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"What's New" Archives: August 2007

 

August 31, 2007:

On to Ottawa

Walt and the Librarians, Cont'd

The Real World

Independents' Day

Quick Takes

 

August 27, 2007:

Walt and the Librarians

Blogs and Permalinks

 

August 24, 2007:

When Walt Met Lyndon: The Button Mystery Solved!

 

August 21, 2007:

Direct Links, Cont'd

 

August 20, 2007:

Direct Links

 

August 17, 2007:

Diane Disney Miller on Neal Gabler

Just to Be Fair

 

August 16, 2007:

Speaking of Talking Animals...

 

August 15, 2007:

Paprika

 

August 13, 2007:

Voices From the Past

 

August 11, 2007:

Emslie on Animals

Following Up

 

August 8, 2007:

DVD 'Toons: Lantz

DVD 'Toons: Avery

If Rats Could Talk, What Would They Say?

Disney Biography Feedback

 

August 5, 2007:

Ed Hooks on Ratatouille

 

August 31, 2007:

On to Ottawa

The site will be quiet for the next month.

Phyllis and I will be in the Washington, D.C., area for the next couple of weeks. We accepted an offer from old friends to cat-sit, and we'll visit our former home town, Alexandria, Virginia, while I do some research at the Library of Congress.

Festival posterFrom Alexandria we'll drive to Ottawa, Ontario, where I'll watch a lot of cartoons at the Ottawa International Animation Festival. (The festival poster at right is by Oscar Grillo.)

I'll sign copies of The Animated Man from 6-7 p.m. on Friday, September 21, at the Animarket Trade Show, in the Southam Hall Main Lobby of the National Arts Centre. On Saturday, September 22, I'll take part in a panel discussion called "Blogging Animation" from 1-2:30 p.m. at the Arts Court's Club SAW, at 2 Daley Avenue. I'll have some stellar company on the panel: Mark Mayerson, Ward Jenkins, and Jerry Beck, all of whose blogs are essential reading. So, if you're going to be in Ottawa for the festival, stop by and say hello.

We'll drive home from the festival by way of Bluevale and Goderich, Ontario—ancestral Disney sites, if the names don't ring a bell. See you in October.

Walt and the Librarians, Cont'd

Walt with bookRaymond Neal, a Florida librarian, wrote in response to my essay about the once and, I hypothesized, present bias in libraries against Walt Disney:

"I would like to throw a little bit of light on the seeming imbalance of distribution of biographies of Walt Disney. I don't really think there is much of an inherent bias in libraries against Walt these days. The stuffy, overly critical view against popular culture is largely gone. I think the issue is more one of a lack of reviews (or at least the existence of ones such as the one you cited from Library Journal) on your Disney bio. Librarians increasingly rely on published reviews of books for selecting our purchases. With the sheer volume of books coming out every month, we no longer have the time to devote to reviews of advances or galleys. A 'not recommended' review in LJ or American Libraries or the other review sources we use often can be the kiss of death for acquiring a particular book. Gabler's book was accompanied by an absolute storm of publicity and as much as we are loathe to admit it, librarians can be swayed by sheer volume of hoo-hah as the rest of the general public. It's not exactly a fair or just system, but it's what we have. I do agree with you that the LJ reviewer may not have been the best choice of a judge.

"As far as what is available in the way of Disney biographies, we do own 21 copies of Gabler, 5 of Eliot, 3 of Thomas, and (for now) none of yours (I'll talk to our acquisitions department to rectify that). One thing to keep in mind about these numbers is the age of the older books. Unless the book is acknowledged as a world-beating classic, libraries tend not to order copies of older works (especially biographies of folks who generate as much material as Walt) as they fall out of circulation. That is an unfortunate bias that I will admit that we still have. I know I have withdrawn many copies of both Thomas and Eliot's books due to their horrible, dogeared condition. That's a good thing in a way—it shows one element of the true value of a book in that it has been read repeatedly. Also, I believe that the Thomas book was out of print for some time, though I may be wrong on that.

"I hope this tempers your disappointment with my profession not providing a balanced view of Walt's life. I do honestly believe that there are more of us in my generation of librarians that truly hold Walt Disney and his work as an inspiration rather than a boogeyman. If we don't have the numbers as of this moment, give us a few years—Generation X is slowly taking over libraries as an older, more stodgy generation retires."

MB replies: The Thomas biography, Walt Disney: An American Original, was indeed out of print for quite a few years (it was originally published in 1976). A reprint—with, unfortunately, no significant revisions or updates that I'm aware of—was rushed out in 1994 to counter Marc Eliot's dreadful biography, Walt Disney: Hollywood's Dark Prince, which for a while had the stage to itself as the only Disney biography readily available to most readers.

The Real World

Of the blogs that come up daily on my RSS feed, one of my favorites is the TAG Blog, the Animation Guild's blog. It delves into animation's history occasionally—the Guild's business agent, Steve Hulett, is the son of Ralph Hulett, one of the Disney studio's leading background painters a few decades ago—but what I really like about the blog is the sense it provides of what life is like in today's Hollywood animation industry.

I was attracted to animation many years ago by the magical Hollywood cartoons of the "golden age," but I've since enjoyed learning about how those cartoons were made, and about the harsh realities (the 1941 Disney strike, for example) that sometimes accompanied their production. There's not much magical about most of today's cartoons, and certainly there's nothing magical about the companies that produce them, but for me that makes the TAG blog all the more interesting. Steve Hulett's postings convey a powerful sense of life in the trenches. (See, for example, his postings on uncompensated overtime.)

I sometimes read or hear gripes from people in the business who don't like the Guild and don't want to belong to it, to which I must say, after reading the Guild's newsletters and its blog for years: You gotta be crazy! Preserving a love of animation is hard as hell for many people who work in today's industry; I can't imagine that letting yourself be taken advantage of by small-minded employers would make it any easier.

Levy bookSpeaking of the real world: I've previously praised David Levy's book Your Career in Animation: How to Survive and Thrive, but it wasn't until recently that I read it not just in bits and pieces, but cover to cover. As I already knew, it's a very good "how-to" book, as we used to call them in my business-writer days. Its advice on, for example, networking is refreshingly adult. But what I really like about the book, after giving it a closer reading than before, is the vivid sense it offers of what life is like in New York's animation industry, where Levy himself works as a director.

The New York industry is very different from Hollywood's; it's oriented toward TV commercials and other short forms, whereas features dominate the Hollywood landscape. Independent animators like George Griffin and Bill Plympton loom much larger in New York than they do in Hollywood, and it's only in New York that I can imagine a filmmaker like Michael Sporn surviving and (occasionally) thriving. Much of Sporn's work is commissioned—but it always has the intensely individual character that I associate with the best independent animation. I had a much clearer idea, after reading Levy's boook, of how the different kinds of filmmakers fit into the New York industry.

Levy did not write his book as any sort of history of New York animation, but it's a priceless time capsule, a portrait of an industry blessed, as all too few industries are, with people who care deeply about their work. You'll enjoy reading it even if a career in animation is not in your plans.

Independents' Day

Speaking of independents: I've had on my shelf for some time DVDs by a couple of independent animators whose work is manifestly intelligent and inventive but has defied my efforts to come up with anything much to say about it. I think I finally isolated the problem earlier this month, when I was looking at those DVDs again.

The films in question were made by Joanna Priestley, an independent animator in Portland, Oregon, and Suzan Pitt, who has alternated commercial and independent work in Los Angeles. It was on a second or third tour through the DVDs that I was struck by the credits for the films' sources of funding—screen after screen acknowledging a grant from this or that agency or foundation.

Pace Chuck Jones, who famously declared that he made films only for himself, I think filmmakers (like writers) always have an audience of some kind in mind, and they're fibbing if they deny it. Grants to independent filmmakers seem to be predicated, though, on the idea that the filmmakers should turn their backs on the audience and speak from their hearts. What I see instead, much more often, is a filmmaker trying to appeal to a small and rather self-indulgent audience, the grant makers, who seem to be pleased most often not if a film makes a personal statement but if it baffles, repels, or bores the great unwashed.

Of Priestley's films on two DVDs, for example, the one I enjoyed most, after multiple viewings, was a student effort called The Rubber Stamp Film, which lacks only the last bit of cleverness and inventiveness that would make it a real crowd-pleaser. Some of her later films are visually ingenious, to say the least, but static. I had the feeling, each time I saw the one called Surface Dive, that I was watching one of those classy European TV commercials for a mysterious but very expensive product; I kept expecting to hear a voice purring in Italian as the film ended.

Pitt DVDPitt's three films, on a single DVD, bypass animated norms in their erotic content (Asparagus, made almost 30 years ago, is even more phallic than the vegetable), but what struck me, in watching her most recent film, El Doctor (2006), was the obstacle the film's sound—its muffled Spanish and Spanish-accented dialogue—places in the viewer's path. (One of the most arresting characters in the film is a gargoyle that speaks clearly, as it happens, in cultivated English.) Pitt has lived in Mexico and El Doctor obviously draws on that experience, but not in a way that invites us to share it. I have to believe that we—and the grant makers, surely—are supposed to see in its very obscurity proof of its authenticity.

Are the Pitt and Priestley films worth watching, the DVDs worth buying? Certainly, if you care about animation and want to see its language enriched. There are a lot of interesting things happening in these films. But I wish both of these talented women were making films for the people buying their DVDs, not for the people making the grants.

Sometimes, to be sure, an independent filmmaker can connect with a broader audience almost too intimately. I had that feeling when I saw John Canemaker's The Moon and the Son, which won the Academy Award as best animated short of 2005.

Canemaker, besides being an author and a university professor, is one of those New York independent animators I mentioned in the previous item. He has made a series of independent films, gathered on one DVD, that are unfailingly attractive but speak almost too clearly of his love of, for example, Disney's Fantasia and John and Faith Hubley's films.

The Moon is something else again, a film entirely in Canemaker's own voice, its visuals in no way derivative, as personal an animated film as I've ever seen. I'm still not sure exactly what I think of it. For anyone who has ever endured serious conflict with a parent—suppressed conflict, perhaps, most of all—it may be almost too painful to watch. But beyond question, it's that great rarity, an animated short that actually deserved its Oscar. You can download it from iTunes, and, if you haven't seen it, you should.

Quick Takes

° I haven't yet received my contributor's copy of the new Popeye DVD set, so I haven't added any information about my commentaries to my page about my books and DVD commentaries. But, sure enough, I do another set of commentaries and I make another goof, so I've gone ahead and added a correction to my page devoted to fixing my commentary fluffs. Thanks to Mike Pontillo for that catch.

° I've listed the former Disney animator David Pruiksma's site among my links since early in the site's life, but Dave doesn't update it often. Recently, though, he posted an exceptionally interesting page in response to the question, what is the best scene he ever animated, and why? Some excerpts:

I enjoyed working with great acting in the voices. People like Bob Newhart [in The Rescuers Down Under] were special because, through his stammering and halting delivery, I was given time to get the subtext across through little gestures and expressions. It gave me time to let the character think. ...

I found that working on Flit [in Pocahontas], a character without a voice, gave me the challenge of presenting thoughts, ideas and emotions without the help of dialog. I quickly discovered that pantomime is one of the very hardest things to do in animation, particularly today when characters are ALL so defined by their vocal performances and who ramble on and on for no reason other than the fact that the producers can’t stand a silent screen or any semblance of real emotion. It always bothered me, too, that I did all that acting in the Flit scenes with no dialog and then they brought in Frank Welker to loop little squeaks and squawks and he got this huge billing as the voice of Flit over me as the supervising animator. ...

Now, I know many of the characters I mentioned above were featured in what were not, ultimately, great films, but that never stopped me from believing in the characters. It never stopped me from wanting the very best from myself and working very hard to make the characters shine even when the material was, shall we kindly say, less than stellar.

Frees book° I've been aware for some time of Ben Ohmart's books devoted to such outstanding voice actors as Paul Frees and Walter Tetley, but for some reason I'd never seen any of them. Now, thanks to Ben, I have. I haven't had time to do more than browse in the Frees and Tetley books, but what I've read there tells me these are impressive labors of love (and if Keith Scott writes an afterword for a book about a voice artist, as he has done for the Frees book, you couldn't ask for a stronger seal of approval). There are a lot more titles in the Ohmart library, including biographies of Daws Butler and Don Ameche and radio scripts for The Bickersons and Baby Snooks—not all of them cartoon-related, obviously, but all of them growing out of affection and enthusiasm for the gifted people who made characters come alive through their voices alone. In these days of pointless celebrity voiceovers and forced "comic" voices, such performers deserve to be celebrated and remembered, and I'm very glad Ben is doing that.

° For an exceptionally illuminating discussion of Ratatouille by two film scholars who usually write about live action, visit this page at David Bordwell's site.

August 27, 2007:

Walt and tigers

Walt and the Librarians

What's been happening lately in regard to library purchases of books about Walt Disney is in some respects a continuation of the librarians' war against Walt back in the 1960s. To read what I mean, click on this link.

Blogs and Permalinks

I've moved my August 17 item about Diane Disney Miller's denunciation of Neal Gabler's biography of Walt to a separate Essays page; its URL its now a permanent link, like the link for today's posting of "Walt and the Librarians."

I'm continuing to explore blogging software. The obvious easy answers, like Blogger, don't appeal to me as much as software that would let me integrate the blog completely into my site, and such software seems hard to find (at least, software that will play well with Dreamweaver). But I'll have some sort of blog up this fall; and in the meantime, I'm going put as many longer pieces as possible on their own pages, with direct permanent links, so that there's no excuse for anyone's not linking to them, if their content seems to deserve it.

August 24, 2007:

Walt and the Johnsons

When Walt Met Lyndon: The Button Mystery Solved!

I've posted any number of items about the oft-repeated story that Walt Disney wore a Barry Goldwater campaign button when he accepted the Medal of Freedom from President Lyndon B. Johnson on September 14, 1964. Where did that story come from? Could such a story possibly be true? You'll find the answers—and learn some new things about Walt, probably—when you click on this link.

And speaking of Walt Disney: If you care about him, as I certainly do, and you haven't yet read my August 17 posting about Diane Disney Miller's low opinion of Neal Gabler's biography of her father, you owe it to yourself to do so. Even if some of the Disney fan sites and good-news sites would just as soon you didn't.

August 21, 2007:

Direct Links, Cont'd

Yesterday's post resulted in thoughtful messages from John Frost of the Disney Blog and Stephen Rowley of Cinephobia.com, both of whom let me know, in the most gentlemanly manner, that I had my head screwed on backwards where blogs are concerned. I think they're right.

Here's part of what John wrote:

Let me encourage you to separate your thinking about blogs and about blogging tools. You are already posting a blog, which is by definition a series of diary or informational posts in reverse chronological order. ( See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blog ) What you're not doing is using the tools of a blog to enter yourself in the conversation of the blogosphere. (And frankly to make your website maintenance a bit easier.)

If it is comments you're worried about, it is becoming more acceptable to leave comments off your posts. But providing direct links to your stories allows others to link to them and reply to them directly on their own blogs. Then you can track those "conversations" via Technorati.

If you're worried about being associated with the "intellectual equivalent of fast food" then it's up to you to maintain your quality. It's not up to us to improve ours, although I try. Frankly, I think that your current high quality of posts will encourage more visitors to your site, and drive more book sales and speaking engagements. But you have to let people in.

Which brings me to my comment about not linking to you since you don't provide direct links. That is my being mindful of my readers (a majority of whom don't read The Disney Blog on a day to day basis, but rather find specific archive articles via a Google search). I don't want my readers clicking through a link I provided to your site and not finding the content I'm suggesting they'll find. They're less likely to trust me as a provider of links in the future if I can't point them directly to the source material (or at least an archive of the material).

To me, the spirit of blogging is all about the links. I link to you, you link to me. Not only does this grow everyone's readership, but everyone's knowledge and understanding benefits from reading the conversation around the subject. I hope that explains why direct links to articles are important.

Well said. So I'll be making some overdue changes in the site—soon, I hope.

August 20, 2007:

Direct Links

I was surprised recently to read that I had "refused" to provide direct links to items on my home page, of the sort that bloggers provide. (This site has some blog characteristics but technically is not one.) I love the image that suggests—me sitting behind my huge desk, screaming, red in the face, "I will never NEVER have direct links!" But, actually, I just haven't thought about them much. I haven't been sure that I could create them with my software, and they didn't seem especially necessary, anyway, considering that I usually post something only every couple of days, and then no more than one or two items most days. I didn't think anyone connecting to my site through an RSS feed or an external link would think much about scrolling down a ways for an item a few days old.

Wrong; this is the Age of Convenience, and blogs are nothing if not the intellectual equivalent of fast food. A growing number of bloggers, evidently, are reluctant to link to my site because of its paucity of direct links. (Perhaps that's why the boys at some of the news sites ignore items like Diane Disney's Miller's denunciation of Neal Gabler, even while keeping us ever so up to date on the latest developments in Latvian and Namibian animation.) So, I need to do something more. Using the named-anchor feature of DreamWeaver, I'm going to try to create direct links in my RSS feeds, starting with the feed for this item, and for those of the last few days. Depending on how that works out, I'll see about creating separate pages for home-page items, like those for blogs, or maybe creating a blog alongside this site—a step I'm reluctant to take, since, as I've said before, I'm skeptical of blogs generally. But, one way or another, I'll add a drive-thru lane.

AN INSTANT UPDATE: Well, it works. You can go directly to individual items in the RSS feed by clicking on them. Is that enough? If not let me know, and I'll see what else I can do.

August 17, 2007:

Diane Disney Miller on Neal Gabler

[I've moved this piece to a separate Essays page, at this link.]

Just to Be Fair...

[I've appended this short item to the same Essays page.]

August 16, 2007:

Dumbo

Speaking of Talking Animals...

Jenny Lerew has posted some typically thought-provoking comments in response to what Peter Emslie and I have said about animal characters (see my August 11 posting). I particularly liked the way she brought Dumbo into the discussion. That's a film whose animals fall into two of Pete's categories, the second and the third on his nifty handout (which I've printed out for ready reference, and I encourage you to do the same). The circus animals are "second-degree" animals that "talk among themselves but remain distinctly animal-like to humans," and the "four-legged animals remain on all fours." But the stork, Timothy the mouse, and the crows are all third-degree critters, talking, walking "upright on two legs," wearing clothes, and so on. In Pete's formulation, "They are animals as human 'types' but ... still retain some behavioral traits of the animal." Timothy is a scavenger of circus peanuts, the crows fly and perch more or less like real birds, and so on.

As in other cartoons that mix different kinds of animal characters, there are plenty of opportunities for jarring juxtapositions, but in Dumbo there aren't any, thanks to how intelligently the writers, directors, and animators do their jobs. Think of Timothy's exhortation to the ringmaster: because the mouse whispers in a sleeper's ear, it's almost as if mouse and man share a language in a dream. If they spoke to each other directly, the effect would be very different, and I think seriously damaging to the film.

I don't find Lady and the Tramp as successful as Jenny does, mainly because the "romance" between the title characters collides too obviously with what we all know about canine promiscuity. Joe Grant's original story had no such romance, but it also didn't have much drama or excitement, so it's hard to fault Walt Disney too vigorously for stirring Tramp into the mix. One Hundred and One Dalmatians should be open to the same objection, but Pongo's uxorious bliss doesn't bother me much, I suppose because he and his "wife," Perdita, are living together in the same household.

Freddy the PigThinking about animal characters has reminded me of my unsuccessful effort, many years ago, to write an animal story for children that would be similar, if only in its warm and humorous tone, to the Freddy the Pig stories that were a cherished part of my childhood. My story was called Furr and Purr. The title characters were (of course) two cats with contrasting personalities, the older and stuffier Mr. Furr and his younger and much more rambunctious sibling, Toby. The plot involved a psychologist who'd moved into their neighborhood, bringing with her a Siamese cat that she had successfully trained to, among many other things, walk on a leash, use a toilet—and flush. All the neighborhood cats were horrified by this treasonous beast and by the thought of being trained themselves, and so they devised a scheme to persuade the psychologist that her training had, in fact, failed.

I revised the manuscript heavily over time, trying to make it more child-friendly, but I never found a publisher or an agent who showed any interest. The central objection, rarely voiced, seemed to be that the story's central idea was too "adult" for a children's book but not adult enough to attract an audience of grownups. I finally consigned the manuscript to my inactive files.

I did carry away from that failure a freshened awareness of the demands that a good animal story makes. My cats had to seem "real" even as their behavior, not to mention their spoken words, argued against their reality. I like to think that my story was successful in that respect, if not, alas, in enough others.

August 15, 2007:

Paprika

Paprika posterAlmost three months after its U.S. release, that Japanese animated feature finally showed up here—not at one of our terrific new stadium-seating theaters, unfortunately, but at the irritating local art house (its motto: "Fuzzy Projection and Muffled Sound Are Your Guarantees of Our Cinematic Integrity"). At least Paprika was shown with the original Japanese sound track and English subtitles, and not in a dubbed version.

I have a test that I apply to films of all kinds: How much time will elapse before I look at my watch and start calculating how long it will be before I can escape the theater? When I saw Happy Feet and Meet the Robinsons, it was about ten minutes in each case. But I didn't look at my watch at all when I saw Paprika. It runs less than 90 minutes, a length I wish the Pixar people would try to emulate.

Endorsing Paprika will get me in trouble with the Funny Drawings Gang down at the kindergarten playground—they still haven't forgiven my enthusiasm for Polar Express and Waking Life—but I liked it a lot. The governing idea, that a scientist has invented a device that permits therapists to see and even enter other people's dreams, isn't terribly original, but it's made to order for Japanese animation, and it's elaborated with great inventiveness for most of the film's length. (There's an extraordinarily intense scene in which the heroine suffers what I can only describe as psychological rape.) The climax is unfortunately too much like a bad comic book, but it's not weak enough to spoil what is otherwise an extraordinary film.

Paprika was directed by Satoshi Kon, whose most prominent previous credit was for the 2003 feature Millennium Actress. I haven't seen that film yet, but I'll rent the DVD soon.

There seems to be no Paprika DVD scheduled. Perhaps no dubbed version exists, and if so, that may be an impediment to DVD release. That's a distressing thought—I'd certainly want to see the DVD, and I'd probably even buy it. In the meantime, if Paprika turns up at your own equivalent of my local art house, don't pass it up.

August 13, 2007:

Voices From the Past

Nash and Bletcher

I haven't added anything to the Funnyworld Revisited part of the site for quite a while, but now I've posted short interviews with three of the most important voice actors for the Disney cartoons: Clarence Nash, Billy Bletcher, and Jim Macdonald. All three interviews, recorded between 1969 and 1977, were originally published in Funnyworld No. 18, in 1978, as part of an omnibus feature on cartoon voices.

That's Nash above, on the left, and Bletcher on the right, in a photo taken somewhere around 1970. And Santa? He had no animation connections that I know of, but plenty of other credits of interest. He's David W. Butler, a live-action director whose work stretched from the early silent days to television sitcoms, with stops along the way in Shirley Temple features and such well-remembered films as The Road to Morocco and Calamity Jane.

Many thanks to Didier Ghez, proprietor of the Disney History blog, for scanning these three interviews for me.

August 11, 2007:

Emslie on Animals

Peter Emslie writes: "I thought you might be interested in seeing this blog post I just put  together based on the topic addressed in the Ed Hooks article you  reprinted the other day. It was funny to read Ed's words, as these  same thoughts have always occurred to me over the years of watching  animal cartoons, particularly the various approaches used in the  Disney features. Anyway, the handout I'd illustrated several years ago sort of sums up my own observations on the subject. Anthropomorphic Animals is a fascinating phenomenon in animation and it was good to read Ed's thoughts on the matter."

Emslie handoutI particularly enjoyed Pete's handout, which you can see in a larger size at his blog by clicking on the small version to the right. To me, anthorpomorphism like that in so many Hollywood cartoons has most often been a sign not of infantilism—the common accusation—but of an openness to the potential of artistic devices that more fastidious minds reject out of hand. You can do things in animation and the comics with animal characters that you can't with human characters; and as Pete's handout suggests, the more alert the artist is to the possibilities and limitations inherent in the different kinds of animal characters, the better the odds that something exceptional will result.

In addition to his blog, Pete Emslie has a site that showcases his excellent caricatures (which have been appearing on the cover of each new volume in Didier Ghez's invaluable interview series, Walt's People: Talking Disney With the Artists Who Knew Him). Pete's caricatures remind me of the late Al Hirschfeld's: they're always spot-on—you never have to guess for an instant who's being caricatured—but they're never cruel. That's remarkable, considering how many caricaturists' only claim to distinction is being as cruel as possible. Pete may not yet have matched Hirschfeld's elegance and delicacy of line, but he has plenty of time; after all, Hirschfeld was still improving when he died in 2003, five months short of his hundredth birthday.

Following Up...

° Gene Schiller writes about my recent posts devoted to the new Lantz and Avery DVD sets:

Out-foxed"Culhane can’t even approach the fun and frivolity of Rossini’s “Largo al factotum” (in The Barber of Seville), not with all the jump cuts in the world. Maybe that’s my problem with the cartoon. As for Out-foxed,  it’s a typical Avery concoction—frenetic action combined with intrinsically funny characters (particularly, the drily elegant fox, Droopy’s one worthy adversary)—and the closing gag is classic Droopy. It was geared for general audiences who saw Droopy maybe once or twice a year, not revisionists who have the luxury of examining every frame.  Basically, it gets the laugh, which is the test of any cartoon."

MB replies: "It gets the laugh"—but does it? Not from me, not even the first time I saw Out-foxed, in 1979—and in those days I was always primed to laugh at an Avery cartoon the first time I saw it. Out-foxed may appeal to the loons and cranks who insist on nothing in their cartoons but "funny drawings," and it does have those—the Disney-based drawing style of some other Averys is happily absent—but for me it's still a flop, mainly for structural reasons: the focus keeps shifting, from Droopy to the fox to the dogs. That means the gags can't build, as they do in the best Avery cartoons until some peak of insanity has been scaled.

I can't warm up to the fox, either; his vocal resemblance to Ronald Colman and his tea drinking can't conceal the fact that he's an upper-class version of Screwy Squirrel, the most irritating cartoon character ever.

° David Lesjak's site Disney: Toons at War, devoted to the Disney studio in World War II, has just marked its first anniversary. If you're at all interested in Disney history, you should have David's site as one of your RSS feeds; he posts a great deal of rare and often fascinating material that you're most unlikely to see anywhere else.

August 8, 2007:

DVD 'Toons: Lantz

Thad Komorowski, proprietor of the Animation ID Web site, writes in response to a July 29 post about the new three-DVD set of Walter Lantz cartoons:

Barber title cardI am going to have to strongly disagree with you and (particularly) Gene Schiller over the merits of Barber of Seville.  There is quick cutting and edits, particularly towards the very end when Woody finally has the guy cornered on his chair and gives him the works.  Some of these cuts are only five frames long, similar to Tashlin's Porky's Romance in that respect.  There are also "jump cuts" used on purpose, something that New Wave director Jean Luc Goddard gets credit for in Breathless.

Shamus Culhane's cartoons are overall more well put-together than Dick Lundy's.  They are better timed, written, and much funnier.  Lundy gets props for his cartoons looking slicker (with the exception of the incredibly sloppy work by Grim Natwick, who animated on both directors' films).  I wish Culhane had stayed longer at Lantz because he had strong potential. Who knows what might have happened if he had a tenure as long as Chuck Jones or Friz Freleng?

Culhane also used fast cutting in a few of his other shorts.  Ski for Two, for instance, has a beautifully animated sequence (by Dick Lundy) of Woody singing "The Sleigh" while skiing to Wally's lodge, and then again at the end when Woody leaves with the food. Culhane uses rapid cutting to emphasize Woody's escape very well. There is also the scene (by Don Williams) of Wally decorating his lodge for "Santa" with similar cutting.

Woody WoodpeckerMB replies: Unquestionably, there's fast cutting (and shooting from pose to pose) in The Barber of Seville. The "jump cuts" are, I suppose, those cuts from one distinct pose to another, with no matching. I don't see anything terribly novel there, considering what some of the Warner directors had already done, and certainly nothing to match the jarring dislocations in the New Wave films. (Culhane doesn't use the phrase "jump cut" in his books.)

On the other hand, Culhane does a very good job of handling those fast cuts—I think the shortest scene is fourteen frames, not five—as Mark Mayerson explained in a privately published piece after I sent him a videotape copy of this cartoon in 1995:

"While the animation is spirited, it is not wild. Culhane and [Emery] Hawkins were smart enough to make the animation a series of short simple actions that would read. Unlike a lot of modern fast animation, where things happen so quickly you're not sure what you've just seen, in this cartoon you don't miss anything. You see everything clearly while still feeling exhilarated by the speed of the cutting, animation and music. This is good direction, pure and simple."

After watching the cartoon again a couple of times, I think that's right. It's that exhilarating speed, rather than anything funny, that gives The Barber of Seville its distinction.

As for Culhane versus Lundy, I am, as I've written on page 377 of Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age, very much in Culhane's corner: "After Culhane's arrival, the Lantz cartoons for the first time showed that someone was paying attention to all the important elements in an animated cartoon—timing, drawing, staging, characterization—instead of relying on the idea behind a gag." Culhane was a Lantz director for only two and a half years (1943-45) before Lantz fired him, but his best cartoons are for me the best Lantz cartoons, period.

DVD 'Toons: Avery

Don Draganski wrote about the recently released two-DVD set of all of Tex Avery's Droopy cartoons for MGM:

I recently purchased the DVD of Tex Avery's Droopy cartoons, and I must admit that, after awhile, I found myself getting impatient with the same shitcks that occur over and over again in the series.

Now, I have nothing against recurring elements in cartoons or  music, or anything else, if they're treated with imagination and  creativity. A prime example is the infinite variety and ingenuity—not to mention the exquisite timing—that go into the Road Runner series within  its basic coyote-chases-prey theme; and  I'm amazed at  the infinite variations that George Herriman was able to put into the  basic premise of Mouse-beans-Kat-with-brick. But somehow, I feel that Droopy falls back on formula despite Avery's  undisputed energy.  and outrageousness.

Or am I missing something?

Droopy DVDsMB replies: I'm afraid not. It's not really fair to any director of short cartoons to watch a string of his cartoons at one sitting, and it's especially unfair to Avery, whose cartoons are best watched with a group of people who aren't familiar with them (on such occasions, the laughter is infectious). But even given those caveats, there are a lot of Avery cartoons that just aren't very good, and some of them—is there anyone who's a fan of Out-foxed?—are in the new DVD set. Avery at his best, as in Northwest Hounded Police, King-Size Canary, and Little Rural Riding Hood, was amazingly forceful, pursuing one crazy idea to the outer limits of sanity, but I've come to think of his cartoons, beneath their rowdy surfaces, as being as delicate as haiku: if any one thing is out of place, the whole damn cartoon falls apart.

Some of the cartoons on the new DVDs suffer, too, from the worst digital video noise reduction (DVNR) that I've seen. I feel some sympathy for the producers of such sets, who in many cases are working with source material that has been handled roughly by multiple owners over over the decades, but it's hard to excuse the vandalism perpetrated on a good Avery cartoon like Three Little Pups.

If Rats Could Talk, What Would They Say?

Remy and Gusteau

Larry Latham wrote in response to Ed Hooks's August 5 piece on inter-species communication in Ratatouille:

Hooks didn't address the part that bothered me the most: that a rat could read, presumably French. I didn't quite buy the "dialogue"  between Remy and Linguini, but at least Brad Bird made some effort to make  it work. But the basic concept, that a rat could read well enough to learn to  become a master chef, was weak to begin with. I had a  similar problem with Finding Nemo, where the fish read the  address of the dentist. Just  doesn't make any sense in the world the filmmakers established. I am in awe of the sophistication of the animation and  storytelling  in Ratatouille, but it remains only an almost-peak experience because of the "communication" issues.

Some friends who were with me thought I was being a killjoy when I pointed this out, but all movies have to work within the rules of the universe they establish. In this case, it was a "real" world, and reading cookbooks  and sharing emotions violates the rules. It would have been the same  if Woody and Buzz had been able to talk to their owners in Toy Story. Even the wackiest Looney Tunes have a strong internal logic.

Disney Biography Feedback

Walt Disney with I&P women

I don't think I've mentioned that I've added a page for feedback on the two most recent Walt Disney biographies, Neal Gabler's Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination and my own The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney. On that page you'll find comments from Clifton Coles, Bill Benzon, and Christian Renaut. I hope there'll be more.

I haven't had much to say lately about Gabler's book, but my opinion—let's call it intense skepticism—hasn't changed. As to why I feel the way I do, let me quote what Gabler said last month to a gathering of apparently enthralled Disney geeks in Garden Grove, California. The following two paragraphs are similar to what I heard him say in L.A. in April and fairly reflect the content of his book:

But here’s something that is irrefutable when you go through the material—Walt Disney was not a collaborator. Walt Disney didn’t want collaborators. Walt Disney didn’t think of his staff as collaborators. Walt Disney didn’t sit down and think "Well, now we’ll all join together, and in some kind of communitarian fashion, make these animations." He may have given lip service to that, and sometimes he did. But the deal is that at the Walt Disney Studio, not only was Walt Disney’s word holy writ, it was holy writ because Walt Disney was the only thing that mattered.

…So then why again were they so adamant about doing whatever Walt wanted them to do? Why did they work on Sundays when they didn’t get paid for it? Why did they work till midnight when they didn't get paid overtime for it? Why did they work until, as some described it, the animation boards would get so hot that they would burn their arms and hands? Why did they do that? And they did it because as I said, the Walt Disney Studio was unlike any other studio or unlike any other business. The Walt Disney Studio was a cult. And it operated just like a cult. And the "Jim Jones" of the cult was Walt Disney. And at the Walt Disney Studio you do whatever Walt Disney wanted because Walt Disney was god.

This is...what is the word I want? What is the word that will sum up, precisely, the essential characteristic of these paragraphs? Oh, yes: horseshit.

August 5, 2007:

Ed Hooks on Ratatouille

I was in Saint Louis most of last week, and as a result I've got a backlog of interesting stuff I want to post. First, though, I want to share with you Ed Hooks's fascinating analysis of Ratatouille, Brad Bird's Pixar feature, from Ed's Acting for Animators Newsletter. With Ed's approval (he is running late on posting his newsletters on his own site, which you should visit anyway), here's the piece he calls "Inter-Species Communciation and 'Ratatouille.'" It's a rather dry title, unfortunately, but Ed's writing is anything but dry.

Ratatouille

One of the early and most important decisions Brad Bird had to make when he started working on the script for "Ratatouille" was what to do about inter-species communication.  The star of the movie is a rat after all, and much of the supporting cast is human.  If you have the rat speak out-loud English with any of the human characters, you will overly challenge the audience member's willingness to suspend his disbelief.

Inter-species communication is a fascinating challenge for animation. You can anthropomorphize inanimate things and animals all you want, but you have to be very careful about how you have them interact with one another, and especially with humans.  In "Lion King", all of the animals had human traits and personalities, but they related only to one another. In "Finding Nemo", the fish never directly communicate with that human dentist. In "Lady and the Tramp", the animals talk to one another, but not to the humans. In "Cars", John Lasseter solved the problem by not having human drivers for the cars.

So Brad had a tricky bit of business to transverse here, especially with a large cast of characters like this.  His solution is really very brilliant.  When Remy (the Rat) first starts communicating with Linguini (the red-haired human boy), it is very tentative.  This is the first human-rat communication either of them has ever experienced, and they are not sure how to proceed.  And so we in the audience go along with it.  Before too long, we are swept up into the pretend given circumstances of their relationship, and we accept that the communication between them is becoming more complex. It happens gradually.  Remy works out a truly Chaplin-esque hair-pulling puppet language with Linguini that pays consistent comic dividends until the device is dropped late in the movie.  By then, communication between Remy and Linguini has reached all-but-verbal human sophistication, and Remy is starting to communicate with other humans in the cast. The significant thing is that he never actually talks to them.  If he had- even late in the movie - it would have been a horrible aesthetic mistake.  Remy talks all the time to the famous French chef Auguste Gusteau, but Brad takes care to establish that Gusteau is a fiction of Remy's imagination.  In other words, he isn't a real human.

We humans are willing to play along with almost any theatrical device in order to enjoy a movie, but we have our limits.  We are happy to accept that Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck can talk, but we get uneasy if they talk directly to humans because that is pushing the limits of reality too far.  Humans are at the top of the food chain, so if you put animals and humans in the same story, the humans must remain at the top of the food chain.  Brad Bird brought Remy all the way up the ladder to human intelligence, but he deftly kept that natural barrier up between the rat world and the human world.  Given the way the various characters develop in this movie, communication between them is something of a hat trick.  I very much like it that, when the rats in the movie run around, they run like real rats.  There is no question that they are rats.

Remember how the Iron Giant developed ever more sophisticated communication with Hogarth in Brad's "The Iron Giant"?  That was a very similar kind of character construction.  The Giant started by trying to distinguish between a rock and a tree, and he ended up instructing Hogarth, "Me go. You stay.  No following" as he flew off to save the world from nuclear disaster.  In other words, the Giant became increasingly human.

"Ratatouille" is a thoroughly satisfying movie to me.  Technically it is another masterly achievement for Pixar.  Paris has never been more inviting. The fur on the rats is particularly impressive as it reacts to different environments - wet, warm, cold.  And the character performances are stellar.  Whoever decided to put a small oven burn on the inside of Colette's right forearm should get a raise, by the way.  As one who does a bit of cooking myself, I have several such burn scars. It is the sort of attention to small detail that separates the merely excellent animator from the truly great artist. It is also a hallmark of the Pixar touch.

I also appreciated the group rat shower under the sign instructing that restaurant employees should "wash your hands".  Because we humans know that rats are dirty all over, and not just on their paws, it was precisely correct to give them an entire bath before they started preparing food.  Again, a brilliant bit of attention to detail.

This movie will be around a long time.  I, for one, plan on watching it at least another eight or nine times and will ultimately include an analysis of the movie in my workshops.

By the way, not all animation directors and producers understand this bit about inter-species communication.  At the screening of "Ratatouille" a trailer was run for the upcoming DreamWorks "Bee Movie".  One of the clips shows the bee played by Jerry Seinfeld carrying on out-loud conversation with a human female.  Uh-oh.

Remy and Linguini

While I'm at it, let me encourage you to take a look at Ed's book, Acting for Animators, and his site dedicated to that book. Also, many of you will agree with his criticism of my own criticism of Brad Bird's first feature, The Iron Giant.

And the newsletter? You can subscribe by writing to edhooks@edhooks.com.

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