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"What's New" Archives: October 2004

October 27, 2004:

IN BRANSON: I made my first expedition to Branson, Missouri, earlier this week, and I can report that the version of the town shown on The Simpsons a couple of seasons ago was not far off the mark. Not only is Branson—a sort of casino-less Midwestern Las Vegas—home to many performers you thought were dead, but it's also overflowing with performers who are dead. Celebrity impersonation is a thriving business in southwestern Missouri. Andy Williams, whose show is probably Branson's biggest draw, is still very much alive (if a tad arthritic) at 77, but no doubt impersonators are waiting in the wings.

Branson is still thin on attractions other than nostalgia-oriented musical revues—although it's gradually metamorphosing into the sort of bizarre theme park that Las Vegas has become—and only the Roy Rogers-Dale Evans Museum held any appeal for me. The museum moved to Branson a year or so ago, in search of the audience that was no longer visiting its original California location.

Roy Roger Comics No. 1I spent an hour at the museum and came away a little sad. It's by no means as pathetic and disturbing a place as the Liberace Museum in Las Vegas, but it's a long way from competing with the splendid Autry National Center/Museum of the American West in Los Angeles. Roy may have been the King of the Cowboys—certainly he held that place in my own affections—but Gene was the better businessman, and he has a more durable and impressive monument.

Roy and Dale were still alive when they set up the museum, and walking through it is a little like having Roy say to you, "Come into my den and let me show you my collection of autographed baseballs." I was hoping for a series of exhibits that would embrace the lives and careers of both stars and place them in the context of movie westerns and Hollywood in general, but what the museum offers instead is amiable clutter, much of it better left in the attic.

For example, I winced when I saw a framed letter from Senator S. I. Hayakawa, politely declining an invitation to some event. Having written many such letters in my years as a Capitol Hill staffer, I knew how unlikely it was that Hayakawa had ever seen it, and how likely it was that it had been signed by some member of his staff or the notorious Auto-Pen. (Liberace's museum displays similar boilerplate correspondence.)

Clutter can be enjoyable—at John Fawcett's museum in Maine, it has been raised to the level of an art form—but at the Rogers-Evans Museum, it's frustrating. I was particularly disappointed to see so little evidence of Roy's and Dale's (and Trigger's) many years of comic-book stardom. Roy was for me, and I suspect for many other kids, as much a comic-book character as a movie star. I read Roy Rogers Comics with more consistent enjoyment than I did any other western comic books, thanks mainly to Gaylord DuBois's solid writing.

I most enjoyed myself in the film theater, where I watched a compilation of scenes with Roy's principal sidekicks. How good to see that wonderful actor Gabby Hayes again—and was I alone in not knowing that Pinky Lee was Roy's comedy relief in a half dozen films? (I also saw part of a film devoted to family reminiscences. The impression I carried away from it was that, as a mother, Dale was definitely a hardass.)

Oh yes, the notorious stuffed horses—Trigger is on display, along with Trigger Jr., Buttermilk (Dale's horse), and Bullet the dog. The horses, remarkably enough, look exactly like huge toys; there's little or no sense that they were ever real animals.

Visit the museum anyway if you're ever in Branson. Roy and Dale were good people who deserved their stardom, and if their museum survives perhaps someday it can be transformed into the sort of place that does them and their careers justice.

October 24, 2004:

ON "POLAR": More in today's New York Times on The Polar Express. This does sound like one odd movie.

October 23, 2004:

THE BIG BUILD-UP: With both The Incredibles and The Polar Express due in theaters in a few days, the predictable publicity blitz is upon us, sometimes bearing strange fruit like yesterday's New York Times piece exploring the political implications of the new Pixar film. The Polar Express, which opens on November 10—five days after The Incredibles—has received less attention, but it was the subject of a piece in yesterday's Wall Street Journal. In case you missed it (most Journal articles are available online only to subscribers), here are excerpts:

"When Tom Hanks bought the rights to the popular children's book The Polar Express ,the actor knew turning it into a movie wasn't going to be an easy ride.

"A live action version was out of the question: The story's outlandish train scenes would have blown the budget out of the water [the article puts the film's cost at $165 million]. Animation was also ruled out because it wouldn't capture the magical feel of the slickly illustrated book about a boy's journey to meet Santa Claus.

"Instead, Mr. Hanks and director Robert Zemeckis went for a mix of the two. Using ground-breaking computer imagery, The Polar Express turns Mr. Hanks and his fellow actors into look-alikes of the storybook characters. ...

"Messrs. Hanks and Zemeckis ... were set on making a moving replica, but with no digital technique on the market to achieve that look, Sony Corp.'s Sony Pictures Imageworks came up with a solution: 'image motion performance capture.'

"Like the name, the process was elaborate. It started with Mr. Hanks and his co-actors wearing body-hugging leotards covered in scores of tiny reflective baubles. On the actors' faces alone, there were 152 strategically placed over key muscles. Each time the actors moved a muscle, the baubles would reflect light into 72 cameras scattered around a spartan set, sending data back to banks of computers. Backed by a team of more than 600 people working on the movie, the computers used that information to literally bring alive pre-programmed digital characters.

"The result is a style of storybook realism. While not always immediately recognizable, the actors' facial expressions are reflected in the finished product."

Articles of this kind often contain several "Oh, really?" paragraphs, like the one above about animation's inability to capture a "magical feel." Here are a couple of others:

"But in an effort to retain the stylized, dream-like quality of the book, the characters at times appear almost wax-like and puppet-like. (The filmmakers say they were trying to achieve this look.) ...

"Driving home his confidence in the technique, Mr. Zemeckis' production company is already working on another movie using performance capture entitled Monster House, a tale of three kids who do battle with a mysterious house.

"'As a director, performance capture is absolutely liberating,' says Mr. Zemeckis. 'It releases you from all the tyranny of the technique of traditional moviemaking.'"

Fancy mo-cap with a "wax-like" and "puppet-like" appearance...be sure to read the reviews first, kids.

October 18, 2004:

BROKEN PROMISES: I said some time ago that I would soon post my Frank Tashlin interview on the site, but, for reasons I can't even guess at, the typed transcript has defeated my scanner's best efforts. The transcript is too long to make entering it manually a feasible alternative at the moment, given my other commitments, so it'll be a while before the Tashlin interview sees the light of day here. In the meantime, I'll tweak my scanner settings and hope that I can come up with usable results, and I'll try to find another transcript that's more computer-friendly.

I've also decided against posting a fifth and final installment of my European Journal about my June visit to England. My time there was devoted to visiting the British Film Institute's library and interviewing several people who worked on the live-action films Walt Disney made in Britain, and that material has resisted being shaped into an essay like those I wrote about my visits to Disneyland Paris, Annecy, Zermatt, and Copenhagen. In lieu of an essay, here's a photo I took of my wife, Phyllis, with Richard Todd—who will always be Robin Hood and Rob Roy to many members of my generation, regardless of the claims of Errol Flynn, Kevin Costner, and Liam Neeson to those names—after a wonderful interview over lunch at a charming old inn in Lincolnshire.

Richard Todd

ON JOHN K.: I'm still waiting to hear from John Kricfalusi so we can continue our debate. In the meantime, John's faithful acolyte Eddie Fitzgerald has weighed in with a rebuttal of Scott Miller's recent criticism of John K. You'll find both their messages on the page devoted to responses to the debate.

October 11, 2004:

ON "VIEWMASTER ANIMATION": I've heard from several visitors to the site about my October 4 posting in which I articulated some of my misgivings about computer animation.

Aaron Sorenson wrote that he was responding not just to "ViewMaster Animation" but "to many of your writings decrying this 'dry literalism' that you speak of in the animation of the Nine Old Men and their progeny. I'll agree with you that the [Disney features] of the late sixties and seventies were poorly directed and shallow. And I'll even grant you that the power that the Nine Old Men had probably hurt these films in a story sense. However, the success of a film like The Jungle Book is almost entirely due to the charm and virtuosity of the animation.

"The styles of animation you seem to enjoy (the Disney shorts of the thirties, Bill Tytla's animation of Grumpy, Bob Clampett's Warner Bros. shorts) are all exceptional and entertaining but are very much of an era that is bygone. The loose, distorted, improvised, psychologically complex animation you always speak of in Tytla's and Rod Scribner's work is a style of movement built around cheats and smears that became of less and less use as feature animation progressed.

"Every young animator I know has watched Book Revue or Baby Bottleneck and tried out the Clampett style or the Tytla style, rearranging the form of the character, twisting and contorting their drawings, [resulting in] a soupy, wet effect. Perhaps I'm being too harsh—this sort of contortion can have a wonderful effect used sparingly by a good animator—but it's just a technique to get your character from here to there or to loosen up a stiff-looking piece of animation.

"I believe what Brad Bird and Tony Fucille are trying to do in The Incredibles is break up the unforgiving solidness of CG—masses that never change, limbs that don't stretch beyond the length of their bones, etc. I wouldn't say that Pixar's animation lacks spontaneity, or is overly literal. I think instead it continues a worthy tradition of 'believable,' inventive, and subtle animation that audiences will actually watch for eighty-five minutes. Not to be too insulting, but I doubt that very few audience members could sit through more than twenty minutes of the distorted, wet animation that you prefer. Looney Tunes: Back in Action anyone?

"As for your last point about Brad Bird and Pixar trying to fight the medium of computer animation, I cannot believe you are actually suggesting that somehow creating a digital film completely in the computer would have more creativity and vitality than a computer-animated film built on the hundred-year old tradition of hand-drawn animation. Perhaps you are waiting for the day when artificial intelligence has gotten to the point where the machines can write, design, storyboard, and animate a film on their own, thus creating something new and spontaneous. I hope you're just trying to get a rise out of your readers with these sorts of quips. It certainly worked on me."

Dennis Dix also addressed the point Aaron raised in the last paragraph: "In regard to using 'hand- drawn' storyboards, character sketches, atmosphere treatments, etc., to aid in the production of 3D CG animated films, you stated: 'This seems to me backwards, as if someone making a hand-drawn film were to start not by picking up a pencil, but by turning on a iMac.'

"Maybe, but there are many animators working today who would do just that (or turn on a Wintel PC running Windows or Linux), launch an installed 2D 'hand-drawn' animation software application, such as Animo or Opus or Concerto, and pick up a wireless pen and begin 'hand drawing' on a digital drawing tablet, or the 'old-fashioned' way on an animation table/disk with pencil and then scan the drawings into the computer. My point is that the digital computer and 2D animation software is becoming an indispensable tool within 2D animation studios and shops for all the tedious parts of the 'hand-drawn' production process—everything aside from the preproduction art work mentioned above and the all-important animation drawings—and will only loom larger, even as 3D CG animation, in the near term, erodes the economic and artistic foundations of what appears to be largely a rickety edifice."

Both these messages address some interesting issues. I can't pretend to speak with authority on modern production methods—I probably know more about how cartoons were made in, say, 1935 than I know about how they're made today—but I think that what's unchanging, and indisputable, is that a particular production method will strongly influence what winds up on the screen, even if, to borrow Dennis Dix's words, a filmmaker is using the computer only to eliminate the "tedious parts of the 'hand-drawn' production process." Filmmakers who are not fully aware of the virtues and limitations of particular methods—who are, in particular, indifferent to the computer's effects on their work—risk being reminded brusquely that production methods are not neutral vessels.

The computer's virtues and limitations are most evident in full-blown computer animation of the Pixar kind, of course, and particularly in what I've lamented as an inherently literal and mechanical quality in the characters' movement—a literalism that has in effect been validated by its similarity to the animation in the later Disney features. Aaron Sorenson suggests that I'm lamenting the death of a style of animation, one that has given way to a more "believable" kind of animation that can sustain an audience's attention over the length of the feature. But as I've said in my debate with John Kricfalusi, and in my comments about Frank Thomas on this page, I have every respect for "believable" animation when it's done well.

"Believable" (or, as I've called it, "normal") animation of the kind that Thomas often practiced is indeed a "style," and a good one. What I see in Tytla's great animation, though, and in Clampett's great cartoons, is not just an earlier style but the creation of an art form that makes stylistic change possible.

I can draw an analogy with the Italian art of the Renaissance. It makes no sense to speak of Giotto as merely working in a different "style" than Raphael or Michelangelo; the two later artists' "styles" could not have come into existence if Giotto and his successors in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries had not created a rich artistic language that made other "styles" possible. What happened in animation in the thirties and forties, primarily at the Disney and Schlesinger studios, was like a highly compressed version of what took place over centuries in Renaissance Italy.

What I find disturbing about most contemporary animation is that it is indeed an assortment of work in different "styles" by people who may know a "style" but have a limited grasp of the art form itself. To use the example of Looney Tunes: Back in Action, a film that I reviewed negatively last year: It is all "style"—Warner Bros. style, as Eric Golderg and his colleagues conceived it—but without the roots in the earlier Disney films that the Warner Bros. cartoons themselves had. That's why the animation in that film is "soupy" and "wet."

The Pixar people may have a better historical sense, but, as I've said, I think they're hobbled not just by the rigidity of their medium but by their reliance on the ideas embodied in Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston's book Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life. That book is not so much a distillation of the lessons of the past as an obstacle to full understanding of those lessons.

FEEDBACK ON THE JOHN K. DEBATE: On the page devoted to feedback on my running debate with John Kricfalusi, I've added a message from Scott Miller in which he takes issue with John K. and some of his admirers. I know that John's time is consumed by work right now, but I'm hopeful I'll hear from him again later this month.

ON WILL EISNER: The great cartoonist who created The Spirit is the subject of an authorized email newsletter called A Spirited Life. If you’d like to subscribe, send an e-mail to ASpiritedLife@tampabay.rr.com with the words “Eisner Newsletter” in the subject line. Follow this link to read my own essay on Eisner's work.

October 6, 2004:

A VOICE FROM THE PAST: A few comics fans of a certain age have fond memories of a short-lived magazine from the late sixties called Vanguard. There were only two issues, plus an interim issue called "Son of Vanguard," which reported that the first issue had sold only half of its 250-copy press run (it did eventually sell out). Among many other good things, Vanguard published the first interview (by Malcolm Willits) with Floyd Gottfredson, the guiding genius behind the great "Mickey Mouse" comic strip of the thirties. I was pleasantly surprised recently to hear from Robert Latona, Vanguard's editor and publisher, who had read my essay on Carl Barks on this site. You can read his comments on my piece on this new Feedback page devoted to Barks.

October 4, 2004:

VIEWMASTER ANIMATION: I've referred elsewhere to computer-animated features as "new, improved Puppetoons," but I've realized that such features most remind me of the ViewMaster "reels" based on cartoon characters.

ViewMaster—I think the reels and viewers are still being made—is an updated version of the old stereopticon slides, which a century ago offered three-dimensional views of natural wonders. The ViewMaster reels I recall from my childhood told stories with cartoon characters, but in order to make the still photos on each reel three-dimensional, the characters and their settings had been translated into plasticine or something of the sort. I never liked those reels; even as a kid, I was conscious that I was seeing characters who originated as drawings and looked better that way.

And that's pretty much the way I feel about even the best of Pixar's features. The films are computer-animated, but each one has been fundamentally conceived in terms of cartoon drawings. There has been in those drawings the potential for character animation much more interesting and creative than what the computer will permit.

The estimable Harry McCracken, writing on his Web site about a visit to Pixar's studios in Emeryville, California, mentions an exhibit made up of pre-production artwork for the next Pixar feature, The Incredibles: "Pixar films may be in 3D, but there's a lot of wonderful 2D, traditional art leading up to the computer-generated film itself. I suspect that this is one of the reasons why the studio's films are so much more visually satisfying than Dreamworks' productions—if there's top-notch pre-production art happening with movies such as Shrek 2 or A Shark's Tale, I haven't seen it."

"Visually satisfying," yes, in an art-direction, character-design sense, but Pixar's very virtues in those areas have always collided with the computer's limitations as an animation tool. From all reports—most recently John Canemaker's, in last Sunday's New York TimesThe Incredibles represents Pixar's most serious effort yet to bridge that gap between cartoon and computer.

Pixar recruited Brad Bird, a highly regarded director of hand-drawn animation, to direct The Incredibles, and his efforts clearly have been bent toward bringing to computer animation some of the exhilarating freedom of the best hand-drawn animation. But I was struck, while reading Canemaker's article, by these paragraphs:

"Using new technology, [Pixar's animators] were able to squash and stretch shapes without losing the essential anatomy of the characters, a freedom familiar to hand animators but hard to achieve with computers, says Tony Fucile, a supervising animator on the film.

"'We wanted to mimic the 2-D looseness,' he said, 'the ability to manipulate arm shapes when they swing, get a nice shape out of it in action scenes. We wanted to get away from the dead-puppet quality.'

"The answer was separating body parts into individual components with their own computerized controls, allowing them to move independently. Other controls let the animators enlarge a hand or head for a few frames to underline a particular move. 'Now we have more flexibility than ever before,' said Alan Barillaro, another supervising animator."

"More flexibility," perhaps. But what about more spontaneity, more gracefulness, more suppleness, more of the elasticity that gathers and releases energy? It's such characteristics that I've found lacking in computer animation so far, and I don't expect to find them in The Incredibles either, however enjoyable the film may be in other respects..

Reading the Pixar animators' comments, I'm afraid I understood all too well why the Frank Thomas-Ollie Johnston book Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life has been treasured at Pixar, as at DreamWorks: It validates the sort of literal, confined animation that is, so far, just about the best that even the most talented and dedicated people working at computers can do.

I hope Brad Bird surprises me, but I think it is more likely that in a few years we'll look back at The Incredibles as an artistic dead end, a heroic effort to overleap the computer's limitations that ultimately succeeded in demonstrating how powerful those limitations are.

Then again, those limitations may be exercising their power only because, as I've said, the people making the films have always started with cartoon drawings. This seems to me backwards, as if someone making a hand-drawn film were to start not by picking up a pencil, but by turning on an iMac.

I'm sure there have been any number of abstract animated films made by people who skipped the pencil and started with the computer, but I don't know of any such examples of character animation. Maybe there are insurmountable obstacles to "thinking computer" from the very beginning of work on a film with animated characters, but I doubt it; and I have to hope that when we finally see computer-animated films that have been conceived in exactly those terms, and not as traditional animated films made on the computer, the results will be as surprising and delightful as the greatest hand-drawn films of the past.