Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Canadian Animation Studios Should Apply Pressure to End the Ontario College Strike

There is currently a province-wide college strike in Ontario.  The issues are larger than those affecting the animation programs at the various colleges, but those programs are being affected.

As the Canadian animation industry depends so heavily on graduates from colleges such as Sheridan, Seneca and Algonquin, it is in the industry's interests to apply pressure on college presidents and on the Ontario government to end the strike.

There is a strong possibility that the current semester may be lost.  That may impact graduating animation students and animation students who are available for internships or summer jobs.  It will potentially delay graduates moving into the workforce and may affect the quality of graduates for the next four years.

If you are a studio owner or manager, can you afford a delay in the pool of applicants or interns in 2018?  I urge you to contact the presidents of the colleges you regularly hire from as well as your MPP and Premier Kathleen Wynn.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Jack Kirby, Charlie Chaplin and Louis Armstrong

August 28 is the 100th birthday of comics great Jack Kirby, born Jacob Kurtzberg, whose work remains in print 23 years after his death and whose creations are more widely known than ever due to their adaptations in movies and TV.

In the days before World War II, the United States experienced an explosion of pop culture due to the invention of the movies, the phonograph and cheap colour printing.  These media, with no pedigree, were developed by hardscrabble entrepreneurs who used them to appeal to the same lower classes that they came from themselves.  Being disreputable, these media were open to anyone; talent and productivity were all that mattered.  Kirby found a home in comic books, Chaplin in films and Armstrong in music.

The three had childhoods of poverty in common.  Kirby grew up on Manhattan's lower east side, perhaps the most densely populated place on Earth at the time.  Violence was a daily occurrence, as rival gangs of kids fought to protect what little they had.  Kirby's parents were uneducated immigrants and Kirby's father worked in factories for the garment trade doing piece work.  Chaplin was the son of two music hall entertainers in London.  His parents divorced, his father died of alcoholism and his mother suffered from mental illness.  Chaplin spent time living on the street and in a workhouse for the indigent.  Armstrong's parents did not cohabit and he was born in the black ghetto of New Orleans during the worst days of institutionalized white supremacy.  He spent some time in a reform school for black children.

Kirby benefited from a stable family, even if his father was not the best provider.  However, while Chaplin and Armstrong had role models, Kirby was sui generis.  Chaplin's parents and an aunt were all performers.  Armstrong lived in a city where marching bands  performed almost daily, publicising events and accompanying funerals.  Even his reform school had a band.  There were no artists in Kirby's family and the lower east side was not a place where art was valued.  Kirby found a science fiction pulp magazine in the street.  He was fascinated by the art and stories in it, but hid it, knowing his interest would mark him as different and make him a target.

Each of the three was professionally supported by mentors.  Chaplin's half-brother Sydney helped negotiate his contracts, making Chaplin rich and owner of his films by 1918.  Armstrong was mentored by King Oliver, one of the leading jazz cornet players.  Armstrong later worked for decades under the management of Joe Glaser, a tough man who kept Armstrong in the good graces of the gangsters who ran the venues that Armstrong played and made sure that Armstrong was fairly compensated.  Kirby partnered with Joe Simon, another comics creator a few years older and with a better head for business than Kirby had.  These mentors allowed the three to focus on their art. 

Each of the them changed their fields through the power of their work.  Before Chaplin, film comedy was either the polite society comedy of Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Drew or the raucous, high-speed slapstick of Mack Sennett.  Chaplin kept the slapstick but slowed it down to focus more on character.  Throughout his career, he introduced elements of pathos and social commentary that added further dimension to his character of the little tramp.

Jazz before Armstrong was an ensemble art.  With his recordings in the 1920s, Armstrong made jazz the art of the soloist.  His vocals added both humour and emotion to pop singing and influenced all the singers who came after him.

Kirby's initial innovation was his dynamic posing of characters, bringing a much greater sense of motion to the static comics medium.  However, his innovations went beyond drawing.  His working class roots powered series like The Newsboy Legion and the comics he did after the war, showing characters struggling against poverty and prejudice.  Kirby's time in the infantry in World War II left him aware of giant forces that buffeted individuals and threatened their survival.  In the 1960s, he used that experience to expand comics' subject matter beyond Earth, reducing humanity from the dominant species to one beset by cosmic super beings with their own agendas. 

With Simon, Kirby co-created Captain America and after being swindled out of profits by the publisher, they moved to a competitor where they got a better deal.  After the war, Simon and Kirby had a studio employing other artists and sold work to a variety of publishers.  During this time, the two created the genre of romance comics, as well as working on crime, horror, western and superhero comics.  Kirby's work on these titles, though not as well known as his later work, is some of his best.  He was free to write and draw what interested him, and his stories are filled with fully developed characters struggling against social forces.

After the war, the careers of Kirby, Chaplin and Armstrong diverged.  Chaplin's politics alienated the public and the government during the cold war and he went into exile in the early 1950s, making just two more films.  Armstrong continued to be popular until his death, touring the world and continuing to record.  Kirby went through a fallow period in the 1950s when television and a panic over juvenile delinquency both reduced the demand for comic books.  Simon and Kirby split up, leaving Kirby to freelance in a shrinking market.

Eventually, he landed at Marvel, where his best remembered work was done, designing and co-creating The Fantastic Four, The Hulk, Iron Man, The X-Men, The Avengers, The Inhumans, The Black Panther, Nick Fury, S.H.I.E.L.D, Thor and hundreds of villains and supporting characters.  While Simon and Kirby's partnership was one of equals, Kirby's work with Stan Lee was not.  Lee was Kirby's employer, and his position as editor and dialogue writer meant that he controlled Kirby's income and could alter Kirby's stories without Kirby's knowledge or approval.  Lee's lack of interest in writing stories from scratch meant that Kirby created the characters and plotted the comics, but Lee's editorial changes eventually caused Kirby to leave.

At DC, Kirby created the purest work in his post-Simon career, writing and drawing The Forever People, The New Gods, and Mr. Miracle.  The three series were part of a single epic, built on Kirby's recurring theme of gods interacting with the human world and explicitly dealing with the threat of fascism.  After questionable editorial decisions cancelled those titles, Kirby created Kamandi, The Demon and Omac.

Returning to Marvel after being disappointed at DC, Kirby created Machine Man, Devil Dinosaur, and The Eternals, another series about humans witnessing gods in conflict.  When editorial direction forced his hand yet again, Kirby moved into the animation business where, thanks to the union, he received vacation pay and benefits for the first time in his career.  While Chaplin and Armstrong built up bodies of work that continued to generate income for them, Kirby did not own his comics work.  He was paid once for each page he created.  He received no bonuses for creating new series or characters. Only his last few comics series, done for new publishers, allowed him to own his creations.

While movies and jazz were looked down on by cultural elites early in their existence, there were perceptive critics who saw the value of work by Chaplin and Armstrong.  Eventually, the popularity of movies and jazz caused mainstream publications to pay attention to them.  Comic books never achieved the level of popularity as those forms, so Kirby is not as well known.  However, he is easily as influential and as important a creator.

The level of contemporary comics criticism has improved in recent years but no one has done Kirby justice yet.  His art has attracted much comment, but Kirby is far more than the way he drew.  Yes, his abstract conception of human anatomy is visually powerful, but his evolving style, compositions, panel-to-panel continuity and themes have yet to be fully plumbed.  In truth, Kirby is too big for comics criticism as it currently exists, as few are equipped to deal with both the artistic and literary aspects of his work.

Like Chaplin and Armstrong, Kirby's work transcends pop culture due to his perception, his technique, and the depth of his emotional involvement.  One hundred years after his birth, Kirby's work is there for anyone with a desire to be entertained or for anyone who cares to go deeper and understand that Jack Kirby was one of the most important creators of the 20th century.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Animation's Lack of Consequences

I recently read Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-In Near You: The Shadow Cinema of the American '70s by Charles Taylor.  The following quote from the introduction struck me for how it relates to animated features, though Taylor ignores animation entirely.
"The best genre movies, no matter how rooted in the conventions of Westerns, detective stories, adventure stories or noir, have always involved adult emotions: temptation, guilt, sexual desire, the pull of responsibility.  The violence in those films is wrought and suffered on a scale far more direct than the explosions and anonymous mass killings of today's big-budget action spectaculars.  In the best genre films, we're immersed in a world where decisions have to be made and consequences have to be endured."
Family films are also a genre.  And they're defined, in large part, by the lack of consequences that have to be endured.  It is this lack of consequences that ultimately make family films so lightweight.  No matter what danger the characters are exposed to, in the end there are no consequences.  Since the majority of animated features are family films, they are caught in this trap.

This isn't true of every animated feature.  Bambi, Princess Mononoke, Pom Poko, The Wind Rises, Princess Kaguya (sense a pattern here?) don't conform.  Some Pixar films develop consequences early (Finding Nemo's death of the family, Up's death of Ellie) but they occur so early in the film, they're more inciting incidents that consequences that must be endured.  By the time the films end, the survivors have triumphed and all's right with the world.

Audiences are happy with the genre as it is.  It's light entertainment, safe for the kids.  Executives are happy with the status quo as the films are lucrative.  So animation artists are stuck honing their craft rather than expanding their content.  While people change intellectually and emotionally as they age, animation artists have to put their evolving perspectives on life on the shelf.  They have to deny their own experience and manufacture fictions where truth may seep into the cracks but can't be central to the stories they tell.

It's hard for me to stay an animation fan as I age.  I want entertainment that speaks to my experience of life, not the experiences of a child.  For me, craft is not enough.  Yes, I can admire the design, the direction, and the animation.  I can admire the construction of a story (though not often enough these days), but the story itself fails to connect to me.

Not every genre is for everyone, but the family film starts out excluding adult concerns.  Charles Taylor thinks that the modern tentpole blockbuster has done the same, so maybe the family film is just being pulled along with the general drift.  While cable and streaming TV have created drama series that have captured large audiences and critical acclaim, TV animation hasn't even dipped a toe into that water. 

Young animation artists are happy to create work similar to the work they loved growing up.  But as they age, there's nowhere for them to grow in their medium.  I don't see that changing, though I wish it would.

Sunday, August 06, 2017

Studio Ghibli's Toshio Suzuki


NHK World has posted a video interview with Studio Ghibli's producer Toshio Suzuki.  The interview is only available until August 15, so don't dally.

I was deeply impressed with Suzuki after seeing the documentary The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, which I reviewed here.  The NHK piece has more on Suzuki's background in publishing and how he and Miyazaki established their relationship.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Oskar Fischinger's 117th Birthday

While there's nothing particularly special about the number 117 when celebrating events, Google has taken the opportunity of abstract animator Oskar Fischinger's 117th birthday to honour him with an interactive Google doodle.  By clicking and dragging your mouse, you can quickly create a faux-Fischinger animation.  It's nowhere near as good as Fischinger's own work, but it's fun.

If you are interested in some of the real article, here's an excerpt from Studie Number 8, set to the music of "The Sorcerer's Apprentice."  As Fischinger spent a short time at the Disney studio and contributed to Fantasia, perhaps this is his answer to Disney's lack of comfort with abstraction.

Sunday, April 09, 2017

My Life as a Courgette

For me, the most interesting animated features being made today are not from North America.  Europe has come on strong, both in terms of subject matter and technique.  Drawn animation is still alive there and now there is an excellent stop motion film called My Life as a Courgette (the French word for zucchini).

This film has racked up awards, including an Oscar nomination, and fully deserves whatever praise it's received.  The story is about a group of children who are victims of neglect or tragedy living in a state-run institution.  While the subject matter sounds depressing, the film avoids being dreary or maudlin.  This is not a story by Charles Dickens.  The institution is a haven from their former lives, and while the children are marked by their experiences, they don't dwell on them.  They go on being children who laugh, play, learn, fight, question and who are eager to experience new things.

The script, based on a novel by Gilles Paris with the screenplay by Celine Sciammo, Germano Zullo, Claude Barras and Morgan Navarro, and the direction by Barras are perfect, maintaining a balance between the emotions of the children's pasts and their present.  The stop motion puppets are not as flexible as those made by Mackinnon and Saunders for films like The Corpse Bride, but the animators evoke a wide range of emotions with them, helped enormously by the tasteful script and direction.  The film successfully develops the characters and their relationships.  The events grow out of the dynamics of the group and are never less than believable.

There are no big set pieces as there typically are in North American films.  It is not anywhere near as elaborate as Laika's work, but I found it to be far more satisfying.  The characters simply try to live their lives and it is surprisingly interesting to watch.

I caught the film at the TIFF Kids International Film Festival.  So far, the film has not received a release in Canada, though it opened in the U.S. in February.  I don't know where Canadians will next have an opportunity to see this film, but don't miss it when it becomes available. 

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Toronto Screening of The Animation Show of Shows


The 18th Annual Animation Show of Shows Trailer - Coming Soon from Acme Filmworks on Vimeo.

The 18th annual Animation Show of Shows will be screening at the Carlton Cinema, 20 Carlton Street, from March 31 to April 6.  The films are:
Stems - Ainslie Hendersen (Scotland)
Shift - Cecilia Puglesi & Yijun Liu (U.S.)
Pearl - Patrick Osborne (U.S.)
Crin-crin - Iris Alexandre (Belgium)
Mirror - Chris Ware, John Kuramoto, Ira Glass (U.S.)
Last summer in the garden - bekky O¹Neil (Canada)
Waiting for the New Year - Vladimir Leschiov (Latvia)
Piper - Alan Barillaro (U.S.)
Bøygen - Kristian Pedersen (Norway)
Afternoon Class - Seoro Oh (Korea)
About a Mother - Dina Velikovskaya (Russia)
Exploozy - Joshua Gunn, Trevor Piecham, & John McGowan (U.S.)
Inner Workings - Leo Matsuda (U.S.)
CORPUS - Marc Héricher (France)
BLUE - Daniela Sherer (Israel)
MANOMAN - Simon Cartwright (England)
ALL THEIR SHADES - Chloé Alliez (Belgium)

Thursday, March 09, 2017

Toronto Screenings of My Life as a Courgette

My Life as a Courgette (aka My Life as a Zucchini) is a Swiss-French stop motion feature that was nominated for an Oscar and has won prizes at festivals all over the world.

While it is playing in theatres in the U.S. and Canada, it has no release date for a run in Toronto.  However, it will screen twice at the TIFF Kids International Film Festival, once on April 9 at 10:45 a.m. and once on April 17 at 3:45 p.m.

Information about the film can be found here and information about the festival is here.

Friday, March 03, 2017

Laika Speculation

I am thousands of miles from Laika's studio and have no inside information.  However, I've been interested in following the company's fortunes as it is one of the few companies making stop motion features.

Travis Knight, CEO, animator and director, is going to direct a Transformers spinoff for Paramount.

This is unexpected and raises many questions about the future of Laika.  It's clear from the budgets and grosses of Laika's films that the company is not self-supporting.  I've always thought that it has survived because Travis Knight wanted it to, and because his father, Phil Knight of Nike, was willing to financially support the company on his son's behalf.

What does Travis Knight's latest move mean?  Is he just looking for a change of pace with the intention of returning to Laika?  Was there an understanding between father and son that Laika had to become profitable after some amount of time or number of films, and if it didn't the subsidy would end?

Travis Knight is the reason that Laika exists.  Without him, there is no reason for Phil Knight to finance a money-losing company.  Perhaps this is nothing more than an opportunity that popped up and was hard to resist, but Travis Knight's plans and the box office success of the Transformer's spinoff could have a major impact on the continued existence of Laika.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Floyd Norman: An Animated Life Screening in Toronto

Floyd Norman, animator and story artist, was one of the first African-Americans to work at Disney and in the animation industry.  A documentary on his life is showing at the Hot Docs cinema on Bloor Street on Sunday, February 19 at 11 a.m.  It's a one-time screening.

Floyd will be present via Skype after the film.

For more information, go here.

Thursday, February 09, 2017

John Canemaker's New Blog

John Canemaker (left) with Jules Feiffer

Animation historian and Academy Award winning filmmaker John Canemaker has started a blog.  His first entry features an event last November with the multi-talented cartoonist, playwright, screenwriter and author Jules Feiffer.  Anyone familiar with Canemaker's work knows that anything he writes is worth reading.  Included is a letter Feiffer wrote to his daughters, providing political perspective on today's world.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Michael Dudok de Wit and The Red Turtle


Michael Dudok de Wit's film The Red Turtle is playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto as of January 27.  Some Sheridan animation students and I had the pleasure of spending an hour with Michael Dudok de Wit when he was in Toronto to publicize the film last September as part of the Toronto International Film Festival.


After the success of his Oscar winning short Father and Daughter, Dudok de Wit was approached by Studio Ghibli and asked if he had a feature idea that they could produce for him.  He told us that when he was a student, just getting laughs was enough but as he's gotten older, he wants his films to be built on more substantial emotions.

Creating the story reel was a case of  two steps forward and one step backwards.  His feeling is that without a good storyboard, it's impossible to make a good film.  He sought out feedback from the Ghibli producers and praised Toshio Suzuki and Isao Takahata for their input.  Their goal was to be as ego-free as possible and just look for the best idea.

In creating the story reel, he felt he benefited from working with an editor.  He said that rhythms and flow are far more important in a feature than in a short and the editor, who regularly cuts live action, was able to help.

For the production, done entirely in Europe with TV Paint software, live action reference was shot.  There was no rotoscoping, but as Dudok de Wit was interested in realistic motion, various gestures from the live action were used.

Dudok de Wit's preference for long shots has to do with his interest in the environment the characters live in.  He also prefers to communicate using a character's whole body.  He talked about how subtle human expressions are and how difficult it is to duplicate that subtlety in animation, especially when you're trying to communicate to a crew.  Therefore, long shots work best.

He worked 80-100 hour weeks because he wanted the film to be as good as possible.  He's too close to the film to know if he wants to make another feature or if he will return to shorts.



(There are spoilers below.)

I have mixed feelings about the film.  In some ways, it reminds me of Pete Docter's work at Pixar in that Dudok de Wit is excellent at evoking emotions, particularly those that come from familial relationships, but like Docter he seems to have problems with story logic.

Fantasies are delicate things.  The audience must understand what is possible and what's isn't in a story in order to believe the film's events.  The opening of The Red Turtle is brutally realistic.  A man is lost at sea, being battered by stormy waves with nothing to hold onto.  Once he reaches an island, the film maintains the realism.  The flora and fauna are real and the man's struggle to leave the island is completely believable.  He tries several times and each time his raft is destroyed by a red turtle.  There is no hint at the turtle's motivation for this.  As the film shows baby turtles hatching on the beach, it makes more sense that the turtle would be glad to get the man off the island as his presence might threaten the turtle's spawn.  When the turtle comes to the beach to lay eggs, the man is justifiably angry at the creature who has foiled his escape. He flips the turtle onto its back and it appears to die.

Earlier in the film, the man dreamed or hallucinated the presence of a string quartet on the island.  It's clear to the audience that this is not real.  The man himself realizes it.  So when the dead turtle turns into a woman, the audience has not been prepared for the possibility that the transformation could be real.  The earlier dreams led me to believe that the man was once again hallucinating.  But within the film, it most certainly is real.

The lack of preparation for this moment took me out of the film.  I kept waiting for some sort of explanation after the fact, but there was none.  The turtle's destruction of the rafts and the man's murder of the turtle in no way suggest the eventual transformation or relationship.  For me, the film never recovered from this.

Visually, the film is lovely.  There are bravura sequences of the storm at sea and a later tsunami.  The environment of the island is portrayed in great detail.  There are moments of powerful suspense and there is comedy provided by a population of crabs.  The musical score is lovely and emotionally evocative.  The bulk of the film is about the loving relationship between the man and the woman, the birth of their child, and their life as a family on the island as they deal with the unpredictable natural world.  But the flaws in the first act are never addressed.

Another issue is the lack of dialogue.  I have no problem with a film that doesn't have talking, but the characters do yell.  The director has given them voices, yet they say nothing intelligible to each other.  At the TIFF screening, Dudok de Wit said that they tried writing dialogue for key moments but couldn't find words that seemed to fit the style of the film.  As the film relies heavily on sound effects, he could not have natural sound and keep his characters completely mute.  But by allowing them to make sounds yet not talk, he's created an artificial constraint that doesn't work in my view.

There are other inconsistencies that are minor, but still forced me out of the story.  The man builds a small shelter to protect the woman from the sun before she wakes for the first time.  Yet when they have a child later, the family builds no shelter.  There are sudden, heavy downpours on the island, yet the family seems to have no problem being constantly exposed to the elements.

After the tsunami, the family burns all the uprooted trees.  This is the only time fire is present in the film.  The family never builds a fire for light, warmth or to cook with.  As shelter and fire are not present except for these two occasions, it is every bit as odd as the characters yelling but not talking.  They have the knowledge, but don't use it.

Feature scripts are difficult.  There's no shortage of films whose scripts don't work.  For a director who is moving from shorts to features, there are many new challenges in terms of story, characterization and pacing.  Dudok de Wit spoke a great deal about using intuition to find what worked for him.  And while his intuition has created a film with excellent parts, it failed him in constructing the whole.

While Dudok de Wit was undecided about future films, I hope that he makes more features as he has much to contribute.  The film has great sequences and strong emotional moments.  It broadens animated features' range and nudges the medium a bit more towards adult content.  I'm glad the film received an Oscar nomination and hope that it makes the film profitable and motivates Dudok de Wit to continue.