Thursday, March 18, 2010

A plogg I'm hefta givvink...

Craig Yoe's MILT GROSS Complete Comic Books and Life Story is here at long last. I was relishing the book last night till all hours, it's a wonderful tribute and the sumptuous quality of the book design and printing exceeds expectation, even as an avid fan of ARF! and Craig Yoe's other stunning publications.

Hopefully more people will turn on to Gross, who of all the "golden age" comic strip artists, is somehow frequently overlooked. Perhaps because like Tex Avery, Gross capitalized on gags & style over character: he skipped from one title to the next and led a more varied career than many of his contemporaries. As a result, his work is more eclectic and less comprehensive than peers who mined a single series over a lifetime. And his life was tragically cut short by heart disease at the age of 58, when he was planning to launch into TV animation.

The trade off is that he wrote prose (often in lovingly humorous Yiddish dialect), contributed to stage shows, was drafted to help Chaplin gag at least one feature, wrote for the radio, did advertising, published several books and launched his own original comic books, which are reprinted in full in the book.

I first stumbled across his newspaper comics in a nostalgia magazine when I was around 11. Already a fan of George Herriman's KRAZY KAT, I was thunderstruck when I saw Gross' COUNT SCREWLOOSE, BANANA OIL and NIZE BABY tucked in with more familiar characters. My first thought was : "WOW! THIS is what cartoons are SUPPOSED to look like! Who was this guy?" When I found the artist's name I was jolted again, this time by the copyright dates: mid 1920's and early 30's---His style was so sharp and lively and polished, it seemed decades ahead of his contemporaries... Even the best comics of the 20's-30's sometimes feel labored, hap-hazard, scratched out with sweat and effort, but Milt Gross's world was different: vibrant, fluid poses, explosive expressions, clear as a whistle staging, and crisp confident linework--the closest thing to it in my opinion didn't come along until Kurtzman's HEY LOOK! (I think his closest contemporary rival was probably the equally inimitable Cliff Sterrett, another idol, but even his work seems sedate by comparison). Something about it hinted at animation too... As it turns out, he brought his unique signature style to a few MGM cartoons in the pre-WWII years and even worked at Disney in the late forties for a few months.

I began collecting and have been a rabid fan ever since. Everybody who loves cartoons should get to know Milt Gross. Whether you already do, or haven't heard of him before, this book is a great way to get more acquainted with the man's genius.

Monday, March 15, 2010


When I wrote this post a little over a week ago, I was literally seized by a gut reaction I had looking at a drawing and musing over the fate of cartoons in a world of encroaching realism.

I did not expect Cartoon Brew to link to same but was interested by the comments generated there and was pleased that Amid went to pains to extract quotes that went to the heart of the issue. Namely: is the appetite for cartoon art shrinking in Feature Films (including lots of fine CGI cartooning) in favor of more realistic styling, whatever the medium? Most people seemed to get the gist of the whole thing and the varying opinions were interesting to read, but frustratingly, many who commented seem intent on reading it as me championing (to oversimplify it a bit:) "the holy hand-drawn animated image versus the evils of CGI."

That just isn't the case.

Maybe because I am associated with 2D, maybe because people didn't read the whole thing, maybe because people read what they want into things, or maybe because I did not express it well enough, (though I admit I have re-read the thing several times and don't know what more i could have said without going on a lot longer).

Normally I would be content to let people make of it what they may, but at this point, with my intent still being misconstrued, I realize I run the risk of being associated with a "crusade" I don't actually endorse. So if I was not clear enough in the first place, let me add to the confusion by championing some of the cartoony CGI I have enjoyed:

First up is my absolute favorite CGI character:

"PATO" , from POCOYO, a series of shorts for toddler aged TV. These are pure perfection.

Second, Dreamworks' MADAGASCAR franchise. Probably the cartooniest characters yet in CGI features. What's not to love?: Beautiful Craig Kellman designs, expert animation and wonderfully warped humor from directors Tom McGrath and Eric Darnell and co.

My favorite design work on a PIXAR movie is probably in RATATOUILLE, which owes a debt to both director Brad Bird's keen eye and originator Jan Pinkava's sensibility, first on display as early as the wonderful GERRI'S GAME.

Another Rat movie (which I think was sadly under-rated) was Dreamwork's FLUSHED AWAY, a CGI version of the wonderful Aardman Studio's look.

CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS was the most thouroughly satisfiying CGI Feature Cartoon experience I have yet had. Funny, smart writing and direction, with great characters, very specifically designed and animated with genuine wit and enthusiasm.

I could go on a bit, but hopefully these make the point. I've enjoyed all the CG projects I have worked on and hope to enjoy working on many more. By the way, I don't hate many of the more realistic ones either, or the hybrids. As a concept, it's fine, there's a lot of room in the entertainment playing field, hopefully. My concern remains that as animation continues to be in demand as a commodity, that the space for cartoony animation in CGI, Stop-Mo, Drawn, whatever, still has a place.

Because in my opinion, even the best of what has been done has only scratched the surface of what could be... An exciting thought as long as there is room enough for that which is below the surface to be beckoned forth...

As a final point, I have a weak spot for live action films that are cartoony in a certain way (THE [original] PRODUCERS, THE LOVE BUG, HARVEY, HELP!, LITTLE MURDERS, BARTON FINK, etc) to name a few. Recently I watched Jared Hess' GENTLEMEN BRONCOS, probably the most enjoyable "cartoon" feature I have seen in a while (and I pay the "c" word to this live action film as a compliment, I hope that's obvious). Alas I learned it was so badly received that it was not even released theatrically and was unfairly and savagely reviewed...

So I am back to worrying about the fate of cartoons... ALL cartoons of all mediums....


Sunday, March 7, 2010


Recent odds & ends:

MILK & CHEESE! (apologies to E. Dorkin)

Out of the Frying Pan, Into the 'Wood


Phrase Book

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Where, oh where has my little cartoon dog gone?

I noticed this lovely image on the TAG blog just now, in reference to artists who passed away this past year being remembered at the annual day of remembrance that the union holds.

After noticing that they had listed the artist's life as having lasted from 1917-2011, I could only think that either: 1. my Saturday afternoon snooze had lasted a good bit longer than usual; 2. someone was amazingly prescient; or 3. very likely an innocent typo was to blame. Not being the world's leading fact-checker myself, I find the error is so innocent, it is barely worth mentioning. The person's next of kin might care tho, so I did point it out.

What this led me to think about next, however was how rivetingly ingratiating this image is. LADY & THE TRAMP is not really my favorite Disney movie, but it is a fine one and has some very unique qualities. For instance it was the first animated feature in a panoramic format, and is one of the rare (really the only) Disney features to be concocted as an original story, rather than being based on a well-known fairy tale or work of literature. And as original stories go, it is not ground breaking but so expertly done that it bears watching time and again.

It is also a transition, in my opinion anyway, from the "literal" animal locomotion animated in BAMBI to the looser, more caricatured style of 101 DALMATIONS. The skill on display in the film is frequently flawless. The animals are animated with solid believability and very little rotoscope (if any) was used. Probably why it is so good. The crutch of roto would have only hurt the animation anyway.

But (and here finally is MY POINT:) it also occurs to me that if LADY & THE TRAMP were made (or re-made?) today it would: 1. NEVER be drawn, 2. now not even likely be an all-CGI film; 3. almost certainly would be a live action hybrid of the CATS & DOGS type, in other words, for all intents and appearances, a film comprised almost entirely of live action footage of dogs, augmented in post by CGI. And it occurs to me in turn, that this approach would probably suit audiences of all ages just fine.

Hell, if it were funny enough and engaging, I'd probably enjoy it as well. The fact that I have a hard time imagining why it would be done otherwise is partially what bothers me...

I could see George Clooney and Jennifer Anniston being equipped with AVATAR helmets to help record and faithfully transfer their emotions and lip sync to cgi-augmentations which would be integrated with live action footage of the real dogs they were portraying and that the whole thing would probably be a massive hit. (I have zero inside track at Disney by the way, but if they like the idea, they can send me a check ahahahaha.)

Something about this though, suggests a trend I find unsettling. It suggests to me that the tolerance for a well-crafted cartoon image, even one as sedate and safe (albeit expert) as any in the original LADY, even if it were faithfully re-created, rendered and impeccably lit in CGI, is pretty much shrinking in the hearts of the public and the minds of the power brokers. As the world of CGI expands the roles of animators and animation, it also somehow seems to ever marginalize the space cartoon art occupies in animation, especially features.

This isn't the old CG vs. 2D thing I am lamenting here, it is the encroaching realism even on CG cartoons, just as realism encroached on 2D. It is about realism vs caricature, specifically cartoony caricature and how the tide seems to be turning ever more toward the former and away from the latter.

Not to slam ALVIN (full disclosure: I did a bit of uncredited boarding on the SQUEAKUEL and had no qualm [thanks Chris!]) but it only now just dawned on me that the characters (which I don't mind for what they are) are what passes for "cartoony" in the 21st Century paradigm. Which as an industry wide standard doesn't jibe for me. No, they aren't "real," but they are "realistic", more akin to a kind of elaborate illustration than a cartoon would ever need to be. Everything about this kind of character design is compromised by the necessity of needing to blend in with live action. And the public (including my own kids) have voted vehemently in favor.

I get the appeal of CGI and have liked some of the films (CLOUDY, which I loved, has held up under repeat viewings and gets even better every time). Pretty much all my employment in the past 6 years has been on CG films and as adjustments go, it is one that doesn't bother me that much. As a process, medium, whatever you want to call it, I both welcome and enjoy it. What I will have a more bothersome time with is the evaporation of cartoon as a dominant style of feature animation regardless of what techniques are used.

I don't think this has happened and if it does, it will likely take time even so. I think there will for the long haul, always be cartoony looking films (of a type anyway) but I fear that in the aftermath of AVATAR and films like it the public and the industry may find cartooniness to be too quaint, too passe, too childish, all the specious negatives that threw up roadblocks in my early career days. I sometimes think that many of the full time CG places already seem to be hedging their bets: a cartoony one here, a more realistic one there, an even more realistic hybrid over there... It could be possible that one day cartoon styling in a feature film would be as unconventional as an all-jazz score.

What attracted me to animation in the first place is that it was where cartooning and film intersected. That intersection seems to be gradually detouring toward a superhighway of CG animation where fantasy and film intersect in a ever less cartoony manner.

Hope I'm wrong, (I frequently am) but anyone who wants to talk me down is welcome to...

UPDATE: A follow-up post, written in the aftermath of some of the comments....