March 31, 2011:
March 30, 2011:
March 25, 2011:
March 20, 2011:
Roger Armstrong Remembers Life at Lantz, 1944-45
March 16, 2011:
March 10, 2011:
March 31, 2011:
Roger Armstrong's reminiscences of the Walter Lantz studio in the 1940s have stimulated some enjoyable posts elsewhere. Bill Benzon has subjected one of the best Lantz cartoons of that period (one of the best Lantz cartoons, period), The Greatest Man in Siam, to his usual painstaking analysis on his New Savanna blog, with lots of frame grabs, one of which I've appropriated. You can go to the first of his three posts at this link.
Michael Sporn has written about his two encounters with Walter Lantz, and his post put me in mind of my own single meeting with Walter. I interviewed him in 1971, in the company of my wife and the animator James Tim Walker, who arranged the interview for me. I liked Walter, as most people did, but the interview ultimately proved of little value. Walter by then had been interviewed too many times, and had told the same questionable stories too many times. (Walter spoke of contributing a bit of animation to each of his cartoons, as late as 1950, but when I mentioned that to Dick Lundy, one of the Lantz directors in the 1940s, a couple of years later, Lundy scornfully rejected Walter's claim: "He never even touched a pencil.")
As friendly as Walter was to me, he seemed to be especially taken with Phyllis. He was a small man, a little over five feet, and she is a small woman (5-foot-1); probably he enjoyed meeting an attractive young woman whom he could look straight in the eye.
From Tom Carr: I haven't seen this cartoon, but the frame capture here reminded me of another Lantz "Swing Symphony:" Abou Ben Boogie, directed by James Culhane, which is really one of the best in the series (not that I've seen them all). By today's standards, it's of course as politically incorrect as it can be (sort of a Coal Black And De Sebben Dwarfs, but with Arab characters). To me, that makes it all the better! Also, the musical score swings hard, especially in the last few minutes. No one but composer Darrell Calker is credited, which was the usual practice with music at all the animation studios, so I wonder who the musicians were? Obviously, not just the Universal Studio Orchestra; there are some real jazz men in there! Apparently, the Middle East isn't nearly as much fun as it used to be.
[Posted April 1, 2011]
From Bill Benzon: Just saw the comment from Tom Carr. Abou Ben Boogie came out about half a year or so after The Greatest Man in Siam. Abou himself is the same character as one of the contestants in Siam, the third one, the one who claimed to be the fastest man in Siam. The
princess from Siam reappears in Abou as a singer who sings the title song and dances with Abou. Somewhere out there on the web I found out that she was known on a model sheet simply as "Miss X." Pat Matthews is listed as one of the animators on the film; presumably he's the one who did the major dance sequence in this one, as he did in Siam.
[Posted April 3, 2011]
March 30, 2011:
|Milt Kahl stands behind (from left) Ollie Johnston, Peter Behn (the voice of Thumper), and Frank Thomas, in a publicity photo for Bambi.|
You can read my 1976 interview with the great (and decidedly outspoken) Disney animator at this link.
From Thad Komorowski: What a pleasant surprise to see your 1976 interview with Milt Kahl on your site. I can't imagine why you'd feel disappointed afterwards at all. The list of times I've interviewed people in animation and walked away in disgust after a series of "Um, what?", "I don't know", etcetera is too long for my liking. Kahl is the kind of interview subject all of us journalists love to have: opinionated, straight to the point, and has a lot to say.
As I wrote in my previous comment on your "Michelangelo" post awhile ago, there's a certain irony to Kahl's criticism of Kimball, and not just because studying who did what reveals that Kahl had a flair for broad comedy that never got fully utilized either. Acting is not always about seriousness. On the contrary, a performance could be made all the more believable and human by how hilarious and outrageous it is, as in the best of Kimball's animation, and the best of Tashlin, Avery, and Clampett. The problem is the Disney features were increasingly becoming a venue where an animator like Kimball couldn't flourish. Generally speaking, Kahl couldn't either, hence the reams of footage that is technically fine but hollow. Roger in Dalmatians is pretty great though.
MB replies: I felt a little disappointed, I think, because Kahl didn't and maybe couldn't address directly what I think is one of the most interesting questions about animation of the kind I love: how is that animators can make what it is simply impossible (in this case, the Prince's lifting King Hubert and whirling him through the air) seem not just possible but completely natural. But finding an answer to that question was really my job, not Kahl's, and that's part of what I tried to do in Hollywood Cartoons.
Reading the interview now, I'm quite happy with it, wishing only, as is so often the case, that I'd asked Kahl a few more questions. No matter one's opinion of the people involved, you gotta love a guy who dismisses Ward Kimball as "a Chuck Jones with talent."
[Posted March 31, 2011]
From Joshua Wilson: What's interesting to me about this interview is that despite the questions being well formulated and well researched, Kahl was so contradictory to so many of the propositions. It's as if he came into it with an agenda to set the record straight on any number of points. Certainly he won't be accused of false modesty: it's interesting too to read the words of someone who seems to just frankly feel they are superior than others. Not really arrogance, but you can understand why others wouldn't appreciate what he had to say.
[Posted April 1, 2011]
From Dave Pruiksma: I just wanted to let you know that I thoroughly enjoyed reading your post of the interview you did with Milk Kahl in 1976. It was very enlightening and gave me wonderful perspective on one of the talents I knew the least about. I have shared the article with all my students. I know they will appreciate it as well.
From Steven Hartley: I read your Milt Kahl interview just now and I thought it was a rather decent Kahl interview you and Milt Gray have made. If I were to travel back in time to interview people, I'd like to interview Kahl, and other animators.
It seems in the interview that Milt Kahl seemed to have been "critical" towards other people. For instance, he describes animator Marvin Woodward as "some poor bastard"— is he saying that Marvin was a tough guy to follow or describing him as a poor animator. By the way, I see that Milt also shares his hatred towards Gerry Geronimi there. I would like to hear more about Gerry's stories. Anyways, it was a very interesting interview and I hope to hear more interviews soon.
[Posted April 3, 2011]
March 25, 2011:
Thanks to Chris Sobieniak for sending me a scan of this Ed Solomon gag drawing of Roger Armstrong and some of his colleagues at the Lantz studio; that's Solomon himself at the lower right. Roger mentions such gag drawings in his reminiscences of the Lantz studio, which I posted earlier this month.
March 20, 2011:
The last few days, I've had a decision to make. Should I write a review of Rango, a review that would brand me, yet again, as a choleric, senescent grump? Or should I prepare for publication Roger Armstrong's memories of working at the Lantz studio in 1944-45, which he sent to me on a cassette more than thirty-five years ago—vivid memories of a happier time and a happier place than anything in today's animation world? Not even a close call. You can reminisce with Roger by going to the Essay page at this link.
From Michael Sporn: Your Roger Armstrong piece made for great reading. For some reason, I have an enormous interest in the Lantz studio operation, and this was very informative. I think, as defined in Adamson's book, when Lantz went from being dumped by Universal to making an arrangement with them whereby he supplied the finished films and Universal would then pay for them, I began to wonder about the studio arrangement. Yet, there's so little written about Lantz, other than a discussion of the films.
When Armstrong describes going into the Lantz studio, I wondered why it wasn't on the Universal lot, but then soon realized it was—there was just a separation of the animation studio from the live-action set. The whole arrangement seems odd.
The description of the personalities seems quite in keeping with the personalities I'd read about. Emery Hawkins seems, here, even more out of control than I'd heard. His personality certainly seems to fit the animation that he's done, stylistically. He must have been fun when he worked at Warners. It's a wonder Hawkins was able to work so alone for much of his career out of New Mexico when he free lanced. You'd think he'd crave the audience for his practical jokes.
It's also interesting that Armstrong talks freely about Bobe Cannon, who was probably in the army doing Snafu at the time and was certainly not at Lantz. Presumably he, Armstrong, had heard a lot about Cannon from others, particularly Daly, and had put two and two together. One suspects, though, that there was some contact between Armstrong and Cannon.
In all, thanks for posting this. I had fun reading it.
MB replies: A good point: how did Roger Armstrong know about Bobe Cannon? Cannon's tenure at Warners overlapped Armstrong's at Lantz, and I'd guess that Roger Daly talked about Cannon vividly enough that it made an impression on Armstrong. I don't know offhand when Daly worked at Schlesinger's, but presumably it was sometime before 1944.
As far as I know, Cannon was never in the army, even briefly. The Snafus were produced at the Schlesinger studio, not by any military unit.
From Mark Mayerson: That was wonderful. I love it when names I don't know come up and there's information about the physical layout of a studio.
The process of altering newspaper photos with erasers is apparently a long standing animation industry tradition. When I worked at Zander's Animation Parlour in the '70s, the assistants were constantly on the lookout for newspaper photos that reminded them of their co-workers. They'd
get out the eraser and turn some politician or entertainer into a caricature of the guy at the next desk.
None of the Zander assistants of the time started as early as the '40s or worked in California. They were mostly veterans of Famous or Terry, so I assume that the photo modifications were widely practiced within the industry.
From Thad Komorowski: I loved the Roger Armstrong piece. Though they only made a small amount of truly extraordinary films (Shamus Culhane doing almost all of them), I really do have an affinity for almost anything bearing Lantz's name. I was a little disappointed there was nothing about what Culhane was like when he was doing his best work, but reading about daily life at the Lantz studio more than made up for it.
Regarding Bobe Cannon, I believe he actually did animate on one film produced by Lantz, the Hook cartoon Take Heed Mr. Tojo. If it's not Cannon's animation at the beginning (scenes of Hook and his son), it's somebody doing a good imitation of his drawing style and lip sync (certainly not one of the studio's regulars). But then again, the cartoon was made in 1943, before Armstrong was at the studio. Maybe Cannon came in to visit friends at Lantz after doing his footage for Jones (he was a fast worker I hear)? We'll probably never know.
[Posted March 20, 2011]
From Floyd Norman: I loved the piece on the Walter Lantz Studio. I had the opportunity to work with Roger Armstrong at Disney when we were both in the comic strip department. Roger was a great guy, and he organized painting trips to Europe with his students each year.
I also greatly admired Bobe Cannon. He developed projects at Disney on occasion, but nothing was ever produced to my knowledge. After Bobe passed away I was given a cardboard box full of 16 mm copies of his work. Luckily, I had a projector and I watched his films over and over. There was no video in those days. In time, I handed the box over to Cannon's daughter.
Thanks again for this insightful look inside the Lantz studio.
[Posted March 21, 2011]
From "John in Tennessee": New to your site, I linked here from Mark Evanier's most excellent blog. Really enjoyed the article!
Just a note to let you know how amazed I am to read how similar things are in animation environments over the decades. I spent 11 years at the now closed down Disney Orlando studios from 1992 to 2003 and many of the similarities are striking! From the constant horseplay between the artists, weekly marches over to the huge theater on the MGM Studio lot for "Dailies," cubicles, and hilarious caricatures traded between all of us (we even had shows of the best of them)—it really brought back a ton of memories. I wonder if they had the epic rubber-band wars we did?
Not that I hold up our dozen or so years with the classic guys and gals of animation (well, maybe a little). It does tickle me to know that these memories that I and my friends cherish aren't really so unique to us. I miss those days terribly and enjoyed your printing of the interview a great deal. It made me homesick. Thanks so much...
MB replies: I certainly agree about Mark Evanier's blog. My only problem with it is that Mark posts so much good stuff that I have trouble keeping up with it.
I've followed John's wishes in posting his comment under his pseudonym; I think that's a reasonable request when the commenters has worked or is working at one of the big studios. But, for the record, I think the prevalence of anonymous/pseudonymous blog posts is one of the curses of the web, encouraging not frankness but abusive and self-indulgent language. Commenters should be prepared to stand behind what they say, but on the evidence of comments like those on Cartoon Brew, most of them aren't.
From Gordon Kent: I loved the piece on Roger Armstrong...he was the first professional cartoonist I ever got to meet. I was still in college—it was probably 1975—and I got a letter of introduction from one of my art teachers who knew him somehow.
Roger was living in Laguna Niguel and his studio was in a trailer. He invited me in and we drank tea through our teeth because it was loose tea and he didn't have a strainer!
I remember taking a portfolio of my work and being very nervous about showing it to him. He was working on a Super Goof comic at the time and showed me what he was doing. At the time what I really wanted was to sell a comic strip or work in comic books and it was amazing to see the "real thing."
Roger was an extremely nice man and he was also very proud of his work in water color. I was invited to see him at least one more time and then he'd send me invitations to his water color shows—he was extremely talented.
Oddly, one of my classmates in junior high was a fellow named Bruce Craig. We were in Spanish class together and I helped him a little. In exchange he brought in a huge stack of comic books. I had no idea where he'd gotten them and I didn't ask, but I was delighted to get them.
This all comes to together a few years later—1977 to be exact.
I was working at Hanna-Barbera. It was my first job and my first few months and I was tabbed along with Warren Greenwood to write gags for a proposed Scooby Doo comic strip. Hanna Barbera had hired a man named Chase Craig to coordinate and run the operation. Somehow it was determined that Chase had a son named Bruce...which is where those comic books came from. Anyways, Chase had hired a friend to be the artist on the strip—Roger Armstrong! So there I was, working "with" Roger! Chase also gave Dan Spiegle a shot at the strip and I'm pretty sure it was Spiegle's work they went with but it didn't matter, the strip never sold...
I also thought I'd add a bit to some of the names Roger mentioned...
When I went to work at Ruby Spears in 1978 as an assistant animator, Ed Solomon was the head of the animation department. The following year I was moved to the layout department and shared a room with, among others, Alex Ignatiev who was a wonderful layout artist. He had spent time painting mattes for feature films and he talked about not getting too detailed in the work. He said if you painted something in a matte slightly "out of focus" it looked more realistic. He was a very nice man.
[Posted March 25, 2011]
From Børge Ring: Roger Armstrong in Wonderlanz tells us that comics are more work than animation. I know. In the '70s I wrote and drew a lot of Disney comix. The Dutch Disney magazine could buy pages from Disney at a very low page price. on condition that they, the Dutch, produced 200 pages a year for Disney to sell cheaply in South America and elsewhere
The Dutch found they received too few Chips and Dales so in my first strip I had Donald Duck buy a double bass without knowing that Chip and Dale lived inside the instrument. I squeezed the job as part of what [Shamus] Culhane called "your lifelong self-education." I played the game that I was Volus Jones and I worked hard to be on model to please Jack Hannah.
[Posted March 29, 2011]
March 16, 2011:
Evanston, Illinois, is the anchor of what's known as the North Shore, the string of wealthy towns on Lake Michigan just above Chicago. It's the home of Northwestern University, where I went to college for four years, a half century ago. Evanston was in those days a smug and stodgy place, not just dry but so dry it was the home of the Women's Christian Temperance Union. College students who could persuade a skeptical bartender that they were twenty-one had to flee to Howard Street, on Chicago's northern edge, to slake their thirst; or they could risk drinking cheap wine in the attic of their fraternity house, in the hope that the enforcers from the interfraternity council wouldn't come prowling around before the wine was all consumed.
Evanston's representative in Congress then was Marguerite Stitt Church, whom you can see above shaking hands with Walt Disney on July 4, 1957. Mrs. Church, who has always looked to me as if she were posing for one of Helen Hokinson's cartoons in The New Yorker (and voted the same way), was of course a Republican, as was Walt.
Walt got to Evanston a little over a year before I did, in order to ride in a convertible in the thirty-sixth annual parade of the North Evanston Fourth of July Association. When it was announced in May 1957 that Walt would take part in the parade, the Chicago Tribune reported that Fess Parker and Jimmie Dodd would take part, too, along with a half dozen Mouseketeers. "The Disney theme will be carried in parade floats, and fireworks displays will depict Fantasyland, Frontierland, Tomorrowland, and Adventureland, all features of Disneyland, Cal. The twilight show and fireworks display will be held in Dyche stadium [Northwestern's football stadium]. Costumes of 14 popular Disney characters such as Donald Duck and Minnie Mouse will be shipped to Evanston from Hollywood to be worn during the day by [local] youngsters."
All that came to pass, and more. Hal Stalmaster, the star of Disney's live-action feature Johnny Tremain, which had been released in June 1957, also took part in the parade, as did Roy Williams, the Disney story man and the Mickey Mouse Club's "big Mooseketeer."
The snapshot above left was taken during the parade; it sold on eBay for a startling price, but, fortunately, the scan on the eBay page was not defaced with the seller's marks, so I could pick it up for use here.
Even better, you can watch a home movie of the parade on YouTube:
But how did Walt wind up participating in what was, after all, a small-town Fourth of July parade, sponsored not even by the city of Evanston but by the North Evanston Fourth of July Association? As so often in such cases, it was a matter of what the Tribune called "a chain of friends." A member of the North Evanston association had a friend named James Reinhold, who was assistant to the president of the Santa Fe railroad and who knew Walt, perhaps through the Santa Fe's involvement in Disneyland or maybe even earlier, since Walt rode the Santa Fe frequently on his trips across the country. The Evanston association's "show committee" approached Walt not only through Reinhold and the Santa Fe, but also through Myron Cox, an executive of Swift & Co., the Chicago-based meat packer that was also a Disneyland concessionaire. That was in 1956. Walt pleaded a prior commitment—he would be in his hometown of Marceline, Missouri, that July 4, along with his brother Roy and their wives, for the dedication of a municipal park and swimming pool in his honor—but he asked for a rain check.
The next year, the Tribune reported in June 1957, "the association again called on its friend, Reinhold, friend of Disney—and Cox, another friend. But it was Reinhold who posed the second invitation to Disney several months ago, when he was in Hollywood on business in Disneyland where the Santa Fe operates all the railroads. ... 'Walt,' he reminded, 'it isn't too late to say you'll be on hand this year for the Evanston Fourth of July show.' 'You must have caught me in a weak moment,' replied Disney. 'I'll be there.'" The Tribune story continues:
Thus the association several weeks ago dispatched L. T. Kreutzig, association trustee, to "button up" the arrangements.
"When I arrived at the Disney studio, together with Henry O'Leary of the Santa Fe's Los Angeles office," Kreutzig recalled, "the animator met us in the fourth office to which we were moved in scrutinizing succession. After first asking us if we would have a drink—coffee is served by a Filipino houseboy at the office bar—Disney queried, 'Gentlemen, what are we here to talk about?'
"That was my moment of tension—I thought it was a good dream while it lasted," Kreutzig said. "But O'Leary reminded Disney were were there to make final arrangements for his appearance at the Evanston celebration."
Assured children would benefit from the programming, Disney then called in his representative, Tom Walker. "Figure out schedules and see who we can make available for this Fourth of July parade and twilight show in Evanston," said the producer.
"So," sighed Kreutzig summarizing his part of the story, "it has all been real friendly." He also noted, "It's nice that Santa Fe has the railway concession in Disneyland, and that Swift & Co. supplies all the meat used there."
(I'm not sure about the "Tom Walker" mentioned above; I suspect the person involved may actually have been Tom Wilck, but perhaps someone else knows for sure.)
[A March 17, 2011, update: Thanks to Jim Korkis, Hans Perk, and Stacia Martin for pointing out that "Tom Walker" was actually Tommy Walker, who was Disneyland's director of entertainment from 1955 to 1967. I suppose that that "Tom" fooled me, since I certainly have heard of Tommy Walker. Dave Smith's Disney A to Z describes his role: "Besides the park's parade and fireworks spectaculars, he was in charge of many special events, including the grand opening ceremonies for Disneyland, and later the pageantry for the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley." His father was Vesey Walker, the first director of the Disneyland band. I like what assigning Walker to the Evanston parade and fireworks show says about Walt. Having made a commitment that I'm sure he wished he could get out of, Walt nevertheless didn't cut any corners, putting one of his top people in charge and bringing in not just the Disney cartoon characters (in the strange early versions of the costumes) but his biggest live-action stars of the time.]
Back to Marguerite Stitt Church for a moment...I can remember only one time when I saw her in person. She was retiring from Congress at the end of 1962—she turned seventy that year—and, in what I now see was a gracious gesture, Northwestern honored her by choosing her as that June's commencement speaker. That was the June that I graduated, and I remember listening to Mrs. Church with more annoyance than respect. Probably I'd be more sympathetic now.
Her successor had been chosen in a Republican primary in the spring, and for some reason—a class assignment, maybe, or a piece for the university newspaper—I did a telephone interview with the winner of that primary shortly after he won. He was an eager beaver whom I found just as disagreeable, in his own very different way, as Mrs. Church. What was his name? Oh yes: Donald Rumsfeld. I wonder what ever happened to that guy...
March 10, 2011:
You can read my 1976 interview with the director of such groundbreaking UPA cartoons as Rooty Toot Toot (a publicity photo of a cel set-up from that cartoon is above—the cartoon itself was shot in Technicolor, of course) by clicking on this link.
From Eric Noble: Fascinating interview. I wish you could have garnered a more thorough interview about his whole career. I am very interested in hearing about the experiences he underwent during his independent years, how he felt about the animators he worked with and such. The more I see his work, the more I like it. A truly gifted and visionary director. It's a shame we never got to see his version of Finian's Rainbow.
His class on "Visualization of Abstract Concepts" sounds incredibly fascinating. That is a skill that is invaluable to any artist, and to people in general. On Real Time with Bill Maher (a show on HBO where political humorist Bill Maher discusses politics with a panel, much like his old show on ABC), choreographer Bill T. Jones mentioned something very akin to that. It was a debate about the importance of art in society and whether the federal government should fund such programs. Mr. Jones argued that art is as necessary as hospitals and libraries. His reasoning was that art teaches us to think abstractly, teaches teamwork, etc. They only spent a little bit of time on that, but it got me thinking. I could go on more about that, but then this would probably be more appropriate for my own blog postings. Many thanks to you for putting these wonderful bits of animation history on here.
MB replies: As to the difficulties involved in interviewing John Hubley, be sure to read Michael Sporn's March 12 post about my interviews with Hubley and Bob McKimson. Michael worked for the Hubleys and knew them well.
[Posted March 13, 2011]
From Børge Ring: John Hubley was holy to me. An imperfect saint perhaps but a saint. Walt Disney's Pioneer Days—seen when I was ten—and Hubley's Moonbird are my life's two evergreens. I view them whenever I need to feel good. Moonbird in January of 1960 crushed me. It was "Disney-plus" or ''All this and Disney too." I felt that some day soon "they" could animate the good American shortstory.
In the summer of 1960 the total pile of Bob Cannon's animation for Moonbird reposed on a table behind an exhibition room in Annecy. My fingers itched. But filching them would be like stealing the Mona Lisa—you could never share her with others without getting into problems. But luckily you later informed us that such artwork was not there to be prayed to but to help you understand the thoughts that went into the films.
Moonbird is a lovely poem and devoid of any music to "guide" your feelings.
The Hubleys were fans of the Oscar Peterson trio and they named one of their sons Raymond after Oscar's bassist Ray Brown,who was a close friend of mine for fifty years. After the night's concert in Amsterdam's Concertgebouw Ray would would go home with us and sit and chat until sunup when he took a cab to the airport.
John Hubley sent their son of sixteen to Richard Williams in London. "What do you want me to do with him? asked Dick. "Let him begin painting celluloids,and let him go on from there."
[Posted March 29, 2011]
Widgets: That's what amazon.com calls boxes like the one just above this item. Now, instead of generic product links, a widget can show items that I personally recommend, with pocket reviews. I really like this idea, because it permits me to plug books and DVDs and such that I might never get around to discussing in a review, or even in an item like this one. I'll be changing the lineup of recommended items from time to time, so stay tuned.
Needless to say, if you decide to order an item from amazon, I'd appreciate your ordering through a link in the widget or elsewhere on my site. My fees from amazon's links don't amount to a lot, but they usually cover the annual cost of my ISP, plus at least some of the related web-authoring software costs. That makes a difference, especially when I'm trying to persuade my wife that this site is not an expensive indulgence.
Radiolab: I've written about my general skepticism where radio interviews are concerned, but I'd like to make an exception for an interview I did some months back for the NPR show Radiolab. I enjoyed this interview more than most, and certainly more than my interview with the Huffington Post. The hook was my magnum opus, Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age, and I got to talk about the Road Runner and the Coyote. A refreshing change from all my interviews about Walt Disney; and the Radiolab people made clever and creative use of clips from the interview (but they also obscured my mention of the name of my book, dammit). You can hear the whole show by clicking on this link.
"5 Hollywood Secrets That Explain Why So Many Movies Suck": Milt Gray sent me the link to an article bearing that title, on Cracked.com. Cracked is a wiseass humor site, but its analysis is actually highly persuasive, especially when set alongside recent news reports like this one from the Los Angeles Times:
Movie ticket sales may have been flat in the U.S. and Canada last year, but Hollywood's international cinema business soared to new heights in 2010. Global box-office receipts for all films released last year reached a high of $31.8 billion, an increase of 8% over 2009, according to a newly released report from the Motion Picture Assn. of America. The theatrical market statistics report, which the MPAA conducts annually, found that though ticket sales in the U.S. and Canada remained unchanged at $10.6 billion, international revenue jumped 13% between 2010 and 2009.
As the folks at Cracked.com write, "Everything Is Simplified for the International Market" (Hollywood Secret #4). Ergo, as that market becomes more dominant, movies are going to get even more simple-minded. Having just watched Red on Blu-ray, I know exactly what that means.
Hollywood Secret #1 is "Merchandising Supremacy," with Pixar (and Cars 2) as Exhibit A. Just a couple of days after Milt sent me the Cracked.com link, the Wall Street Journal ran a story titled "Sequels Come Fast, Furious As Studios Aim to Cut Risk." Accompanying the article was a chart comparing Disney's take from Toy Story 3 with its take from Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland (which I liked, by the way). Both movies took in more than a billion dollars at the global box office—but Toy Story 3 had much greater "ancillary retail sales," $8.8 billion versus $600 million for Alice.
The Journal noted that Disney executives had just "told a gathering of investors that the company would spend 80% of its production budget this year on franchise films [like Cars 2 and the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean] versus 40% in 2010. ... Disney says that focusing on films that can spawn sequels and lines of merchandise allows it to generate revenue from multiple businesses, multiple geographic region and over multiple years. Disney Studios Chairman Rich Ross said a franchise movie 'starts with the human connection to the story and characters, but downstream there are opportunities to own the DVD, see live stage versions, buy apparel, toys, or other licensed products.'"
Ah, yes, that good ol' human connection. Comment would be superfluous, probably.
Børge Ring: The great Danish animator turned 90 last month, and to mark the occasion his daughter Anne-Mieke has set up a website for him. You can go to it by clicking on this link. Go to the "Talk to Børge" page to join me in wishing him many happy returns, and many more years.
Benzon on Clampett:As you know if you've read some of his pieces on this site—look under "Essays," or do a Google search of the site—Bill Benzon is that great rarity, a critic who applies the techniques of sophisticated literary analysis to cartoons. Most recently, Bill has scrutinized Bob Clampett's Porky in Wackyland, and you can read a summation of his thinking about that cartoon on his New Savanna blog.
Dick Kelsey:Vincent Randle, proprietor of the Drawn to Illusion blog, has undertaken the commendable task of bringing fresh information to light about some of the important but neglected figures in Disney animation's past, starting with Richmond "Dick" Kelsey, who worked for Disney for a dozen years and was credited for art direction, story, and color styling on many of the early Disney features, from Pinocchio through Alice in Wonderland. He was also deeply involved in work on the unfinished Hiawatha feature; in 1948 Disney sent him on a six-week trip through the Midwest and the Northeast, "sketching and documenting the settings of Longfellow's famous narrative poem," in the words of one contemporaneous report. If you have any Kelsey-related information that Vince might be able to use, write to him at email@example.com. His March 5 posting on his blog—you'll have to scroll down to get to it—reports on his progress to date.
From John McElwee: Just wanted to say how much I've enjoyed your recent postings and the Widget feature you've introduced. This is something all new to me, and I think it's a great idea! In fact, I went to Amazon through your links and just ordered Fantasia and the Echoes Of Paris CD (I'm always looking for good music I can listen to while I'm online). I'll be keeping an eye on future Widget recommendations you make.
MB replies: I hope lots of people follow John's example! And while you're on the Web, be sure to visit his blog, Greenbriar Picture Shows, an amazing repository of information about classic Hollywood films.
[Posted March 13, 2011]
From Reuben Baron: I'm curious what your defense of Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland is. It seems to me that was a movie that literally had zero purpose beyond merchandise. I've liked most of Burton's movies and his real labors of love (usually the ones with a character named Edward) blow me away, but his Alice bored me to tears. Burton seemed like a natural fit for the material, but he himself admits to not being a fan of Lewis Carroll, and his disinterest shows by just how he got away with it. The script was a wreck, trying to take what should have been wild and creative and turned it into a generic prophecy story that's been done to death, mixed with a stupid "trying to remember everything" twist straight out of Spielberg's disaster Hook. The cast was mostly good but mostly wasted. Only Alice and the Mad Hatter really got substantial screentime, and Johnny Depp, who usually does wonderful specific characterizations, didn't know what he was doing. He couldn't even decide on what voice to use! Then there's the dancing scene at the end which was so out of place and embarrassing it killed whatever entertainment I was having up to that point. Say what you will about Pixar's movies, but up until now (Cars 2 really does look like it was only made to sell toys), it was easy to feel the passion the crew had for their material, though flawed it could sometimes be. I get the impression Alice was only greenlit by Disney because they know Tim Burton movies sell merchandise at Hot Topic and they wanted some new products. And those freaky designs of his do look damn good on a T-shirt. Too bad the movie itself was such a let-down.
MB replies: I don't think I need to "defend" Burton's Alice, since I didn't have anything to do with the film other than watching it and enjoying it. I have only dim memories now of the story; what sticks with me is Burton's sinister reimagining of the already rather frightening Tenniel illustrations, and the general visual ingenuity (this is one Blu-ray disc where the extras are really worth watching, for what they reveal of how some of the striking effects were achieved). I haven't much cared for some of the Burton movies I've seen, like The Corpse Bride, and I've avoided others entirely, like Sweeney Todd; I didn't want my fond memories of seeing Angela Lansbury on stage soiled by all the blood that I knew Burton poured into his film. But Alice worked for me. As for merchandise being the motive—as the Wall Street Journal pointed out, Alice was much weaker a generator of revenue of that kind than Toy Story 3, and I really can't imagine that either Burton or the bigwigs at Disney ever thought it was going to rival Pixar in that regard.
But I certainly agree that the Mad Hatter's dance at the end was a bad mistake.
[Posted March 15, 2011]
From Tom Carr: I've been paying a lot more attention to Bob McKimson cartoons lately than to anything current (thanks, in part, to you), which seems like a much better use of my viewing time than watching anything in CGI. Draftsmanship counts for a great deal in animation, and CGI takes the artist's hand right out of the picture— literally. Not a nice development, and it's also been overused to the point that the public might well be getting tired of it. "Back to the drawing board" would be an excellent idea.
[Posted March 19, 2011]