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"What's New" Archives: September 2006

September 19, 2006:

HIATUS: I'm gone again for the next few weeks. See you in October.

September 18, 2006:

CARTOON MODERN: To read my review of Amid Amidi's important new book, click here.

SONG OF THE SOUTH: I've posted ten pages of drafts for this Disney feature, all from the "Running Away" sequence that opens with Uncle Remus singing "Zip-a-dee-doo-dah"—three pages of combination work and seven pages of animation.

Combination page one

Combination page two

Combination page three

Animation page one

Animation page two

Animation page three

Animation page four

Animation page five

Animation page six

Animation page seven

My thoughts about the animation of Song of the South are on pages 389-391 of Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age.

WALT'S BASH, CONT'D: Are Myklebust writes:

A copy of the program for "Walt's Field Day" was offered on an auction at Hake’s some time ago (I forgot to note down the date, but it was around November 2005). This is a part of the description:

Pages list various events along with that event organizer’s name including;

Admin. - Riley Thomson
Baseball Game Old Timers Vs. Studio Team - Mickey Batchelder
Touch Football - Jack Kinney

Rowing Race (- Hal Adelquist)
Gadget band - Ward Kimball
Award(s) - Ted Sears”

(No times were mentioned in the description.)

The program offered in the auction was described as complete (a total of eight pages), including perforated “Dinner/Luncheon” coupons missing in most surviving copies. Only the cover was scanned in the auction. From the estate of the background artist Douglas “Bud” Rickert. So its looks like your copy of the program is not complete.

MB replies: Are is undoubtedly right; four pages, including the coupons, are missing from the middle of the program. That explains why the earliest event listed is at 5 p.m. No doubt Homer Brightman tore out those pages when he removed the coupons.

September 14, 2006:

WALT'S BASH, CONT'D: On September 6, I posted the program book and a little more information about the celebratory "Field Day" that Walt Disney held for his staff at Lake Norconian in June 1938. You can learn more about that famous bash at a couple of other sites, the Animation Guild's blog and Jenny Lerew's Blackwing Diaries. And here, courtesy of the Guild's blog, is a link to an Ontario, California, newspaper story about the present sad state of the Lake Norconian Club Resort. The resort is in a town called Norco, in Riverside County south of Ontario off I-15.

GEPPI'S MUSEUM: In case you missed it, the New York Times ran a piece last week about the then-imminent opening of Geppi's Entertainment Museum at Baltimore, a comics-oriented institution that also includes what the Times called "packed displays" of "movie posters, animation cels, action figures, board games, advertisements, and more." That Times story may not be available any more as a free link, but there's also a Web site for the museum itself. I'm looking forward to visiting the place on one of my frequent returns to my old stomping grounds in the Washington area. I'm especially curious how it compares with John Fawcett's museum in Maine.

I met Steve Geppi almost thirty years ago, when I was assembling the contents of A Smithsonian Book of Comic-Book Comics. He then had a comic-book store in a basement, somewhere in Maryland, I forget where, and he and I went together to a photography studio for the shooting of part of his copy of Action Comics No. 1. I encountered him again almost ten years later, when I was writing a story about nostalgia for a business magazine; I devoted a page to what was then a fast-growing chain of Geppi retail stores. Geppi is now the owner of Diamond Comic Distributors, which is, as the Times says, "the largest distributor of English-language comic books." He's also a part owner of the Baltimore Orioles baseball team and a pillar of the Baltimore business establishment. A pretty amazing rise for someone who is still a dyed-in-the-wool comic-book fan, I think.

BACKGROUNDS: Back in June and July, I posted a couple of items about whether the static backgrounds in Pixar's Cars could be considered "matte paintings" in the traditional sense. The answer is, sort of; such backgrounds can be created digitally, just as if they were being painted, and then combined with animated characters and settings in the foregrounds. A couple of my visitors have since written to elaborate, especially about how such backgrounds are being used in live-action films. One of my correspondents says: "It is my understanding that all contempory matte paintings in Hollywood are digital, but the digital technique is the same as the old-fashioned traditional one, including brushes—most digital matte painters work in both mediums, digital for film work and traditional for gallery work. Both mediums are flat, 2D. You can build 3D backgrounds, and in some Cars scenes, they did—they're just far more labor-intensive, but in my opinion, they don't clash as much with the 3D look up front. Here's the Web site of Dylan Cole, who's considered one of the best contempory matte painters in Hollywood. Scroll through the matte painting samples (Lord of the Rings, for example)—it's good stuff, and you can't tell they're not oil."

Leo Sandberg has written to recommend Blue Sky by Peter Weishar, "in which there's a very nice fold out of the process, which includes 2D BGs composited with 3D characters. As 3D packages renders to 2D pictures, these renders can just as easily be exchanged for painted BGs (matte painting usually referring to photo-real painting whilst background paintings usually refers to a stylized look). Both are of course painted by hand, just to different looks and with whatever tools it takes to achieve that look within the schedule and budget of the production—watercolor, Photoshop, Painter, Deep Canvas, acrylics, oils etc."

I won't pretend that I understand everything Leo wrote—like the reference to "renders"—but I think his point is clear enough. I probably should read that book, even though I feel a total lack of enthusiasm for the Blue Sky product.

SANITY: This from Randy Watts: "Just wanted to comment that I enjoy your site a lot. It's quite—sane. I don't mean that as any sort of backhanded insult. Just that many folks posting about animation these days are a little odd.

"I had gotten used to the presence of the idea—standard on animation forums—that all theatrical animation produced during the '30s-'60s is inherently good. In fact, the reason I no longer post on forums is because of some almost bizarrely nasty flames and e-mails I once got for remarking that I had sat through nearly a dozen of Famous/Paramount's Herman and Katnip cartoons and found them to be largely worthless. I haven't gotten used, though, to what appears to be a newer idea. That TV animation, particularly that ground out by Hanna-Barbera in the 1950s and '60s, is very nearly the equal of the very best '30s and '40s theatrical animation.

"Don't get me wrong. I love animation and I love cartoons. I just find much of what's being written on animation and cartoons, and the folks who are writing it, hard to stomach. That's why I enjoy your site so much (as well as your book, Hollywood Cartoons). It is free of that nonsense. Rather like the way that Bob Clampett is commonly elevated by these folks to a status that leads one to suspicion that God told Jesus to buzz off so He could spend eternity telling Bob how much he loved Coal Black. Now, I like Bob Clampett. I think he made some brilliant cartoons. I just find that kind of overstatement grating."

MB replies: I like being called "sane." I remember realizing, when I was listening to some Haydn symphony, that that composer's sanity and cheerfulness were what I most loved about him. On the other hand, I love Mahler, too, and "sane" is not the first word I would apply to most of his music. I think there's a trick to maintaining a sane appreciation of great art that is itself over the top, like Mahler's—and Bob Clampett's—the trick being to embrace the art and the artist wholeheartedly without slipping into hysterical adulation, on the one hand, or condescension on the other. If you wander off toward either of those extremes, you're missing a lot of what the artist has to offer, which is not just unfettered emotion but also the subtle and surpassing skill that gives the emotion such effective and convincing form. Like Mahler, Clampett wasn't "wild"; he was in many ways the most carefully controlled director who ever worked in animation.

Unfortunately, I think a lot of cartoon fans are most comfortable with hysterical adulation (or its obverse, hysterical condemnation), because it relieves them of the burden of thought. As I've suggested in an earlier posting, such people are always searching restlessly for some new idol to worship. Herman and Katnip and Huckleberry Hound seem like unlikely divinities to me, but perhaps it's part of their appeal that so few people are visiting those particular shrines. I'm reminded of the wonderful old Bob Newhart routine in which he's organizing a hate group aimed at Eskimos; it seems they're the only minority group left, all the others having already been claimed by some other hate group.

DRAFTS: I'm going to try to post some Song of the South drafts by this weekend, before I leave on another extended trip. But no promises.

September 8, 2006:

MONSTER SCANNER: For my thoughts on Monster House and A Scanner Darkly, click here.

September 6, 2006:

WALT'S FIELD DAY: In the last few months, a number of Web sites have posted scans of old cartoon-studio documents, especially from Disney, the studio that generated by far the most such paper. Hans Perk has been particularly active, posting a lot of drafts—the scene-by-scene records of who animated what in a particular cartoon—and other Disney documents on his blog. There has been similar activity by such high-quality bloggers as Michael Sporn, Mark Mayerson, and Jenny Lerew. Some of the documents have been new to me, and I've been delighted to have good copies, especially now that the Disney Archives is effectively closed even to serious researchers.

Here's a relic from my own files, the program for the infamous June 4, 1938, event called "Walt's Field Day," a Disney studio party to celebrate Snow White's success. My copy belonged to Homer Brightman. I call the party "infamous" because any number of Disney folks celebrated with un-Disneyish behavior that involved lots of alcohol and illicit sexual combinations. The most striking thing about the program, I think, is Gunther Lessing's role as a dance judge—who knew?

I've scanned in the four pages on which there's any type; click on each small page to go to a larger version:

Ward Kimball drew Mickey on the cover, as he told me on June 6, 1969, in the first of our interviews:

"In 1938, we had a party to celebrate finishing Snow White, a three-day [sic] bash that Walt sponsored. We decided to have a printed program. I was asked to draw Mickey on the cover, teeing off a golf ball. In order to have Mickey's head addressing the ball and at the same time smiling at the audience, I said, what the hell, I'll use our regular eyes that we're using on everything else—the Dwarfs, Snow White, Goofy, Pluto—and put black pupils in them. This really caused a riot in the comic-strip department. The next week, [Al] Taliaferro and [Floyd] Gottfredson came running in and said, 'Is this the way you guys are drawing Mickey now?' We kind of played it cool and smiled and said, 'Maybe.' Fred Moore agreed that it gave Mickey more personality; Mickey didn't have to roll his little black ovals out to the edge of the big eye boundary to get expressions. Since Fred had just convinced Walt to accept Mickey cheeks that bulged out with the dialogue movements, Walt also bought the new eyes."

And here's a picture from the party, courtesy of Willis Pyle, then a very young Disney assistant animator. That's Pyle in the upper right, with his hands in front of him; the man just to his left, seen in profile, is the Finnish-born photographer and artist Kosti Ruohomaa, and to Willis's right, with someone's hand on his head, is Les Clark. Les's sister Marceil is the woman in the upper left with her arm over a man's shoulder; the man at the far left, just behind the guitar's neck, is Sam Cobean. (The identifications are Willy Pyle's.)

Disney Party

I'm thinking about putting up a few drafts on the site, too, since I have a lot of them. Song of the South, maybe. I'm not sure how much such posting I'll do, since I'm not sure how many people are really interested. When a site is already as specialized as mine, giving it even more of an inside-baseball flavor—and posts of drafts will certainly do that—may not be the most wonderful idea. But we shall see.

September 5, 2006:

THE ANIMATED MAN: You can't order my biography of Walt Disney yet, but you can click here to ask amazon.com to let you know when it starts taking orders. The book will be out next April.

THE DISNEY BLOG: There are too many blogs—and even too many good ones—to keep track of these days, but you shouldn't overlook Didier Ghez's Disney History blog. Jim Korkis, a veteran explorer of the side streets and byways of Disney lore, is a contributor. Lots of nuggets here.

MILT GRAY: While I was away last month, John Kricfalusi invited Milt Gray to write for his blog about animation timing for today's television cartoons, as opposed to the timing for the great cartoons of the past, specifically Bob Clampett's. The result is highly illuminating—and, I'm sorry to say, depressing where today's cartoons are concerned (although it's depressing enough just watching the damned things). You can read Milt's piece by clicking here. Milt's essays posted on my own site, on Clampett and his great cartoon Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs, are still available.

John K.'s blog is also worth visiting for some of Kricfalusi's own postings, especially his analyses of Warner Bros. cartoons. John's hectoring tone can get tiresome—"lovable crank" is the phrase that leaps to mind, with the emphasis on "crank"—and some of the people who post comments on his blog are a little scary, but the man knows his Looney Tunes. You may want to skip his paeans to the early Hanna-Barbera TV cartoons, though. In them I hear the voice of a middle-aged curmudgeon who clings to that common juvenile fallacy, "If I like it, it must be good."

September 2, 2006:

AS I WAS SAYING...: I've been away from the site longer than I expected, in part because I was investigating how to set up an RSS feed. Being on the receiving end of RSS feeds is no problem, since "news aggregators" are so readily available now. In my own case, I use the Sage plug-in for the Mozilla Firefox browser to troll for additions to sites like the indispensable Cartoon Brew. But publishing RSS feeds appears to be another matter, at least when you're using obsolete (but comfortable) Web-site design software like Macromedia Dreamweaver 4. I could spend the money to upgrade my software, of course, but I'd rather not, at least not yet, unless there's no good alternative. If anyone has any suggestions, I'd welcome them.

THE COMMENTARIAT: I've been shocked—shocked!—to hear that some people think my August 3 posting about audio commentaries was a dig at John Kricfalusi and Eddie Fitzgerald. I'm baffled—baffled!—as to how anyone could reach such a conclusion. But I'm grateful, too, for the messages I've received from people who've enjoyed the commentaries I've contributed to the Looney Tunes DVDs. Dan Briney wrote that my commentaries were "the most level-headed, professional, informative, and worthwhile of them all," and that's great to hear.

I have strong preferences about what should go into commentaries, but I've enjoyed some of the other Looney Tunes commentaries, even when they've differed considerably from mine; I very much like John K.'s commentary for Clampett's Great Piggy Bank Robbery, for instance. What I find bothersome is less the differences among the commentaries than how violently some cartoon fans attack commentaries that try to offer anything more than mindless enthusiasm. It always seems to me, when I stumble upon angry explosions of that kind on a blog or a message board, that the fans involved are desperate to recapture what they felt when they first saw the cartoons involved, most likely when they were kids camped in front of a TV set. They seem to resent any suggestion that there's a different kind of pleasure to be taken from watching a cartoon for, say, the twentieth time instead of the first.

Sometimes, it's true, you can experience on a repeat viewing something very close to the same startled joy a cartoon brought you the first time. That happened to me many years ago, when I was passing through a college's student union and a TV set happened to be tuned to Tex Avery's King-Size Canary. I'd seen that cartoon when I was a kid, on a Saturday matinee program at the Heights Theatre in my Little Rock neighborhood. The Heights loaded up its cartoon matinees with Famous Studios cartoons, Screen Songs especially (how well I remember the groans when the bouncing ball materialized!), but occasionally my patience was rewarded and some good Warner or MGM short turned up. One Saturday the gem in the dungheap was King-Size Canary, and I remember watching it in rapturous astonishment. When I was at the student union, I knew instantly I'd seen that cartoon before—but I remembered nothing specific about it, and so seeing it then was very much like seeing it for the first time. I'm sure I laughed as hard. But that was an unusual situation, and I can't think of any exact parallels where other cartoons were involved. More often, as I watch cartoons I've seen before, I enjoy not so much the gags as I do everything that makes those gags so funny—the timing, the staging, the emotional and psychological insights, the strength of the character conception, the expertise of the animation, and so on. In the best cartoons, there's something new of that kind to discover on each viewing.

It's always fun, too, to watch good cartoons with people who haven't seen them many times before. When a group of non-fans surrenders to delight at a screening, and you find yourself laughing heartily along with them, it can be almost like seeing the cartoons for the first time. But ultimately it is with a good cartoon as it is with sex: you can lose your virginity only once. I'm afraid those fans who've seen every MGM and Warner cartoon fifty times and are desperate for new thrills like those that Bob and Tex and Chuck once provided—hey, I've heard those Ted Eshbaugh cartoons are way cool, how can I see 'em?are doomed to disappointment.

AMID'S BOUNTY: Within a few days late last month, I received the ninth issue of Amid Amidi's invaluable magazine, Animation Blast, and his new book, Cartoon Modern. Either one would be an achievement worthy of sustained applause; to have produced both almost simultaneously, along with the Cartoon Brew site Amid shares with Jerry Beck, is an amazing feat. (My thought is, lucky for us that Amid is so young and can get by on what must be no more than four or five hours of sleep).

Cartoon ModernI hope to read both magazine and book within the next few days and offer some extended thoughts about them. So far I've read Pete Docter's piece on John Sibley, the Disney animator, in Animation Blast, and it's an outstanding piece of work—lots of good research (I shared with Pete excerpts from some of my interviews, as I've done with Amid and John Canemaker and other writers I respect), wrapped up in an article that conveys extremely well Sibley's strengths as an animator and his characteristics as a person. Pete is himself an animation pro, the director of Pixar's Monsters, Inc., and it's tremendously encouraging that a leading professional at the leading animation studio has such a strong sense of his medium's history.

Sibley was, thanks to his early death (in 1973), one of the people Milt Gray and I missed interviewing, and I'm delighted that Pete has plugged that gap in our knowledge. Amid has done very much the same with Cartoon Modern, a richly illustrated survey of animation design in the 1950s at studios ranging in size and influence from Disney and UPA to small commercial houses—territory that I did not explore in depth when I wrote Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age but that deserves sympathetic attention. Such additions to our knowledge are exactly what I might have hoped for when I wrote my book.

CARTOON POP: I was dismayed a few weeks ago to find that David Gerstein's Cartoon Pop Music Page had disappeared from the Web. Now it's back as a subdivision of Jerry Beck's Cartoon Research site, a more stable and permanent home. If you didn't visit David's page in its earlier incarnation, you're in for a treat; you can get to it by clicking here.

COMING DISTRACTIONS: I've seen Monster House and A Scanner Darkly (illustrated below) , and I'm collecting my thoughts about both films for a joint review sometime within the next few days.