Showing posts with label MEMORY LANE. Show all posts
Showing posts with label MEMORY LANE. Show all posts

Thursday, May 29, 2014

"Cats and dogs, living together…"


In honor of Throwback Thursdays, (a tradition I have mixed feelings about) here are two character designs I did in 2008 for a project in development at IMAGI studios. I was given an opportunity to re-boot a property called CAT TALE, about a cat living in an all-dog world. I loved the premise and wrote a 12 page treatment, working it up into a full script and even taking a 60-second teaser-trailer into full production. Alas, the financial crisis put an end to IMAGI (here in the states anyway) and as often as I have looked into the status of this property or the whereabouts of the rights, I can't seem to find out anything definitive.

These were done over Thanksgiving weekend 2008. I did the drawings very large in order to get more detail than usual into them. The color/ paint / texture was done by an artist at Moonscoop studios in Woodland Hills. I was never completely happy with the cat character - being the main guy he sort of went thru the usual Too Many Cooks process and there were various limitations and demands built into the design based on what the CG company doing the teaser could/could not do. I liked the dog tho, he has a nice MGM feel (despite his left arm appearing to be on backwards in the painting - it was a rush job over a holiday weekend what can you do?). I do remember the broadness of the designs scaring everybody, an earlier iteration was much more tame and "realistic" (read: looking like actual cats and dogs stiffly walking around on two legs, which I found creepy as hell). 

Thursday, April 17, 2014

FREE BIRDS part III, Pilgrim's Process...

Some more of my preliminary work on the 2013 REEL FX movie FREE BIRDS. During the time I worked on it (2009-2011) the Pilgrim characters were much goofier than in the finished film. They kept quarreling over what to eat for Thanksgiving. At this point (around mid 2010) it was a contest between "Myles" (who favored ham) and "Bradford," (pro-turkey).  Myles was justifiably afraid of the wild turkeys, (as you will see later. )


In these story sketches (below) Myles has evolved from the "nebbish" version from the earlier draft, into a slightly more formidable foil for Bradford. I loved drawing Bradford as a big pushy tub of guts. I did a lot of the early temp voice work on him too, using a thick Kennedy-esque New England accent.





I loved this line. I think writer/producer David Stern wrote it. I don't think it made it into the final. 

In this early version, the wild turkeys of 1620 were a lovable big family, but they lived up to their wild nature by wrassling all the time. "Granny" and "Uncle Cletus" were constantly at each other's throats. It was all in knockabout good fun. But they were so volatile that Myles and the other hunters were scared to death of them.





As I said before, the early years of developing this movie were really liberating, since the atmosphere at REEL FX studio was very open to varying styles and ideas. As a result it was the most fun I had since ALADDIN. And it was really the first time I was allowed to draw "like myself" all day, as opposed to just during the off hours.

REEL FX is currently working on the film THE BOOK OF LIFE , created and directed by the multi-talented and visionary Jorge R. Gutierrez.


Thursday, June 9, 2011

"BIRD DOG AFTERNOON"

I had lunch with some animation pals yesterday, including the multi-talented ART VITELLO. I freelanced model designs and storyboards for a good number of shows that Art produced and directed for Disney TV, DIC, and WB TV, including several TINY TOONS ADVENTURES.

Art mentioned that a "one-shot" I storyboarded and did models for was favored by none other than Chuck Jones, who called Art up to compliment him on it and he was nice enough to say the storyboard was one of the show's strenghts. Art's direction is the real strength though: as always smart, character oriented and entertaining... I guess the character never appeared in any other cartoons, but it was a pantomime dog named "Byron." Art did a rough sketch of a kind of basset hound-Sharpei mix and the jokes had a lot to do with his slow movements and floppy skin. Then I did the story board and a model with lots of poses and animation ideas. We worked out that he could change direction by sort of inhaling his head into his folds of mass and have it come out the other end, (somehow without turning inside out!).

The short was called "BIRD DOG AFTERNOON" and I believe this is the only show from that series that I worked on that I ever got a chance to see on the air. Somebody put it up on YouTube, where it shows up around the 3:56 mark.


I thought a lot of it turned out nice, with decent animation and lots of attention to what was posed out in the storyboard. There was a gag of the dog fastidiously adjusting a crooked picture on the wall that Art enhanced by having him exit the frame and then returning to fix the picture. The only other thing I think that got changed (maybe to get a better silhouette?) was the climatic shot of the cat on the chimney, where I had put the neighboring roofs in more of a dramatic downshot. My sketch is crude, but I think the idea was right... As alterations go, that's a quibble I guess I can live with...

I also remember suggesting an alternate title: "THE HOUND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE", but by then it was too late. Oh well. Working with Art is always a pleasure and usually a tremendous learning opportunity too...

UPDATE: 08/07/11

TINY TOONS writer-producer Tom Reugger visited the comment section to describe the true-to-life genesis of this story:

"Bird Dog Afternoon" was based on an incident in my back yard. A bird built a nest under the eave of our backyard patio, and baby birds hatched. Our basset hound Lucy spent most of her life on that back patio. So, one day, we heard non-stop barking coming from out back. I went out there and found our basset hound worked up into a lather, barking non-stop at our cat who was also out there on the patio. Normally, this cat and dog completely ignored each other. But the reason for the racket was this: the baby birds had leapt out of the nest and had landed on the patio and were peeping and jumping around down there. The cat saw them, allowed its instincts to take over, and was going in for the kill. But the basset hound would not let that happen. Lucy the basset kept the cat at bay and actually managed to herd the baby birds into a corner where she could defend them successfully from the cat. Wild. (Well, the basset hound did own the patio.) The baby birds eventually figured out their wings and took off. 

Your board was great, as was Art's direction, and the cartoon worked beautifully -- and Byron's personality really came to life. 

And yes, the Tiny Toons character named Byron Basset was a shout out to both TT director Byron Vaughns and poet Lord Byron.



(thanks Tom!)

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Roy E. Disney, RIP

Sorry to hear that Roy Disney has passed away today. (Interesting to remember that Walt died on Dec. 15, 43 years ago).

I have not seen him since a jovial conversation at a Christmas party three years ago, nor was I aware he was battling stomach cancer, which seems to have been the cause of death. Over the 20 or so years I knew him and he was always affable and down to earth. I remember one morning (right after RESCUERS DOWN UNDER wrapped)passing him on the main lot and I was a bit startled by his cheerful greeting: "Hi Will! How's it going?" -- I looked up and saw him waving his usual cigarette in hand, (tho he gave it up a few years later) and managed to return his greeting as casually as I could. It was just a casual blip but I could not get over the fact that here I was on Disney's fabled campus trading waves with Roy. His oft-remarked uncanny resemblance to Walt made it even more startling.

It is no exaggeration that his fierce protection of the Disney company was a primary and active and ongoing concern for him. The great 80's comeback was his doing and he was every bit as much the champion of the feature animation division, even in the mid-80's when its future was in doubt. He remained that champion through the years that followed and though he tended not to be as minutely "hands-on" as others, he was never simply a figurehead: his involvement and commitment were constant and as I moved into positions of more responsibility that was as obvious as it was welcome from the creative group. He was a genuine, flesh-and-blood link to the ideal we wanted to serve and we were lucky to have his enthusiastic and good-humored support.

My condolences to the family and thanks for the memories.

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, May 25, 2009

SMALL ROOM: DAY 730...and counting


Believe it or not this blog celebrates its second anniversary today. Recently I read somewhere someone said: "Blogging is easy. Blogging for a long time is hard." Comparatively speaking, 2 years is a drop in the bucket but the temptation to quit is always there. Fortunately the whole format of blogging is conducive to my temperament: random, sporadic and eclectic. Also, the many individuals' blogs I read remain highly satisfying and enlightening, so staying in is my way of paying back. Traffic swells and wanes, (I don't use a counter so I never know exactly how much); I run out of ideas for posts or run out of time for scanning but sooner or later I seem to come up with something new roughly every 3-to-10 days. I can't quite seem to get more consistent than that, which is why I always knew I'd never be able to do a syndicated comic strip.

Lately there have been a spate of other internet forms of staying in touch, but somehow this one suits me best, old-fashioned as it is. If blogging isn't soon eclipsed by some sub-cutaneous nano-chip you can 'tweet' with your eyebrow, I will keep on posting. Many thanks to all the people who keep interested and otherwise encourage the perpetuation of this corner of the web.

NOTE: I recently turned off "Comment Moderation" because I was having trouble publishing visitor comments away from my home network. I fixed the glitch but innocently left it off...until a pretty relentless spammer from somewhere in East Asia bombarded a solid several months worth of posts. As a result "Comment Moderation" is back on, your patience is appreciated.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Dom DeLuise

I am sad to hear that comedy legend Dom DeLuise has died, at the age of 75. By the late 1960's he was already a ubiquitous presence in TV variety and talk shows, commercials, sitcoms and animated voices (he voiced the landlord 'Evictus' in Hanna-Barbera's short lived ersatz FLINTSTONE clone THE ROMAN HOLIDAYS).

By the 1970's he broke into movies, notably as a Mel Brooks stalwart and often as Burt Reynold's sidekick. In 1980, I got to meet and work with him when he was cast as 'Jeremy' the crow in Don Bluth's THE SECRET OF NIMH. As the least experienced member of a young but super talented crew, I was doing my best to fit in when John Pomeroy got the bright idea of casting Dom. John had seen him on a TV broadcast of the 1978 Burt Reynold's hit THE END and suggested him for the crow. I have to admit, I was surprised because Dom was a much bigger & broader persona (in every sense of the word) than the book seemed to call for. Don Bluth himself single-handedly storyboarded the whole film, but I was asked to suggest gags and at this point, to write dialog for Dom. I wrote out some stuff in what I thought would be a good voice for him and from that point on was involved in all the story and recording sessions for the film. Dom recorded several times over two years, and he was among the first to record.

In person he was wonderfully collaborative and down-to-earth. He was very happy to see in the model sheets that the character was not going to be drawn big and fat. During breaks he would talk about his favorite influences like Bert Lahr, Curly Howard, and especially Lou Costello. He never was unpleasant to anyone present other than himself--periodically if he flubbed a line several times he would spew hair-curling curses at himself that made a colorful counterpoint to our very G-rated script. He also made the material immediately funnier--suggesting he constantly excuse himself (even to inanimate objects) uttering "Excuse me-pardon me!" as he bumbled along. By the time he was done recording and animators Linda Miller and Skip Jones brought him to life, I felt like a very tiny part of a process, but one I was glad to be in on nonetheless.

I never worked with him again, although I scripted a shelved BANJO Halloween special in which he would have played a goblin. He continued to work in animation, often in subsequent Don Bluth movies and he even turned up as 'Fagin' in Disney's OLIVER & CO. (I animated on the picture but not on his character and though our paths never crossed, I doubt he would have recognized me anyway.) Although he seemed to taper off his appearances from the 1990's on, in his heyday he was one of the most in-demand performers around.

Around the time of NIMH Dom DeLuise turned to feature directing in a film called HOT STUFF, about a pawnbroker, I think. One actress I know who auditioned for the movie said that it was the nicest "turn-down" she ever got--Dom sent personal thank you notes to every one who auditioned, even if they didn't get the part. He will be missed.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Walt Stanchfield Books coming March 27!


I am pleased to announce that Don Hahn (producer of LION KING, BEAUTY & THE BEAST and other good stuff) has put together a two volume set of books called DRAWN TO LIFE compiling notes and observations of Disney Animation Legend WALT STANCHFIELD. Walt was a key assistant and later an animator during the reign of the the "9 Old Men" at Disney Features, and he postponed his retirement (somewhat indefinitely) to stick around and pass on his wisdom to a bunch of us whippersnappers back in the 1970's, 80's and 90's. Tall, high-spirited and as energetic as any kid, Walt organized a series of lectures, handouts and drawing classes on a weekly basis that we were grateful and lucky to take advantage of.


When management bivouacked the animation crew over in Glendale across from Imagineering, Walt would reserve one of Imagineering's huge sculpting studios to hold gesture drawing jam sessions featuring a costumed model. Many times Walt himself would be our subject, posing in improvised cowboy gear or with his trusty tennis racket. These are exactly the kind of drawing classes I always loved: quick studies only seconds long, and geared to capturing the spirit and flow of the pose in the fewest of strokes. Walt would always impart carefully selected wisdom between poses and his lesson plans were distributed internally thru the studio over time as he continued to teach. Now for the first time, these will be available to the general public and animation enthusiast. I highly recommend checking them out!

Sunday, February 1, 2009

LITTLE MERMAID (pt.1)

Brian Fields asked a while back for me to share any memories of working on Disney's THE LITTLE MERMAID and now seems as good a time as any. It seems hard to believe that the film was released 20 years ago (come fall) and though much has happened since then, the experience remains pretty fresh. Although I haven't watched it in many many years, I am always glad when someone remembers the movie fondly and am proud to have been associated with it. To state the obvious however, I was just one small fish in a mighty big pond.

One of the things I recall very clearly was that the picture seemed like a natural from the get-go, a classic Disney fairy tale. We were returning to the roots of SNOW WHITE, CINDERELLA and SLEEPING BEAUTY after a 30 year hiatus. Needless to say, during that time, the 'old guard' had all retired or passed on and it was the first really heavy weight production to land in the laps of what was then "the younger generation." After years of grousing, we were finally going to get to work on a story of the calibre we had come to think of as "classic Disney". It was an honor, it was exciting, and it was also a daunting challenge for even the most talented in the group. Everybody had to push harder and dig deeper than ever before. We were glad to do it, too.

Prior to MERMAID, I was a junior animator on OLIVER & CO, animating under the supervision of Reuben Aquino on "Francis" the bulldog and also some scenes of the Bette Midler poodle character. During most of that production, I shared an office with fellow animator Kevin Lima, who went on to direct TARZAN (along with Chris Buck) and the recent smash hit ENCHANTED. In addition to being a talented artist and obvious director in the making, Kevin was well known for his passion for live theatre and and when the gifted New York stage titan Howard Ashman became involved, Kevin was asked to sit in on early meetings, pitching ideas and drawing character designs. As I recall, it was Kevin who came up with the genius idea of modeling "Ursula" the sea witch on 'Divine', the obese female impersonator who had been John Waters' favorite underground 'leading lady.'

I was always eager to hear anything Kevin had to say coming out of these sessions. Everyone was champing at the bit and angling to know what was going on. At one point directors John Musker and Ron Clements passed out copies of the script in progress for the crew to read. I think it was a second draft, but I remember well flying through the pages as I sat in a lounge area in one of the old Kem Weber chairs imported from the hallowed old studio to our makeshift digs in a warehouse on 1400 Flower Street. The script was one of the best I ever read, and all the characters and events were very clearly defined. It was one of the only times I have been lucky enough to work on a movie where the script was that good (and that complete) even before the boarding started.

None of the voices had been cast and none of the songs had been written yet, but there was mention of a Caribbean motif to the story. As typically happens at the early stages, a number of iconic actors were being referenced as possible "types" , even though they may not ultimately be the final voices (usually they aren't, for any number of reasons). I had heard they wanted a "Geoffrey Holder type voice" for the crab character who was to be Ariel's 'Jimminy Cricket' sidekick. Geoffrey Holder was well known at the time as a Bond villain from LIVE & LET DIE, and had been synonymous with a 7-UP soft drink ad where he pitched the virtues of the 'un-cola'. The only trouble to me was, that I could not imagine a voice like Holder's, (deep, rolling and mellow) coming out of the rough sketches I had seen of the beady-eyed, Frisbee-shaped crustacean. I kept thinking of the Holder's long face and soulful, expressive eyes... I thought to myself: "Why not just forget about a crab's real anatomy and have a face like that just extend out of the shell, kind of a cross between a turtle and the "doodle bug" Muppet characters on SEASME STREET." In addition, I was also very much inspired by the flamboyant caricatures of Brazilian musicians in a book called "Echole!", which had been lent to me by fellow artist Haroldo Guimaraes.

I did a few quick scribbles of the crab I envisioned and Kevin was nice enough to submit them to the directors at one of his sessions working on 'Ursula' and various other characters. A bit later I got a call from one of the production secretaries: Howard Ashman had seen my drawings on John Musker's desk and reacted favorably, so the directors wanted me to work up a more finished model sheet... WOW!

There was only one problem: I couldn't really pull it off.

I was still very inexperienced at the time and although I could get lucky with the odd scribble, I had never designed a feature character before and could only bring the drawings to a point. Story artist Ed Gombert and animator Chris Buck worked up the design a good deal more successfully as storyboarding began, and then that work in turn was handed to the amazingly gifted Duncan Marjoribanks, who, as Supervising Animator, ultimately fashioned the character into the version we all know and love.

Duncan is one of the greats of our generation and one of the very first to animate with his own personal vocabulary of acting ideas. He was also nice enough to assign me a number of scenes on the character during production (such as the crab hiding from the chef in the kitchen). Like every character, 'Sebastian' is a conglomerate of story & song work, voice over talent (in this case the wonderful Sam Wright, who gave his own individual spirit to the character) and gifted animators, like Duncan Marjoribanks, who deserves all credit due. And thanks to Kevin Lima, I still get to look at the character and know that a bit of his initial DNA came from me.

More later.

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!

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST "TOP TEN" LISTS part two

Here's more of my spontaneous smart-assity during production on Disney's BEAUTY & THE BEAST. This one seems utterly preposterous in retrospect, because it ridicules the very notion of casting Robby Benson as the voice of "The Beast", an idea that seemed outlandish to many on the crew...that is, until we heard him. Robby Benson turned out to be spectacular as the character and his performance was packed with emotion, intensity and humor.

The main reason the news of this choice at first struck us so odd is because by 1990, (when this was written), Robby Benson hadn't been seen or heard on screen in about ten years. Somewhere around his 20th birthday he moved into a behind the scenes job as a successful director. Prior to that he had been the teen heart-throb of millions of kid sisters in the 1970's, the original "emo" teen actor with a puppy-dog face and a sleepy, whispering voice. We had all been expecting an older actor for 'Beast' and the idea of a soft-spoken former teen star seemed nuts at first blush. I think I speak for all dissenters when I say we were happy to be proven wrong.(If you're under 30 most of the names in these jokes were child stars at one time or another. Except #5, who was playing "The Beast" in a BEAUTY & THE BEAST prime time TV soap opera around then. And Max Baer Jr., who produced Robby Benson's breakout film is better known as "Jethro" on TV's THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES.)

Saturday, September 6, 2008

BEHIND THE BEAUTY -- THE "BEAUTY & THE BEAST" TOP 10 LISTS

Disney's 'BEAUTY AND THE BEAST" is one of the most satisfying projects I was ever lucky enough to animate on. Directors Kirk Wise & Gary Trousedale and producer Don Hahn not only made a fine film that was embraced by audiences in record numbers, they also kept staff morale high during a backstage production process that had it's share of ups and downs.

My small contribution to the levity came in the form of David Letterman-style "Top Ten" Lists, which I wrote to poke fun at the studio and even the production itself. I found a couple of these in a drawer recently--this first one deals with the heroine's lament in the opening number: "There must be more to this provincial life..."

I think I probably only did this about a dozen times or so, and looking back, some of the humor seems in questionable taste. But everyone who read them when I posted them outside the office that I shared with fellow animator Larry White seemed to appreciate a little irreverence now and then. Office behavior guidelines were looser in those days and I probably wouldn't do it (or advise doing it) today, at any studio.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Clockwork: the one that got away...twice!!!


This YouTube video has been pointed out to me, regarding a scene reanimated in Disney's BEAUTY & THE BEAST of "Cogsworth" the talking clock character I was supervising animator for.

The first version was not animated by me (I think I was out sick or on vacation) and I frankly begged to get a shot at re-doing it myself because I felt it was over-done and the shimmy was un-natural forced. In the grand scheme of things, that shot never came....

...Until the decision to update the film for a special home video release, (including the originally cut song "Human Again.") The studio often takes the opportunity in these special updates to address other fixes and the directors and producers knew I always wanted this scene re-done. Unfortunately, I had left Disney during that period and wasn't aware of the change or of any of the new material on the character until it was all finished. I would have re-animated the scene in a heartbeat at no charge had I been asked and still wish I had. Apologies to both animators of versions one and two (both are top-notch feature animators) but I don't like either version much and had something much more "in character" in mind. But everyone's heart was in the right place here and no "conspiracy" was at hand.

Oh well. That's what comes of not having control of your own work folks...

"But WHHYYYYYY...didn't you let ME re-do it?"
(Thanks Alexey)

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

A very classy guy


(This one is dedicated to Larry Levine, who has been reminding me to blog about Chuck Jones)

I recently called Chuck Jones a "classy guy" when discussing the pros and cons of his later artwork, a view I have always held and one that was confirmed the very fist time I saw him speak in person.

Chuck Jones came to USC campus early in 1979, when I was living nearby in an apartment with some friends who were students there. I was working in a book and stationery store near campus and saw the flyer for his appearance and made sure to attend. (Fortunately it was both free of charge and also open to non-students). Like a great deal of aspiring animators, I had grown up seeking out Chuck's literal and figurative signature on old Looney Tunes that ran on TV and also new specials and films like THE GRINCH and PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH. John Canemaker published a wonderfully written appraisal of him for TIME magazine that raised general awareness of his work just a few years prior to the event I attended and Chuck was already an established racconteur by that time. For the USC show he brought along about a dozen of his best WB shorts, including DUCK DOGERS, the Hunting Season sign ones and perhaps my personal favorite, BULLY FOR BUGS.

Between reels he told anecdotes, (many of which wound up in his books) and he was already quoting Mark Twain quite a bit. At one point he referred to Fred Quimby, (the MGM shorts executive bean-counter) as a man who Metro had kicked downstairs to the cartoon division, where "the failure went to his head." He also referred to Eddie Selzer, (Quimby's counterpart at WB) as a man "who went through life like an un-tipped waiter." Despite this, he noted that there was a value to such people, grinding against the creative gears to be more creative. Selzer for instance one day burst into Jones' office and forbid Jones and Michael Maltese from ever doing a cartoon about bullfighting, because there was nothing funny about it. That gauntlet led them to immediately start working on the aforementioned BULLY FOR BUGS short, one of their most inspired of many. He suggested that had they been given total freedom, they probably wouldn't have been so inspired.

At one point he mentioned that he finally realized that not even a camera was necessary for something to be called animation--you could flip a Ken Harris scene of Pepe LePew for instance and there it was, animating in real time, as it were.

After the last short, the floor was opened up for questions, including one tactless person who criticized Chuck's TOM & JERRY shorts. The usually unflappable Jones was thrown a bit by this, but he recouped by commenting that such are the fortunes of cartoon characters who get passed from one studio or director to another. He mused that Hanna and Barbera were probably not too thrilled with his own T & J shorts, but by the same token he was less than crazy about the ROAD RUNNER shorts Rudy Larriva directed in the waning days of Looney Tunes.

I finally got up the gumption to ask "who designed the characters, like the bull in BULLY FOR BUGS?" Chuck said he did himself but he was hasty to point out that I was correct to separate character design from the function of the character animators, who he esteemed quite highly. "I did the designs but the animators brought them to life. That's an important distinction because I was never an animator, except very early on and not a very good one."

This comment continued to impress me as I later learned the extent to which Chuck scrupulously posed out his cartoons himself. In addition, he timed all this out to the frame and did not allow much for wiggle room there either. For all intents and purposes, his character poses practically animate themselves but Chuck remained adamantly modest about that and valued the animators' skill in rendering the scenes from his poses. It represents the ideal in what we are always calling a "collaborative" medium, because as restrictive as it sounds, I loved getting to animate to Chuck's poses, as I did many years later on CHARIOTS OF FUR, his last ROAD RUNNER short. I certainly did my best to bring everything I could to it, making sure that anywhere the poses left something up to my interpetation to make that interpetation as entertaining and well-designed as possible.

Chuck's modesty on this count only gets more admirable in an age when mo-cap directors want to feel that no single pixel in their film got by without their scrutiny and choice, reducing the contributions of artists, animators, actors and technical people to the chore of generating a slew of options for the director to edit ad nauseum until that director can feel himself the ultimate author of everything on the screen. For the record, I admit I have no experience with mo-cap and have even seen limited uses of it done well (the fight scenes in APPLESEED for instance). I am sure that the people involved in creating total mo-cap films are talented individuals, but the results still leave me puzzled as to the motives behind the whole enterprise.

Chuck Jones lived long enough to continue producing, inspiring and even directing a bit here and there, throughout his busy "golden years." I was glad to get to see him, meet him and work with him during those decades, and I will always remember his generous remarks about his crew and colleagues, who he genuinely admired and valued.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Chuck in Flux redux

Larry Levine suggests in the comments of the previous post that I jot down some recollections of my personal experiences with the great Chuck Jones, something I have been meaning to do for some time. To be clear, although I was lucky enough to meet and speak and work with him on something like a dozen occasions, each occasion was usually brief and I cannot pretend to have known him well, which some of my other friends actually did.

In the meantime though, I guess I should add to my previous a few other comments about the issues I have raised here:

First of all, I never intended to slight or disrespect Chuck Jones and I regret giving that impression. I think the caption I posted for the B & W sketch was ill-advised and I apologize for it, although I feel that deleting it this late would be cheesey. I am sorry for it though. I think the sketch speaks for itself well enough about the point I was trying to make. Ironically, the longer I look at it the more it seems like a perfectly acceptable drawing. It is, however not nearly as good a drawing as any from one of the vintage shorts it references.

I am beginning to wonder if it is best not to offer critical comments at all in such a public forum and there is plenty of room to be misunderstood. I don't mean to set myself up as the standard bearer for the industry and would be on pretty thin ice if I did. Chuck Jones, on the other hand, was a master of this medium and I hope it's obvious that I admire and relish his work (including some of his most obscure films) as much as anybody.

Second, despite my dislike for much of the later gallery art, I do not mean to suggest that Mr. Jones was "hacking" when he did this stuff. I think rather he did these to what he believed was the best of his ability and it should go without saying it was in his discretion to do them in any style he chose. He was a classy guy and I don't think "hacking" was in his nature. The baseball cards and later shorts suggest to me however that these pieces engaged a different part of his creative brain than the gallery art and the psychology behind that is interesting to me. It is in fact the general point of the post, and not specific to Chuck Jones either. The large paintings are particularly poor in my opinion, but the fact that Chuck Jones did them makes them valuable and well worth whatever the galleries charge to purchase them. And if people enjoy them, that is their right. I myself can't paint in any medium worth a damn and wouldn't pretend that I could produce anything better; to the contrary in fact.

Third, I was in fact trying to point out that the production process of making the later big-budget shorts, as well as the pseudo-production process of making the baseball cards brought out what I and I think many other fans and artists feel is the best in Chuck Jones' later work and proved he was capable of firing up the old spark of his great heyday.

Finally, I go back to the remark about Floyd Gottfredson, which I made below: the fact that he was vocal about his preference for his late work has haunted and chilled me for decades, because although I can't site a case offhand, I do think it was something many older artists of his generation felt in the twilight years. Chuck Jones was proud of his work in general but he never got specific about the late vs early issue and no one to my knowledge ever asked him, so in this case the mystery of his genuine personal appraisal is what nags me enough to raise the issue. That Gottfredson, on the other hand, could call his pedestrian later strips better than his outstanding work over the decades of the 1930's, 40's & 50's is depressing. I seem to recall that the interviewer even balked at this and the artist brushed him off as too young to understand. Does this mean that taste and criteria and even visual perception change over time, or is this just the sound of an ego protecting it's host? Given that I myself am well into (ahem) mid-life, it's a question I have to ask myself. I try to stay as critical of my own work, both personal and professional, as possible as anyone who knows me well can tell. I'd certainly like to think there is better work ahead for me yet and that age and experience will make me better fit to rise to the occasion... I guess only time will tell.

BTW - If anyone knows where this late interview with Gottfredson is, let me know, it would set my mind at ease if I am remembering the whole thing wrong...

Post Script: Thad K has posted some fine examples of Gottfredson in both his heyday and his decline, here on his own blog. He also echos hearing the artist make the claim that he was better later, confirming that at least I am not the only person who got this impression.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Ed Hansen

I was sorry to hear that Disney Animation veteran Ed Hansen passed away earlier this month (there's an entry on THE ANIMATION GUILD's blog). Ed entered the studio as an animation effects artist on PETER PAN and worked his way up to assistant director by the time of ROBIN HOOD. Shortly afterward he was promoted to the general management position over all feature animation, although I can't remember his actual title. He was to me and many of my generation, our first "boss" in the profession. He was also the first guy to fire me, a situation that rankled until it happily rectified.

In these corporate times of mind-boggling beurocracy it seems hard to believe that one single person oversaw the whole operation (Ed had one secretary, the always cheerful Jo Anne Phillips, and supply seargeant Joe Morris served as a sort of right hand man). Granted things were sleepier at the studio in those days, but Ed had what must have been the peculiar vantage point of rising through the ranks and peaking at a time when the old guard were rapidly retiring and new blood was flooding in like it hadn't since the 1930's. In the late seventies he was in his early fifties, literally bridging the age gap. He was casual (he looked and dressed like a golfer) but he could be flinty and hard-line when he had to be, although according to reports from "old timers" he was a big improvement over his apparently hard-headed predesesor. When I entered the training program under Eric Larson's auspices, Ed was one of the first people I was introduced to. He flipped through my sketchbook and suggested I make a test of a mouse character I had drawn, but I said I had something else in mind. Mistake. The temperature dropped about 20 degrees and I sensed right away I wasn't going to have an easy time with Ed.

To make a long story short, although I made it through the two-month trainee period, I only lasted another six months on production (THE FOX AND THE HOUND) as an apprentice inbetweener. I was so overwhelmed to be at Disney that every move I made seemed to be the wrong one and when I got fired I kind of knew I had it coming. At my exit interview I sheepishly asked Ed if there were ever cases where someone who got fired at Disney eventually got re-hired. Ed, (who knew my bad rep all too well) said in a very blase manner: "Well very occasionally something like that happens, but I don't think this is going to be one of those cases." I was doomed.

To make a longer story short, the experience did sink in and I spent the next seven years not only developing my skills but also working on my attitude. Late in 1986 I wound up doing some freelance with Glen Keane on THE CHIPMUNK ADVENTURE and he generously offered to submit my portfolio when he returned to Disney in '87, which he did. A few weeks later I got a call from Ed Hansen, who offered me a very sincere welcome back and a journeyman animator job on OLIVER & CO. I was pretty elated and will always be grateful I got the chance to mend the fence with the very guy I who made me aware of the damage. I wound up spending 14 of the following twenty years working at Disney Features (nine years at one stretch, five at another). When I saw Ed in person he was a kinder, gentler Ed and I hope I was a wiser and more experienced me. I was out of the doghouse in any case. In the shifting management sands of the late 1980's Ed himself retired before the decade was out. He had worked at Disney for something like 35 years and he spent the time since then in picturesque Solvang, in Santa Barbara. Ed hired (and fired) quite a few of us aging kids still in the business and for me he will always represent the happy resolution of a "second chance." My condolences to his family and friends.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

John Musker, Animator Whisperer





This is a scene from ALADDIN (images all copyright Disney) where I learned as much philosphically as I did technically. I was the supervising animator on the parrot character (voiced by the inimitable Gilbert Gottfried). This is the first time in the movie when we see clearly that he has merely been pretending to be a typical squawking beast and is actually a sentient co-conspirator with the villain (animated by Andreas Deja). The sleazy little thief (animated by T. Dan Hoffstead) is going off into the mouth of the cave as the parrot squawks in typical fashion behind him. Just when he gets out of earshot, the bird drops the "act" and mutters to Jafar: "Jeez, where'd ya dig this bozo up?" The audience is at that point let in on the character's two-faced nature.

The storyboard showed this as a static medium closeup, with the characters facing the audience which suited me fine. The theif was supposed to exit the frame and we'd push in a bit to watch Iago 'change' from dumb to smart. Directors John Musker and Ron Clements instead chose an "over the shoulder" shot that would rotate about 45 degrees behind the villains during the dialog and then push past them into the "cave of wonders." I immediately started protesting when I got the layout (frame by frame printouts of the rotaing BG with stand-ins for the characters). Doesn't it say somewhere in one of Frank & Ollie's bibles that you should never be in motion while a character is changing expression? Or even worse, be on their backs instead of their faces? Here we had an integral moment when the guy's whole personality is going to change and I kept saying it wouldn't work, it was technically impossible. I wanted to stick with the simpler composition. I must have bellyached for the better part of a week about it and was going to the mat. Finally Musker looked me in the eye and said: "Just try it this way and if it doesn't work we can do it over." He said it quietly, he said it diplomatically, but something in his tone made me hear what I think he really meant:

"Quit being a diva and do it the way we told you or we'll give it to someone else."

I realized in that moment that this was a pretty revolutionary CGI shot for the time and a lot of expense had been spent on it. I also realized that an animator who wasn't clinging to some dogmatic rule might do the scene instead and knock it out of the park. Then I'd not only look stupid, but I'd be mad at myself for letting a great scene go. I jumped into it with enthusiasm and relish and turned it around relatively fast. It turned out to be directorally a very good choice, the shift in point of view not only didn't wreck the parrot's moment, it actually emphasized it, making it all the more conspiratorial. Among other things, being that close toward the end gave me the chance to "squeeze" Iago's pupils as he crossed his eyes on the word "Jeez!" to heighten his contempt for the thief, something that would have been impossible in a medium shot. All I had to do was favor his face to the camera a bit as he turned back to look at Jafar. I had a lot of fun animating it and was embarassed I had crabbed so much about doing it this way.

I've noticed that one of the things that separates the pro's from the dillitantes in everything, acting, music whatever is their ability to say "yes" much more quickly than "no." There are a lot of things that have more than one solution. There is also a lot of dogma that shouldn't be clung to. When I really can't understand a direction (or find it hopelessly counter-productive) then I still balk, but I have tried to be a whole lot more open-minded since then. You don't want to be the one who figured out how not to do something (pretty much anybody can do that); try whenever possible to be the one who got it right.

And don't believe everything you read in books.

Friday, June 1, 2007

Oskcar Fischinger



All the talk of stylization brought back a memory from 30 years ago, when a friend dragged me to a museum retrospective of Oskar Fischinger's abstract animations. For all my dislike of UPA, I have to say I loved these works on sight and still do. I'm sure the hook that got me in the door was hearing his name associated with the Bach sequence in Disney's FANTASIA (the "Soundtrack Interview" is closer to his actual work) , but I was knocked out by the breathtaking dynamism and endless invention of this artist's mind. Somewhat like Kandisnky paintings, but more spare and of course kinetic. Sometimes he used stop motion, other times paintings. The FANTASIA stuff is a far cry from his actual work so don't go by what that film shows. Art with a very capitol A. See these films if you haven't already, you won't be sorry.

After that show back in 1977 a few of us hung around to chat with Elfriede, Mr. Fischinger's widow and I will never forget how warm and informal she was--sharp, brilliant, articulate but completely devoid of affect, the antithesis of a snob. She was very down to earth and quite informal. She talked to us like kindered spirits and old neighbors, she even recalled a bit of FANTASIA for my geeky benefit. She sort of sighed and rolled her eyes, recalling how Walt wanted little clown sillhouettes and such to roll through the frame and had to be talked out of it and that her husband never looked back after his brief consultation for the film. There was no vituperative tirade, just a world apart between them and that was that. She could tell we all loved the films too, and she was obviously proud but not the least bit conceited. I wish I had gone out of my way to meet her again.