Saturday, September 19, 2009

Hot for CLOUDY

I saw CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS today and really enjoyed it. My 10 year old was also in attendance and he gave it a thumbs up, which is not always the case. My congratulations to the filmmakers for pulling off a very difficult task.

From what I know (which is far from everything) this movie went through the all-too typical bloodbath of hired and fired crews and directors before it found its way to the screen. Many who got burned during prior iterations were friends and colleagues of mine, which is a genuine shame. At one point early on even yours truly was invited to be considered to direct it, (they were probably kidding) and after a quick look at the book I practically ran out of the room shaking my head "NO!" It just seemed, as I told people at the time, that there was no story of any kind there: short, long, animated or otherwise. To me the book had the feel of something a particularly boring adult would find 'Imaginative': "Just think, children, if giant food fell from the sky one day!" To that adult I would say: "You know what else is funny? Big foam hats. Think about it: one day everybody wakes up wearing big foam hats! The president, Tyra Banks, Kofi Annan... C'mon--it's funny!..." Anyway, in a word: ugh.

None of the studio ideas that were on the table for getting around the book's inherent problems seemed promising to me, in fact they made it worse. Happily, the finished film's writer-director team (Phil Lord & Chris Miller) came up with a solution that tends to be so radical in the world of animation that it is usually rejected out of hand, or at best turned to only after everything else has failed, as a matter of dire last resort:

They allowed it to be a cartoon.

Because it is ultimately impossible to make the woefully dumb premise credible any other way. So at the concept level, they simply let it unfold in a cartoon town, on a cartoon island, in a cartoon world not unlike the ones in which many of the old Rankin/Bass or Jay Ward classics unfold. Somehow, just as radical: the cartoony sensibility (heaven forbid) even translates to cartoony visuals, which is a 2 for 2 situation that I have found rare. It is amazing how often I have heard this uniquely ubiquitous executive zen koan: "Well this is such a cartoony idea, we have to make it look realistic so that the cartooniness will be believable"...at which point my mind turns back to thinking about foam hats again.

Happily, that somehow didn't happen here: the characters are just about the cartooniest CG ones I have yet seen , and in a kind of 1970's Paul Coker MAD Magazine way: like those very rare very graphic 2D designs that somehow all get sculpted and articulated correctly. It's a genuine breakthrough and I hope it becomes a trend. God knows the Muppets and Rankin/Bass did it well over 40 years ago, so it can be done, even with pixels, as these guys have proved. After this, people won't be able to say: "Well, you can't do hair (or fingers, or eyes, or mouths etc) that way in CGI..." with the same conviction, even tho they probably will try...

As for the story, yeah it has all the familiar usual story beats studios have been programmed to demand and audiences have been hard-wired to expect, but it does the dual trick of servicing the beats legitimately on one level and using them just as an excuse for being funny on another. In addition, a lot of detailed care has been taken to make many of the throw-away visuals funnier than some movies' main jokes: a deliberately cheap TV ad with awful bluescreen effects and graphics, a recurring poster for a stage show called "FIVE GUYS WITH UMBRELLAS" and a graphic sensibility that is skillfully cribbed from the late 1970's and early 80's. A number of the situations, such as the hero phoning his roughneck dad to simply log on and email him a vital climax-clinching line of code, a binge-eating villain, a hopelessly clueless home-town has-been, and a reverse ugly duckling story for the female lead are especially clever.

Nice work, everybody. My next step is devouring the "making-of" book, as my way of coming back for seconds.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Somewhat Grim: LITTLE MERMAID pt.2

"Lord Grimsby"
Final model artwork by me. Drawn as models only,
not taken from actual scenes.
Cleanup by Gail Frank
I previously wrote about my partial involvement with preliminary designs on "Sebastian" the crab in Disney's LITTLE MERMAID, which hit screens 20 long years ago. Of course Duncan Marjoribanks deserves all the credit with the design, animation and physical characterization and I considered myself lucky to get some scenes to animate, with Ducan's supervision. Sam Wright's outstanding voice was of course a big part too.

The inimitable Duncan Marjoribanks
Animating on RESCUERS DOWN UNDER circa 1990
The rest of my animation time was spent animating 99% of a minor but delightful character called "Lord Grimsby" -- the grim, powdered-wig-wearing sidekick of "Prince Eric". Eric by the way was named after Eric Larson, who was so instrumental in mentoring so many in my generation.
Initial rough sketch by Dan Haskett

I first saw sketches of Grimsby on the desk of Dan Haskett, the brilliant, one-of-a-kind character designer and animator, who had been hired to generate models for the film. I had been a big fan of Dan's ever since seeing his work in John Canemaker's excellent book on the making of the Raggedy Ann feature, and also from seeing Dan's caricatures pinned up around Disney back in 1979 (although Dan had already departed). A blog should be devoted to Dan's artwork alone, but for now you can check this blogpost by Shane Glines for a tiny taste of his talent.

Costume and character design: Dan Haskett
Cleanup artist unknown

Anyway I saw the drawing of this dour hatchet-faced dude on Dan's desk and assumed it was a character with maybe one or two scenes. He told me that no, the character was a kind of sidekick for the Prince, a cross between the Duke in CINDERELLA and John Gielgud's deadpan servant role in the comedy ARTHUR. I mentioned that I would have loved to animate something like that and Dan encouraged me to petition John Musker and Ron Clements for the opportunity.

Preliminary art by Dan Haskett
Cleanup artist unknown

I was considered a middlingly ok animator but after reading the script, I wasn't sure I could do it. The character wasn't really essential to the story, but it was a recurring role and written with a great deal of subtlety. All the same, Dan continued to encourage me and so I did some sketches of the character, which were enough to provoke the directors to give me the tentative go ahead for the assignment once the movie got rolling. When production did get going, I spent several months animating Sebastian but continued to thumbnail and sketch Lord Grimbsy as well. The first scene actually went to Mark Henn, who animated Grimsby floundering in the waves during the shipwreck, trying to find Eric. After that I got my first scene of the character, catching Eric's telescope and fumbling with it as he spoke. Little did I suspect, the fumbling had only just begun.

One of the many dozens of loose individual sketches I did of the character.
Not bad if I say so myself. Too bad I can't say the same for my actual animation.

I'd like to say it all went swimmingly from there, but it didn't. At this point I learned that it was one thing to make a decent sketch and quite another to make useful animation drawings. Simply put, the character was just too sophisticated for my skill level at that point. The voice by Ben Wright, who had voiced both Roger in DALMATIONS and Rama (Mowgli's wolf father in JUNGLE BOOK) was pitch-perfect, a performance worthy of Gielgud himself. The design was great and I was given time to study reference of numerous actors, and provided with rotoscopes as well. If it helped it only helped a little.

I did continue to animate the rest of the scenes with the character, but it was a year-long struggle from start to finish, and not an ultimately successful one. As much as I loved the character and wanted to do it well, I would say that I only got a few of the scenes right and both I and the directors knew it. At one point I noticed with a kind of despair that just about every time the character appeared in storyboard form, director John Musker himself had done the sketches, which was not typical. It dawned on me that this was exactly the kind of character that embodied his own dry sense of humor and he undoubtedly would have knocked it out of the park if he had animated it himself. Both John and Ron were world-class animators before they became directors so pleasing them is both a challenge and a reward. I knew that what they had in their heads was better than what I was capable of doing most of the time, but I kept on keeping on anyway.

More model poses by me. Cleanup by Gail Frank
Like I said it was a struggle. I am glad I worked on the movie, but I have always suspected if the character had been any less peripheral to the story, I would have been replaced by someone better. I think I did a handful of scenes correctly but too many, including crucial acting ones and all the single character close ups are sub-par. Some of the ones that don't make me cringe are the ones during the prologue aboard Eric's ship, and then the one where Carlotta the maid, beautifully animated by Tony Derosa, weeps into his scarf at the very end. Those were all done at the end of production. The bad ones are all over the movie and detailing their flaws would only state the obvious to some observers and ruin the scenes for others. I will say that one of my worst is a key moment where Grimsby encourages Eric to stop obsessing about the siren in his dreams and to consider wedding the voiceless Ariel: "Far better than any dream girl..." Again a perfect vocal and heartfelt storyboards (by Roger Allers) that I didn't come close to doing justice to. Luckily the audience is too busy watching Eric, who was animated by the great Matt O'Callaghan.

BTW: I recently learned that Grimsby is also the name of a fishing town in England, which is either an inside joke or a co-incidence. I always assumed it was to summon a grim faced character which he was. Ben Wright, the voice over actor referred to him as simply "an old poop."

Monday, September 7, 2009

C'mon and see, see, see...

I have an inexplicable fondness for TENNESEE TUXEDO . I guess we're all prisoners of our own childhoods. I would give anything to animate a revival of this character with Tim Stack (aka 'Notch Johnson' in SON OF THE BEACH) as the voice. Attn: Michael Bay: call me.



Tuesday, September 1, 2009

JOURNEY TO THE WEST

Some doodles based on the epic legend JOURNEY TO THE WEST. Yeah, I know Jamie Hewlett did it better for the Olympics, but what the hey, it's public domain and I've always liked the story too. Like a lot of Yankee Boomers, my first exposure was thru the early anime ALAKAZAM, dubbed into English with Frankie Avalon and Johnathan Winters.