Sunday, September 30, 2007

THE JUNGLE BOOK / Tribute to Ken Anderson

These three doodles I did recently (above) aren't specifically meant to be characters from Disney's THE JUNGLE BOOK, but they sure owe something to it subconsciously. In fact, I have been so inspired by that film over the decades that there is probably a little of it in anything that I have done somehow. Although it isn't as awe-inspiring as PINOCCHIO or some of the earlier classics, it remains a joy forever to me. I won't even try to analyze why, but suffice it to say that to my mind, as the final animated feature made under Walt's personal supervision, it makes a perfect bookend to SNOW WHITE, his first such film, released exactly 3 decades later. Although SNOW WHITE is a much more impressive achievement artistically (and as a milestone in cinema history), JUNGLE BOOK shares with it a kind of freewheeling organic storytelling that was Walt's specialty. Walt's irreverence toward the Rudyard Kipling book remains a controversy, but I defend it on two grounds: the book remains in tact for everyone who wants to read it, and a very reverent and generally faithful (at least in tone) live action version had been produced by Alexander Korda some twenty years earlier. Like SNOW WHITE, JUNGLE BOOK is a cartoon movie that knows it is a cartoon and wants to do what a cartoon can...

I could write on and on about this beloved film (and I might as time goes by), but having recently seen Mark Kennedy post one of Ken Anderson's inspirational sketches of Baloo, I would be remiss if I didn't take this chance to express my admiration for Ken Anderson's work on the film as lead storyboard artist. In some earlier posts I took pains to point out some of Mr. Anderson's more overt swipes in his inspirational work for ROBIN HOOD (1973). Blame my interest in seeing credit given where it's due for that, and not any desire to dishonor Ken Anderson's long and distinguished contributions to feature animation at Disney.

As I understand it, Ken Anderson was already contributing to JUNGLE BOOK early on, but story was originally going to be supervised by the legendary Bill Peet. Apparently, Peet shared a bitter rivalry with Ken, (for that matter, Bill Peet seemed to have nursed multiple grudges with practically anyone he ever worked with) and that rivalry reached a boiling point when Peet clashed with Walt on how to wrangle the elements of the storytelling. This led to both Bill Peet and art director/background stylist Walt Peregoy leaving the film and and the studio. Subsequently, THE JUNGLE BOOK was almost completely re-conceived as Walt took vigorous new interest in the project. Peet and Peregoy had just a few years earlier brought the best of their talents to bear on 101 DALMATIONS, which had been a huge hit. On the strength of that they had been given carte blanche on the follow-up THE SWORD AND THE STONE, which was made with little or no participation from Walt. Unlike DALMATIONS however, SWORD IN THE STONE was (and is) a meandering disappointment with zero narrative drive and generally lackluster characterizations. Bill Peet's legendary ability to mine great gag material is evident in small sporadic bursts, but not often enough. Likewise Peregoy's stylish contemporary background painting technique, (which was such a breakthrough in rendering the modern day London of DALMATIONS), seems woefully out of place in the King Arthur legend. The animation is often great though, with marvelous stuff from Kahl, Thomas, Johnston, Lounsberry and Sibley. The wizard's duel sequence is a real standout.

In any case, putting Ken on the job of adapting JUNGLE BOOK proved a great choice by Walt. Ken was bound to be more open to Walt's input on the story, letting Disney get more "hands-on" in animation than he had been in many years. Since it was his swan song we can be grateful enough for this, but while Ken gave Walt a wide berth to shape the overall continuity, the story and characters, he (Ken Anderson) was free to explore every possible gag and visual idea that the material offered. There are hundreds of sketches by Ken as he tinkered with the endless possibilities of the animal cast and jungle setting. Having seen some of the remaining material in the Disney research library, I can attest to the fact that for every one of these gags that made it into the film, Ken sketched dozens more just as worthy. Even those that didn't make it did at least point the way to something better while inspiring his fellow artists to imagine beyond the framework of the sequences. Many of these sketches used to be on display around the studio when I first got there in 1979--detail gags like Col. Hathi leaning his great bulk on his slender bamboo crop, King Louie and Baloo aping each other's dance moves and other unforgettable visual grace notes. Once I saw photostats of a huge "idea board" for the legendary scene where Shere Kahn the tiger taunts Kaa the python. Milt Kahl is often lauded for this sequence (and well he should be) but from the looks of it every single idea and gag was originally sketched up by Ken. Great animaton like Milt Kahl's in that scene doesn't come from a vacuum, great story work comes first and this is often forgotten. I dedicate this post to the unforgettable work of Ken Anderson on this unforgettable film.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

"You gotta start somewhere..."

A lot has been written of late about style and influence. It seems to me that both are unavoidable. Both should be allowed to develop naturally though. One of my favorite influences is Henry Syverson, as regular visitors here know. When I first saw his cartoons as a small boy in SATURDAY EVENING POST magazine, I had no idea he had once been a Disney artist, but when I learned that years later I wasn't surprised. His characters have the appeal and fluidity I associate with Disney, somehow coupled with a slightly more Thurber-esque abstraction. Like Walt Kelly, Hank Ketchum and other Disney alumni though, Syverson carved out a personal niche that is as unmistakeable as a signature.

Which is why I was quite surprised recently to find a book containing early drawings of his famous signature "little people" cartoons. These may date back to just after WW II and while they are recognizably Syverson's work, they are considerably more formal, almost stiff, and peppered with extraneous details (wrinkles and such) that he would later learn to leave out.


These drawings are clever and memorable, but they would never have gotten under my skin the way the later ones did.


This random sampling shows a sense of Syverson's personal mastery of his subject: he has his own line vocabulary, his own sense of proportion and form, and most importantly perhaps, a very unique sense of expression.

As with everything else, it often takes time to develop a comfort level with different media, formats, ideas, etc. It also takes patience to bear with your own lack of skill at the beginning of an effort versus where you want to be ultimately. Syverson was already a skilled and experienced artist when he did the first drawings, but time, maturity and perhaps even other influences led him to the distinct type of drawings I always associate him with. I know I am always much more self-conscious and tentative at the outset of something. Fortunately with long-term work, I usually find myself getting lost in an assignment and that is where and when the most interesting things start to happen.

On a similar note, this image leaped out at me from the pages of the recent posthumous PEANUTS tribute book: a rough sketch Charles Schulz did to submit as a panel gag to magazine editors in 1950:

Schulz Rough Sketch - 1950
To my eyes, the unfinished sketch above looks more like Schulz's work from many years later than this typical published work from the same year:

Ironically, the 1960 finished artwork has more of the inherent warmth and rhythm of the rough drawing from ten years earlier. In the 1950 finished panels, it's as if the burden of making "camera ready" artwork drained much of Schulz's personal flair out of the drawings. Perhaps too, there is a "forgiveness factor" in a rough which allows some artists more freedom. The rough has more fluidity, more relaxed and confident sense of character and attitude, qualities I associate with PEANUTS on the threshold of it's prime, like the later panels.

Whether it's a matter of maturity, mastering the physical tools, or sheer volume of work demanded by a daily strip, it looks to me like it took Schulz a full decade to learn how to draw like himself. He is no longer aping pen techniques he learned from teachers or copied from idols (as he surely did earlier), he is fully aware of his characters' identities and he is comfortable in his own skin. You can almost feel him reveling in his own confidence. But this process was slow, sure and ongoing. In a time when finished products (from meals to works of art and industry) arrive in our hands with lightning speed, it is often easy to forget the sweat and error that goes into making anything. That can make the early stages of our own work harder to cope with. I guess there is no substitute for patience...

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Pal Plugs

Two recent blogs have hit the waves by friends of mine worth visiting:

MIKE GILLETT has chosen the title BLANK FIELDS for his site, a collection of drawings and cartoons of high quality. Mike and I were inseparable pals in art school (ART INSTITUTE OF PITTSBURGH) back in the late 1970's. We were practically clones as well: a pair of pasty-faced white boys with long greasy hair and bad eyesight from small towns in NY state. (He has since grown a beard so we can be identified more easily in our newfound dotage.) We both loved cartoons, but Mike's professional interest took him to print cartooning, while I remain(ed) obsessed with animation. I hope he publishes some of the amazing comics he drew of a certain character he invented back then as a personal avatar (hint hint)--you will be amazed.
Mike and his lovely wife Karen live in the midwest but the magic of the interweb has put us back in touch and I like to think my little blog has had a part in shaming him into publishing his wares for a wider audience....

MAGGIE KANG of Dreamworks storyboarding fame makes a home at THE NUTMEG TREE, where she has put up story excerpts and personal sketches, including a fantastic comic drawn when she was a kid. Maggie has a killer sense of humor and a disarming knack for drawing adorable characters, a combination that is impossible to resist!

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Tribute to Monty

Of all the characters on THE SIMPSONS, Mr. Burns is probably my favorite, (outside of the family themselves). Maybe because he is possibly the most cartoony character on the show, at least conceptually. He is impossibly old (due more to uncommon privilege than robust health), temperamentally fierce but physically feeble, and unflinchingly callous towards everyone but himself. Although I tend to tire of reference gags quickly, his position as richest man in town makes him a ripe repository for slyly crafted spoofs of everything from CITIZEN KANE, to "Mr. Potter" (in IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE), The Grinch, and the real-life Howard Hughes. Many of my favorite moments and episodes feature him, and I think the one where he opens a casino in Springfield ("$PRINGFIELD" - Season Five) is my single favorite entry.

Among the many genius gimmicks the creators devised for him is an out-dated sense of geography ("my letter to the King of Siam), and pretty much everything else. He refers to a helicopter as an "auto gyro", somehow watches the long defunct DuMont TV network, imagines organized sports to be still racially segregated and uses phrases like "suckle at my proverbial teat" and "wallow in my own crapulence" without breaking a sweat. When he shut down a day care center at his beloved nuclear power plant he ousted toddlers with the cry: "Get out! This isn't a pee-wee flophouse!" One of my favorite outbursts from any show.

There is always something funny to me about unabashedly greedy and insensitive characters. Especially if they are disagreeably mean in every sense of the word, and Mr. Burns is cheap, selfish and as openly rude and unfeeling as he can be, when in fact he has every reason to act otherwise. The premise seems to suggest that unfiltered nastiness is the ultimate luxury of the rich, (which is probably true!). That never stops him from imagining himself as a model human being and even feeling persecuted despite it all.

I enjoyed THE SIMPSONS movie, but it did leave me wanting more of Mr. Burns and Harry Shearer's brilliant voice over acting as that character. Luckily, Season Ten came out on DVD recently and I sketched these freehand interpretations of him for my own amusement while I watched. I've never worked on the show and I don't know how to draw "on model" so chalk these up as purely tribute to a character who has made me laugh for nearly two decades and is still going strong. The color one was acting as a screen saver at work for a while, but it made me scream like Homer every time it came up so I deleted it.

The character is of course copyright protected by Fox Broadcasting and Gracie films and these sketches are for amusement only. Please no wagering.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Another influence

I was just a year or two too young to appreciate The Beatles, (to tell the truth I still don't care for them very much). When they hit the scene I saw them mainly as yucky dudes my older sister Susan went wild for and I still kind of I think of them that way. That said, even then I could appreciate what they meant to their fans and it irked me to see cheap 'parodies' on TV, such as Bob Hope wearing a Beatle wig and going "Yeah, yeah, yeah..." It seemed like everyone from the Beverly Hillbillies to the Flintstones did some sort of spoof and they all sucked IMO. Parodies are usually best by people who actually understand the thing they are ridiculing... (like Eric Idle's THE RUTTLES) but I digress...

Despite my lack of enthusiasm for the "Fab Four" I still count HELP! as one of my favorite movies (because it is just plain funny to me in a pre-Monty Python way) and I never got over my fascination with the comic book insert in the sleeve for THE MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR, which is where these images come from. The artwork is very trippy (just like the TV special it is based on, although I have never seen it). The comic makes very original use of color and design and is quite stunningly drawn, featuring expert caricatures of the Beatles in the many roles they apparently play in the show, and also the many bit players who share the screen with them. There are photo stills in the booklet also and the caricatures are not only well drawn, but dead on to the last. There are so many different techniques in every image too--straight inking, painting, patterns, tonals; sets, props and even people abstracted into BG elements... (note the almost subliminal silhouette of the driver in the "Wendy Winters" panel). For all the volumes written about The Beatles, I have never heard anyone ever comment on this artwork and have also never been able to learn anything about the artist credited (one "Bob Gibson"), but it has the manic flow of a Mort Drucker movie satire in MAD magazine, along with some very cool use of color. It also hints at "underground" comics, but was probably very slightly before them. It seems to owe more to "Laugh-In" style mainstream ideas about psychedelia than to Robert Crumb anyway, but the artwork is undeniably nifty. At any rate, I have never seen anything quite like it before or since, and although I call it an "influence" it is really more of a fascination. My few attempts to make similar drawings weren't particularly successful, but I may still do something like it someday.

I know this will be very familiar to artists of a certain age, but it might be new to those of the "post-vinyl" generations. There is no facsimile in the CD of the album (which I bought to my chagrin and discovered) and I think the only way you can see it is to pick up the original in a used music store. I will say that isolated and enlarged the artwork loses some of its punch and the best way to see it is the way it was printed in the original format (these are just images from the first page). One last note I have to make is that the text and dialog was all featured below each panel, and that freed the artist up to fill each frame, which he does with a vengeance. There is scarcely any unused space in any panel and the hectic compositions feature distortions of scale and design that are very unique. Details such as a green-faced (dead?) Charles DeGaulle lying on the floor of the bus, and the guy appearing out of Ringo's aunt's handbag are something to marvel at. It seems that pretty much anywhere he can cram in some incongruous detail he does.

Much has been written about the animated YELLOW SUBMARINE, but I find this little comic more entertaining by a long shot. If anyone out there knows anything about Bob Gibson or any other tidbit of information about it, give me a holler!

I should also add my many thanks to my sister Susan, whose obsession with those "yucky dudes" made it possible for me to see this incredibly cool comic! Rock on, Susan!

Click to enlarge. Also all artwork is copyright protected by somebody or other. (According to the original album that would be: NEMS ENTERPRISES Ltd.)

Saturday, September 8, 2007

More Syverson

Posted by request of Thad K.

Somewhere I have the original issue of SATURDAY EVENING POST that features the fishing gag, complete with little marginal gags fleshing it out. Finding and scanning them will happen someday, but I don't know when...

I love how cute the lady looks when she's kissing the man in the wrecked car. Somehow she goes from looking crazed in the previous panel to looking adorable in the second.