Saturday, June 30, 2007

Saturday Evening SYVERSON Post

Dining out. (I know I printed the roast pig one before but this is a higher resolution scan)
Click to enlarge


Yesterday I saw one of those SHREK-type things about a rat that helps a guy make French food. It was very clever, and though I can't for the life of me remember the title, it is surely one of the most enetertaining movies I have ever seen... Why doesn't Disney get off the dime and make something like that?

All kiddin' aside, congratulations to my friends and colleagues at PIXAR on RATATOUILLE, a real gem of a movie (this means YOU Ted, Teddy, Tony, Ronnie, Peter d, Doug, Jim etc). This one for me actually transcended animation, and at the same time made excellent use of it. The character designs are outstanding, the animation subtle and rich and the environments are breathtaking. The story is one of those original fables that makes you surrender to even the most unlikely ideas; and confronts hard realities while indulging in the kindest of fantasies. And without a doubt, some of the best looking animated end credits anywhere, i could watch a whole movie's worth of those alone!

And while allowing all credit due to Brads Bird & Lewis, let me add special compliments to chef Jan Pinkava for conceiving a premise equal parts Walt Disney and Woody Allen (and the best of both).

Thursday, June 28, 2007


The summer of 1982 found me in a very small room indeed. I had seen movies by Steven Speilberg I liked before (and many more since) but I hated E.T.

I saw it opening night and thought the flying bikes were nice and the line "This is reality Greg" still cracks me up. But overall I found the continuity disjointed, the puppet unconvincing and the emotional climax struck me as entirely push-button. But I shrugged it off, went home and thought little about it. Over the next few days, though, the spontaneous, unanimous and world-wide adoration of the film started to get on my nerves. I began to feel like the one from another planet, what the hell did everyone see in the movie that I didn't?

Anywho, that summer also found the animator's union on strike. I was going broke and worried about how I'd pay my rent. Then it hit me: I'd do an irreverent take on ET, (using an erzats stand-in for Mr. Speilberg's copyrighted one) and let the money roll in. I wrote it in an evening and for the next ten days or so, I'd come home from picketing and carefully ink up one of the illustrations to submit with the text to publishers. I hate inking, but something about the fevered purpose of my quest (to amuse fellow ET-haters and make a buck in the process) guided my hand like never before (or since).

The overall gist of the book was that the invasion of Earth by nauseatingly adorable aliens would lull humanity into such a schmoo-like stupor that life as we know it would come to a halt and become an ongoing California beach party. I had entires on how to identify these new "cute" aliens from the ones we'd seen previously on TV, etc.

Epilogue: I was rejected by all 20 publishers I submitted to. The strike ended just in time to pay my landlord and I ended up with 10 illustrations that stayed in my portfolio for years, mainly as a reminder that I should get off my butt and practice inking more. I got to meet Mr. Speilberg a few times at Dreamworks, but the topic of this movie never came up, and I'd like to think I'd have had the good sense not to tip my hand about my opinion of it, even though I know he has a good sense of humor. I still can't stand that movie though.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Fred Cline presents Preston Blair

Fred World: Preston Blair's Air Force Recruitment Spot
My friend Fred Cline has a phenomenal new blog chock full of his own wonderful artwork. Fred personally studied with the legendary Mary Blair and this week he's posting a piece of graphic animation by her brother-in-law, Preston. (The unrelated image above is from Fred's amazing portfolio) Check it out!

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Sheilah Beckett--THE GONDOLIERS

I was going to get to these later, but it's time for some color...

Sheilah Beckett illustrated a number of Golden Books that I remember seeing in the 60's and 70's but I had no idea her work went back as far as 1940. I discovered these in an edition of Gilbert & Sullivan stories illustrated for kids, at the Disney library and wouldn't rest until I got myself a copy. These are from THE GONDOLIERS, the other stories included THE MIKADO and HMS. PINAFORE.

She's got a great feel for color, design and decoration. I could never emulate this type of drawing, but I always enjoy looking at them. The figures feel a little like dancers and have very solid posing. I have more, dating right up until the 1980's so for people who are just seeing her work for the first time as well as longtime fans: enjoy! (click to enlarge)

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Human-type beings, by Walt Kelly

After POGO became a newspaper strip, actual humans to my knowledge, never appeared among the characters. (I don't know if any of the characters in "Pandemonia" count, since it's another planet). He illustrated several books including drawings of real people, though. These are from a book by his friend Fred Schwed Jr, a comedic memoir called THE PLEASURE WAS ALL MINE, THE JOURNAL OF AN UNDISAPPOINTED MAN. Funny title.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Kimball jpegs fixed ( I think)

My apologies to people who tried to open the Kimball jpegs (below) to no avail. I've re-loaded them and they seem to be working fine now--but let me know. Thanks to "Dustin" and "Ninja Dodo" for the heads-up.

Monday, June 18, 2007

A letter from Ward Kimball

Here's a treasured possesion of mine: a reply from the incomparable Ward Kimball to a long-winded fan letter I sent him at the age of 15, in 1973. (Click to enlarge) I can't remember where I got ahold of the Disney Studio address but I do recall scribbling a five-page missive of high praise and holy ambition to become an animator to the man who was my number one hero at the time and remains one of them still . I also recall not expecting much in return; fan letters to Charles Schulz always ended in a pleasant but disappointingly generic form letter from "Snoopy." (sigh)

There wasn't much out on animation those days but I knew Kimball was the "screwball" animator and director who had won Oscars and Emmys for projects like MARS & BEYOND, TOOT/WHISTLE... and TOUGH TO BE A BIRD. There was also a short-lived syndicated show on TV back then called THE MOUSE FACTORY that he produced and directed. It was uneven attempt to make Disney seem "cool" to kids with different stars like Johnathan Winters and Jo Anne Worley guest hosting each week to cover a general topic using Disney clips. I knew that he had also animated a lot of the mice and pretty much all of the cat in CINDERELLA, was largely responsible for Jimminy Crikcet and had done my favorite sequences in ALICE. And that Walt himself had gone out of his way to hail him as a "genius" in the Pete Martin biography I had read at the library.

So you can imagine the excitement at 236 East Genesee St. when this came, a full personalized letter from the man himself, complete with sage advice and ecclectic rubber stamps (note the R. Crumb one on the back envelope!). I must have read it a million times and I'd like to say it sunk in immediately, but it took a great while longer. It did encourage me to open up to Ralph Bakshi's work, which at the time I did with a vengeance.

He also passed my screed on to colleagues like Ken Anderson and Don Duckwall, who responded in equally generous kind with brochures, model sheets (and in Ken Anderson's case an original drawing!) which showed up in the weeks following this. I was in heaven. I continued to write back, but I think they all felt they had done their due, (they certainly had!) and I wasn't crushed that the correspondence ended there.

One thing that really struck me later was how he reacted to my deep scorn for the Hanna-Barbera products of the time (SCOOBY-DOO etc). He was highly realistic and grounded toward their dillema of producing animation in an era where the economics reduced things to the same exigencies one would encounter "selling washing machines." That mature view resonates more deeply now than ever and was solidly driven home in 1985 when I found myself "reduced" to working at Filmation, something as far from Disney as anyone could imagine. Still, at that point in time I took the intiative to contact Mr. Kimball again and although he didn't recall our previous correspondence, (thank goodness), he invited me over to his house for a chat and I ultimately spent a few hours on a very cold but sunny Saturday afternoon in February, talking with him about all things Kimball and all things animation.

What made his optimism and charitable outlook in that old letter feel even more poignant that afternoon was learning that he must have written it during (or just after) a time of such acrimony between him and leadership at the studio that events led to him choosing to go into semi-retirement and essentially close the Disney Animation chapter of his life. That's a story I don't feel is mine to publish, but I will cover some of our conversation from that day in a later post.

Syverson in light Armour

These are "real" people illustrations by Henry Syverson, for those who might think he only drew animals and the little pajama-ghosts from Saturday Evening Post.

Both are from humor books by Richard Armour, an author I enjoyed in high school. Armour made light of subjects like history and literature with mild satire characterized by ridiculous over-use of foot-notes, which were often even funnier than the text.

They come from two of his later books, A SPOUSE IN THE HOUSE and A DIABOLICAL DICTIONARY OF EDUCATION (circa mid70's), the only ones I know of that Henry Syverson illustrated. Most of Armour's earlier books were illustrated by ex-Disney story man and spellunker, Campbell Grant. More about him to come.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

EDITOR'S NOTE: A sore for site-heads

I am really enjoying ker-blogging and thank everybody for their support. I only wish I had started way back when I was first inclined to. Unfortunately tho, I am going to have to enable "Comment Moderation", something I didn't at first want to do. I said I endorse dissent and I do. I myself am a pretty opinionated guy and among friends I am known to even be blunt, given that I allow my friends to be as blunt as they wish with me. But with people I know less well a little diplomacy goes a long way on both ends of the conversation.

The dillema here is one that's probably all too familiar to veteran bloggers: people who use "dissent" as an excuse to be as rude as they wish start posting little digs and big slams against me and or people/projects/places I support. If I don't comment in turn it looks like I tacitly endorse their posts; if I do comment, I wind up in long, defensive dialog with the "squeakiest wheel" while the people who have stopped by and taken the trouble to say something positive get ignored. Not fair. The internet should be informal but I wouldn't visit a relative stranger's home and start criticizing the decor with abandon.

"Handel" hasn't said anything I can't handle. "Max" doesn't see what I see in Oskar Fischinger, and that's fine. It didn't take me too long following "Thad K's" web career to figure out he probably loathes pretty much everything I've ever worked on, and that's fine too. He's pretty harsh elsewhere in his comments and he's entitled to be. Still, to his great credit, he tempers his language with well chosen words when he visits here and I greatly appreciate it. Unfortunately not everybody has that sense of discretion when it comes to judging what sounds like an insult and what doesn't. Nobody has to kiss my butt every time they post, but showing a little tact is just plain courtesy. I do the same for anybody else and if I slipped up I wouldn't have to be told twice.

So "Comment Moderation" is on for now. Dissent is welcome as always. Rudeness isn't.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Syverson Animules

These Henry Syverson animal drawings come from a book of AESOP'S FABLES with text by Arthur Colblentz, published by Gibson around 1968. Click to enlarge.

Happy Father's Day

My son Tommy drew this portrait of me when I told him I was wearing an "old" pair of glasses. He gave the frames beards--something I like to think is worthy of a Fleischer gag. Awwww...

Friday, June 15, 2007

My Favorite Reverse

This is from one of my favorite Chuck Jones cartoons, TO DUCK OR NOT TO DUCK. Some of the best Jones cartoons come from this transitional period, after he stopped trying to be Disney and before he hit his more sophisticated stride. Daffy here is being a jolly and defiant jerk, challenging Elmer to a "fair" fight in a boxing ring instead of hunting him with a rifle. The ring is entirely populated by ducks, including the referee, which makes Elmer's dog suspicious. He makes a non-sequitor observation at one point that used to crack me and my brothers up as kids: "There's something awful screwy going on or my name isn't Larrimore...and it isn't."

This cartoon is very loose and funny and has some beautiful "swoopy" animation by Bobe Cannon and Ken Harris. I don't have space to analyze the whole thing but these frames are from the end of a very long scene where Daffy and the referee are defining the rules of the fight and beating the living crap out of Elmer in the process before the fight starts. ("No THIS, no THIS, none of THAT, or THIS" etc). On the last beat Daffy winds up (fr.2) swoops into an anticipation (fr3) holds this pose for about eight frames while Elmer wobbles and (fr4) he does a complete full-figure 180 with exactly zero inbetweens! When I step-framed thru this on my old Betamax in my early 20's I was stunned and I still am. Snapping a portion of a figure or even the whole line of action from one arc to its opposite happens all the time, but here Bobe Cannon makes a complete flip to a mirror image of the figure work with nothing more than a couple of frames of light drybrush effects. Amazing. It shows what you can do when you have complete confidence and command of your craft.

I really love Bobe Cannon animation from this period. Not to start up the whole UPA thing again, but 22 years ago at Filmation I turned in a scene consisting of a single held cel and one of the final checkers chuckled and said: "This is like a Bobe Cannon scene." I was totally confused. She said she worked at UPA and by then Cannon was so in love with limited animation that he went out of his way to move as little as possible, preferably nothing. She turned out to be right when I checked out the UPA's on videotape that were around back then. Its one of those inexplicable shifts in personal preference I'll never understand...

I seem to be the only person who isn't a big YouTube fan, so if anybody knows if there's a link to a copy of this cartoon, let me know. It isn't on any of the current DVD's to my knowledge. Thanks!

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

John Musker, Animator Whisperer

This is a scene from ALADDIN (images all copyright Disney) where I learned as much philosphically as I did technically. I was the supervising animator on the parrot character (voiced by the inimitable Gilbert Gottfried). This is the first time in the movie when we see clearly that he has merely been pretending to be a typical squawking beast and is actually a sentient co-conspirator with the villain (animated by Andreas Deja). The sleazy little thief (animated by T. Dan Hoffstead) is going off into the mouth of the cave as the parrot squawks in typical fashion behind him. Just when he gets out of earshot, the bird drops the "act" and mutters to Jafar: "Jeez, where'd ya dig this bozo up?" The audience is at that point let in on the character's two-faced nature.

The storyboard showed this as a static medium closeup, with the characters facing the audience which suited me fine. The theif was supposed to exit the frame and we'd push in a bit to watch Iago 'change' from dumb to smart. Directors John Musker and Ron Clements instead chose an "over the shoulder" shot that would rotate about 45 degrees behind the villains during the dialog and then push past them into the "cave of wonders." I immediately started protesting when I got the layout (frame by frame printouts of the rotaing BG with stand-ins for the characters). Doesn't it say somewhere in one of Frank & Ollie's bibles that you should never be in motion while a character is changing expression? Or even worse, be on their backs instead of their faces? Here we had an integral moment when the guy's whole personality is going to change and I kept saying it wouldn't work, it was technically impossible. I wanted to stick with the simpler composition. I must have bellyached for the better part of a week about it and was going to the mat. Finally Musker looked me in the eye and said: "Just try it this way and if it doesn't work we can do it over." He said it quietly, he said it diplomatically, but something in his tone made me hear what I think he really meant:

"Quit being a diva and do it the way we told you or we'll give it to someone else."

I realized in that moment that this was a pretty revolutionary CGI shot for the time and a lot of expense had been spent on it. I also realized that an animator who wasn't clinging to some dogmatic rule might do the scene instead and knock it out of the park. Then I'd not only look stupid, but I'd be mad at myself for letting a great scene go. I jumped into it with enthusiasm and relish and turned it around relatively fast. It turned out to be directorally a very good choice, the shift in point of view not only didn't wreck the parrot's moment, it actually emphasized it, making it all the more conspiratorial. Among other things, being that close toward the end gave me the chance to "squeeze" Iago's pupils as he crossed his eyes on the word "Jeez!" to heighten his contempt for the thief, something that would have been impossible in a medium shot. All I had to do was favor his face to the camera a bit as he turned back to look at Jafar. I had a lot of fun animating it and was embarassed I had crabbed so much about doing it this way.

I've noticed that one of the things that separates the pro's from the dillitantes in everything, acting, music whatever is their ability to say "yes" much more quickly than "no." There are a lot of things that have more than one solution. There is also a lot of dogma that shouldn't be clung to. When I really can't understand a direction (or find it hopelessly counter-productive) then I still balk, but I have tried to be a whole lot more open-minded since then. You don't want to be the one who figured out how not to do something (pretty much anybody can do that); try whenever possible to be the one who got it right.

And don't believe everything you read in books.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

"Dance with me, Henry"

More Henry Syverson cartoons from SATURDAY EVENING POST, circa mid1960's. Click to enlarge.


Time for some color again. FLINTYMAN was done on my tablet late last year, for no particular reason.