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"What's New" Archives: July-August 2006

August 4, 2006:

BLOGHZ: I'm leaving town tomorrow for a couple of weeks, so the site will be quiet again for at least that long. It bothers me a little to be "off the air" for such long stretches, and I've had spurts where I more or less tried to make up for my silences by posting almost every day. But I've finally admitted to myself that this site isn't a blog, and I don't want to make it one. As much as I enjoy visiting some blogs almost every day—Michael Sporn, Jenny Lerew, Mark Mayerson, to name a few of my favorites—I don't have any desire to emulate them. I suppose I spent too many years working for a daily newspaper to want to feel the lash of a daily deadline again. An RSS feed is the obvious answer—so that people who like the site will know when I've posted something new—and I hope to be providing one by the end of the summer.

DISNEY: The summer isn't over, but it's clear that Cars is going to struggle to finish ahead of The Incredibles at the box office. Pixar thus continues its slow descent from Finding Nemo's peak. Moreover, the marketplace is cluttered now with computer-animated features of questionable merit artistically and financially, and Pixar's superior films can't help but be damaged by association, however unfairly. (I haven't seen the likes of The Ant Bully or Barnyard, and don't plan to, but from all appearances they're today's equivalents of the awful imitation-Disney features of the nineties, the films made by people like Don Bluth and Richard Rich when Disney's success briefly encouraged other studios to dabble in animation.) Further evidence, I suppose, that Robert Iger's purchase of Pixar was perfectly timed—for Steve Jobs, but not for Disney.

It's hard to quarrel with Iger's conception of the company, though; he believes that Disney has to get animation right if the company as a whole is to do well, and I think he's correct. Commiting Disney to a revival of traditional hand-drawn animation is a brave and inspiring thing to have done. It's in the execution of his good big ideas that he may falter, as in paying too much for Pixar and in bringing back the tired Clements-Musker team to revive hand-drawn animation. Iger may be Disney's equivalent of Gerald Levin at Time Warner, a man whose vision of the future was in some ways inspired but who, as it turned out, didn't know how to get his company from here to there.

August 3, 2006:

BREAKING SILENCE: I've had to neglect the Web site for a month while I reviewed the copy-edited manuscript of The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney, answering the editor's questions and making quite a few revisions of my own. What I sent back to University of California Press earlier this week amounted to yet another version of the book, my third. It's turning out well, I think. I'll see page proofs in October, and the book should be in print sometime next spring.

LT ON DVD: As best I can tell, the contents of the fourth "Golden Collection" of Looney Tunes on DVD have not been announced yet, but I don't think I'm breaking any confidences when I say that I've done commentaries for three Frank Tashlin cartoons from the thirties. My commentaries on the first three sets have been attacked frequently as dry and boring, and I've taken those criticisms to heart. I've listened to a lot of other commentaries, in the hope of improving mine, and these are the lessons I've applied:

Laugh maniacally throughout the cartoon. Even when nothing funny is happening on the screen. Or maybe especially when nothing funny is happening on the screen.

Use expressions like "way cool" and "holy crap" whenever possible. They're extremely useful filler when you want to keep your mouth moving but your mind is taking a break.

Share the mike with a veteran of the "Golden Age." I've used clips from old interviews in earlier commentaries, of course, but there's nothing like having a real person at your elbow while the cartoon is running. People who worked on Frank Tashlin's cartoons seventy years ago are in short supply now, but I was lucky to find Alvin "Stubby" Karpis, who worked as an ink and paint girl at the Schlesinger studio for three weeks in 1937, until someone noticed he was a man. Stubby is 97 now and has trouble remembering to take his medicine, but his memories of his Schlesinger days are razor-sharp, as this exchange demonstrates:

Barrier: Holy crap, Stubby, that animation is way cool. That's gotta be Rod Scribner.

Stubby: Yep, that's Rod, for sure.

Barrier: Wait, wait! I was wrong! That looks like Glen Keane's stuff to me! Holy crap, I never dreamed that Glen was working at Schlesinger's in 1936!

Stubby: Yep, that's Glen, for sure.

God bless Warner Home Video for preserving these precious memories.

Tell outrageously funny stories. I've tried to do a little of that in past commentaries, but I've realized I never went far enough. In one new commentary, for example, I tell how Leon Schlesinger found Frank Tashlin getting it on with an ink and paint girl (not Stubby) on top of Leon's desk. Leon yells at him, "What the hell do you think you're doing, dipping your pen in company inker!" Never heard that story before? That's because I made it up. Cartoons are (1) fictional, and (2) funny, and (3) entertaining, so commentaries should be the same, right? Right.

I hope the fans who've complained about my commentaries will appreciate my effort to meet them more than halfway. And I hope all the people who've accused me of hating cartoons will believe me when I say that I really do love cartoons. It's cartoon fans I can't stand.

July 6, 2006:

SIZE: I don't much like the idea of turning this site into a running commentary on what's wrong with Cars, but the opportunities for such commentary are simply too great. A visitor to the site has pointed out yet another problem with the film: the visual monotony that's inevitable when most of the characters are approximately the same size. Cars has a few supporting characters that are exceptionally big or small, but for the most part the vehicles on the screen, and all of the lead characters, are sedans that don't vary much in their basic dimensions, or, for that matter, their basic appearance.

That put me to thinking about the enormous variations in size that contribute to the visual interest, and thus the appeal, of so many animated features—Pinocchio, Dumbo, Cinderella, Alice, Dalmatians, Jungle Book, just to list some of the most obvious of the Disney films. In Pixar's features, too, variations in size have been exploited effectively; Monsters, Inc. comes immediately to mind. Not only do differences in size contribute to visual interest, but I think they pose stimulating challenges to the filmmakers, too; scenes have to be staged and animated in a way that takes advantage of those differences rather than trips over them. If Pinocchio is a more cinematically sophisticated film than Snow White, that's surely because it had to be, given the challenge posed by the tremendous range in the characters' sizes, all the way from Jiminy Cricket to Monstro the Whale.

July 5, 2006:

CARS AGAIN: In response to my May 29 posting about the nature of some of the backgrounds in Cars—are they truly computer-generated, as my review says, or have traditionally painted backgrounds somehow been matted in?—I received this message from Floyd Norman, the veteran artist and writer whose career began at the Disney studio when Walt himself was still in charge:

"Concerning your discussion about digital painting or matte painting in Pixar's Cars, I'm almost certain we were looking at nothing less than digital painted backgrounds.

"My wife, Adrienne is a digital illustrator for Disney, and she says she could easily paint those country and cityscapes in the computer. My wife is a traditionally trained painter who has made the transition to digital, and I must confess that she is an amazing painter even using digital tools.

"I worked at Disney when guys like Peter Ellenshaw and Allen Malley were painting on glass. We've come a long way."

That sounds right to me. Incidentally, Floyd posts as "Mr. Fun" at the Animation Nation online forum. His posts (like some recent ones on The Sword in the Stone) are always worth seeking out. His patience and generosity are remarkable, as is his knowledge of the animation business.