Monday, October 27, 2008

ICHABOD & MR. CLAMPETT

I watched Disney's ICHABOD this past weekend with my family, something I always like to do at this time of year. Unfortunately, my family unanimously hates it, but I still enjoy it as one of the minor classics. I like the emphasis on pantomime that Bing Crosby's narration allows and the folk-art art production design is on-target and brilliantly done. The layouts, particularly during the climactic sequences, are spectacular and the BG painting is expert. Animation by the usual suspects, Ollie Johsnston, Frank Thomas, Woolie Reitherman, Fred Moore, John Sibley, John Lounsbery and Ward Kimball generally stands out as well.

And yet somehow this little gem fades a bit every time I come back to it. This year I think I owe it to the fact that I watched Bob Clampett's HORTON HATCHES THE EGG short the day before, which I really studied this time around. In my opinion, HORTON is a middling Clampett movie, but it is a kind of unique case for Clampett: adapting a pre-existing story, which puts it on something of an even footing with ICHABOD. Like ICHABOD, HORTON also relies heavily (though not totally) on pantomime and narration and each has a fool for a hero, which minimizes the tendency (specifically Disney's) toward undue sentimentality. What I really lately begin more and more to appreciate in Clampett's shorts are the unique details he is willing to lavish on his cartoons. Specifically where character animation is concerned, Clampett is eager to add "customized" details to every expression on every frame, as each specific frame demands. Sometimes a surprising amount of detail. Added to that, the motions (while sometimes less sure-footed than Disney) are wonderfully unpredictable. The upshot left me wanting much more intensity from many of the scenes in ICHABOD, (close ups in particular) than the film allows.
Scenes like this one for example:

I am not one for overly-stringent comparison between filmmakers or studios, but the exercise here was more involuntary than intentional and maybe worth sharing. Ultimately, I was left with is a sense that in Disney animation of the late 1940's there is a kind of formalized economy of design and motion that sometimes shorthands emotional integrity and ultimately compromises the entertainment and even the aesthetics. Bob Clampett, during roughly the same era, seems to avoid this by demanding a level of graphic detail and surprise from the animation.

To be sure the best scenes in ICHABOD transcend this problem, but to my mind these are fewer and farther between than one would wish. I believe some of the blame stems from the fact that during this production Walt Disney was under personal pressure from stockholders to cut costs and had hired bean counters to scrutinize every drawing for extraneous linework that would eat up precious pennies. (According to legend, the "judicious" elimination of a single button from Mr. Toad's vest was held up as a sterling example of time and money well spent. Sad to say, this kind of penny-pinching is often rampant today and any number of emperor's new tailors hire themselves out to studios to police the wasteful and dreaded production process, the process studios seem to loathe above all others. But I digress, oh boy do I digress...) Also I have always wondered if the animators were torn between modeling Ichabod on Bing Crosby versus Ray Bolger (purely my own conjecture, but I do suspect it) and that the compromises weaken the character. Beyond that, there is a kind of formal standardization in much of the character artwork (on all the characters) that too often inhibits their ability to stand out more fully.

Generally speaking and as an animator, I think every drawing should be as simple as possible, but never any simpler, (to paraphrase my favorite quote from Einstein). This is a matter of taste of course, but to be clear, I am not a fan of the equation that more lines = better drawings. That school is best (or worst) represented in my mind by the artwork in Rankin/Bass' HOBBIT film, which still strikes me as busy and awful, although film critics of the day heaped praise on it by referring to it as "lavishly animated." Lavishly drawn and lavishly animated is hardly a distinction I should have to make to visitors here. Intricate drawings (especially bad ones) that jitter about flatly, evenly, and devoid of physical or emotional specificity are poorly animated, period.

The simplest drawings are still the hardest to make and just like the difference a single frame can make in timing, a single line too many can also make or break a drawing. And yet a drawing can also be too simple, too lacking in detail, even if only by one or two strokes. The land of "medium simple" plagues a lot of ICHABOD, as it does much of Disney animation of the era. And when one is not allowed to push a drawing graphically, the intensity of the animation as a whole tends to suffer. One of the best scenes in Ichabod is of the ghoul-like guest who utters the lyric "some don't even wear their skin". The character is able to be as expressive as he needs to be, depending on the frame, of the single scene he is in. Perhaps because he is supposed to be gruesome he is allowed to look more grotesque. Principle characters, even the goony Ichabod are rarely allowed this level of exaggeration, for fear of something, but I don't exactly know what. Part of the problem is a kind of decided, (although possibly unspoken) mandate to keep the artwork at Disney from looking too gross. Ironically though, grossness, at least originally, is the whole purpose of cartoon artwork.

".................Some.......................

........don't even........................
................wear.........................

................their skin!"

Bob Clampett, bless him, innately understands this and is willing to be more gross than any mainstream cartoon director of his generation. It never enters his mental transom that something gross is undesirable, as long as it is for the sake of a gag or expression and not arbitrarily gross. And to my sense, this is born out that because though his work is often gross, it is never really gratuitously so. Grossness is not the only thing he has up his sleeve, it is just part of his personal arsenal, he may not even be aware of it. In many ways he was ahead of his time in this.

This lends a quality of squishy-ness to his cartoons that is pretty rare elsewhere, and he extends it to every frame when he can, particularly in the faces. I get the impression Clampett and his animators studied facial actions on film the way Disney animators broke down full-body physical actions. Both can be valid and important, but you don't have to study too much film of dialog, (particularly of any even moderately expressive actor) to see how odd the human face can look in transition between expression. I remember once hitting the pause button on John Wayne when I had my first video player and being startled by the range of awkwardness in his features as he talked. Step-framing through the film made it evident, (as later experiments bore out) that this is going on all the time in faces, but it doesn't register very clearly. Clampett's animators revel in this and caricature it as often as possible, which is what gives a such a raw, lifelike quality to much of their work.

SQUISH....

...AND STRETCH!

I hasten to add here: evidence shows that Walt Disney was not inherently averse to grossness, especially early on and even very late in his life and career. In the middle though, he seems beset by anxiety to appeal to sophisticates and also overly sensitive to PTA censors who admonished him to sanitize his cartoons. There is also the austerity of WWII to blame, but the sanitization spills over well into and throughout the booming years of the 1950's, as a kind of blandness permeates the style of the studio and obscures some of the creative power of the staff. Some of that may stem from conflicting things going on in the key animators' heads as well: by the late forties, some of the soon to be dubbed "9 old men" seem eager to surpass their earliest mentors: Fergusson, Babbit, Natwick, even Tytla, all of whom were liberally gross in their own ways. Fred Moore seems to be the transitional figure in this evolution, with his emphasis on appeal and natural knack for soft, simple, pleasant forms. Only in the 1960's does a kind of grossness make a welcome return to the animator's drawings ( i.e. Cruella, Horace & Jasper, Madame Mimm, King Louie, Medusa) , with the advent of a grittier style of popular illustration and the serendipitous arrival of the xerox process, allowing looser, more detailed drawing and more direct expression to make it to the screen without the filter of tight cleanup and tighter inking.
Frank Thomas (I think) gets slightly gross


This is a wonderful scene.

But the consciously conflicted feelings in the Disney animators about this era (roughly 1941-1959) was often mentioned, notably by Thomas & Johnston, in their wistfulness for the experimental days gone by of the old Hyperion Avenue studio. I can't help but think that the kind of homogenized idealization going on in the first decades of the Burbank studio is what they are talking about, in general and in the specific.

Milt Kahl gets slightly grosser


Not as gross as Warner's, but definitely getting there!

While I could go on in more detail, I will stop here in the uncertain hope that this has made its point. I am well aware that comparing these two cartoons by different people at different studios is not only arbitrary, it is blatantly unfair. However if it serves a purpose it would be to remind us every time we pick up a pencil that there is no reason today that the virtues of Clampett's gross squishyness and deliberately detailed "inbetweening" can't be synthesized with the appeal, classical posing and lyrical action of Disney characters like the ones in ICHABOD. None of these qualities should have to be mutually exclusive.

7 comments:

Weirdo said...

Great post. I think animators should study both overall action as well as facial expressions. It will lend an even greater sense of believability. Two thumbs up.

Deniseletter said...

Hi Will,Very interesting post!It's study matter.

Will Finn said...

thanks weirdo and deniseletter, i almost didn't do this post, but I couldn't get the thoughts out of my head. Once I started writing it, it just kept going.

i think this is what ralph bakshi meant when he said he is sometimes aggravated by the 'perfectionism' in disney cartoons. the danger is in becoming so idealized that it runs the risk of looking sterile.

it's always a balancing act, tho. on the other end of the spectrum there can be a fine line between a squishy, expressive drawing and a crawling mess.

Bob said...

I had that exact soundtrack for The Hobbit. I wore it out. Ahhhh... I miss it so. That and "Tiger Hunt" with Ernie were my favorite records as a kid.

Great post!

Bob

Eric Scales said...

Interesting post WIll. But yeah, I don't think I could compare the too styles. I'll admit I'm a devout Disney fan and probably don't give WB thier deserved credit, drawings like those you've shown for Horton just don't hold up for me. I mean, yes adding unnecessary wrinkles upon wrinkles will make a face look more grotesque, but it doesn't look like it was done very well. Are you praising the attempt more than the execution? The whole thing makes me think of how exagerrated Milt Kahl's stuff got late in his Disneycareer, where everything was a bony frame moving within a fleshy skin and causing all sorts of wrinkles. It didn't always seem appropriate to me, but I couldn't imagine it being drawn any better than it was.

The Nine Old Men book delves into varying opinions about Milt's work, and I've always found his later stuff to just ruin a film for me, though I could never tell why, because it really was very skillfully done. I'd love to hear your opinion on his later work.

Will Finn said...

Hi Eric, thanks for your comments. Your artwork is quite nice, too I might add. I liked the SPACE MOUNTAIN piece particularly.

I think that Clampett's artwork is almost always quite wonderful, invariably unpredictable and very unique. I like the stills I chose of HORTON, although i admit these aren't optimal examples since his animators are adapting Dr. Seuss' illustrations. But I don't think the lines are un-necessary. They seem very well thought out and controlled to me.

For my money, a few of Clampett's best include TORTOISE WINS BY A HARE, BOOK REVUE, GREAT PIGGY BANK ROBBERY and BABY BOTTLENECK. Each feature animation that is in most parts unrivaled for precision in drawing and wildness of acting. The drawings aren't pretty or genteel (the deliberate opposite), and because of that, refreshingly genuine and direct. That sense of genuineness and directness sometimes feels kept at arm's length in Disney stuff from the same era, in the interest of being pleasing.

For that matter, I like Milt Kahl's latest work the best. Medusa is probably the greatest thing he ever did IMO, although I doubt Walt Disney would have approved--she's too grotesque. But I love the fact we get to see how far out he could go with no censorship. To bad he had to wait until the end of his career.

I'm a confirmed "Disney-holic" and still love the Disney studio, but recently I have come back to a lot of the other studios (W.B., Fleischer's) and re-discovered their best stuff as easily competitive with the best of Disney.

chrisallison said...

great post, will! i think that we really need to widen our definition of the word "appeal". throughout the industry, appeal translates to some of the most vapid and sterile designs. if we can challenge this definition, maybe we can reclaim that certain spark we've lost since clampett and avery.

leonardo da vinci studied the ideal and also the grotesque. i think there's a really important relationship between those polar opposites that comes together to form true appeal.

i'd like to be able to inject this into my work. if you could pick apart a certain scene and give us a guided tour through your eyes, i think that'd be really helpful. well, if you're interested anyway.

thanks will!