Saturday, December 29, 2007

Ed Hansen

I was sorry to hear that Disney Animation veteran Ed Hansen passed away earlier this month (there's an entry on THE ANIMATION GUILD's blog). Ed entered the studio as an animation effects artist on PETER PAN and worked his way up to assistant director by the time of ROBIN HOOD. Shortly afterward he was promoted to the general management position over all feature animation, although I can't remember his actual title. He was to me and many of my generation, our first "boss" in the profession. He was also the first guy to fire me, a situation that rankled until it happily rectified.

In these corporate times of mind-boggling beurocracy it seems hard to believe that one single person oversaw the whole operation (Ed had one secretary, the always cheerful Jo Anne Phillips, and supply seargeant Joe Morris served as a sort of right hand man). Granted things were sleepier at the studio in those days, but Ed had what must have been the peculiar vantage point of rising through the ranks and peaking at a time when the old guard were rapidly retiring and new blood was flooding in like it hadn't since the 1930's. In the late seventies he was in his early fifties, literally bridging the age gap. He was casual (he looked and dressed like a golfer) but he could be flinty and hard-line when he had to be, although according to reports from "old timers" he was a big improvement over his apparently hard-headed predesesor. When I entered the training program under Eric Larson's auspices, Ed was one of the first people I was introduced to. He flipped through my sketchbook and suggested I make a test of a mouse character I had drawn, but I said I had something else in mind. Mistake. The temperature dropped about 20 degrees and I sensed right away I wasn't going to have an easy time with Ed.

To make a long story short, although I made it through the two-month trainee period, I only lasted another six months on production (THE FOX AND THE HOUND) as an apprentice inbetweener. I was so overwhelmed to be at Disney that every move I made seemed to be the wrong one and when I got fired I kind of knew I had it coming. At my exit interview I sheepishly asked Ed if there were ever cases where someone who got fired at Disney eventually got re-hired. Ed, (who knew my bad rep all too well) said in a very blase manner: "Well very occasionally something like that happens, but I don't think this is going to be one of those cases." I was doomed.

To make a longer story short, the experience did sink in and I spent the next seven years not only developing my skills but also working on my attitude. Late in 1986 I wound up doing some freelance with Glen Keane on THE CHIPMUNK ADVENTURE and he generously offered to submit my portfolio when he returned to Disney in '87, which he did. A few weeks later I got a call from Ed Hansen, who offered me a very sincere welcome back and a journeyman animator job on OLIVER & CO. I was pretty elated and will always be grateful I got the chance to mend the fence with the very guy I who made me aware of the damage. I wound up spending 14 of the following twenty years working at Disney Features (nine years at one stretch, five at another). When I saw Ed in person he was a kinder, gentler Ed and I hope I was a wiser and more experienced me. I was out of the doghouse in any case. In the shifting management sands of the late 1980's Ed himself retired before the decade was out. He had worked at Disney for something like 35 years and he spent the time since then in picturesque Solvang, in Santa Barbara. Ed hired (and fired) quite a few of us aging kids still in the business and for me he will always represent the happy resolution of a "second chance." My condolences to his family and friends.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

TALL AND SMALL Holiday Wishes

I hope everyone is enjoying a nice Holiday week; my usual procrastination resulted in lots of hectic last-minute Christmas activity and a few missed opportunities I am still catching up on. One gift that came my way this year was a bit of animation history I have been heretofore ignorant of; thanks to Thad Komorowski for filling in my education.

Thad has had this illustration on his ANIMATION I.D. site for some weeks now piquing me to ask him what cartoon it is from. He obliged by telling me it's from PROFESSOR SMALL AND MISTER TALL, an obscure Columbia cartoon that I doubt I have ever seen. We used to see a lot of Columbia cartoons when I was very little, but I mainly remember the Fox & Crow. SMALL & TALL was released in March 1943 about seven months after THE DOVER BOYS and it bears some similarities to it, mainly in character design (possibly by T. Hee or at least T. Hee inspired) and the use of John McLeisch's voice (narrator of DOVER BOYS and many Disney shorts of the time). You can see the highlight of the short HERE in Thad K's generous daily motion files, and I was able to get my hands on a copy of the complete cartoon just before Christmas.

Leonard Maltin calls SMALL & TALL "painfully unfunny" in his always reliable book OF MICE AND MAGIC, and though I admit a general audience would probably be bored or baffled by it, I love it. It is far more experimental than even DOVER BOYS and the stylization is a harbinger of things that won't be mainstream for several more years. The characters are absurd and the dialog is inane, pretty much everything about the sensibility of the cartoon seems to come from another universe. Maltin's book also quotes co-director John Hubley indirectly referencing the cartoon as full of unusual techniques for the time. The familiar and haughty McLeisch provides the voice for Prof. Small and an unknown provides the understated squeakings of Mr. Tall.

Here's a synopsis: Prof. Small (who is unusually tall) appears to be the conductor on a passenger train, along with Mr. Tall (who is extremely small) acting as a sort of refreshment "butcher". When they break a mirror on a vending machine, bad luck ensues, causing the train to dissolve and leaving them deserted in the middle of nowhere. They ultimately come upon a 'ghost town' inhabited by an insane ghost (who bears a strong resemblance to the Henry Syverson figures I love so much and does a mean Hitler impression). They escape the ghost but are ultimately staggering through the scorching sand parched and frustrated. (Mr. Tall is semi-successfully trying to vacuum the sand at one point with a vacuum cleaner but Prof. S assures him that there is no electricity, so they turn the vacuum off). Tall manages to re-glue the mirror and suddenly they are deluged with rain, money and a limo, replete with gorgeous dames to caress them in the back seat. (The dames are very sophisticatedly drawn and are less "objectified" than the typical Fred Moore/Preston Blair type). Tall attributes their fortune to the mirror, which Small scoffs at and smashes again, causing all their blessings to vanish. The final scene shows him still dismissing superstition even as he helps Tall try to re-assemble the mirror.

The cartoon was jointly directed by John Hubley and Paul Somer and it feels like what it is: a UPA cartoon that hasn't found it's feet yet. That's a plus in my book, because the very uneven quality is what makes it entertaining to me. Like DOVER BOYS, it is an experiment in humor that doesn't derive from obvious physical gags and tries to find character subjects that are not typical. (By the time UPA shorts hit their stride, they were a lot less entertaining in my opinion, but I know I am in a minority on that score). Thad also assisted me in seeking out the one and only sequel: RIVER RIBBIN'(1945) featuring Small & Tall as riverboat captains dueling the wacky ghost in an aquatic race. Somer directed alone and though the gags are weird and the voices the same, the visual style has lurched backward, looking for all the world like an entry from the late 1930's. Even the character designs have devolved into formulaic throwbacks to GULLIVER'S TRAVELS' Lilliputian characters. Something in the management at Columbia seemed to invite experimentation and then squash it almost as quickly. Some of their cartoons are very innovative, but nobody of note seems able to stick around long enough to stem the tide of mediocrity. Too bad.

For someone at my age who has spent so much time gawking at printed and animated cartoons it is always a thrill to come across something old that's completely new to me. I have to thank the internet in general as well as Thad K and Shane Glines for continuing to share their interests in the obscure and unsung with us. As another year closes, such things are sources of enduring inspiration to cartoon geeks of all ages.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

"In Praise of Coarseness" part two

The whole issue of the Durante influence in old cartoons got very much into my thoughts and subconscious recently. For my own benefit I wrote several pages about it even before I remembered referencing Durante (superficially anyway) in ALADDIN. Durante himself was really just a typification of general burlesque comedy that ran rampant in cartoons until it just faded away eventually.

I grew up watching old movies of vaudeville comedians like the Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields, but there was something different about the 3 Stooges (who I also liked) and Durante that I couldn't put my finger on until I heard people discuss the word "burlesque" on a TV show. I thought that word just referred to striptease acts, but gradually discovered that it was a style of stage entertainment that grew out of vaudeville, only it was not as genteel. In a word burlesque was more "coarse," like vaudeville with the gloves off. I gradually found myself enjoying that kind of humor more over the years, probably provoked by seeing the movie A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM, which was a kind of nostalgic revival of burlesque done in the 1960's. The movie features Zero Mostel and Phil Silvers, two burlesque geniuses, but I have also seen it done on stage many times. When the acting gets too "clowny", you check out, but if the actors make sure to be big, real, and coarse, it can be very funny.

BTW, by "coarse" I do not mean out and out crude or dirty humor, or shock effects or gross-out gags, (though those all have their place). I just mean that burlesque had a more deliberately unrefined and unrestrained energy which I call "coarse." And when it flowed over into cartoons it had a definite impact. It seems that much of the 1930's found studio animators all seeking to make the smoothest actions possible, even during manic sequences. All they could do to make things seem more frantic was to speed up the pace, but the action still derives from graceful arcs and precise spacing of drawings. In the 1940's some animators and directors began to shake this elegant purity in favor of more erratic, stoccatto motion and it made for funnier, punchier results. One of my favorite examples is in Bob Clampett's BABY BOTTLENECK, when a small dog marches into Porky's office with a rocket strapped to his back declaring he has an idea that is "a loo-LOO!" He bounces into another shot, lights the rocket, which explodes and chars him completely. With no less energy he declares that he's "back to the drawing board" and he marches back out. The timing and spacing of the drawings, the articulation of the poses, and the overall energy is fluid, but it has enough jerks and surprises in it to keep the little guy looking like a ball of energy. He's not just acting weird or strange, he is excited, committed to his idea, and undaunted despite defeat. That's basically what Durante and other burlesque comics did--act at pitch volume of their emotions much--if not all--of the time. Don't get mad, get "mortified".

The upshot of viewing these old cartoons and writing about them is that a week or so ago I wound up seeing in a dream a pencil test of my character "WTF? MOUSE," pacing back and forth as he cursed and shouted in a Durante voice. It was something of a revelation, even though I never thought of that voice or personality for him. I had been wanting to do some animation of this character and I always pictured him doing something graceful and Disneyesque, but suddenly I had a vision of him bristling with emotion (in this case anger) and it made me realize how important the energy of burlesque comedy is to funny full animation.

Lately I catch myself drawing characters staring into space or just shrugging, which may stem from my own reserved personality. That doesn't really make for hilarity though. Maybe because as I grew up, the old cartoons were replaced by limited animation that put a high premium on static, casual poses, I lost sight of the broader actions that made me laugh when I was little. Even when I started learning to animate, it was at a time very much like a repeat of the 30's: we were all trying to crack the code of smooth, naturalistic action. Doing something more off-beat was rarely called for, at least not at the big studios. In fact, REN & STIMPY is probably one of the only recent cartoons I can think of that called for voices and animation to be played at the peak of real emotions for humorous effect. And of course it has to originate in the voice tracks, just as much as the dog in BABY BOTTLENECK was inspired by Mel Blanc's awesome delivery. Mel Blanc wasn't just being loud and weird (like a lot of current TV voices), he was actually playing genuine enthusiasm at peak level, which is what made it funny.

No doubt about it, I like subtle acting and humor and there is plenty of room for it in cartoons. But even much of today's broadest live action comedies feature laid-back, moon-faced schlubs more often than not. I'd love to see a comeback for broader burlesque kind of comedy in general, at least in a segment of what gets released in animation and elsewhere.

Friday, December 7, 2007

"THE GREAT SCHNOZZOLA" (or: "In Praise of Coarseness")

The real Jimmy Durante had pretty much faded from the limelight by the time I was born, but he was imitated so frequently in the old cartoons I watched as a kid that his influence was hard to miss. For more than three decades he was immensely popular on radio, TV and in the movies; even my parents loved him for his peculiar mix of broad burlesque comedy and sentimental singing. He always played himself basically, a crudely comic lowbrow with a huge nose, rasping voice and seemingly endless energy. His catch-phrases are among some of the most memorable of all time: "Ev'rybody wants to get in to the act!" "What a revoltin' development THIS is!" "Oobriago!" and the simple but lusty rattle: "A-cha-cha-chaaa!"

All of these lines as well as his physical traits seem to have been irresistible to audiences and cartoonists alike. Every studio from Warners' to Terrytoons to MGM and the rest sooner or later did a Durante bit or two. Disney seems to be the only holdout, though maybe someone will correct me on this. I will admit that I referenced him somewhat while animating Iago, the villainous parrot in Disney's ALADDIN. To be sure, Gilbert Gottfried, (who supplied Iago's voice) shaped this character from the ground up with his brilliant vocal performance, but the design for Iago wound up with a huge, bulbous beak and tiny cranium, neither of which resemble features of Gilbert Gottfried's actual face. The inspiration to selectively reference Durante, an actor who capitalized on his big nose, was pretty obvious and sometimes useful.

Working with well-known celebrity voices is hotly controversial and can be considered a crutch, but I've always felt that if the actor in question was ideally cast, then the quibble is moot. I certainly felt Gilbert was ideal for Iago and after a considerable run of alternate auditions it was clear to all involved that he was perfect. I've been a huge fan of Gilbert's since seeing him do his first set on David Letterman and he remains in my opinion one of the funniest comedians ever. When I learned he would be the voice I could not have been happier. The big challenge was to create something that would synthesize Gilbert's performance into an independent character who had a life of his own. My philosophy about animating voices of well-known actors is to make the character look like the actor sounds, not how he looks, so Iago has many physical traits Gilbert doesn't share, in addition to some he does. His explosive voice made me want to design his mouth as his biggest feature and I also gave him Gilbert's toothy smile (although IMO Gilbert uses this more as a grimace). Gilbert paces furiously sometimes during his act, so does a parrot on a perch and it was a fun hybrid mannerism. On the other hand, I deliberately avoided some of Gilbert's most signature traits: he usually keeps his eyes squinted shut constantly, which I thought would be too limiting in animation so I just didn't do it. The real Gilbert makes lots of tight, angular hand and arm gestures, which I couldn't generally emulate with the character's short broad wings, (Durante's floppy overcoat was good reference though). The cartoon design didn't have much of a cranium, so it was difficult to go for the effect Gilbert gets when he wipes his forehead in frustration--I had to invent other gestures, as did the other animators I supervised on the character: Tony & Tom Bancroft and Brian Fergusson. In addition to heaps of Gilbert and touch of Durante, there was a little bit of each of us in the characterization as well.

As a fan, I knew most of Gilbert's TV and film appearances by heart, and got to attend several of his recordings. As for Durante, I mostly studied his appearance in one of my favorite old movies: THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER, where he plays (what else?) a lowbrow movie comedian who pays a visit to a conservative Connecticut household and blows the roof off the place. Although Durante and Gilbert Gottfried have very different intentions and personalities, they both tend toward broad, old-fashioned burlesque. Gilbert is doing a parody of those old entertainers, Durante is actually one of them. In the end I didn't derive much specific from watching Jimmy Durante, but there was a general sense his knockabout comedic toughness I loved and needed: Iago is not like any other character I had animated before. For that matter he wasn't like any other character in a previous Disney movie.

For the most part, Disney characters, even broadly comic ones, tend toward elegance and appeal in pretty much all aspects. I always kept this in mind animating on previous films, as I was starting to get a reputation for doing stuffy comic foil characters, who I admit I love. I openly emulated characters by Ollie Johnston, Milt Kahl and Frank Thomas during that time but I stress that to me emulation is something very different than mere imitation. All the classic "9 Old Men" characters have appealing and pleasing traits that make them not only fun but pleasant to watch, even when they are bad guys. I wanted Iago to be fun, but the story asked him to be meaner, cruder and more unapologetically inelegant than any Disney character I could think of. I still wanted to make his animation worthy of a Disney movie but I was actually glad to have the challenge of bringing a different type of energy to it. And it was somehow fitting: my taste is pretty eclectic in that I love dry and sophisticated humor, but I equally love broad and lowbrow comedy too, especially when it goes all out.

Oddly enough, it wasn't until after the film was finished that I remembered all those old cartoons that referenced Durante in years past. I hope we made it more contemporary, but I came away from the whole experience wondering why we didn't have more characters like that in cartoons anymore... Not just not at Disney, but anywhere in animation. The manic energy of burlesque was the inspiration for many of the great cartoons of the past, but when that humor went out of style in general, it gradually faded from cartoons as well. I wish it hadn't. The great caricaturist Al Hirshfeld when he visited Disney studio told us he longed for the old time energy of "live wires" like Carol Channing, Al Jolson and Zero Mostel (one of my all time favorites). Hirshfeld pointed out that later-day entertainers like Jerry Seinfeld and the cast of FRIENDS strived more and more to appear "ordinary"; meanwhile everyday people seemed to appear more and more distinctive by contrast. For my part, I will say that I grew up in the crossroads of this evolution and I can find appeal in both the subtly naturalistic and surreally stagey broadness. Unfortunately these days though, there are few entertainers I can think of who dare to be as fearlessly coarse as Zero, Mel Brooks, Durante, the Stooges and their ilk all were. Will Ferrell and Sacha Baron Cohen certainly dare often enough thank heavens, and Gilbert still endures, but the field is not overly crowded with contenders. Maybe to paraphrase Hirshfeld, there is so much coarseness in society in general now, we seek refuge from it in our entertainment. It is particularly sad to me however to find it missing in much of what's left of the cartoon business.