Friday, October 31, 2008

Extremely Ugly Bette

For Halloween I don't have anything scarier to post than this quick scribble I did of Bette Davis while watching WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE a couple of months ago. This was during the end scene where she's at the beach and showing something that is not quite remorse....

I also sketched Victor Buono from the same movie. He was one of the great demented actors of all time, equally able at comedy and drama. And always a little scary. 

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

TOTAL cool

Well after the last wheezy post, I will try to keep this one short. And for variety's sake, I am going to go to the other end of the spectrum, visually speaking. Since I grow impatient with too much looking backward, here's a shout out to a cartoon currently on the air where the artwork is pretty simple, but also extremely pleasing. 

I have not seen TOTAL DRAMA ISLAND very many times but every time I stumble across it, I am really impressed at the visual quality of it. The idea of a heavily script-driven flash cartoon based on the SURVIVOR type reality series frankly doesn't interest me in the least, but the look of the show invariably wins my admiration. I don't know who does it or where it's from (Canada?); all I know is that if someone asked me to design a cast of vain 20-somethings of the reality TV type, I would begin by jumping out a window. Whoever does the job here has conjured up a cast of boldly stylized human characters that are cohesive in design but strikingly iconic as individuals. They also are a hell of a lot of fun to look at. These characters look deceptively simple, but as I said in my previous post, simplicity is one of the most difficult things to achieve. In faces like these, one pixel-width can make or break it. The flash animators here do a fine job of articulating the expressions, always with careful subtlety. The range of facial animation is limited, but it is appropriate to the tone of the scripts and the tracks, and the physical action is often pretty involved and specific. 

 I especially like the goth girl with the ghostly skin tone and green hair. The host character looks somehow as narcissitic and arrogant as he sounds (the overall voice work is squeaky, but not bad). Even though there is a kind of limited prevailing vocabulary in the design work, the characters stand out archly against each other: no two have similar body types or even postures. The attention to detail in costume is also adroit and well observed. The overall background designs are snappy, attractive and well worked out. I can only imagine what a show like this would have looked like had it been done back in the 1970's--probably like MR. T or CHUCK NORRIS cartoons, at best. And although I long ago grew weary of the retro-50's look in cartoons (even when it's well done, which it often is) something here sets it singularly apart from that pack, for me anyway. Maybe it is the attention to contemporary physical details and perhaps to the equally up to date color palette. Ironically, although there is a lot of gross-out humor, visual grossness is nowhere to be found. The look of the show remains persistently and almost ferociously decorative, which I guess you could say is a counterpoint to the humor, which is, of course, all about ruthless competition.

I like this work a lot. It's simple, stylized and punchy. I don't know who watches the show and I have never heard anyone talk about it, but if it really is being overlooked and I'm not just in the dark,  then I think that's too bad. As a huge fan of Robert Smigel's TV FUNHOUSE, THE SIMPSONS and SOUTH PARK, I have to admit it's kind of refreshing to see a satire show that doesn't shoot for the ironic choice of deliberately crude or ugly artwork. Hats off to the designers, artists and animators of this show on some of the sharpest looking visuals currently on TV.

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.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

30 Scrappy Years (Shoutout alert!)

Three decades ago this week (I forget the exact day) I arrived in Los Angeles to pursue a career as a big-time Hollywood cartoon animator. My prospects were slimmer than I had ever suspected and my portfolio was weak. But passion and tenacity pushed me onward and it continues to still. What a long strange trip it's been and though I'd like to think it's far from over, moments like this inspire one to reflect a bit.

I don't like to dwell too much on the past, but the amazing thing is that in my brain the time feels like a long one, but in my heart (for lack of a better term), it feels like yesterday that I was cold calling the few studios left in L.A. at the time and pestering Eric Larson for advice (I had made contact with him when he visited my alma mater, The Art Institute of Pittsburgh earlier in the year). Day One I called Bob Clampett's studio, one of the few listed in the metro yellow pages, even though I was pretty sure he hadn't produced a cartoon in nearly twenty years at that point. To my startled shock, Bob Clampett himself answered the phone, only to tell me he wasn't hiring but when he got back from a three week trip to the far east, he would be happy to meet me. Alas, I never followed through. I just needed a job. Mr. Clampett passed away a few years later, but not before inspiring a great number of young artists with his generous time and insights. 

I did follow through with Michael Lah, who was running a going commercial house at the time, Quartet Studios. Again, he couldn't offer a rookie like me any work but he spent a generous afternoon reflecting on his years at MGM and early HB. Eric Larson helped me a great deal over many visits to the Disney studio with my latest sketches for him to critique and he eventually got my foot in the door and mentored me for a brief but indelible period.

Less than a a year into my first stint at Disney, I found myself gainfully unemployed, and was lucky enough to scramble aboard at the newly founded Don Bluth Studio, where I spent nearly five years on such ground breaking projects as THE SECRET OF NIMH, DRAGONS LAIR (1 & 2) and SPACE ACE. I have always said that the Renascence of animation that took place in the late 1980's owes a great deal to three people: Richard Williams, Ralph Bakshi, and Don Bluth. Outside of Disney, these three artists trained a vast number of the animators of my generation and kept the flame alive during the darkest decade the craft has known: the 1970's. It is no coincidence that three of the biggest cornerstone projects of the great animation revival were done at their studios: AN AMERICAN TAIL (Bluth), THE NEW MIGHTY MOUSE (Bakshi) and ROGER RABBIT (Williams).

The mid-eighties found me drifting around a bit; I began freelancing in earnest while I held day jobs, mostly at Filmation, first as an assistant on the last HE MAN shows and then as an animator on Filmation's doomed, ill-concieved "sequels" to Disney features: PINOCCHIO & THE EMPEROR OF THE NIGHT and SNOW WHITE AND THE 7 DWARFELLES. Neither got wide theatrical distribution (or even home video) but I did meet and work with a great number of talented and fun people there, many who wound up at Disney later when I worked there again. A short list includes my great friend Larry White, Mike Show, George Sukara, Bruce Smith, Nancy Kneip (who later became my key assistant on several Disney features), Christy Lyons, and Phil Cummings, now an Annie-award winning Cartoon Network director.

Mainly on the weight of a generous personal endorsement by Glen Keane, (thanks Glen!) my portfolio was accepted back at Disney on OLIVER & COMPANY in 1987. The breathtaking 9 years of employment there that followed included some of the most well received features of their day and I remain immensely proud to have been involved. Since then I have worked mostly at either Disney, Dreamworks and now Imagi. A short list of people to thank for these opportunities includes Jeffrey Katzenberg, Don Hahn, Kirk Wise & Gary Trousdale, John Musker & Ron Clemments, Peter Schneider, Tom Schumacher,  Roy Disney, Ann Daly, Bill Damashke and Cecil Kramer. The incredible talent pool that I have been lucky enough to work during all this time with includes Eric & Susan Goldberg, Chuck Jones, Darrell Van Citters, Andreas Deja, Howard Ashman, Stephen Schwartz, Alan Menkin, Mark Henn, Linda Miller, Glen Keane, Shawn Keller, Leroy Cross, Cliff Nordberg, Chris Buck, Michael Giamo, Mike Gabriel, Dave Spafford, Hendel Butoy, Brenda Chapman, Burny & Sylvia Mattinson, Vance Gerry, Floyd Norman, Joe Ranft, Kelly Asbury, Joe Grant, Vicky Jensen, Lorna Cook, Dale Baer, Kevin Lima, Roger Allers, Art Vitello, John Pomeroy, Dan Jeup, Nik Raineri, Dave Pruiksma, George Scribner, Kathleen Gavin, Tony & Tom Bancroft, John Sanford, David Silverman, Conrad Vernon, Tom McGrath, Bibo Bergeron, Patick Mate, Kathy Zeilinski & Kevin Kuchaver, Rob Minkoff, Rodolphe Guenoden, James Baxter, Ken Duncan, Sandro Cleuzo, Marlon West, Rowland B. Wilson, Shirley Pierce,  H. Lee Peterson, Dan Molina, Sue & Terry Shaekspear, Dave Molina, Mark Hester, John Carnaghan, Vicky Hyatt, Claudio Acciari, Tim Johnson, Bonnie Arnold, Tom Owens, Thom Enriquez, Bill Riling, Sean Bishop, Jordan Reichek, Bob Logan, Liz Ito, Dave Feiss, John Kricfalusi and an extended list too long to catalog here. Some of my closest and best friendships have forged in these ranks as well, including Scott Santoro, Rick Farmiloe, Chris Wahl, Chirs Bailey, Rej Bourdages, and the aforementioned Larry White to name a few--all close colleagues, great friends, and men of many talents. I have learned something new every day from the hundreds of brilliant and gifted people I have met over the years.

The animated world I stepped into way back in 1978 is a very different one today and no doubt will continue to change and evolve. The advent of the internet with its daily dose of surprises and goodies has been a boon to the artform and to us personally as now I have an even longer list of colleagues I have met through this medium. When I graduated from art school, many of my instructors discouraged me from pursuing animation. Although it was a rough start and continues to be something of a "rollercoaster" (in the astute words of my Imagi colleague Liz Ito), I am still happy to be here. These days the next 30 minutes could be as packed as the last 30 years!

Monday, October 6, 2008

MILTON fan art

I've been swamped with work on various projects of late and don't have much new to post. But never let that stop me. October is on us and soon it will be Halloween, so in it's honor here's some of my fan art based on the old TV cartoon MILTON THE MONSTER. This hit the airwaves in the mid-1960's at the height of the monster craze. I recently saw the whole series on DVD and while it's no MAD MONSTER PARTY, it has the inevitable nostalgia value for baby boomers like me. I think this was the last network Saturday Morning cartoon to come out of the east coast and features work by many of the usual suspects from Terrytoons and ParamounT.
Milton & Prof. Weirdo
Count Kook & Prof. Weirdo

"Okay Milton, assume the position..."