"What's New" Archives: January 2006
January 28, 2006:
MORE ON MIYAZAKI: Andrew Osmond has added some very interesting
information about the greatly admired Japanese director on the Miyazaki
If you saw the two animated features directed by Miyazaki's
Studio Ghibli colleague Isao Takahata on Turner Classic Movies the
other night, you may have come away, as I did, with fresh respect
for Miyazaki's strengths as a filmmaker. The Takahata features,
Only Yesterday and Pom Poko struck me as nothing more
than moving manga, very long (around two hours in both cases)
animated Japanese comic-book stories, a criticism I would never
level at Miyazaki's films. Pom Poko was especially exasperating.
Magical animals who can transform themselves into almost anything
fight back against bullies that would despoil their woodland home;
haven't we seen that story on the screen before? Yes, of coursePom
Poko is a two-hour Bugs Bunny cartoon, without the gags. Not
for me, thanks.
LUPE NOT MAUREEN: Dewey McGuire has pointed out a goof in
my audio commentary for The Coo Coo Nut Grove in the latest
Looney Tunes DVD set. Johnny Weissmuller's companion is not Maureen
O'Sullivan, his "Jane" in the Tarzan movies, but Lupe
Velez, his wife for five years in the middle thirties. The irretrievability
of such silly mistakes (and I've made several, like confusing Tommy
Dorsey and Glenn Miller in my commentary for Book Revue)
makes me all the happier that I won't be doing any more commentaries.
January 26, 2006:
MORE ON MIYAZAKI: My January 20 posting on the Japanese master's
films elicited detailed responses from Andrew Osmond and Jenny Lerew.
I've posted on their comments, and my response, on a new Feedback
LOONEY TUNES ON DVD: My copy of the third "Golden Collection"
finally arrived. All the cartoons I've watched so far look wonderful,
but as was the case last year, my commentaries sound muffled, for
reasons I can't explain but that I don't think have anything to
do with my delivery or how good a job the local recording studio
did. Another aggravation this year was the elimination, on dubious
legal grounds, of a clip from my first Mike Maltese interview (from
1971) on the genesis of The Odor-able Kitty. I haven't been
asked to, and I don't know that I will be asked to, but, in any
case, I won't be providing commentaries for a fourth set.
One of my current commentaries is already outdated. As Keith
Scott has pointed out, the non-Blanc hillbilly in Hillbilly Hare
is voiced by John T. Smith, who provided voices for a number of
other Warner cartoons in the early fifties.
January 24, 2006:
DISNEY AND PIXAR: Here are the financial and personnel details
of the acquisition, from the Wall Street Journal's Web site:
Walt Disney Co. said it had agreed to buy Pixar Animation
Studios Inc. for around $7.4 billion in an all-stock deal.
Under the deal, Pixar Chairman and Chief Executive Steve Jobs will
take a seat on Disney's board and become the company's largest individual
Under terms of the agreement, 2.3 Disney shares will be
issued for each Pixar share. Shares of Disney closed Tuesday at
$25.99, valuing each Pixar share at $59.78. Shares of Pixar closed
Tuesday at $57.57 on the Nasdaq Stock Market. The overall value
of $7.4 billion includes $1 billion of Pixar cash.
Disney and Pixar put the finishing touches to the deal earlier
today before presenting it to Pixar's board. Disney's board gave
its Chief Executive Bob Iger the authority to complete a transaction.
Pixar President Ed Catmull will become president of Pixar and Disney's
combined animation business. The deal also gives Pixar's creative
force, John Lasseter, a leading role as chief creative officer of
the combination. Mr. Lasseter will also serve as principal creative
advisor to Walt Disney Imagineering, where he will help design new
theme park attractions.
January 23, 2006:
ART BABBITT: His daughter Karin has written to take issue with
my introduction to excerpts from my 1986
interview with Babbitt, which I posted here more than two years
ago. To read her message and my response, click here.
Update: She has responded to my response in this way: "You
are a pathetically verbose ass. Best of luck with your brown-nosing
vitriol." She asked me to post that response, so there it is.
January 21, 2006:
SKETCH COMEDY: I posted a comment by Eddie Fitzgerald on that topic
on January 12, with my response. Eddie has
followed up, in terms that I think have some bearing on my comments
yesterday about Miyazaki's films:
"The sketches involving the fairies in Sleeping
Beauty were pretty disappointing but that doesn't discredit
the idea of sketch comedy in features. What the film needed was
better sketches (and maybe better fairies). The early Disney films
are full of great sketches like "The Mad Tea Party" in
Alice in Wonderland. Disney people could write them but as
time went on they just chose not to. Why, I don't know.
"Of course the word 'sketch' applies only to comedy.
I don't know what to call the dramatic. equivalent. As a catch-all-term
I call songs, sketches, and special dramatic scenes 'set pieces.'A
film, even a feature, is built on its set pieces. Everything between
the set pieces is just glue and you don't want to bore the audience
with too much glue.
"Later Disney films attempted to build set pieces around moments
of psychological insight or transformation. That was a big mistake.
The moment where your character realizes he's in love is nothing
more than glue. How he expresses his new-found love may have set-piece
potential, but the emotional transformation by itself is pure horse
hoof gelatin. Likewise scenes built around smart-alec wisecracks
are not set pieces. A genuine set piece produces a 'Wow!' response.
It attempts something extremely difficult and pulls it off. It's
the magical 'A' side of the record. Modern animated features don't
contain enough set pieces."
Speaking of Miyazaki, you should read what Michael
Sporn writes about his films in an excellent post on his "Splog."
Michael is more enthusiastic about Miyazaki than I am, but there's
no question but that we've seen the same films and we're responding
to the same things.
January 20, 2006:
DISNEY AND PIXAR, CONT'D: More in today's Wall Street
Journal on Disney's possible acquisition of Pixar, which now
seems far more likely that I would have thought a few months ago.
Today's Journal article is mainly a comparisonnot flattering
to Disneyof the box-office performance of Disney's and Pixar's
features. It notes the delays in production of some of Disney's
own features, and closes with this sobering quotation from a stock
analyst: "The fact that Disney is even contemplating a Pixar
acquisition suggests a blatant lack of confidence in the turnaround
at its own animation unit."
MIYAZAKI: After watching six of Hayao Miyazaki's animated
features on Turner Classic Movies, all in their English-dubbed versions,
I've concluded that this extravagantly praised Japanese filmmaker
is above all a great effects animator. Every scene in his
films that has real scope and weight is an effects scene, like the
great aerial battles in Porco Rosso.
We could see from the glimpses of Miyazaki's storyboarding that
preceded the features on TCM that the detailed staging and pacing
of those scenes really originates with him. If some directors, like
Chuck Jones, have all but animated scenes by giving their animators
detailed character layouts, it appears that Miyazaki does the same
for effects scenes with his storyboards (which look as if they could
double as layouts, and may have, for all I know).
The downside of a preoccupation with effects is that everything
in between turns into a sort of stuffing, the character animation
in particular. In Miyazaki's films it suffers from Japanese animation's
endemic reticence where the illumination of personality is concerned.
This or that character may express extreme emotion, but always with
the stylized extravagance of kabuki. Too many of Miyazaki's charactersthe
doll-like heroes and heroines, the raw-boned comic-relief pirates
and laborerslook and behave too much alike. I felt often in
watching these films that Miyazaki was struggling dutifully to fill
up the time until he could get back to what really interested him.
Even where screen-filling effects are involved, repetition is a
hazard in the Miyazaki features, as when a horde of enraged giant
bugs in one film becomes a horde of enraged giant boars in another,
in each case as a trope for the offended environment. Like other
filmmakers with an appetite for big ideas but limited interest in
character (think Stanley Kramer), Miyazaki turns the more clunky
the more directly he grapples with such ideas.
After seeing eight Miyazaki features in all (Howl's
Moving Castle and Kiki's Delivery Service in addition
to the six I've seen on TCM), I've been reinforced in my belief
that Miyazaki is the more universal the more "Japanese"
he is. Princess Mononoke might qualify under that test, except
for its tortured plot, and My Neighbor Totoro, perhaps the
strangest of Miyazaki's films (and the one least dominated by effects
animation), suffers for the opposite reason, an almost total sacrifice
of action for atmosphere. Spirited Away, drenched in Japanese
folklore, and with a story that is complex but always clear, seems
to me far and away the best of Miyazaki's films, the one that is
most likely to survivebut even it would have benefited immensely
from more seriously considered character animation.
I don't think Miyazaki's reputation will owe much ultimately to
John Lasseter's over-the-top praise, which preceded each feature
on TCM. In too many cases, there was simply too great a gap between
Lasseter's words and what followed them on the screen. On the other
hand, the Miyazaki films certainly benefit from the new English
dubbings. The voice acting is in many cases astonishingly good,
especially in Totoro, where the work of two child actors,
the Fanning sisters, is beyond praise.
January 19, 2006:
DISNEY AND PIXAR: You know by now that the Wall Street Journal
is reporting today that Disney may soon buy Pixar. Here are
the crucial paragraphs from the Journal's story:
Walt Disney Co. is in serious discussions to buy Pixar Animation
Studios after months in which the two animation giants have been
exploring ways to continue their lucrative partnership, according
to people familiar with the matter.
In the deal under discussion, Disney would pay a nominal
premium to Pixar's current market value of $6.7 billion in a stock
transaction that would make Pixar Chairman and Chief Executive Officer
Steve Jobs the largest individual shareholder in Disney, according
to people familiar with the situation. That would vault Mr. Jobs
into an even more influential place in the media world, where he
already holds tremendous sway as head of Apple Computer Inc. ...
People familiar with the situation caution that the talks are at
a sensitive stage and that the outcome isn't certain, noting that
other options are possible. ...
Both sides accept that Pixar's stock price has a takeover premium
built into it after weeks of speculation that Disney might try to
take a stake in the company or buy it outright. However, the companies
are still haggling over a final price, and any sharp moves in Pixar's
share price could easily push the negotiations off course. People
familiar with the situation say the two sides could decide on a
less-ambitious course, including some form of agreement for Disney
to distribute movies that Pixar finances and makes.
An acquisition would give Pixar and Mr. Jobs a way to cash in on
the company's unbroken run of blockbuster, computer-animated films.
Mr. Jobs would likely join the Disney board, people familiar with
the situation say. And Pixar's John Lasseter, the Disney alumnus
who directed "Toy Story" and the upcoming "Cars,"
would take on an expanded role overseeing Disney animated movies.
Pixar is now near a point where it needs to decide who will distribute
its post-Disney releases, including a film about a rat living in
an upmarket Parisian restaurant. ...
Since taking over last fall, Mr. Iger has made it clear that animation
must be the No. 1 creative priority for the Burbank, Calif., entertainment
January 17, 2006:
ACTING AND ANIMATION, CONT'D: To talk about real acting through
animation at a time when Hoodwinked is No. 1 at the box office
is a lot like proclaiming one's belief in true love inside a whorehouse,
but what the hell.
Mark Mayerson has called my attention to Steve Bissette's very
interesting discussion of acting issues as they've surfaced in CGI
animation, in his blog Myrant;
see the January 13 entry in particular. Mark observes: "I completely
agree with him that the lack of animator input into pre-production
is a major problem for live action/cgi character films. In general,
I think that the fragmentation of the whole animation business (sending
work overseas, putting together features a la Foodfight)
is going to kill the industry. Somehow, creators have got to come
up with a low-budget paradigm that works for audiences if we're
going to see animated films worth looking at outside the Hollywood
Very true. In the meantime, let me point again to Michael
Sporn's Web site and his excellent blog, "Splog,"
where he has been describing how he and his colleagues have made
some of his exceptionally atttractive short films. (I've described
Michael as an "independent animator," but that suggests
he's a one-man band, and he's actually the proprietor of a very
small studio.) What Michael describes is just the sort of flexible,
collaborative effortfree of rigidity of any kind, conducted
by people who work together not just comfortably but sympatheticallythat
seems to me an obviously desirable way to make animated films, as
opposed to the nightmarish, compartmentalized "efficiency"
that gives us a Hoodwinked or Foodfight! But even
if Michael wins a well-deserved Oscar for The Man Who Walked
Between the Towers, don't expect any producers to follow his
Speaking of blogs, I've mentioned Jenny
Lerew's before, and, like Michael Sporn, she continues to post
exceptionally interesting stuff, such as drawings of elephants by
John Kricafalusi that illustrate effectively, for once, what John
means when he talks about the power of funny drawings.
January 13, 2006:
DISNEY DOCUMENTS: I posted the following request about a month
ago, just before the holidays, as if to guarantee it wouldn't be
noticed, so here it is again, in modified form:
As I mentioned back on December 9, I've delivered a manuscript
for my Walt Disney biography to the University of California Press,
but I'm still tracking down stray facts and, I should have added,
stray documents. I've examined and copied thousands of Disney-related
documents over the yearstranscripts of story meetings, interviews,
letters, legal documents, memoranda, and on and onat the Walt
Disney Archives in Burbank and dozens of other locations, but some
items have eluded me. I'm seeking copies of certain Disneyland-related
items, in particular. If anyone has copies of the following items,
or could point me toward them, I'd be delighted to pay reasonable
amounts for copies of my own, or to make a trade:
1. The inventory of the collection of miniatures that Walt displayed
in his office, and Dave Smith's article about that collection in
the February 1978 issue of Small Talk magazine (I've not
been able to locate that issue through interlibrary loan).
2. Walt's August 31, 1948, memo outlining his thoughts on a "Mickey
Mouse Park" in Burbank.
3. The June 1954 report on visits to amusement parks by a Disney
team that included Bill Cottrell.
5. The 1953 "narrative description" of Disneyland that
Karan Ann Marling mentions on page 62 of Designing Disney's Theme
Parks: The Architecture of Reassurance.
6. The 1953 Stanford Research Institute studies for Disneyland (site
and feasibility). I have copies of some of Buzz Price's other reports
for Walt and Roy, but not those two crucial ones.
7. The brief family history by Elias Disney that Bob Thomas mentions
on pages 7-8 of his biography of Roy Disney, Building a Company.
I'm also missing two of Walt Disney Productions' annual
reports to stockholders, for the fiscal years ending in 1949 and
1953. I still hope to find those two reports through interlibrary
loan, but they're proving tougher to locate than I expected.
Copies of some of these items are housed at the Disney Archives,
of course, but the Archives has been closed to me and most other
outside researchers for a number of years (I barely made it under
the wire when I was researching Hollywood Cartoons: American
Animation in Its Golden Age). As a result, I've had to rely
on secondary sources in a number of instances where I would much
prefer to rely on primary documents.
In addition to the documents I've listed, I'm sure there are other
documents I don't even know about but that would be of help in rounding
out my portrait of Walt. I don't have a lot of primary material
related to the TV shows, for example. Please don't hesitate to write
if you know of material that might be of use.
January 12, 2006:
MIYAZAKI ON TCM: A reminder that two more Hayao Miyakazi features
will be shown on Turner Classic Movies tonight, Nausicaa of the
Valley of the Wind at 8 p.m. EST and Castle in the Sky at
10 p.m. EST, with repeats of each immediately following.
I was pleasantly surprised last week by the English dubbing
of Spirited Away (much better than I expected; I'd
seen the film only in Japanese with English subtitles) and annoyed,
as before, by the generally terrible dubbing of Princess Mononoke
(Billy Bob Thornton never fails to grate). So it'll be interesting
to see, or hear, how tonight's features turn out.
ACTING AND ANIMATION, CONT'D: Milt Gray writes in reply to my January
"I don't mean to be argumentative, but Dumbo has very
few acting scenes in his own movie. Most of the time he is an infant
just sitting and watching the characters around him. Timothy Mouse
has at least twenty times more acting scenes than Dumbo, and most
of the time neither Timothy or Dumbo are on the screen, as the movie
is filled with such spectacles as the singing and dancing crows,
the Pink Elephants hallucinations, the roustabouts raising the circus
tents, and the adult elephants forming a pyramid. Even the circus
train has more scenes
than Dumbo. And the whole movie runs only one hour and two minutes.
Small wonder that a single animator could animate all of Dumbo's
in one year.
"I've noticed that in most of Disney's features, the lead
character is barely on the screen a quarter of the time, as the
movies are filled with other characters and events. I think this
is good because it gives these movies much more visual variety.
But I would think that a 'large-scale, serious' (dramatic?) cartoon
would have to focus on the central character most of the time, more
"I've heard that the Disney animators (during Walt's time)
on the features averaged about five feet of finished animation per
week (the average was down to two feet per week on Sleeping Beauty).
At five feet per week, that's 250 feet per year. Since movie film
runs at 90 feet per minute, a 90 minute feature is about 8000 feet
long. That much footage by one animator would take over 30 years.
Of course, if the central character is on screen only about a third
of the time, then the work can be done by one animator in a mere
decade. On the other hand, if a supervising animator is handling
one character, with other animators under him sharing the footage,
it could all get done much sooner, but isn't that violating your
example of one animator per character?"
I guess it depends on what you mean by "acting." I don't
equate acting with activity (the debased Kricfalusi standard), but
with bringing a character to unique life on the screen, which can
be done even when a character is largely passive and has very limited
capacities. That's what Tytla did with Dumbo. I describe what he
did on page 314 of Hollywood Cartoons, where I say in part,
"What might otherwise be mere cuteness acquires poignance because
it is always shaded by a parent's knowledge of pain and risk."
If Dumbo "acted" more, he would almost certainly be a
less successful character"cuter," probably, in the
cookie-cutter manner of so many other animated characters, but far
Other animators shared the drawing of Dumbo and the other elephants,
but I don't see in that any violation of the principle of casting
by character. What matters is not who lifts the pencil but who controls
the result on the screen, and there are many ways such control can
be exercised. I resist the ideawhich seems to be implicit
in a lot of today's animated filmmakingthat the production
of animated films must be carried out in accordance with rigid methods
of some kind. But I do believe that if you start with the ideal
of complete identification between animator and character, and depart
from that ideal only as circumstances require, the results will
almost certainly be better than if you start by assuming that casting
by character is impossible, then parcel out a character to six different
animators and try to reconcile the results.
I also heard from Eddie Fitzgerald:
"Another thought about acting: when I write cartoons I try
to come up with something that lends itself to comedic acting. For
me that means sketch comedy. By 'sketch' I mean mean the kind of
self-contained, acting-intensive vignettes that you see on the best
of Saturday Night Live, the Stooges, the Pythons and Mr.
Bean. A good cartoon comedy is built around strong sketches. That's
what the public wants to see. The plot exists to serve the sketches,
not the other way around. The funniest short cartoons often start
with a sketch idea and expand outward. The plot is simply a device
to set up the sketch and lead out of it."
That's a sensible approach to short cartoons, for sure, where a
concern with plot can be deadly; but "sketch comedy" in
feature cartoons too often means sequences like those involving
the fairies in Sleeping Beautydull, labored stuff that
doesn't advance a thin plot but simply marks time. Bill Peet could
integrate such sketch comedy into a feature with matchless skill,
as in Cinderella, but Peet's skills have always been in short
January 10, 2006:
BOOK CHAT: Fascinating stories in the books
section of today's New York Times about the reeking fraudulence
of the books by two bestselling authors, James Frey and JT Leroyfraudulence
that has been a highly effective marketing tool, in the one case
by inflating a shabby and very ordinary life story into a harrowing
cautionary tale, in the other by generating an author, an AIDS-ravaged
transsexual, who unfortunately does not exist. If you wanted evidence
that book publishing is just as degraded an industry as movies,
here it is. It makes me wonder why, in writing my biography of Walt
Disney, I've done such things as visit Walt's boyhood haunts in
Marceline and Kansas City and interview the man who built the sets
for Treasure Island. How much easier to follow the example
of some of my predecessors as Disney biographers, and simply make
it all up. Then, if anyone questioned what I wrote, I could follow
James Frey's example and say that certain events "were embellished
in the book for obvious dramatic reasons." Next stop, Oprah.
HUGH HARMAN: Excerpts from my 1973 interview with one of the founding
fathers of Looney Tunes, Merrie Melodies, and Happy Harmonies can
be found by clicking here.
Thanks to Didier Ghez for digitizing this pre-digital transcript.
RECOMMENDED READING: Thanks to Hames Ware, I recently read Savage
Pastimes: A Cultural History of Violent Entertainment, by
Harold Schechter (St. Martin's Press). Schechter, a professor of
literature at Queens College, has written a blessedly lucid and
succinct book that makes clear that (a) human beings have always
had an enormous appetite for bloody and violent entertainments,
and (b) however much we might like to believe otherwise, the blood-soaked
popular culture of today is actually an improvement in many respects
over what went before. Which is to say, better Quentin Tarantino
than public executions and bear baiting.
Schechter writes at some length about comic books and the
Disney TV shows of the '50s (he singles out the Davy Crockett shows
as exceptionally violent, but the Texas John Slaughter episodes
were actually much worse), and in passing about Hollywood animation.
One lesson of the book is that the components of popular culture
are most vulnerable not when they're most violent but whenas
with comic books in the 1950sthey have no respectable defenders.
As gross as some of today's comic books are, they enjoy the protection
of the "graphic novel" umbrella. Video games have not
been so lucky, at least not yet, and that's why there's so much
clucking over their violent content.
SPOILED TREASURES, CONT'D: Gene Schiller responds to the
complaints about the spotty restoration of the cartoons in the new
Walt Disney Treasures sets: "The Disney Treasures (Wave 5)
are an uneven job, to be sure, but lets not overstate the
case. As a connoisseur of old vinyl recordings, I tend to blow off
minor flaws and imperfections, and its the same here. Donalds
Crime, Duck Pimples, Frank Duck Brings 'Em Back Alivemay
not be pristine copies, but it seems to me the colors are vibrant
enough to convey the full value of the originals. As for the Disney
Rarities, the best of them, Goliath II, Every Cowboy Needs
a Horse, and The Truth About Mother Goose are so good
that to expect more seems unrealistic. Still, I envy anyone whos
seen these on the wide screen. Even the best of the Disney transfers
to DVD (Sleeping Beauty, Bambi, Fantasia 2000,
Snow White) fail to duplicate the immediacy of the theatrical
January 9, 2006:
ACTING AND ANIMATION, CONT'D (MORE OR LESS): Harry McCracken doesn't
update his site
as often now as he did before he became editor of the excellent
magazine PC World,
but he stills turns up gems like this
article from Fast Company, "Attack of the Baby Pixars."
This is a chilling article, and not just because it opens with a
couple of geniuses driving around Santa Monica until they hit on
the idea of remaking Bob Clampett's 1941 Merrie Melodie, Goofy
Groceries, as a computer-animated feature called Foodfight!
(with paid product placementsthat's the genius part).
No, what's really chilling is the clear message that as
the cost of making computer-animated features goes down, and the
technology itself becomes more sophisticated, we're not going to
get more features that challenge Pixar's preeminence but a lot more
like Foodfight! That is, features conceived in the coarsest
commercial terms, and made in an even more rigidly compartmentalized
manner than most of today's animated films. Foodfight!, we're
told, was "created [what a strange use of that word] by 100
animators working in Australia, Europe, and South Korea, along with
two dozen in L.A. 'What do we care if a guy is in Van Nuys or India?'
says [Larry] Kasanoff," the film's producer.
I liked these lines, too, from another producer, Ralph Guggenheim:
"The studios we deal with are like call centers [sic!] but
with very talented artists. The next Pixar isn't going to be a big
building in Emeryville. It's going to be groups around the world,
Here's what I find so striking: Costs are coming down rapidly,
and so the cost of assembling another Pixar-like studio is coming
down, too, and with it the cost of making films that aim higher
than Foodfight! But to the crass bozos who dominate the industry,
lower costs mean only an opportunity to get the work done for even
less in Bangalore than has been the case until now.
The producers see no particular advantage in having the people
who make the films working under the same roof. Nothing new in that,
of courseI've lost track of how long it has been since studios
like Hanna-Barbera started shipping TV schlock to the Far Eastbut
it's disappointing to me that a lot of people who work in animation
seem to take such compartmentalization for granted, too. You can
see that in some of the responses I posted on January 7a concern
with who's responsible for what, and with working inside the lines.
That's more than understandable in today's industry, but I'm reminded
of what attracted me to writing about animation's history in the
first place. I loved the cartoons, of course, but what I've found
endlessly fascinating is the collaborative nature of how they were
made. All of the people at the old Disney and Warner and MGM studios
had different responsibilities, of course, and sometimes they were
jealous of their positions; but they knew each other, they worked
together, and their roles shifted over time, and, for that matter,
from film to film. Trying to understand the dynamics of those collaborationswith
acting only one parthas been endlessly fascinating to me.
I've never been able to feel any comparable interest in how most
of today's films are made. Pixar's films have benefited from something
like the same collaborative spirit that so invigorated the old cartoons,
but except for The Incredibles the films themselves have
felt a little too lightweight. I have the feeling, though, that
they're going to have all the heft of a Greek tragedy compared with
the stuff that the Boys From Bangalore are going to offer us in
the next few years.
A few specific responses to the January 7 comments:
To Milt Gray: I don't think there's any set answer to where
the weight should fall as between director and animator when it
comes to shaping a character. That surely depends on the people
and the circumstances, but mostly on the people. Clampett and Jones
responded to their similar circumstances very differently, but in
both cases with highly effective results on the screen.
I don't know why a feature cartoon would have to be in production
for ten years if a single animator handled the lead character. Dumbo
may not not quite qualify as a "large-scale, serious"
film, but it was in production a lot less than ten yearscloser
to a yearand Tytla's hand is clearly the one that shaped the
crucial animation not just of the title character but of all the
elephants. Maybe he didn't make every drawing, but his control is
never in doubt. Extend such an example to a longer, more demanding
film, and you still have production taking much, much less than
To Galen Fott: If an animator finds a voice genuinely helpful,
a source of ideas, rather than a burdenthat is, if his "shared
performance" is better than his individual performance could
have beenhow have his "options for expression" been
limited rather than enlarged? For that matter, isn't an actor's
performance almost always a "shared performance"? His
"job" may be to interpret the script, but in most instances
he can't do that in isolation, but only through collaboration with
the directors and the other members of the cast. As I've already
indicated, that seems to me a matter for celebration rather than
January 7, 2006:
ACTING AND ANIMATION: That seems like a better slug for this ongoing
dialogue than "Multiple Personality Disorder." Some of
my visitors have had some very interesting things to say, so today
I'll let them take the floor, while I save my responses for tomorrow.
Among those heard from:
Jeff Watson: On the pro side of casting by character,
it is likely Bill Tytla got hooked by Boleslavsky's acting book,
Acting: The First Six Lessons [see pages 203-204 of Hollywood
Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age], because of
the non-continuous, non-flowing nature of animation creation. He
probably felt great empathy with the "Creature" [Boleslavsky's
student] in the Third Lessonit begins with her complaining:
"The actor in front of machinery is not free. He is chopped
to piecesalmost every sentence of his part is separated from
the previous and the following ones...how can one get the flow of
Boleslavsky responds that the performer should write a "'music
of action' under every word or speech [in the script], as you write
music to lyrics for a song...when you know action by heart no interruption
or changes of order can disturb you." He adds that the performer's
scene "is a long string of beadsbeads of action....You
can start anywhere, any time, and go as far as you wish, if you
have a good hold on the beads themselves."
I have not read nor heard of another method of maintaining a character
from moment to moment other than by developing such a flexible "bead
of action" technique. And passing a character to another animator
would be like creating a completely different "bead of action"
because of the individual nature of understanding a verbal description
of action (I'm guessing most supervising animatiors can probably
attest to this). Your reference to [animation by Frank Thomas and
Woolie Reitherman of] Captain Hook in Peter Pan demonstrates
such variability of interpretation of one character.
It is probably the case that the timing, weight, and design caricatures
that differentiate animation from live action are not really a concern
in achieving good performance of a scene (interesting individual
moments supporting the narrative well): in both live action and
animation the performer should have "a good hold on the beads."
If Boleslavsky's method works as Tytla is purported to have shown,
I think the only hope for long-format, narrative animation will
probably be through casting by character. Any other method will
probably not support the narrative well (Shrek, anyone?).
Milt Gray: I was particularly impressed by your observation
that "Literal, cautious animation is most likely to result....when
a character is spread among several animators and there is a self-conscious
effort to achieve consistency."
And yet you also stated that "Clampett through his very strong
direction imposed an emotional consistency that was far more important
than visual uniformity." Do you mean that if a director supplies
enough guidance in the emotional consistency of a character, then
it is almost automatic that different animators' work will be adequately
consistent? You did say that Clampett was a special case, but I
've always felt that a director's single most important responsibility
was to identify closely with his characters, and thus guide the
animatorsas Clampett did. Perhaps the fault really lies with
directors who leave too much interpretation of the characters to
the animators. Or conversely, perhaps by giving a character to a
single animator, that animator is actually doing part of the director's
Or are you making a distinction between short cartoons and feature
length? You did also suggest that cartoons are currently where nineteenth
century classical music would have been if it had not been allowed
to perform large-scale, serious works. It is particularly difficult
for me to imagine a "large-scale, serious" cartoon in
which the lead character is animated by a single animatorthat
film would have to be in production for at least ten years, and
that animator's personal identification with his character would
most likely change a lot over that much time, resulting in an inconsistency
of character, or lapsing into a limiting "self-conscious effort
to achieve consistency."
Galen Fott: With training and professional experience
in both acting and animation, I have to take issue with this statement
on your website: I dont think a well-conceived voice
is any more a handicap than a well-written script, even though both
limit what an actor can do.
I mean...come on. An actors JOB is to interpret the script.
Thats part of the gig. Its like saying that a bus driver
is limited by having to drive a bus. Animating to a pre-recorded
voice definitely, unquestionably limits your options of expression,
which could reasonably be viewed as a handicap. Great inspiration
may come from that voice, but in the end its a shared performance.
I believe that while animating and acting are related in tantalizing
ways, theyre probably more different than they are alike.
Eddie Fitzgerald: About Mark Mayerson's comments
on acting in animation: It's true that animators have to make do
with the voice recording that's handed to them and that this restricts
their creativity. Even so, animated comedy manages to outperform
live-action comedy in some areas. I don't know of any live-action
actor who could compete with Clampett's Bugs and Daffy in the niche
these characters occupy. Ditto Ren & Stimpy at their best. Jim
Carey's a terrific slapstick actor but could he match Daffy in Draftee
Daffy? I doubt it.
Looking back on it, one of the worst decisions animators ever made
was to co-operate with Gene Kelly in the famous sequence where Kelly
dances a duet with Jerry from Tom & Jerry. In that sequence
Jerry comes off as a pale, dumbed-down, rotoscoped imitation of
Kelly. Kelly trumped Jerry because Jerry had to conform to live
action rules and not attempt to upstage his human counterpart. The
truth is that Jerry could have danced rings around Kelly if he'd
been allowed. Imagine what Tyer, Scribner, McKimson, or Sibley could
have done with the dance.
Michael Sporn: The design and the animation have
to work hand-in-hand in creating a scene; one cannot supersede the
other or the film will suffer. The characters of Snow White and
Aurora [in Sleeping Beauty] were limited by their design
styles, and the animators had to create within those limits. Frank
Thomas continually complained about the colors Eyvind Earle used
in his characters dress. Too bad; the film is a success as
much as a result of Earles colors as of Thomas animation.
Both created the characters.
January 5, 2006:
SPOILED TREASURES: I'm still working my way through the new Walt
Disney Treasures DVD sets, so I can't weigh in authoritatively on
the poor quality of some of the video transfers, but Milt Gray was
outraged by them: "I want to shout to the world that if people
today could only see the original 35mm Technicolor prints of the
old cartoonsor even 16mm Technicolor printsthey couldn't
possibly be complacent about bad video transfers. Back in the mid
1960s I saw in movie theaters several of the various Disney short
cartoons from about the mid 1930s to the mid 1950s, in real Technicolor,
and the image contrasts and colors were so beautiful that you could
almost taste the colors, and those colors added so much to the atmosphere
and mood of the cartoons. Today, video technology is so advanced
that there is truly no excuse for poor video transfers of anything,
and anyone who has seen the original films can only be appalled
by the video transfers of several of the cartoons in Disney Rarities
or Chronological Donald Two."
There seems to be no question but that Disney really dropped the
ball here, in some cases using old, poor transfers even when much
newer, fully restored transfers had already been used on previous
DVD releases. In this situation, I feel for Leonard Maltin, who
deserves credit for so many of the good things about the Disney
Treasures. Should he raise a stink and risk having the Disney people
circle the corporate wagons against him, the outsider? Should he
be sympathetic and understanding, and risk having the same thing
happen again? What a test of his diplomatic skills. All of this
assuming, of course, that the Treasures series will continue, and
I wonder how safe an assumption that is.
MULTIPLE PERSONALITY DISORDER, CONT'D: Milt Gray writes in response
to my January 3 posting under this title:
"I read your latest commentary on Multiple Personality
Disorder, and found it very well reasoned. And yet I can't help
feeling fearful of the concept of the consistency of one animator
per character. My fear is that the consistency will equal monotony.
I almost never want to watch a Chuck Jones Bugs Bunny cartoon, as
excellent as those are, for the very reason that the cartoons, and
Bugs himself, are so predictable. I would far rather see a Clampett
Bugs Bunny, partly because I can expect that Bugs will surprise
me by showing some unusual facet of his personality. I think that
monotony will kill the public's interest in cartoons more assuredly
than a lack of consistency.
"Of course, consistency is a relative thing, and the
importance of consistency in a character's performance is also relative
to how center stage it is. If nothing else is going on in a scene,
then the character's performance is everything. But I feel that
it is a poor use of the medium to have everything stripped away
except a single character in a straight, sincere acting rolesomething
to live action, due to its tendency toward literalism.
"What I love best about cartoons is their ease and freedom
to take us into an alternative universe, where anything can happen,
rather than try to imitate our own earthbound everyday reality.
I love the 'impossible' gags, requiring really inventive 'cheats'
to make them seem plausible, as so beautifully demonstrated in many
of the Jack Kinney Goofy sports cartoons. And I love the really
insane impossible gags where characters suddenly have multiple arms
or giant feet or whatever, as in the mid-1940s Lantz cartoons, such
as Reckless Driver, where Woody Woodpecker and Wally Walrus
suddenly sprout about twenty arms each to try to outdo each other
during the fingerprint routine. And perhaps most of all, I love
the completely 'unreal' cartoons that border on abstraction, such
as Disney's 'Bumble Boogie.' This is pure imagination, without the
labor of making a cartoon try to compete with literal reality.
"In that regard, I do agree with one particular statement
by John Kricfalusi, that if you reduce a cartoon to its single most
important element, that element is the funny drawing. A cartoon
doesn't have to be shallow or immature or mundane to be funny. It
can be very telling in its wit and in the clever way it parallels
our reality. I far prefer the imaginative interpretation of reality
to a labored, almost literal imitation of it."
I don't think there's any reason to equate "consistency"
with literalism and predictability and monotony; rather the reverse.
If an animator really understands a characterif there's real
emotional identificationwhat that character does will seem
both unpredictable and entirely natural. Likewise, the closer the
identification between animator and character, the freer the animator
will be to introduce departures from the literal that might seem
arbitrary otherwise. My favorite example has always been the tremendous
distortion that Bill Tytla introduced into his animation of Grumpy,
distortion that seems perfectly normal because it so perfectly expresses
what's going on inside that character's head.
Clampett was a special case because, as I've said on other occasions,
he really played all the parts in his best cartoons. The work of
his animators may look very different on the screenunlike
the work of Jones's animatorsbut Clampett through his very
strong direction imposed an emotional consistency that was
far more important than visual uniformity. If Bugs seems unpredictable
in his cartoons, that's not an argument against casting by character
but an argument for it instead, because Clampett identified so closely
with his characters.
Literal, cautious animation is most likely to result not when there's
casting by character, but when a character is spread among several
animators and there is a self-conscious effort to achieve consistency.
You can see such a result in a great many Disney and imitation-Disney
As for the impossible gags, the unreal cartoons, the alternative
universeall of those things are wonderful, and I'd be the
last to suggest that animation should ever do without them. The
world would be a lot poorer without, say, King-Size Canary. But
it seems to me that animation's central task, if it is to
be more than a minor art form, is to bring characters fully to life
in significant stories as the best novels and plays and live-action
films do, and to do that in a distinctively animated way. That has
almost never been donethat's why I keep falling back for examples
on just a few filmsand almost no one wants to do it, or is
able to, for financial and other reasons.
It's as if classical music in the nineteenth century had been
forced to develop with almost no opportunities to write and perform
large-scale, serious works like symphonies and concertos. We would
treasure the trios and quartets and sonatas we did havesome
as rich and profund as any music ever writtenbut if we had
the nagging feeling that something vital was missing at the core,
we'd be right.
January 4, 2006:
POSTAL FUNNIES: It seems that the fewer occasions there are to
use ordinary postage, the more stamps appear with animation/comics
connections. This year's crop, described at this link
(thanks, Stephen Charla), includes not only four more weakly drawn
Disney stamps but a remarkable pane devoted to the DC superheroes.
Who ever thought that vintage comic-book covers (and some not so
vintage) would be reproduced on U.S. postage? There'll also be a
pane devoted to favorite children's-book animals. All part of the
ongoing infantilization of the Postal Service, as we say down at
the faculty club.
MULTIPLE PERSONALITY DISORDER, CONT'D: Mark Mayerson wrote in response
to yesterday's posting under this title:
"I've been spending a lot of time thinking about animated
acting lately. I'm teaching animation and I'll be using animated
acting as the subject of my Masters degree project next year.
"I'm rapidly coming to the conclusion that the nature of acting
in animation is so different from live action that we can't judge
it the same way. In earlier comments to you, I mentioned how animators
are forced to collaborate with voice actors and how the rehearsal
function has migrated upstream to the story artists, leaving the
animator with far less freedom to embody a character than a live
actor. At best, if a person is the sole animator of a character,
he or she is still forced to share acting duties with contributions
made in pre-production.
"Your earlier point about Olivier and Welles sharing the role
of Othello and attempting to create a seamless performance was a
good one. But the animated equivalent, even if you cast by character,
would have Welles act the entire role using a pre-recorded voice
track by Olivier. Unless a character is done in pantomime, such
as Dumbo, casting by animator still faces this problem.
"Alan Alda's new book Never Have Your Dog Stuffed has
a quote from director Mike Nichols that I found interesting. 'You
kids [Alda and Barbara Harris rehearsing The Apple Tree]
think relating is the icing on the cake. It isn't. It's the cake.'
Alda goes on to comment, 'When I started out as an actor, I thought,
Here's what I have to say; how shall I say it? On M*A*S*H,
I began to understand that what I do in the scene is not as important
as what happens between me and the other person. And listening is
what lets it happen. It's almost always the other person who causes
you to say what you say next. You don't have to figure out how you'll
say it. You have to listen so simply, so innocently, that the other
person brings about a change in you and that makes you say it and
informs the way you say it.'
"Needless to say, this real-time interaction is impossible
when casting animators by character. The length of time it takes
to animate a scene means that animators collaborating on a scene
will never get the opportunity for exploration and interaction that
live actors get. When an animator is cast by scene, the interaction
takes place in the mind of a single person, so even though it isn't
real-time, the animator can simulate the interaction before committing
it to the screen.
"This supports the Thomas and Johnston view about character
relationships. I would be the first to admit that the films that
Thomas and Johnston feel contain their best animation are not Disney's
strongest films. I think that films like The Sword in the Stone
have tilted too far towards the animators at the expense of dramatic
structure and narrative drive. However, from a screenwriting point
of view, all scenes are about characters in conflict. The characters
have different objectives and a scene is about how each character
attempts to achieve his or her objective and who (if anyone) manages
"Animators collaborating on a scene can create thumbnail drawings
and talk about timing, but they can only approximate how their characters
will interact until the actual animation is done. It strikes me
that working this way is not particularly efficient and no guarantee
of good results. The only other way to make it work is to have the
acting predetermined by the voice actors and the story artists,
in which case animating becomes something like painting by numbers."
I don't think it's possible for animators to achieve a result on
the screen that's comparable to the best live-action performances
by aping live-action film or stage practices. But neither do I think
that what is constricting or crippling for a live actor is necessarily
the same for an animator.
Acting to a playback of another actor's voice might be deadly
to a live actor's performance, but animating to a pre-recorded voice
can be stimulating for an animator. That is what I heard from early
Disney animators like Dick Lundy, who said that when they began
animating to pre-recorded dialogue in the mid-thirties, what they
heard in the voices suggested nuances in their animation that would
have eluded them before. All actors, whether they work on the stage
or in front of a camera or at a drawing board or computer workstation,
begin their work under constraints of some kind; I don't think a
well-conceived voice is any more a handicap than a well-written
script, even though both limit what an actor can do.
Likewise, the spontaneity and give-and-take of live actors sharing
a stagethe listening and responding that Alan Alda describes
so wellmay be inaccessible to animators, but the "relating"
of animated characters can be vivid and arresting on its own terms.
I have in mind especially the sequence in Snow White when
the dwarfs are leaving for the mine and the girl kisses Dopey and
Grumpy; she has been animated by Ham Luske, the dwarfs by Moore
and Tytla, respectively. There's no evidence in that sequence of
a clumsy effort to mimick the interaction of stage actors; there
is instead animation, of the dwarfs especially, that makes each
character as distinct and real as possible. When these radically
different characterswho scarcely look as if they belong to
the same speciesare on the screen together, the effect to
me is far more convincing than the "character relationships"
illustrated by Thomas and Johnston in later features like Bambi.
"Relating" may be the "cake" on the stage,
but that doesn't mean that it has to be the same in animation, or,
perhaps more to the point, that the "cake" has to be baked
in the same way. "Relating" may be present in how the
second animator of a shared scene responds to the first animator's
work; it may be present in how a director calls for adjustments
in what he sees. But "relating" has to originate mainly
in animation's capacity to give concrete embodiment to thought and
emotionto caricature those mental statesin a way that
live action cannot. We don't depend on Snow White to let us know
what Grumpy is thinking, or vice versa; the "relating"
originates in the juxtaposition of those two characters, in what
we can see for ourselves.
January 3, 2006:
MULTIPLE PERSONALITY DISORDER, CONT'D: Jenny Lerew, whose blog
I've recommended before, posted some much appreciated words
about my work the other day. I particularly liked this paragraph:
"His particular Grail (which he writes about frequently) is
that of true animation performance; a living, breathing being brought
to life via the pencil...the same thing that's brought 99% of animation
artists to the trade...and what all animators strive for."
Certainly that's a good summary of my own "Grail." I'm
not in the least sure, however, that it's what "all animators
Let me explain what I mean by referring to some earlier
postings that bore a heading like today's. I was writing about what
I saw as the perils that accompany the casting of animators for
any animated film with even modest ambitions. The point I was trying
to make was that if a half dozen different people animate what is
supposed to be the same character, in the same film, then at
some level, in some sense, that film is going to contain
not six slightly different versions of the same character, but six
different characters who look and sound a lot alike. Such variations
undermine an audience's acceptance of the reality of a film's characterssubtly
in some cases, more directly in others.
However common such an outcome may be in animated filmsand
it's common indeedI didn't think that it was ordinarily desirable
for an audience to come away from an animated film having been mocked,
in effect, for its willingness to suspend disbelief. As an alternative,
I endorsed full identification between animator and actor: one character,
one animator, real casting by character. Only through such casting,
I believed (and still do), was "true animation performance,"
real animated acting, possible.
What I didn't take fully into account, I think now, is that the
benefits of such casting come at a price. Not only can casting by
character be logistically difficult, but its rigorous application
may also mean that we lose the special brilliance that great animators
bring to certain kinds of scenes.
To take the most extreme example I can think of, should we care
at all if the characters in James Tyer's scenes in a Terrytoon like
Miami Maniacs look and behave nothing like what are supposed
to be the same characters in other scenes? Likewise, should we care
if Manny Gould's scenes stick out like gaudy mini-carnivals in Bob
McKimson's Warner cartoons of the late forties? If Frank Thomas
had animated all of Captain Hook in Disney's Peter Pan, the
nagging inconsistencies between his conception of the character
and Woolie Reitherman's would have disappearedbut could Thomas
have handled the more broadly comic scenes nearly as effectively
as Reitherman did, even if those scenes had been reconceived and
refined to take advantage of Thomas's abilities, or would a significant
loss of comic power have been inevitable?
In almost all such cases, I have no doubt about where most animators
and their more sophisticated fans would come down, and it would
not be on the side of "true animation performance." I
think that at bottom we are suckers for the keen scene, the virtuoso
display, the high-wire act in which a great animator once again
emerges unscathed. We may make a perfunctory bow toward "personality
animation" of the clichéd Disney kind, but we are reluctant
to give up any bits of derring-do for the sake of films in which
the animated actors on screen are as compellingas realas
the actors in the best live-action films.
The price of such artistic integrity seems too high, and sometimes
it is. Sometimes the Miami Maniacs model is the right onelet
Tyer be Tyer!and sometimes, too, a film's greatest strengths
clearly lie outside its animation, so that the question of animated
acting becomes largely irrevelant. (I find Michael Sporn's The
Man Who Walked Between the Towers an exceptionally moving and
poetic film, but when I see it I never think much about its animation.
Hayao Miyazaki's features also invite judgments on such terms, although
I think they suffer from his typically Japanese reliance on stock
gestures and expressions.)
So it's certainly possible to defend the almost uniform reluctance
of the animation community to pursue the implications of real animated
acting, "true animation performance," as it was first
practiced in just a few Disney features almost seventy years ago.
But what I've tried to say, here and elsewhere, is that retreating
from "true animation performance" has exacted a price
of its own. That price is evident in animation's lowly status in
the film world, and perhaps most of all in the pervasive superficiality
of animated films, the ambitious as well as the mundane, and the
shallowness and immaturity of many of the people who make them.
Perhaps that price is worth paying, too; but no one should pretend
that it isn't being paid, every day.
THE CUTE FACTOR: Fascinating piece in the New York Times this
morning about cutenesswhat
it is and why we're hard-wired to respond to it. The relevance to
animation is obvious.
MIYAZAKI ON TCM: Surely everyone is aware by now that Turner Classic
Movies will be showing nine of Miyazaki's features on Thursdays
this month, in both subtitled and dubbed versions. But if you didn't
know, here's where to go to learn
more. As this series proves anew, TCM is really a miracle, one
of those things (like the 24-hour, commercial-free classical-music
radio station here in my smallish Southern city) that would seem
too good to be true if it didn't already exist.
January 2, 2006:
JUST TO BE CLEAR...: Something one of my correspondents said the
other day made me think that maybe I should state what I thought
would be obvious. When I post stuff like the endearingly clumsy
Looney Tunes comic-book cover below, or that lame 1974 Disney
Christmas card, I'm offering them as historical curios, and not
as examples of good cartoon art.
STOP THE MOTION, CONT'D: Gene Schiller wrote in response to my
December 16 and 17 postings about stop-motion animation, the Aardman
variety in particular:
"Your 'blind spot' concerning stop-motion continues to bemuse
and mystify. The goal here, after all, is not the fluidity of 2D
or the hyper-reality of CG, but to animate the inanimate, using
any and all means possible. In Disneys Noahs Ark
for instance, creatures are cobbled together from pencils, paper
clips & erasers; in The Daydreamer (Rankin/Bass), water
is created from cellophane. No attempt is made to disguise the artifice,
and that is part of its charm. The medium is the message.
"Its a different genre, childlike in its appeal, and
somewhat limited, perhaps, but whos to say such works as Tulips
Shall Grow or Dojoji Temple dont adhere to the
highest ideals of animated art?"
Gene also wrote about the complaints surrounding the image quality
of the latest wave of Disney Treasures DVDs: "The Disney Rarities
look splendid, for the most part, while some of the Donalds do appear
lacklusterbut arent most of these (circa 42-44)
kind of dullish anyway? Short on interesting detail, with drab,
simplified backgrounds (e.g., Donalds Tire Trouble).
Its one thing to blame shoddy transfers, but it seems Disney
himself may have dropped the ball here, perhaps cutting corners
on wartime production."
I may have more to say on both matters after I've spent more time
with both new Disney sets.