Friday, November 28, 2008

Mouse drawings

Just to keep the site from going stale, here's a brace of sketches of the small room mascot, WTF MOUSE, done about 6 months ago for no particular reason.



Friday, November 21, 2008

Paul Spector starts Blog!

Jubilation! PAUL SPECTOR, son of Cartoon Great IRV SPECTOR has begun his greatly anticipated blog. We look forward to his posts! GO NOW!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Bob Givens' War Stories

I dropped by the ASIFA Hollywood Animation Archives this afternoon to find animation legend Bob Givens regaling Steve Worth and Mike Fontanelli with insights and memories from his past 95 years, including going to grammar school with John Wayne, assisting on Disney's SNOW WHITE, storyboarding and doing layouts on countless classic LOONEY TUNES and TV shows for Hanna-Barbera, Depatie Freleng and others. Somewhere in there he found himself drafted into World War II as well, where he wound up tagging along on covert ops and doing Kitchen Patrol with author William Saroyan before being tapped by Rudolf Ising to return the Culver City and participate in animating training films that saved the lives of countless Allied soldiers.

This was the first time I have met Mr. Givens and I only wish I could have spent much longer listening to him today than time allowed. Vigorous and lucid as any man at least three decades younger, he is the epitome of the unassuming, "no-bull" professionals who plied their talent in Hollywood long before they even suspected inventions like TV, DVD's and the internet would be keeping their classic films alive for new generations. No name is too famous or too obscure for Bob not have crossed paths with at some point in prolific career and his anecdotes range from his hilarious exploits with Rich Hogan and David Swift in their early incarnations at Disney, to his pioneering efforts in TV advertising (he did the first RAID spots, which ran for decades), to the tragic tales of trying to help design genius Tom Oreb during his decline into alcoholism and dementia. 

I couldn't wait to ask about his layout work on the 1963 TV cartoon LINUS THE LIONHEARTED, a show that was ultimately banned due to regulations involving advertising and product placement (the characters on the series were all mascots for various Post Cereals). Mr. Givens was quick to credit Irv Spector with creating the characters for an East Coast agency, before spending a stint in Los Angeles to help set up the studio that produced the series for two seasons before being disbanded. Too bad, it was a fun cartoon and I am living proof it did not brainwash kids--I hated the cereal but enjoyed the show anyway.

Here's to those like Bob Givens, who serve both their art and their country with the equal measures of talent and determination.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Small Room guest book

Yesterday a chance exchange in emails afforded a personal visit to the terrestrial small room (aka my office at IMAGI studio in Los Angeles) by none other than "UNCLE" PHIL RYNDA and STEPHEN DE STEFANO. 

Phil of course is known for his story and design work on the offbeat and delightful CHOWDER show. I've had the pleasure of occasionally grabbing a cup of chowder with Phil midway between our work locations over the past year. His erstwhile mentor, Mr. De Stefano, who I have long been a fan of but only just met in person yesterday, has credits in comic book and animation work too numerous to catalog, but including JINGLE BELLE, HELLBOY JR, THE VENTURE BROS and of course, the drop-dead perfect packaging art on the wonderful new POPEYE DVD's. My personal awareness began with the beloved (and alas defunct) anthology comic INSTANT PIANO. He resides in New York City and was visiting the West Coast on business I leave him to later divulge.

Thanks for dropping by guys!

Friday, November 7, 2008

Observations on Story: Of Villains and Villainy

I don't write much about story, although I have been involved in it to one extent or another on almost every feature I have ever worked on. Story is many things to many people, and  although I have worked with some very talented folks in this realm it remains largely a mystery every time I go to tackle even a part of it. There are many good books and seminars on the subject, especially as it pertains to feature films, but even the best of these can only provide guidelines and woe to those who become orthodox adherents to them. You can scrupulously follow every point in these and it won't guarantee a good script or story. Much of this, valuable as it is, boils down to teaching how to write clearly and effectively. Writing entertainingly is another matter. As my old figure drawing instructor used to say: "I can teach you to draw, but that doesn't make you  an artist."

Story is a much discussed and debated subject, but in the end, it is something so ethereal that even those I know who have mastered it can't fully explain it. If there were a magic formula for it, every play by Neil Simon would be as funny as THE ODD COUPLE, which is sadly not the case. Like Dizzy Gillespe said about jazz: "You don't play jazz, you just catch a little piece of it every now and then." (Someone will no doubt correct me on the exact wording of that and even if I got the source correct.) The proof is in the pudding and sometimes you succeed and sometimes you fail. 

One helpful thing I started doing late in the game was turn away from movies & TV, and toward reading more classic fiction, something I still try to make time for. Too often I have met inexperienced story people and writers who have read many more books about writing than they have read actual books with great writing in them. If you want to do film story, don't be one of those. The more you read great prose writing, the more you see how diverse storytelling can be and that there are as many ways to skin the story cat as there are great authors. 

Disclaimers aside, my story subject today is : THE VILLAIN. In animated stories, the villains have been such a rich topic that at least one entire book was devoted to Disney's villains, and audiences frequently come away loving to hate these characters more than even feeling good about the heroes. From my earliest days doing story work I remember various script gurus prescribing that a great villain is the key to every great story. Contrarian that I am, I was annoyed by this supposition in the beginning and am still annoyed by it now. Eventually I began to realize why. It happened around twenty years ago in a discussion I had with a development executive, on the very topic of Disney villains.

The fellow in question one day suddenly said: "Shere Kahn is the worst villain in all of Disney." Dissing JUNGLE BOOK to me is like waving a red flag at a bull, but I decided to hear out his arguments: "You don't even see him until halfway through Act Two, all he does is talk, and he is defeated too easily to make any sense." To which I remember saying (to my surprise): "How can you say that? In the first place, Shere Kahn isn't even the villain. He's the ticking clock." The 'ticking clock' in story is always some urgent event the audience is told to anticipate early on, which, when it arrives, signals the climax of the action and soon afterward the end. I had never thought about it before, but this is exactly how the tiger in Disney's version of the story functions. In a lesser sense he is also the main antagonist, but he's just one of many.

The startled exec said : "Well if that's true, (and I'm not sayin' it is)  then who the hell is the villain?" To which I replied, (surprising myself again): "Mowgli!" "What?" the guy was incredulous, "He's the *$#%&*#@'in' protagonist!"  "Think about it," I said. "The goal of the film is to get Mowgli back to the Man Village before the tiger comes. Who is thwarting that goal at every step? Mowgli! Yeah he's the protagonist, but he's also his own worst enemy! Best kind of villain there is." I don't know how persuaded my opponent was, but I stuck by my guns and still do. It's one of the things I like best about the movie. It's also what I liked about Walt Disney's approach to story telling: totally organic. 

Years later, I found myself fighting the same battle with an animation writer discussing PINOCCHIO. "It's a weak story," he said, "Too episodic. There's no clear cut villain and the beat with the fox repeats itself..." Once again this challenge made me suss out similar virtues about PINOCCHIO. My defense was (and still is) "Too episodic? Who cares? Some of the best stories ever written were episodic. No clear cut villain: again--Pinocchio is his own worst enemy, he doesn't need a single villain, just a series of temptations, antagonists, and risks. And the repetition of being fooled by the fox is a perfect illustration of the old saw: 'Fool me once, shame on you. Fool  me twice, shame on me.' Pinocchio gets a little slack for being bamboozled the first time, after all he was only born yesterday. The second time, we have to blame him for being so naive, and he basically gets what he deserves. He very nearly becomes a jackass and becomes grotesquely disfigured. He manages to save himself just in time to make some noble sacrifices and set things to right. Then he's transformed at the end as a reward. Perfect freakin' story." I will brook no arguments on this. (Although I admit, it is mighty slow getting started by today's standards.)

Don't get me wrong, I like Captain Hook and the Wicked Queen and Cruella DeVille. But a lot of people feel we don't have to improve on SNOW WHITE: SWEET PASSIVE GIRL vs MEAN WITCH = CONFLICT. As much as I like SNOW WHITE, let's face it, it's largely artificial. I do think you can have the best of both when a protagonist has to struggle with his internal demons and fight an external villain at the same time. Otherwise,  the "good guys in white hats versus bad guys in black hats" can't really transcend one-dimensional melodrama as far as I'm concerned.  Melodrama is fine by me, by the way, but let's call it what it is. If you're doing that, embrace it knowingly and go forth.

I guess it comes from a personally held belief that whatever failures and shortcomings may plague us, we have to "own" our parts in them, and take responsibility for them. Sometimes, yes, there are those who are victimized unfairly with no recourse, but too often the victim/victimizer story tends to suggest something too facile and even too shallow to me. An all-powerful villain who activates a plot is often everybody's favorite character because this thinking often renders the "hero" passive and bland.  We're basically waiting to see the villain defeated and that's all. Which isn't bad, but it seems simplistic. It's like saying: "everything would be fine if I could just get rid of bad people I don't like. Because I am perfect, they are the ones who are causing the trouble." To me, the best solution is to set our underdog up not just with obstacles thrown in his way by others, but by temptations, challenges and weaknesses in his own character. Getting to see a protagonist (I hate the word "hero") take a long hard look at his mistakes is very gratifying. Overcoming external villains generally imparts virtue to a character, but overcoming internal ones imparts wisdom. When in doubt do both, but if I had my choice and could only have one, I'd take the latter. 

There is another conundrum in dealing with villains: "Why is the villain a villain?" This is thorny because you can either end up explaining away a villain's badness in psychological terms that make him too sympathetic, or, on the other hand, render a character who simply embodies traits you want to demonize. In BEAUTY & THE BEAST, 'Gaston' is that second kind of villain, but what mitigates that for me is that 'The Beast' begins as a pretty awful and rotten guy as well, inside and out. Watching him change and grow and become a better "person" is every bit as satisfying as seeing him kick Gaston's carcass. Even more satisfying really. In MONSTERS INC. Randall seems to be this kind of villain too--a cheat, a liar, a fink. His motives are clear but his methods are despicable. I frankly don't care "why" he stoops to cheat. We all know someone who would. In a pinch, I would rather make the hero more complex and know less about the "why" of the villain's motives. In both these movies to do any more would rob the protagonists stories, which are loaded up with enough interest. The most important thing for any kind of villain is that they represent the negative aspects of whatever the theme is. (Theme is a whole other kettle of fish).

If this indicates that I would tend to favor the straightforward 'bad guy", I would say "sometimes" but my problem here is that demonized villains can lead to pedantically, moralized stories: "They are bad, we are good." I complained about this once to a producer who professed to love "moral" stories of this very one dimensional kind. I remember thinking that I'd rather hear someone admit their own mistakes than listen to somebody one-sidedly demonize others. If simplifying the villain allows a story to flesh out a more conflicted protagonist, then fine. 

A couple of my favorite movies have no tangible villain at all. In Mel Brooks' first and still best film THE PRODUCERS there is only the sense that the protagonists are in the process of committing a highly risky but ultimately vicitimless crime. A lesser writer would have thrown in a snoop of some sort to discover their plot and attempt to expose them...yadda yadda yadda. Happily, Brooks never stoops to this and it keeps the movie clear and manic. The only physical villain appears in the very first scene: a landlord who pressures Zero Mostel for the rent, and then disappears quickly.  At the end, we see our heroes defeated in court by a fairly neutral judge and jury and sent to prison, where they thrive anyway. The "villains" in this story are: poverty, prison, society, loneliness, failure etc. A friend I know who also loves this movie thinks Zero Mostel is the villain, and I wouldn't argue completely. But in a traditional sense,  he is also the hero. What I love is that the actions he and Gene Wilder undertake, which are basically criminal, are so laden with understood risks that an on-screen villain is not even necessary. A purely subversive comedy in every sense. 

In his other great film YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, this is almost entirely the case again. Sure we have antagonists: Cloris Leachman instigating, Kenneth Mars snooping around, a domineering fiancee and a classic angry mob. But the big struggles are internal: Young Dr. F is at war with himself, nature and ultimately with death. Surprisingly, the movie defeats death by allowing the monster to live and thrive and even get the girl of his dreams. And it's pretty funny. How different would it be if a domineering villain character had deliberately set everything in motion. 

I certainly have worked on a lot of "villain-driven" movies and I will probably work on more in the future. Like everything else, I think there are good ways of doing it and ways which are not so good. Whenever I can, though, I try to advocate putting in some inner flaws that the protagonist has to overcome. Surprisingly, while this makes the character more real to me, someone always worries that any flaw whatsoever will make a main character "unlikeable." I have two words against this argument: "The Grinch." 

The book HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS  has been around at least as long as I have and generations of kids continue to love it. There is only one principle character in the whole story and HE'S THE VILLAIN! And everybody loves watching him.  Look at STAR WARS, the main character of the entire series turned out to be: DARTH VADER. It was Lucas' plan all along and we should have known it when we all came away with that character more than all the others way back at the beginning (or as Lucas would later have it, the middle). The only problem is that the more we "understand" him in the ensuing films, the less interesting he gets. Chris Sanders & Dean Deblois' STITCH character was a real breakthrough for Disney: a principal character who is genetically pre-disposed to premeditated mischief and mayhem. Watching him wreak havoc is a whole lot of fun. To the extent he reforms at the end of the movie, he hasn't lost his sense of danger. Do we want him to? No. The transformation this time is that he has pulled the pieces of a broken family together, and not entirely intentionally, which is fine. The appeal of SEINFELD and CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM is in characters who are living car-wrecks. People don't necessaryily reject flawed characters, what they reject are BORING characters. 

See? Story is easy! (Except when it isn't. Which is all the time.)


Thursday, November 6, 2008

Inspired

Since this blog is for and about cartoons and cartoonists, I realize that personal political reflection is somewhat out of place, potentially polarizing and possibly even self-serving.

But I have to say I was genuinely inspired by Barrack Obama's Presidential election on Tuesday. I would have supported and voted for him in any circumstance, but the obvious landmark in social significance is a profound and long overdue bonus. As my family gathered to hear and see his speech, which was a particularly good one, it reminded me in a strange way of Neil Armstrong's moon landing, which I saw as a kid almost 40 years ago. After reflecting a bit,  I guess for me what the two events share is the effect of witnessing undeniably positive and unprecedented events become tangible realities after ages of being considered only theoretically plausible (at best). Happily, this time it happened right here on earth. 

I am glad I got to see it, and in a small way, be a part of  it.