new book is published. There are already copies being received in Britain and Asia; LaSalle University in Singapore is the first animation program to adopt it as a required textbook. Thank you!

My friend Elliot Cowan made a small commercial for me; we got the artwork and the film done in precisely 2 days or less and it perhaps shows, but it is something. Elliot updates his SANDWICHBAG blog far more often than I update mine; and his emailed 'discussion' with a monumentally rude and untalented 'artist' is well worth a read, particularly when you see how Elliot saves his denunciation for the last retort. I just hope he blocked the man after sending it.

Sheridan starts again on Tuesday and though my classes aren't beginning til Wednesday, I'll be there to hand out copies of ANIMATED PERFORMANCE to four Sheridan students who contritubed artwork to the book. Thank you all!

It's a handsome volume. Also a handfull; it weighs nearly two pounds.
But it will make an impression, especially if you drop it on your foot.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010


I see now that many people are quitting Facebook at the end of this month because of the constant 'data mining' done on the site.

I find Facebook an excellent way to stay in contact with people whom I may have not seen for years, and I've made a lot of new friends there--but the accusations, which are not unfounded, have me very worried.

Of course I post nothing there that I would not want the whole world to see. The question is, are my friends at risk when the list is acquired by a bot or other party?

In addition I do not like the news that Facebook is owned by people with a political agenda.
So I haven't made up my mind whether to quit or not. Any thoughts?

Monday, May 10, 2010

Exit Through the Gift Shop: An Important Film for Artists

What is art? This question has been asked for millennia. Art is a profoundly subjective experience. It is real, yet unreal, speaking directly to the viewer's emotions. Historically it has been the expression of an idea. Art has been used for propaganda purposes by kings, religious leaders, and social movements. Human lives were shaped by images before humans were generally literate; they are being shaped by images again as literacy declines.
The Surrealists changed the meaning of images; Dali's lobster telephone and Duchamp's urinal in the art gallery took objects out of context and turned them into something else. Andy Warhol repeated images endlessly until they became meaningless.
Graffiti became street art in the 1980s, largely due to the efforts of Keith Haring whose crawling men appeared on street signs and subway stations near my New York apartment during that decade (I disliked his work then and dislike it now.)
Then there were other artists such as Shepard Fairey who stuck stickers with the face of Andre the Giant all over the world (he is allegedly still doing this.) The new generation of graffiti artists printed or screened their work, which was redubbed Street Art, and used it in ironic context. Warhol's influence seemed to be strong, since many of Fairey's icons lose all meaning by repetition. (It sort of makes me wonder about the real meaning of this poster that he made for an 'obscure Senator' two years ago.)
The greatest of the street artists, and the most subtle in my opinion, is the artist who goes by the name of Banksy. Originally working only in England, Banksy has placed his artwork in hotspots such as the Wall in Gaza; Disneyland; and in a Paris Hilton Album.
But no one has (allegedly) seen Banksy' face. EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP is a feature film that is being sold as a documentary about Banksy. At the risk of spoilers, it is no such thing. It is a prank on the audience that asks my first questions...what is art? Who is an artist? and then adds more.... Is art meant to be free to the public? Is art a commodity to be sold? Is an artist who uses a team to assemble art pieces fair when he/she receives all credit for the work? Can art that is created by another artist be used fairly to create a new composition? (Nina Paley, creator of SITA SINGS THE BLUES, maintains that all creative work is derivative.) All artists build on what has gone before. If so, when do you stop?
The tag line for this film "In a world without rules, he broke them all", is absolutely true.
There is speculation that Banksy and Shepard Fairey are pulling the wool over our eyes with this film, that it is too contrived and convoluted to be true. It has been my experience that some of the weirdest and most contrived situations in life are real.
So I was rather disturbed by the material included on this artist. I can't say more without revealing too much about this terrific film which I will certainly recommend to all, and which I will definitely see again.
I'm not sure whether Banksy is just one person, but the onscreen Banksy definitely can be identified, sans hoodie, if you pay attention to two important hints (one visual, one textual) that are provided in the film. Animators will find it very easy.
I also choose to regard the success of this artist as part of the show. Otherwise, I and all the rest of us went into the wrong business. See for yourself. Seeing is believing. Or is it?

Late Post, My apologies,a week in Toronto

I've become quite the Facebook junkie and need to apologize for not updating the blog more often.
My blog is really a substitute for letters and mass emails that I sent to friends; this was and is a more economical way of doing it.
It's always wise to edit your material online. Facebook has me worried since I have read that it is owned by a major corporation controlled by people who have certain political views....and that they are constantly attempting to control the users' emails and contacts.
This may be a little paranoid since it is very easy to opt out of the 'sharing' as long as you adjust your settings so that you have maximum privacy.
In any case, never put anything online that you would not want the whole world to see.
This week was notable for a visit from Nina Haley, a friend from L.A. who had not been to Toronto before. I also started my character design and maquette workshop in the same week. Gizmo kept Nina amused while I was at work, and we toured Toronto when I was not at work. The weather cooperated until the very last day, when we had torrential rains followed by a drop to zero degrees C (32 F) at night. My nice new basil plant died on the patio, but the indestructable chives and Sage survived.
Gizmo, who has NOT died, was the reason for Nina's trip. Gizmo was supposed to be either dead or dying by now and Nina, who loves cats, was going to get me through the mourning period.
Since Gizmo is doing fine and was actually showing off by roaring loudly at four A.M. for playtime, tearing apart a roll of paper towels, and constantly rolling around in paper bags that were liberally scattered for her benefit in the living room, Nina's visit became a pleasure trip. I did a few brief updates on Facebook about it and took a few pictures around town. We saw nearly all of Toronto's First Nation galleries including the Dominion Bank gallery of Inuit art, the Museum of Inuit art on the Queens' Quay, and the Native Canadian Centre on Spadina Avenue. The Toronto Comic Art Festival also coincided with the visit and I was pleasantly surprised to find the work of Stephanie Yue, whose Tai Ch'i mice were one of the highlights of the show. You can find the mice at her site in the "Children's" Section. Yue told me she studied illustration at Pratt in New York but did not study animation, and this is definitely so if you view the entire site. I think the mice are the most original and interesting part of it and I hope that Ms. Yue does more with these characters.
I am preparing for the publication of Animated Performance in July. It is available for preorder on and I'm planning to go to the second annual Creative Talent Network Animated Expo for the weekend in November, where I will have a table and will do a presentation.
So that's what has been going on...
School year's ended, school meetings continue.
I promise to update more often...thank you for reading, all three of you!

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Reverse Predictions and More Subtexts

I see that AVATAR is now the most successful movie in history, passing TITANIC earlier this month (I won't use the obvious sinking metaphor.) Since this movie cost a half a billion dollars, movie economics dictates that it didn't start to earn a profit until it earned a billion dollars at the box office. It's just done this, but half that sum came from outside the USA. Why? Is it just due to the effects, or something more?
AVATAR has done spectacularly well in China and other Asian nations, so well that the Chinese yanked the 2D version from the theatres to prevent piracy.
Which leads me to suspect that AVATAR'S popularity is due to another subtext that appears in this movie. It's about the end of colonial empire, specifically an American colonial empire. There are some different races in this movie (Cameron makes sure to show some mixed-race troops cheering Colonel Quaritch's peptalk before the last great invasion.) It's an American corporation ordering the invasion in a cynicical partnership with the military and the scientists who were almost certainly sponsored by the military. A good portion of scientific research is now underwritten by military funding in the USA so this is no future fantasy.
I've seen a cartoon posted by Darryl Cagle showing Indian and Asian people holding hands with a ten foot high blue avatar figure. That is not coincidental.
But when I visited Zagreb many years ago a Serbian animator told me "We make fun of America in our (animated) films because we cannot make fun of our own governments."
Perhaps some of the approval for AVATAR comes from people in similar situations.
Which would make AVATAR one of the most subversive movies ever made, in that it questions the corporate culture that enabled the film to be produced in the first place.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Women are Just No Good. with Spoilers

This post will probably be full of a lot of stuff people don't want to hear, but here goes. Point One: Beautiful animation won't save a weak story and neither will state of the art special effects. Point Two: Story is usually the weak spot in film, whether it be animated or live. Most of us would agree on these two points.
Point Three is the kicker. I'm noticing disturbing subtexts in some films. Subtexts that marginalize or actually despise the female characters--sometimes, women in general.
I'll discuss three of them here: AVATAR, UP, and UP IN THE AIR.
AVATAR, in addition to being the most overproduced and overrated film I saw this year, was the worst subtextual offender.
We are asked to believe that an uneducated, ignorant Marine can outwit both the 'science pukes' and professional Marines and lead an alien population better than its chosen tribal leaders. It's possible that a grunt might be brighter than his commanding officer, but...
Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) is a tough woman scientist who will not survive this movie. We know this because she is not deferential to men and she smokes cigarettes. She has taught the Na'vi English, which is very convenient for the film --but let that pass. She knows the culture and the people. Yet none of the Na'vi listen to her, though they presumably know and trust her. They listen to Jake, even though he is a total screwup and knows nothing of their ways. (All right, he presumably is taught by Pocahontas--um, Neytiri, during his dubiously-earned three month training period, during which time he somehow forgets to explain to her that he must negotiate their move from the Tree so that no violence will occur. He waits until the very last minute when the bulldozers arrive to mention this minor problem. Since she is fluent in English, why does he not tell her earlier? Jake is not, to put it mildly, an efficient or organized person.) But Neytiri falls in love with him anyway. She rejects him when her Tree and half her family are killed as a result of his stupidity, but...falls in love with him AGAIN anyway almost immediately. Women are so fickle!
Dr. Augustine and Trudy Chacon the helicopter gunship pilot Die Heroically, or Heroinically, in this film. You know Trudy will die when she claims she didn't sign up for 'martyrdom'. Ask and ye shall receive. Every story point in this movie is written in crayon.
Heroic Deaths in some older films were often assigned to African-American characters; how nice that women have now achieved this dubious distinction. (Trudy is a Latina, which makes her Even More Heroic.)
So the girls can play, but they can't win. Dr. Augustine dies but unlike Jake, can't be reincarnated in her Avatar since she is 'too weak'. Telling words. I guess it would be too inconvenient having a strong woman around, enjoying life on a new planet with a cute Na'vi male.
You know that Jake is going to get the top post in the clan because he is boinking the Chief's daughter. This sort of thing appears to be common on Pandora as well as on Earth. Chief Daddy is conveniently killed, and Neytiri's Mom (who is supposed to share power with Daddy) is reduced to leading New Age chants and Waves beneath a glowing neon tree which presumably was invisible to all those warships and choppers casing the planet from the air. Tsu'Tey, Neytiri's chosen mate and Chief-in-waiting, is conveniently killed, almost as an afterthought, while attacking gunships. But he's already delegated authority to Jake so his death is unimportant.
The other men in the experiment, Norm Spellman and Dr. Max Patel, are just there to Be Jake's Friends (and conveniently get him information, etc. when he needs it.) Spellman is nerdy looking and Patel is fat and nerdy looking. Both are deferential to Jake even though Spellman can handle a gun as well as a scientist's viewscreen. But he is also a nerdy looking Na'vi. (How did they clone his baseball cap?)
So our untrained, ignorant Marine gets the Chief's daughter and gets to lead the clan, all without cracking a book or being the least bit prepared for the job (though he remembers his Marine training well.) This gives an even more disturbing subtext to this movie: Military might is right and good, when you break the rules. And pretty girls can stick around--but it's the man who is the boss and has the brains. (I mean, couldn't NATIRI discover how to ride the Big Red Flying Dragon? She's lived on that planet all her life.)

I've gone on long enough about this movie but I just have one more small question to ask. Some of the humans are invited to stay on Pandora when the others go home. It's a bit of a blur for me, but was anyone wearing those facemasks with Earth atmosphere that prevent humans from dying in a few minutes' time? How were they to survive without them, or when the juice ran out?
And I wondered if the Na'vi would die afterward in their millions through exposure to Earth bacilli and viruses introduced by the invaders, the way actual Native Americans did.
UP can be handled in far less time, since it's mainly concerned with the bonding of old Karl and young Russell. Russell was easily the best character in the film but he had a backstory that really bothered me. His parents are apparently divorced and his father doesn't have time for him any more since he has a new wife or something. Okay, point taken. But did they really have to marginalize his mother at the end of the film? She is sitting in the audience and not onstage with her son when he gets his final Merit Badge. Old Karl is standing on that stage with her son because...because, dammit, he's a MAN and she's not.
Mom does not count.
She is useless.
She allows her son to accept his award with a total stranger because he IS a Man. She couldn't even be on the stage with the two of them. It would have been so simple to put her there.
You know, I thought we went through a lot of protesting and lawsuits in the Seventies to eliminate this sort of attitude. Guess I was just wrong.
Some of my female students were sure that the dull looking vapid woman was a stepmother or something. Nope. She's Russell's Mom. Check the film's wiki if you don't believe me.
UP's subtext is that the most important relationship in life is between a boy and his father, or the nearest male equivalent. Women stay at home and are either useless or dead.
This attitude appears in other Pixar and Disney films as well and I think it's time to retire it once and for all.
UP IN THE AIR, my other nominee for most-overrated film of 2009, asks us to believe that Ryan Bingham is a basically lonely man who is deserving of our pity because he cannot settle down with his woman of choice, even though he looks and acts like George Clooney. He makes his living as a parasite, flying in and out of cities, as a subcontractor to various companies who are firing their people. Ryan pulls the trigger, but does it with a nice smile.
You are supposed to sympathize with this guy. Now, George Clooney is a likable actor. He is also so handsome that he could snap his fingers and have ten women salivating like Pavlov's dogs in that instant. I'd say he is seriously miscast as Ryan Bingham, though he is charming and affable and easy on the eyes.
But his character is a parasite doing a miserable job that should not be done.
What horrified me most about this movie was that it wasn't all 'actors'. There are scenes of (what I thought was) brilliant acting by the fired people, describing how they felt about their jobs and lives. The scenes are in fact actual fired people. They are not acting.
This is schadenfreude on a horrific scale. (an untranslatable German word that means 'joy in another's suffering.') The film is described as a COMEDY, but it includes this incredibly sad footage. I'd say it was a gesture-- in the worst possible taste. How can you feel 'sorry' for a fictional character when there are real life tragedies in the film?
The female characters are ambivalent. Clooney's character Ryan Bingham meets Alex Goran, a woman friend-with-benefits who proves to even more amoral than he is. But it is the young, go-get-em girl geek Natalie Keener (note the name) that I wish to discuss here.
At one point in the film this annoying little person thanks the older woman 'for all that you've (feminists) done for me'. She then proceeds to justify her selfish, geeky little life. But she redeems herself by quitting her hellacious job --which she only took because she followed a man, who dumped her--and doing what she really wants to do.
I haven't met anyone as vapid and unreal as Russell's mother (and have obviously never met a Na'vi) but I've met girls like Natalie. They sometimes say they are post-feminist. (Hint: You don't get an Avatar body, so you had better get used to being 'feminist' for the duration). Some of these girls are appallingly ignorant about how bad it used to be for women in the workforce. As late as 1961, a woman could be fired from her job if a man wanted it.
Simply because he WAS a man and she was a mere woman. It was assumed that she had a husband who was working the REAL job and she wasn't serious about hers.
Significantly, Natalie leaves and Ryan keeps his job in this movie. In the real modern world, Natalie would be retained because she is cheaper, and Ryan would take early retirement.
But UP IN THE AIR is a romantic comedy, isn't it? I call it a fantasy.
The strongest female characters in 2009 films were African American. PRECIOUS is a jolting, horrific story that features stunning performances from Gabourey Sidibe as Precious Jones, and Mo'nique as her monstrous mother Mary. Both performances deserve the highest praise, and neither character was one-dimensional. Sadly, I can say that I have met women like Mary and Precious.
THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG's Tiana was virtuous, hard working, and far more intelligent than the useless playboy Prince Naveen. For this, some reviewers called her 'dull' but I think she could have easily carried more of the film, with less reliance on sidekicks. PRINCESS is also commendable in that it introduces its (young-skewing) audience to early Jazz.
And so (as the rabbit said) Dat's De End. Happy New Year, all.

The Year of Animation

Happy New Year, everyone. I have been busy, as have we all, but do plan to post a bit more regularly on this blog, if anyone is still reading.
Facebook is more useful for short updates and connections with friends. (Yes, 'real' ones post there too.)
It's been a banner year for animation. In addition to the now-to-be expected annual CGI releases there were stop motion puppet films (CORALINE, FANTASTIC MR. FOX), hand drawn films (THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG, THE SECRET OF KELLS) and clay animation (MARY AND MAX). Most encouragingly there were several small studios and independents producing films that go head to head with the big studios for awards and audiences. Bill Plympton had IDIOTS AND ANGELS playing theatrically (I think it's his best film). Nina Paley's SITA SINGS THE BLUES had an amazing breakout --Paley distributed the film herself --for free--with notable success and in December the film received a favorable New York Times review. Now, you have to understand that this is a Big Deal if you are in New have officially Made It if it's in the Times.
The Internet is becoming more and more important as a distribution aid; you can download the entire feature SITA SINGS THE BLUES here, and Paley's blog describes how she managed to turn a drawback (copyrighted music on the soundtrack prevented her from officially 'selling the film') into an advantage. Animation plays better on the Web than live action, at least for now; and the animators, I predict, will be self-distributing more features in future. It really is possible now to make a feature film in a small room by yourself (I predicted this sometime in the last century, but Nina Paley and Bill Plympton and a few others have actually done it. There will be more, never fear.)
Simon Tofield's SIMON'S CAT was HUGE on the Web; he now has books, I-phone animation, and hilarious and simple animated stories that are eagerly awaited by millions of viewers.
So whatever else 2009 was, I would call it the YEAR OF ANIMATION.