As I write this, a few weeks into an open-ended global self-quarantine that we hope might mitigate the worst effects of what data suggests will be a historic wave of illness and death, it’s easy to feel that the future has been stolen, or at least the luxury of feeling halfway certain what the future might hold on levels both micro and macro. It’s easy, as well, to feel that even the very recent past is suddenly unavailable, at least without the risk of tumbling into nostalgia for a time when we took mundane errands and gatherings for granted. As winter finally gives way to spring, each day offering my three-year-old daughter new flower buds to marvel at through the sliding glass door, I find myself living like a goldfish in a bowl, endlessly tracing the same few movements—bedroom to bathroom to kitchen to living room to kitchen to living room to bathroom to bedroom. I yearn for a return to normalcy while fearing the consequences that return might bring. I watch governments at home and abroad either fumble or sabotage their response to this disaster. For lack of a better option, I batten down the hatches and wait for death to roll through, hoping that by sheer luck myself and those I love might be passed by. And in the meantime, I focus as much of my attention as possible on my daughter’s shrieks of glee as she notes the day’s new purple and yellow buds. You’d think the kid had never seen a flower before.
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Hey, it’s Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Debbie Harry, and Maurice White talking about their roles in the odd, uneven 1983 toon film Rock & Rule. The movie itself is kind of lousy, except that it somehow was starring these folks (and their music), and despite Nelvana turning it into a very off Disney / Goofy-esque rotoscoped nightmare.
Possibly of interest for the above-mentioned musician interviews alone, the documentary also has scenes of how feature animation was made in the early 1980s (traditional hand-drawn cels with multiplane camera photography), and some talk about the synthesizer work of Patricia Cullen (who IMBD tells me recorded synth scores for a number of other 1980s cartoons and TV shows).
This is an excellent essay on Miyazaki’s / Studio Ghibli’s place in the canon of art cinema, the nature of “boredom” in the life of children, and how cinematic experiences can be so much more for children than our U.S. blockbusters lead us to believe.
When Roger Ebert asked Miyazaki about the “gratuitous motion” in his films—the bits of realist texture, like sighs and gestures—Miyazaki told Ebert that he was invoking the Japanese concept of “ma.” Miyazaki clapped three times, and then said, “The time in between my clapping is ma.” This calls to mind the concept of temps morts, or dead time, in the European art cinema of the 1960s. Temps morts is a pause, a beat, a breath, a moment that doesn’t advance the plot. But far from being dead, Miyazaki’s moments of “ma” are full of life—there is a simple joy in watching his worlds move. In “animating”—breathing life into—a world that looks like our own, Miyazaki carries forward a spirit from the very beginning of film history.
This is one of the greatest descriptions of the power of animation that I’ve read in a long time, and something that you can see in all of the small moments of Miyazaki’s films.
On children and boredom:
But I think some of the common thinking about children’s boredom and attention is inaccurate. Children are bored standing in line at the bank or the post office, certainly—they have no banking of their own to do, no mail of their own to send. But if you were to put a child and an adult in an empty room full of scattered objects, I suspect the adult would grow bored much faster. […] A child can never exhaust the possibilities of a park or a neighborhood or a forest. Totoro is travel and transit and exploration, set against lush, evocative landscapes that seem to extend far beyond the frame.
Meanwhile, the two friends are targeted by Boris and Natasha and a couple of Moon Men, who want to sabotage the space program, lest their home fill up with tourists. There are also plot complications involving Rocky and Bullwinkle’s seafaring friend Captain Peter Peachfuzz; Boris and Natasha’s boss, Fearless Leader; the Abominable Snowman; and a blight that almost wipes out the world’s supply of mooseberries. As the weeks go by and the show keeps adding to the plates spinning in the air, it’s easy to imagine that the writers may have thought that the network was postponing cancellation because someone high up was curious to see how long they could keep this shit up.
The whole Rocky & Bullwinkle series is on Netflix in pretty decent condition (it’s been re-re-edited into many different formats over the years) if you need to fill a few hundred hours of your life!
Another SIGGRAPH, another mind-bending example of video being freed from linear time — Jiamin Bai, Aseem Agarwala, Maneesh Agrawala, and Ravi Ramamoorthi’s Selectively De-Animating Video:
We present a semi-automated technique for selectively de-animating video to remove the large-scale motions of one or more objects so that other motions are easier to see. The user draws strokes to indicate the regions of the video that should be immobilized, and our algorithm warps the video to remove the large-scale motion of these regions while leaving finer-scale, relative motions intact. However, such warps may introduce unnatural motions in previously motionless areas, such as background regions. We therefore use a graph-cut-based optimization to composite the warped video regions with still frames from the input video; we also optionally loop the output in a seamless manner. Our technique enables a number of applications such as clearer motion visualization, simpler creation of artistic cinemagraphs (photos that include looping motions in some regions), and new ways to edit appearance and complicated motion paths in video by manipulating a de-animated representation.
I like Pieterjan Grandry’s gif player, a novel way to play back your favorite short-form animations on your wall (it’s basically an updated, electric version of a phenakistoscope, but the use is certainly fun, and the wooden box looks nice!).
Studio map from a nifty Disney employee handbook circa 1943. The info in the booklet is mostly uninteresting, but it’s peppered with wartime secrecy, unions (represented by a headless, walking union suit — weird!) , and the gender biases that were prevalent at Disney at the time (sorry, ink-and-paint girls, the “penthouse club” is for men only!). This book was produced not long after the famous animator’s strike of 1941, which was unpleasantly lampooned through the clowns in Dumbo, and would have been read during a time of high tension between the studio and the employees.
Animation and comics are false siblings. They resemble one another but they’re two completely different things. The relationship a reader has with a comic is nothing like the one a viewer has with a film. When you read a comic, you’re always active, because you have to imagine all the movements that happen between the frames. In a film, you are passive: all the information is there. And when you make a comic it never happens that you have 500 or 1,000 people reading it in the same place at the same time, all reacting.
The principal factor in my success has been an absolute desire to draw constantly. I never decided to be an artist. Simply, I could not stop myself from drawing. I drew for my own pleasure. I never wanted to know whether or not someone liked my drawings. I drew on walls, the school blackboard, old bits of paper, the walls of barns. Today I’m still as fond of drawing as when I was a kid — and that’s a long time ago…
“Tarantella” is a five-minute color, avant-garde short film created by Mary Ellen Bute, a pioneer of visual music and electronic art in experimental cinema. With piano accompaniment by Edwin Gershefsky, “Tarantella” features rich reds and blues that Bute uses to signify a lighter mood, while her syncopated spirals, shards, lines and squiggles dance exuberantly to Gershefsky’s modern beat. Bute produced more than a dozen short films between the 1930s and the 1950s and once described herself as a “designer of kinetic abstractions” who sought to “bring to the eyes a combination of visual forms unfolding with the … rhythmic cadences of music.” Bute’s work influenced many other filmmakers working with abstract animation during the ‘30s and ‘40s, and with experimental electronic imagery in the ‘50s.
Early experimental computer animation through mathematical modeling of a cat’s gait. Evidently, equations were written to model the basic skeleton form of the cat and its walk, and the computer was used to generate a shadow-like projection printed frame by frame onto paper using ASCII-like characters (this animation was done in 1968 on a Soviet BESM-4 mainframe, so I’m not sure what character set they’re actually using here). The result could then be filmed, inverted, and manually cleaned up. Not exactly something that would really take the animation world by storm, but it’s an interesting usage of mainframes for art.
WOW, I’m about four years late on this one, but in case anyone else hasn’t come across this: a fan has collected and cataloged a huge chunk (nearly 7½ hours worth!) of the incidental music from Ren & Stimpy. You know the stuff: the delightfully surreal, atomic age lounge music that defined the series. Don’t miss the smallish image link to Volume 2! The direct download links went dark, but if you poke around towards the bottom of the comments you can probably figure it out…
Bill Plympton’s got a new short aimed at the younger set on the way, about a cow who wants to become a hamburger. No dialog or sound effects; simple, blocky colors inspired (“ripped off”, in his words) by Kandinsky; and final line art rendered with Sharpie. Looks good to me!
Mark Mayerson writes a pretty good rebuttal to the idea that the animators that worked on James Cameron’s Avatar were shortchanged by the film’s placement as a live-action feature:
“I’ve written extensively on how fragmented the process of making an animated film is and how so many of the acting decisions are made before the animator starts work. The character designs, the storyboard and the voice performance all make acting decisions that constrain the animator’s interpretation. There is no question that motion capture is yet another constraint, probably larger than all the others. To insist that Avatar is an animated film is to marginalize animators even more than they are in what are generally considered animated films. Is this the direction we want things to go? Better to agree with James Cameron and focus our attention on films where animators create, not enhance, performances.”
I’ve seen artists on the Internet question the necessity for this, saying that you can’t really learn anything about drawing by carrying a sketchbook, and that the drawings you do in a sketchbook are always dashed off, careless and sloppy. […]
The real reason I carry a sketchbook is so that I can record and remember details that I observe. Drawing from real life is the best way to teach yourself how people look, act and move in a naturalistic way (and help you remember it later). Life drawing and studying the work of other artists and animators are great learning experiences, but those things aren’t the same as studying real life. A great life drawing is an amazing feat and you can learn a lot about drawing and anatomy by going to life drawing. But very few life drawings give you a lot of information about the model’s personality and what kind of human being they are. You’re never going to create an original story or character based on a life drawing model you saw.
From a good piece in this month’s Vanity Fair, “Coloring the Kingdom”, about the often-unsung Ink and Paint “girls” that cranked out most of the hand painting for Disney’s early feature days:
The end of the assembly line usually inherits all the problems. Preparing the animators’ vision for camera required the inking and painting of thousands of fragile, combustible cels with perfect refinement. During Snow White, it was not at all unusual to see the “girls”—as Walt paternalistically referred to them—thin and exhausted, collapsed on the lawn, in the ladies’ lounge, or even under their desks. “I’ll be so thankful when Snow White is finished and I can live like a human once again,” Rae wrote after she recorded 85 hours in a week. “We would work like little slaves and everybody would go to sleep wherever they were,” said inker Jeanne Lee Keil, one of two left-handers in the department who had to learn everything backward. “I saw the moon rise, sun rise, moon rise, sun rise.” Painter Grace Godino, who would go on to become Rita Hayworth’s studio double, also remembered the long days merging into nights: “When I’d take my clothes off, I’d be in the closet, and I couldn’t figure it out: am I going to sleep or am I getting up?”
A circa-1966 industry ad for Leon Maurer’s Animascope process for producing animation on the cheap: animation without drawing and with fewer pesky artists! Similar to but different than rotoscoping, this process used high-contrast photography and actors in contrasty costumes with their skin painted white and contour lines painted on. The performers would then be filmed dancing around under bright light on a black-lined stage, and the resulting photography could be composited onto traditional background plates. Weird, but sort of a primitive version of mocap, and done for the same economical reasons.
(Via Cartoon Brew – for more info on the process, a good place to start might be this comment left by Brew reader Kustom Kool)
Finally, the one thing the four contending films listed above [Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel, Disney’s A Christmas Carol, Monsters vs. Aliens, and Up have in common is they all employ CGI, just like Avatar and many, many other films we could open this discussion to. I bring this up because it has pretty much been agreed upon around the Internet Avatar will be taking home the Oscar for Best Visual Effects, which creates an interesting conundrum. Why is the CG in Avatar considered visual effects while the CG employed for a Pixar or DreamWorks film simply considered animation? If Avatar is up for Oscar’s Best Visual Effects award shouldn’t Up and Monsters vs. Aliens be as well? The fact they aren’t, but A Christmas Carol is, interests me.
A note from famed animation director Richard Williams to his crew working on Who Framed Roger Rabbit? about the importance of the gaze between the toons and the live actors in establishing the believability of the scene. In matters of animation composition, this guy knows what he’s talking about: his Animator’s Survival Guide is a compelling read for artists of any stripe working with visual storytelling, and he’s also the man responsible for the great-but-famously-troubled production of The Thief and the Cobbler (if you’ve never seen it, fire up your favorite torrent client and look for Thief and the Cobbler: the Recobbled Cut – it’s a must-watch).
Went digging through my archives and came across this, one of my favorite frames from the first year of the original Fleischer Brothers’ Popeye shorts. In a contest of manliness, Bluto smokes an entire cigar in one drag and blows the smoke in Popeye’s face. The sailor retaliates by doing the same but blowing the smoke out of his one good eye. This is what makes animation great, folks!
This presents an interesting problem. Caricature has never been taken as seriously as realism. The history of Western art, with the exception of the dark ages and the 20th century, has always been derived from realism, and the art of the dark ages probably had more to do with the loss of knowledge and craft than with a conscious artistic choice. Caricature might be seen as clever, but except for artists, nobody values caricature as more than a lightweight diversion. Disney moved more towards illustration when he went into features. The all-cgi features have pushed their visuals towards greater complexity (which sometimes clashes with their character designs). Video games have also gravitated towards realism. I believe that this has been motivated by a desire to be taken more seriously by getting closer to what Western eyes value in art.
Winsor McCay’s 1911 animation of his Little Nemo comic strip (embedded above) was selected this year by the U.S. Library of Congress to be entered as a culturally significant work in the National Film Registry (along with Michael Jackson’s Thriller, The Muppet Movie, and others). Knowing that McCay did this all himself, by hand, cranking out tens of thousands of hand-colored drawings (keep in mind he was also pioneering the field of animation, inventing techniques as he worked) in addition to his incredibly intricate newspaper work leads me to suspect he was living in an alternate stream of time than the rest of us. Incredible stuff.
In place of the conventional, reductive versions of morality and psychology shown in Pixar’s films, Miyazaki gives us something closer to actual experience, treating good and evil not as a binary equation but as a sliding scale and presenting people (and characters) that often don’t know why they do what they do and latch on to reductive explanations at their peril. Characters can be scary and then friendly, threatening and then reassuring, honest and then misleading; they can shift identities and change shape, succumb to spells and then break out of them. […]
Parents will testify that a child who sees his or her first Miyazaki film after a steady diet of Pixar and Disney is apt to experience a perhaps troubled reaction, much deeper than “That was fun” or “I liked it.” Miyazaki challenges every preconceived notion about family entertainment that Pixar and its ilk conditions children (and adults) to have. Pixar’s very best work this decade — “The Incredibles,” “Wall-E” and “Up,” and moments of “Monsters, Inc.” and “Finding Nemo” — is wonderful; it gives children lots to see and a fair amount to feel. But Miyazaki’s work does more than that. His art is engrossing and beautiful but also challenging. He urges children to understand themselves and the world, and then shows them how. The Babysitter mesmerizes children. Grandfather changes their lives.
From Salon’s “Directors of the Decade” countdown (Pixar and Miyazaki share the #2 slot). I think it’s a bit reductive to count “Pixar” as a director (why not specifically highlight Brad Bird or Andrew Stanton’s work?), but I know what they’re getting at. Pixar represents the best storytelling in American animation and both approaches have their valid points, but it’s interesting how much stronger of a moral stamp Miyazaki has on Studio Ghibli’s output.
A dog, a cyclops, and others kill some time with the help of wormholes and hobbyist self-modification. Made in 2008.
Pellet Gunn by Tim Beckhardt. Not 100% sure that I get the full story, but it’s great in a non sequitur, underground comix sort of way. His line work and hand-filled blacks are nicely composed, and the animation is fun. Extra points for the Philip Guston painting in the background.
A thorough set of the indentity bumpers from Nick at Nite, circa 1991. Kind of surreal (and tedious) watching these back to back, but it’s amazing how many of them I remember, and how many were done by well-known animators. This is where things were at in the early 90’s NYC animation trade. A number of these folks would later be rounded up in Atlanta to help create Cartoon Network. Sadly, all of these cable channels seem to have lost their sense of purpose, with Nick at Nite now showing ‘retro’ shows like “Just Shoot Me”, TV Land focusing on reality programming, and Cartoon Network becoming a dumping ground for kid’s live-action.
This new series of promos by Pepper Melon reminds me of the good ol’ days when MTV was running experimental stuff like Liquid Television and the more subversive late-night blocks of animation with Ren & Stimpy, MTV Oddities, The Maxx, and The Brothers Grunt (maybe not so much that last one…). If Cartoon Network’s ditching cartoons, maybe the more artful ones can migrate back to MTV (which stopped caring about the M part of its name way before most Spongebob watchers were born anyhow, as the cliche goes). See the rest at Cartoon Brew.
Documentary: A Little Love: The Art of Bill Melendez. A great short video taking a look at Meléndez’s work for UPA, the quick transition he made from working on those shorts to the graphic design of the classic Peanuts tv specials, and also the influence that he had on Wes Anderson’s films (I’d gotten the Charlie Brown / Max Fischer connection, but never noticed the homage where Max is walking with the little plant for Margaret Yang – brilliant). Via Cartoon Brew.
A vintage 3D stop motion film of a car being assembled, produced by Chrysler Motors (despite YouTube title, I think this is from later than 1939, when it was re-filmed in Technicolor). The springs must have been a pain to animate. Fun stuff! (via BoingBoing)
For possibly the first time in 80 years this Krazy Kat cartoon, Ratskin, has been reunited with its original soundtrack recording, discovered on a rare Vitaphone disc in Australia. Found via Cartoon Brew, who has a good writeup of the discovery.
Revolver, a brilliant series of short looping animations by Jonas Odell (codirected with Stig Bergkvist, Marti Ekstrand & Lars Olsson). I loved these when they ran serialized in the early days of Hotwired.com’s Renaissance 2.0 / Kino section, circa 1995, and hastily squirreled away all of the QuickTime .mov’s from the site for archiving. Benefit of having the .mov’s? You could have all of them open and playing simultaneously!