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"What's New" Archives: January 2006

January 28, 2006:

MORE ON MIYAZAKI: Andrew Osmond has added some very interesting information about the greatly admired Japanese director on the Miyazaki feedback page.

If you saw the two animated features directed by Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli colleague Isao Takahata on Turner Classic Movies the other night, you may have come away, as I did, with fresh respect for Miyazaki's strengths as a filmmaker. The Takahata features, Only Yesterday and Pom Poko struck me as nothing more than moving manga, very long (around two hours in both cases) animated Japanese comic-book stories, a criticism I would never level at Miyazaki's films. Pom Poko was especially exasperating. Magical animals who can transform themselves into almost anything fight back against bullies that would despoil their woodland home; haven't we seen that story on the screen before? Yes, of course—Pom Poko is a two-hour Bugs Bunny cartoon, without the gags. Not for me, thanks.

LUPE NOT MAUREEN: Dewey McGuire has pointed out a goof in my audio commentary for The Coo Coo Nut Grove in the latest Looney Tunes DVD set. Johnny Weissmuller's companion is not Maureen O'Sullivan, his "Jane" in the Tarzan movies, but Lupe Velez, his wife for five years in the middle thirties. The irretrievability of such silly mistakes (and I've made several, like confusing Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller in my commentary for Book Revue) makes me all the happier that I won't be doing any more commentaries.

January 26, 2006:

MORE ON MIYAZAKI: My January 20 posting on the Japanese master's films elicited detailed responses from Andrew Osmond and Jenny Lerew. I've posted on their comments, and my response, on a new Feedback page.

LOONEY TUNES ON DVD: My copy of the third "Golden Collection" finally arrived. All the cartoons I've watched so far look wonderful, but as was the case last year, my commentaries sound muffled, for reasons I can't explain but that I don't think have anything to do with my delivery or how good a job the local recording studio did. Another aggravation this year was the elimination, on dubious legal grounds, of a clip from my first Mike Maltese interview (from 1971) on the genesis of The Odor-able Kitty. I haven't been asked to, and I don't know that I will be asked to, but, in any case, I won't be providing commentaries for a fourth set.

One of my current commentaries is already outdated. As Keith Scott has pointed out, the non-Blanc hillbilly in Hillbilly Hare is voiced by John T. Smith, who provided voices for a number of other Warner cartoons in the early fifties.

January 24, 2006:

DISNEY AND PIXAR: Here are the financial and personnel details of the acquisition, from the Wall Street Journal's Web site:

Walt Disney Co. said it had agreed to buy Pixar Animation Studios Inc. for around $7.4 billion in an all-stock deal.

Under the deal, Pixar Chairman and Chief Executive Steve Jobs will take a seat on Disney's board and become the company's largest individual shareholder.

Under terms of the agreement, 2.3 Disney shares will be issued for each Pixar share. Shares of Disney closed Tuesday at $25.99, valuing each Pixar share at $59.78. Shares of Pixar closed Tuesday at $57.57 on the Nasdaq Stock Market. The overall value of $7.4 billion includes $1 billion of Pixar cash.

Disney and Pixar put the finishing touches to the deal earlier today before presenting it to Pixar's board. Disney's board gave its Chief Executive Bob Iger the authority to complete a transaction.

Pixar President Ed Catmull will become president of Pixar and Disney's combined animation business. The deal also gives Pixar's creative force, John Lasseter, a leading role as chief creative officer of the combination. Mr. Lasseter will also serve as principal creative advisor to Walt Disney Imagineering, where he will help design new theme park attractions.

January 23, 2006:

ART BABBITT: His daughter Karin has written to take issue with my introduction to excerpts from my 1986 interview with Babbitt, which I posted here more than two years ago. To read her message and my response, click here. Update: She has responded to my response in this way: "You are a pathetically verbose ass. Best of luck with your brown-nosing vitriol." She asked me to post that response, so there it is.

January 21, 2006:

SKETCH COMEDY: I posted a comment by Eddie Fitzgerald on that topic on January 12, with my response. Eddie has followed up, in terms that I think have some bearing on my comments yesterday about Miyazaki's films:

"The sketches involving the fairies in Sleeping Beauty were pretty disappointing but that doesn't discredit the idea of sketch comedy in features. What the film needed was better sketches (and maybe better fairies). The early Disney films are full of great sketches like "The Mad Tea Party" in Alice in Wonderland. Disney people could write them but as time went on they just chose not to. Why, I don't know.

"Of course the word 'sketch' applies only to comedy. I don't know what to call the dramatic. equivalent. As a catch-all-term I call songs, sketches, and special dramatic scenes 'set pieces.'A film, even a feature, is built on its set pieces. Everything between the set pieces is just glue and you don't want to bore the audience with too much glue.

"Later Disney films attempted to build set pieces around moments of psychological insight or transformation. That was a big mistake. The moment where your character realizes he's in love is nothing more than glue. How he expresses his new-found love may have set-piece potential, but the emotional transformation by itself is pure horse hoof gelatin. Likewise scenes built around smart-alec wisecracks are not set pieces. A genuine set piece produces a 'Wow!' response. It attempts something extremely difficult and pulls it off. It's the magical 'A' side of the record. Modern animated features don't contain enough set pieces."

Speaking of Miyazaki, you should read what Michael Sporn writes about his films in an excellent post on his "Splog." Michael is more enthusiastic about Miyazaki than I am, but there's no question but that we've seen the same films and we're responding to the same things.

January 20, 2006:

DISNEY AND PIXAR, CONT'D: More in today's Wall Street Journal on Disney's possible acquisition of Pixar, which now seems far more likely that I would have thought a few months ago. Today's Journal article is mainly a comparison—not flattering to Disney—of the box-office performance of Disney's and Pixar's features. It notes the delays in production of some of Disney's own features, and closes with this sobering quotation from a stock analyst: "The fact that Disney is even contemplating a Pixar acquisition suggests a blatant lack of confidence in the turnaround at its own animation unit."

MIYAZAKI: After watching six of Hayao Miyazaki's animated features on Turner Classic Movies, all in their English-dubbed versions, I've concluded that this extravagantly praised Japanese filmmaker is above all a great effects animator. Every scene in his films that has real scope and weight is an effects scene, like the great aerial battles in Porco Rosso.

We could see from the glimpses of Miyazaki's storyboarding that preceded the features on TCM that the detailed staging and pacing of those scenes really originates with him. If some directors, like Chuck Jones, have all but animated scenes by giving their animators detailed character layouts, it appears that Miyazaki does the same for effects scenes with his storyboards (which look as if they could double as layouts, and may have, for all I know).

The downside of a preoccupation with effects is that everything in between turns into a sort of stuffing, the character animation in particular. In Miyazaki's films it suffers from Japanese animation's endemic reticence where the illumination of personality is concerned. This or that character may express extreme emotion, but always with the stylized extravagance of kabuki. Too many of Miyazaki's characters—the doll-like heroes and heroines, the raw-boned comic-relief pirates and laborers—look and behave too much alike. I felt often in watching these films that Miyazaki was struggling dutifully to fill up the time until he could get back to what really interested him.

Even where screen-filling effects are involved, repetition is a hazard in the Miyazaki features, as when a horde of enraged giant bugs in one film becomes a horde of enraged giant boars in another, in each case as a trope for the offended environment. Like other filmmakers with an appetite for big ideas but limited interest in character (think Stanley Kramer), Miyazaki turns the more clunky the more directly he grapples with such ideas.

After seeing eight Miyazaki features in all (Howl's Moving Castle and Kiki's Delivery Service in addition to the six I've seen on TCM), I've been reinforced in my belief that Miyazaki is the more universal the more "Japanese" he is. Princess Mononoke might qualify under that test, except for its tortured plot, and My Neighbor Totoro, perhaps the strangest of Miyazaki's films (and the one least dominated by effects animation), suffers for the opposite reason, an almost total sacrifice of action for atmosphere. Spirited Away, drenched in Japanese folklore, and with a story that is complex but always clear, seems to me far and away the best of Miyazaki's films, the one that is most likely to survive—but even it would have benefited immensely from more seriously considered character animation.

I don't think Miyazaki's reputation will owe much ultimately to John Lasseter's over-the-top praise, which preceded each feature on TCM. In too many cases, there was simply too great a gap between Lasseter's words and what followed them on the screen. On the other hand, the Miyazaki films certainly benefit from the new English dubbings. The voice acting is in many cases astonishingly good, especially in Totoro, where the work of two child actors, the Fanning sisters, is beyond praise.

January 19, 2006:

DISNEY AND PIXAR: You know by now that the Wall Street Journal is reporting today that Disney may soon buy Pixar. Here are the crucial paragraphs from the Journal's story:

Walt Disney Co. is in serious discussions to buy Pixar Animation Studios after months in which the two animation giants have been exploring ways to continue their lucrative partnership, according to people familiar with the matter.

In the deal under discussion, Disney would pay a nominal premium to Pixar's current market value of $6.7 billion in a stock transaction that would make Pixar Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Steve Jobs the largest individual shareholder in Disney, according to people familiar with the situation. That would vault Mr. Jobs into an even more influential place in the media world, where he already holds tremendous sway as head of Apple Computer Inc. ...

People familiar with the situation caution that the talks are at a sensitive stage and that the outcome isn't certain, noting that other options are possible. ...

Both sides accept that Pixar's stock price has a takeover premium built into it after weeks of speculation that Disney might try to take a stake in the company or buy it outright. However, the companies are still haggling over a final price, and any sharp moves in Pixar's share price could easily push the negotiations off course. People familiar with the situation say the two sides could decide on a less-ambitious course, including some form of agreement for Disney to distribute movies that Pixar finances and makes.

An acquisition would give Pixar and Mr. Jobs a way to cash in on the company's unbroken run of blockbuster, computer-animated films. Mr. Jobs would likely join the Disney board, people familiar with the situation say. And Pixar's John Lasseter, the Disney alumnus who directed "Toy Story" and the upcoming "Cars," would take on an expanded role overseeing Disney animated movies. Pixar is now near a point where it needs to decide who will distribute its post-Disney releases, including a film about a rat living in an upmarket Parisian restaurant. ...

Since taking over last fall, Mr. Iger has made it clear that animation must be the No. 1 creative priority for the Burbank, Calif., entertainment company.

January 17, 2006:

ACTING AND ANIMATION, CONT'D: To talk about real acting through animation at a time when Hoodwinked is No. 1 at the box office is a lot like proclaiming one's belief in true love inside a whorehouse, but what the hell.

Mark Mayerson has called my attention to Steve Bissette's very interesting discussion of acting issues as they've surfaced in CGI animation, in his blog Myrant; see the January 13 entry in particular. Mark observes: "I completely agree with him that the lack of animator input into pre-production is a major problem for live action/cgi character films. In general, I think that the fragmentation of the whole animation business (sending work overseas, putting together features a la Foodfight) is going to kill the industry. Somehow, creators have got to come up with a low-budget paradigm that works for audiences if we're going to see animated films worth looking at outside the Hollywood mainstream."

Very true. In the meantime, let me point again to Michael Sporn's Web site and his excellent blog, "Splog," where he has been describing how he and his colleagues have made some of his exceptionally atttractive short films. (I've described Michael as an "independent animator," but that suggests he's a one-man band, and he's actually the proprietor of a very small studio.) What Michael describes is just the sort of flexible, collaborative effort—free of rigidity of any kind, conducted by people who work together not just comfortably but sympathetically—that seems to me an obviously desirable way to make animated films, as opposed to the nightmarish, compartmentalized "efficiency" that gives us a Hoodwinked or Foodfight! But even if Michael wins a well-deserved Oscar for The Man Who Walked Between the Towers, don't expect any producers to follow his example.

Speaking of blogs, I've mentioned Jenny Lerew's before, and, like Michael Sporn, she continues to post exceptionally interesting stuff, such as drawings of elephants by John Kricafalusi that illustrate effectively, for once, what John means when he talks about the power of funny drawings.

January 13, 2006:

DISNEY DOCUMENTS: I posted the following request about a month ago, just before the holidays, as if to guarantee it wouldn't be noticed, so here it is again, in modified form:

As I mentioned back on December 9, I've delivered a manuscript for my Walt Disney biography to the University of California Press, but I'm still tracking down stray facts and, I should have added, stray documents. I've examined and copied thousands of Disney-related documents over the years—transcripts of story meetings, interviews, letters, legal documents, memoranda, and on and on—at the Walt Disney Archives in Burbank and dozens of other locations, but some items have eluded me. I'm seeking copies of certain Disneyland-related items, in particular. If anyone has copies of the following items, or could point me toward them, I'd be delighted to pay reasonable amounts for copies of my own, or to make a trade:

1. The inventory of the collection of miniatures that Walt displayed in his office, and Dave Smith's article about that collection in the February 1978 issue of Small Talk magazine (I've not been able to locate that issue through interlibrary loan).
2. Walt's August 31, 1948, memo outlining his thoughts on a "Mickey Mouse Park" in Burbank.
3. The June 1954 report on visits to amusement parks by a Disney team that included Bill Cottrell.
5. The 1953 "narrative description" of Disneyland that Karan Ann Marling mentions on page 62 of Designing Disney's Theme Parks: The Architecture of Reassurance.
6. The 1953 Stanford Research Institute studies for Disneyland (site and feasibility). I have copies of some of Buzz Price's other reports for Walt and Roy, but not those two crucial ones.
7. The brief family history by Elias Disney that Bob Thomas mentions on pages 7-8 of his biography of Roy Disney, Building a Company.

I'm also missing two of Walt Disney Productions' annual reports to stockholders, for the fiscal years ending in 1949 and 1953. I still hope to find those two reports through interlibrary loan, but they're proving tougher to locate than I expected.

Copies of some of these items are housed at the Disney Archives, of course, but the Archives has been closed to me and most other outside researchers for a number of years (I barely made it under the wire when I was researching Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age). As a result, I've had to rely on secondary sources in a number of instances where I would much prefer to rely on primary documents.

In addition to the documents I've listed, I'm sure there are other documents I don't even know about but that would be of help in rounding out my portrait of Walt. I don't have a lot of primary material related to the TV shows, for example. Please don't hesitate to write if you know of material that might be of use.

January 12, 2006:

MIYAZAKI ON TCM: A reminder that two more Hayao Miyakazi features will be shown on Turner Classic Movies tonight, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind at 8 p.m. EST and Castle in the Sky at 10 p.m. EST, with repeats of each immediately following.

I was pleasantly surprised last week by the English dubbing of Spirited Away (much better than I expected; I'd seen the film only in Japanese with English subtitles) and annoyed, as before, by the generally terrible dubbing of Princess Mononoke (Billy Bob Thornton never fails to grate). So it'll be interesting to see, or hear, how tonight's features turn out.

ACTING AND ANIMATION, CONT'D: Milt Gray writes in reply to my January 9 posting:

"I don't mean to be argumentative, but Dumbo has very few acting scenes in his own movie. Most of the time he is an infant just sitting and watching the characters around him. Timothy Mouse has at least twenty times more acting scenes than Dumbo, and most of the time neither Timothy or Dumbo are on the screen, as the movie is filled with such spectacles as the singing and dancing crows, the Pink Elephants hallucinations, the roustabouts raising the circus tents, and the adult elephants forming a pyramid. Even the circus train has more scenes than Dumbo. And the whole movie runs only one hour and two minutes. Small wonder that a single animator could animate all of Dumbo's scenes in one year.

"I've noticed that in most of Disney's features, the lead character is barely on the screen a quarter of the time, as the movies are filled with other characters and events. I think this is good because it gives these movies much more visual variety. But I would think that a 'large-scale, serious' (dramatic?) cartoon would have to focus on the central character most of the time, more like Mulan.

"I've heard that the Disney animators (during Walt's time) on the features averaged about five feet of finished animation per week (the average was down to two feet per week on Sleeping Beauty). At five feet per week, that's 250 feet per year. Since movie film runs at 90 feet per minute, a 90 minute feature is about 8000 feet long. That much footage by one animator would take over 30 years. Of course, if the central character is on screen only about a third of the time, then the work can be done by one animator in a mere decade. On the other hand, if a supervising animator is handling one character, with other animators under him sharing the footage, it could all get done much sooner, but isn't that violating your example of one animator per character?"

My take:

I guess it depends on what you mean by "acting." I don't equate acting with activity (the debased Kricfalusi standard), but with bringing a character to unique life on the screen, which can be done even when a character is largely passive and has very limited capacities. That's what Tytla did with Dumbo. I describe what he did on page 314 of Hollywood Cartoons, where I say in part, "What might otherwise be mere cuteness acquires poignance because it is always shaded by a parent's knowledge of pain and risk." If Dumbo "acted" more, he would almost certainly be a less successful character—"cuter," probably, in the cookie-cutter manner of so many other animated characters, but far more superficial.

Other animators shared the drawing of Dumbo and the other elephants, but I don't see in that any violation of the principle of casting by character. What matters is not who lifts the pencil but who controls the result on the screen, and there are many ways such control can be exercised. I resist the idea—which seems to be implicit in a lot of today's animated filmmaking—that the production of animated films must be carried out in accordance with rigid methods of some kind. But I do believe that if you start with the ideal of complete identification between animator and character, and depart from that ideal only as circumstances require, the results will almost certainly be better than if you start by assuming that casting by character is impossible, then parcel out a character to six different animators and try to reconcile the results.

I also heard from Eddie Fitzgerald:

"Another thought about acting: when I write cartoons I try to come up with something that lends itself to comedic acting. For me that means sketch comedy. By 'sketch' I mean mean the kind of self-contained, acting-intensive vignettes that you see on the best of Saturday Night Live, the Stooges, the Pythons and Mr. Bean. A good cartoon comedy is built around strong sketches. That's what the public wants to see. The plot exists to serve the sketches, not the other way around. The funniest short cartoons often start with a sketch idea and expand outward. The plot is simply a device to set up the sketch and lead out of it."

My take:

That's a sensible approach to short cartoons, for sure, where a concern with plot can be deadly; but "sketch comedy" in feature cartoons too often means sequences like those involving the fairies in Sleeping Beauty—dull, labored stuff that doesn't advance a thin plot but simply marks time. Bill Peet could integrate such sketch comedy into a feature with matchless skill, as in Cinderella, but Peet's skills have always been in short supply.

January 10, 2006:

BOOK CHAT: Fascinating stories in the books section of today's New York Times about the reeking fraudulence of the books by two bestselling authors, James Frey and JT Leroy—fraudulence that has been a highly effective marketing tool, in the one case by inflating a shabby and very ordinary life story into a harrowing cautionary tale, in the other by generating an author, an AIDS-ravaged transsexual, who unfortunately does not exist. If you wanted evidence that book publishing is just as degraded an industry as movies, here it is. It makes me wonder why, in writing my biography of Walt Disney, I've done such things as visit Walt's boyhood haunts in Marceline and Kansas City and interview the man who built the sets for Treasure Island. How much easier to follow the example of some of my predecessors as Disney biographers, and simply make it all up. Then, if anyone questioned what I wrote, I could follow James Frey's example and say that certain events "were embellished in the book for obvious dramatic reasons." Next stop, Oprah.

HUGH HARMAN: Excerpts from my 1973 interview with one of the founding fathers of Looney Tunes, Merrie Melodies, and Happy Harmonies can be found by clicking here. Thanks to Didier Ghez for digitizing this pre-digital transcript.

RECOMMENDED READING: Thanks to Hames Ware, I recently read Savage Pastimes: A Cultural History of Violent Entertainment, by Harold Schechter (St. Martin's Press). Schechter, a professor of literature at Queens College, has written a blessedly lucid and succinct book that makes clear that (a) human beings have always had an enormous appetite for bloody and violent entertainments, and (b) however much we might like to believe otherwise, the blood-soaked popular culture of today is actually an improvement in many respects over what went before. Which is to say, better Quentin Tarantino than public executions and bear baiting.

Schechter writes at some length about comic books and the Disney TV shows of the '50s (he singles out the Davy Crockett shows as exceptionally violent, but the Texas John Slaughter episodes were actually much worse), and in passing about Hollywood animation. One lesson of the book is that the components of popular culture are most vulnerable not when they're most violent but when—as with comic books in the 1950s—they have no respectable defenders. As gross as some of today's comic books are, they enjoy the protection of the "graphic novel" umbrella. Video games have not been so lucky, at least not yet, and that's why there's so much clucking over their violent content.

SPOILED TREASURES, CONT'D: Gene Schiller responds to the complaints about the spotty restoration of the cartoons in the new Walt Disney Treasures sets: "The Disney Treasures (Wave 5) are an uneven job, to be sure, but let’s not overstate the case. As a connoisseur of old vinyl recordings, I tend to blow off minor flaws and imperfections, and it’s the same here. Donald’s Crime, Duck Pimples, Frank Duck Brings 'Em Back Alivemay not be pristine copies, but it seems to me the colors are vibrant enough to convey the full value of the originals. As for the Disney Rarities, the best of them, Goliath II, Every Cowboy Needs a Horse, and The Truth About Mother Goose are so good that to expect more seems unrealistic. Still, I envy anyone who’s seen these on the wide screen. Even the best of the Disney transfers to DVD (Sleeping Beauty, Bambi, Fantasia 2000, Snow White) fail to duplicate the immediacy of the theatrical experience.

January 9, 2006:

ACTING AND ANIMATION, CONT'D (MORE OR LESS): Harry McCracken doesn't update his site as often now as he did before he became editor of the excellent magazine PC World, but he stills turns up gems like this article from Fast Company, "Attack of the Baby Pixars." This is a chilling article, and not just because it opens with a couple of geniuses driving around Santa Monica until they hit on the idea of remaking Bob Clampett's 1941 Merrie Melodie, Goofy Groceries, as a computer-animated feature called Foodfight! (with paid product placements—that's the genius part).

No, what's really chilling is the clear message that as the cost of making computer-animated features goes down, and the technology itself becomes more sophisticated, we're not going to get more features that challenge Pixar's preeminence but a lot more like Foodfight! That is, features conceived in the coarsest commercial terms, and made in an even more rigidly compartmentalized manner than most of today's animated films. Foodfight!, we're told, was "created [what a strange use of that word] by 100 animators working in Australia, Europe, and South Korea, along with two dozen in L.A. 'What do we care if a guy is in Van Nuys or India?' says [Larry] Kasanoff," the film's producer.

I liked these lines, too, from another producer, Ralph Guggenheim: "The studios we deal with are like call centers [sic!] but with very talented artists. The next Pixar isn't going to be a big building in Emeryville. It's going to be groups around the world, networked together."

Here's what I find so striking: Costs are coming down rapidly, and so the cost of assembling another Pixar-like studio is coming down, too, and with it the cost of making films that aim higher than Foodfight! But to the crass bozos who dominate the industry, lower costs mean only an opportunity to get the work done for even less in Bangalore than has been the case until now.

The producers see no particular advantage in having the people who make the films working under the same roof. Nothing new in that, of course—I've lost track of how long it has been since studios like Hanna-Barbera started shipping TV schlock to the Far East—but it's disappointing to me that a lot of people who work in animation seem to take such compartmentalization for granted, too. You can see that in some of the responses I posted on January 7—a concern with who's responsible for what, and with working inside the lines.

That's more than understandable in today's industry, but I'm reminded of what attracted me to writing about animation's history in the first place. I loved the cartoons, of course, but what I've found endlessly fascinating is the collaborative nature of how they were made. All of the people at the old Disney and Warner and MGM studios had different responsibilities, of course, and sometimes they were jealous of their positions; but they knew each other, they worked together, and their roles shifted over time, and, for that matter, from film to film. Trying to understand the dynamics of those collaborations—with acting only one part—has been endlessly fascinating to me.

I've never been able to feel any comparable interest in how most of today's films are made. Pixar's films have benefited from something like the same collaborative spirit that so invigorated the old cartoons, but except for The Incredibles the films themselves have felt a little too lightweight. I have the feeling, though, that they're going to have all the heft of a Greek tragedy compared with the stuff that the Boys From Bangalore are going to offer us in the next few years.

A few specific responses to the January 7 comments:

To Milt Gray: I don't think there's any set answer to where the weight should fall as between director and animator when it comes to shaping a character. That surely depends on the people and the circumstances, but mostly on the people. Clampett and Jones responded to their similar circumstances very differently, but in both cases with highly effective results on the screen.

I don't know why a feature cartoon would have to be in production for ten years if a single animator handled the lead character. Dumbo may not not quite qualify as a "large-scale, serious" film, but it was in production a lot less than ten years—closer to a year—and Tytla's hand is clearly the one that shaped the crucial animation not just of the title character but of all the elephants. Maybe he didn't make every drawing, but his control is never in doubt. Extend such an example to a longer, more demanding film, and you still have production taking much, much less than ten years.

To Galen Fott: If an animator finds a voice genuinely helpful, a source of ideas, rather than a burden—that is, if his "shared performance" is better than his individual performance could have been—how have his "options for expression" been limited rather than enlarged? For that matter, isn't an actor's performance almost always a "shared performance"? His "job" may be to interpret the script, but in most instances he can't do that in isolation, but only through collaboration with the directors and the other members of the cast. As I've already indicated, that seems to me a matter for celebration rather than regret.

January 7, 2006:

ACTING AND ANIMATION: That seems like a better slug for this ongoing dialogue than "Multiple Personality Disorder." Some of my visitors have had some very interesting things to say, so today I'll let them take the floor, while I save my responses for tomorrow. Among those heard from:

Jeff Watson: On the pro side of casting by character, it is likely Bill Tytla got hooked by Boleslavsky's acting book, Acting: The First Six Lessons [see pages 203-204 of Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age], because of the non-continuous, non-flowing nature of animation creation. He probably felt great empathy with the "Creature" [Boleslavsky's student] in the Third Lesson—it begins with her complaining:

"The actor in front of machinery is not free. He is chopped to pieces—almost every sentence of his part is separated from the previous and the following ones...how can one get the flow of the part?"

Boleslavsky responds that the performer should write a "'music of action' under every word or speech [in the script], as you write music to lyrics for a song...when you know action by heart no interruption or changes of order can disturb you." He adds that the performer's scene "is a long string of beads—beads of action....You can start anywhere, any time, and go as far as you wish, if you have a good hold on the beads themselves."

I have not read nor heard of another method of maintaining a character from moment to moment other than by developing such a flexible "bead of action" technique. And passing a character to another animator would be like creating a completely different "bead of action" because of the individual nature of understanding a verbal description of action (I'm guessing most supervising animatiors can probably attest to this). Your reference to [animation by Frank Thomas and Woolie Reitherman of] Captain Hook in Peter Pan demonstrates such variability of interpretation of one character.

It is probably the case that the timing, weight, and design caricatures that differentiate animation from live action are not really a concern in achieving good performance of a scene (interesting individual moments supporting the narrative well): in both live action and animation the performer should have "a good hold on the beads."

If Boleslavsky's method works as Tytla is purported to have shown, I think the only hope for long-format, narrative animation will probably be through casting by character. Any other method will probably not support the narrative well (Shrek, anyone?).

Milt Gray: I was particularly impressed by your observation that "Literal, cautious animation is most likely to result....when a character is spread among several animators and there is a self-conscious effort to achieve consistency."

And yet you also stated that "Clampett through his very strong direction imposed an emotional consistency that was far more important than visual uniformity." Do you mean that if a director supplies enough guidance in the emotional consistency of a character, then it is almost automatic that different animators' work will be adequately consistent? You did say that Clampett was a special case, but I 've always felt that a director's single most important responsibility was to identify closely with his characters, and thus guide the animators—as Clampett did. Perhaps the fault really lies with directors who leave too much interpretation of the characters to the animators. Or conversely, perhaps by giving a character to a single animator, that animator is actually doing part of the director's job.

Or are you making a distinction between short cartoons and feature length? You did also suggest that cartoons are currently where nineteenth century classical music would have been if it had not been allowed to perform large-scale, serious works. It is particularly difficult for me to imagine a "large-scale, serious" cartoon in which the lead character is animated by a single animator—that film would have to be in production for at least ten years, and that animator's personal identification with his character would most likely change a lot over that much time, resulting in an inconsistency of character, or lapsing into a limiting "self-conscious effort to achieve consistency."

Galen Fott: With training and professional experience in both acting and animation, I have to take issue with this statement on your website: “I don’t think a well-conceived voice is any more a handicap than a well-written script, even though both limit what an actor can do.”

I mean...come on. An actor’s JOB is to interpret the script. That’s part of the gig. It’s like saying that a bus driver is limited by having to drive a bus. Animating to a pre-recorded voice definitely, unquestionably limits your options of expression, which could reasonably be viewed as a handicap. Great inspiration may come from that voice, but in the end it’s a shared performance.

I believe that while animating and acting are related in tantalizing ways, they’re probably more different than they are alike.

Eddie Fitzgerald: About Mark Mayerson's comments on acting in animation: It's true that animators have to make do with the voice recording that's handed to them and that this restricts their creativity. Even so, animated comedy manages to outperform live-action comedy in some areas. I don't know of any live-action actor who could compete with Clampett's Bugs and Daffy in the niche these characters occupy. Ditto Ren & Stimpy at their best. Jim Carey's a terrific slapstick actor but could he match Daffy in Draftee Daffy? I doubt it.

Looking back on it, one of the worst decisions animators ever made was to co-operate with Gene Kelly in the famous sequence where Kelly dances a duet with Jerry from Tom & Jerry. In that sequence Jerry comes off as a pale, dumbed-down, rotoscoped imitation of Kelly. Kelly trumped Jerry because Jerry had to conform to live action rules and not attempt to upstage his human counterpart. The truth is that Jerry could have danced rings around Kelly if he'd been allowed. Imagine what Tyer, Scribner, McKimson, or Sibley could have done with the dance.

Michael Sporn: The design and the animation have to work hand-in-hand in creating a scene; one cannot supersede the other or the film will suffer. The characters of Snow White and Aurora [in Sleeping Beauty] were limited by their design styles, and the animators had to create within those limits. Frank Thomas continually complained about the colors Eyvind Earle used in his character’s dress. Too bad; the film is a success as much as a result of Earle’s colors as of Thomas’ animation. Both created the characters.

January 5, 2006:

SPOILED TREASURES: I'm still working my way through the new Walt Disney Treasures DVD sets, so I can't weigh in authoritatively on the poor quality of some of the video transfers, but Milt Gray was outraged by them: "I want to shout to the world that if people today could only see the original 35mm Technicolor prints of the old cartoons—or even 16mm Technicolor prints—they couldn't possibly be complacent about bad video transfers. Back in the mid 1960s I saw in movie theaters several of the various Disney short cartoons from about the mid 1930s to the mid 1950s, in real Technicolor, and the image contrasts and colors were so beautiful that you could almost taste the colors, and those colors added so much to the atmosphere and mood of the cartoons. Today, video technology is so advanced that there is truly no excuse for poor video transfers of anything, and anyone who has seen the original films can only be appalled by the video transfers of several of the cartoons in Disney Rarities or Chronological Donald Two."

There seems to be no question but that Disney really dropped the ball here, in some cases using old, poor transfers even when much newer, fully restored transfers had already been used on previous DVD releases. In this situation, I feel for Leonard Maltin, who deserves credit for so many of the good things about the Disney Treasures. Should he raise a stink and risk having the Disney people circle the corporate wagons against him, the outsider? Should he be sympathetic and understanding, and risk having the same thing happen again? What a test of his diplomatic skills. All of this assuming, of course, that the Treasures series will continue, and I wonder how safe an assumption that is.

MULTIPLE PERSONALITY DISORDER, CONT'D: Milt Gray writes in response to my January 3 posting under this title:

"I read your latest commentary on Multiple Personality Disorder, and found it very well reasoned. And yet I can't help feeling fearful of the concept of the consistency of one animator per character. My fear is that the consistency will equal monotony. I almost never want to watch a Chuck Jones Bugs Bunny cartoon, as excellent as those are, for the very reason that the cartoons, and Bugs himself, are so predictable. I would far rather see a Clampett Bugs Bunny, partly because I can expect that Bugs will surprise me by showing some unusual facet of his personality. I think that monotony will kill the public's interest in cartoons more assuredly than a lack of consistency.

"Of course, consistency is a relative thing, and the importance of consistency in a character's performance is also relative to how center stage it is. If nothing else is going on in a scene, then the character's performance is everything. But I feel that it is a poor use of the medium to have everything stripped away except a single character in a straight, sincere acting role—something better left
to live action, due to its tendency toward literalism.

"What I love best about cartoons is their ease and freedom to take us into an alternative universe, where anything can happen, rather than try to imitate our own earthbound everyday reality. I love the 'impossible' gags, requiring really inventive 'cheats' to make them seem plausible, as so beautifully demonstrated in many of the Jack Kinney Goofy sports cartoons. And I love the really insane impossible gags where characters suddenly have multiple arms or giant feet or whatever, as in the mid-1940s Lantz cartoons, such as Reckless Driver, where Woody Woodpecker and Wally Walrus suddenly sprout about twenty arms each to try to outdo each other during the fingerprint routine. And perhaps most of all, I love the completely 'unreal' cartoons that border on abstraction, such as Disney's 'Bumble Boogie.' This is pure imagination, without the labor of making a cartoon try to compete with literal reality.

"In that regard, I do agree with one particular statement by John Kricfalusi, that if you reduce a cartoon to its single most important element, that element is the funny drawing. A cartoon doesn't have to be shallow or immature or mundane to be funny. It can be very telling in its wit and in the clever way it parallels our reality. I far prefer the imaginative interpretation of reality to a labored, almost literal imitation of it."

My take:

I don't think there's any reason to equate "consistency" with literalism and predictability and monotony; rather the reverse. If an animator really understands a character—if there's real emotional identification—what that character does will seem both unpredictable and entirely natural. Likewise, the closer the identification between animator and character, the freer the animator will be to introduce departures from the literal that might seem arbitrary otherwise. My favorite example has always been the tremendous distortion that Bill Tytla introduced into his animation of Grumpy, distortion that seems perfectly normal because it so perfectly expresses what's going on inside that character's head.

Clampett was a special case because, as I've said on other occasions, he really played all the parts in his best cartoons. The work of his animators may look very different on the screen—unlike the work of Jones's animators—but Clampett through his very strong direction imposed an emotional consistency that was far more important than visual uniformity. If Bugs seems unpredictable in his cartoons, that's not an argument against casting by character but an argument for it instead, because Clampett identified so closely with his characters.

Literal, cautious animation is most likely to result not when there's casting by character, but when a character is spread among several animators and there is a self-conscious effort to achieve consistency. You can see such a result in a great many Disney and imitation-Disney features.

As for the impossible gags, the unreal cartoons, the alternative universe—all of those things are wonderful, and I'd be the last to suggest that animation should ever do without them. The world would be a lot poorer without, say, King-Size Canary. But it seems to me that animation's central task, if it is to be more than a minor art form, is to bring characters fully to life in significant stories as the best novels and plays and live-action films do, and to do that in a distinctively animated way. That has almost never been done—that's why I keep falling back for examples on just a few films—and almost no one wants to do it, or is able to, for financial and other reasons.

It's as if classical music in the nineteenth century had been forced to develop with almost no opportunities to write and perform large-scale, serious works like symphonies and concertos. We would treasure the trios and quartets and sonatas we did have—some as rich and profund as any music ever written—but if we had the nagging feeling that something vital was missing at the core, we'd be right.

January 4, 2006:

POSTAL FUNNIES: It seems that the fewer occasions there are to use ordinary postage, the more stamps appear with animation/comics connections. This year's crop, described at this link (thanks, Stephen Charla), includes not only four more weakly drawn Disney stamps but a remarkable pane devoted to the DC superheroes. Who ever thought that vintage comic-book covers (and some not so vintage) would be reproduced on U.S. postage? There'll also be a pane devoted to favorite children's-book animals. All part of the ongoing infantilization of the Postal Service, as we say down at the faculty club.

MULTIPLE PERSONALITY DISORDER, CONT'D: Mark Mayerson wrote in response to yesterday's posting under this title:

"I've been spending a lot of time thinking about animated acting lately. I'm teaching animation and I'll be using animated acting as the subject of my Masters degree project next year.

"I'm rapidly coming to the conclusion that the nature of acting in animation is so different from live action that we can't judge it the same way. In earlier comments to you, I mentioned how animators are forced to collaborate with voice actors and how the rehearsal function has migrated upstream to the story artists, leaving the animator with far less freedom to embody a character than a live actor. At best, if a person is the sole animator of a character, he or she is still forced to share acting duties with contributions made in pre-production.

"Your earlier point about Olivier and Welles sharing the role of Othello and attempting to create a seamless performance was a good one. But the animated equivalent, even if you cast by character, would have Welles act the entire role using a pre-recorded voice track by Olivier. Unless a character is done in pantomime, such as Dumbo, casting by animator still faces this problem.

"Alan Alda's new book Never Have Your Dog Stuffed has a quote from director Mike Nichols that I found interesting. 'You kids [Alda and Barbara Harris rehearsing The Apple Tree] think relating is the icing on the cake. It isn't. It's the cake.' Alda goes on to comment, 'When I started out as an actor, I thought, Here's what I have to say; how shall I say it? On M*A*S*H, I began to understand that what I do in the scene is not as important as what happens between me and the other person. And listening is what lets it happen. It's almost always the other person who causes you to say what you say next. You don't have to figure out how you'll say it. You have to listen so simply, so innocently, that the other person brings about a change in you and that makes you say it and informs the way you say it.'

"Needless to say, this real-time interaction is impossible when casting animators by character. The length of time it takes to animate a scene means that animators collaborating on a scene will never get the opportunity for exploration and interaction that live actors get. When an animator is cast by scene, the interaction takes place in the mind of a single person, so even though it isn't real-time, the animator can simulate the interaction before committing it to the screen.

"This supports the Thomas and Johnston view about character relationships. I would be the first to admit that the films that Thomas and Johnston feel contain their best animation are not Disney's strongest films. I think that films like The Sword in the Stone have tilted too far towards the animators at the expense of dramatic structure and narrative drive. However, from a screenwriting point of view, all scenes are about characters in conflict. The characters have different objectives and a scene is about how each character attempts to achieve his or her objective and who (if anyone) manages to succeed.

"Animators collaborating on a scene can create thumbnail drawings and talk about timing, but they can only approximate how their characters will interact until the actual animation is done. It strikes me that working this way is not particularly efficient and no guarantee of good results. The only other way to make it work is to have the acting predetermined by the voice actors and the story artists, in which case animating becomes something like painting by numbers."

My take:

I don't think it's possible for animators to achieve a result on the screen that's comparable to the best live-action performances by aping live-action film or stage practices. But neither do I think that what is constricting or crippling for a live actor is necessarily the same for an animator.

Acting to a playback of another actor's voice might be deadly to a live actor's performance, but animating to a pre-recorded voice can be stimulating for an animator. That is what I heard from early Disney animators like Dick Lundy, who said that when they began animating to pre-recorded dialogue in the mid-thirties, what they heard in the voices suggested nuances in their animation that would have eluded them before. All actors, whether they work on the stage or in front of a camera or at a drawing board or computer workstation, begin their work under constraints of some kind; I don't think a well-conceived voice is any more a handicap than a well-written script, even though both limit what an actor can do.

Likewise, the spontaneity and give-and-take of live actors sharing a stage—the listening and responding that Alan Alda describes so well—may be inaccessible to animators, but the "relating" of animated characters can be vivid and arresting on its own terms. I have in mind especially the sequence in Snow White when the dwarfs are leaving for the mine and the girl kisses Dopey and Grumpy; she has been animated by Ham Luske, the dwarfs by Moore and Tytla, respectively. There's no evidence in that sequence of a clumsy effort to mimick the interaction of stage actors; there is instead animation, of the dwarfs especially, that makes each character as distinct and real as possible. When these radically different characters—who scarcely look as if they belong to the same species—are on the screen together, the effect to me is far more convincing than the "character relationships" illustrated by Thomas and Johnston in later features like Bambi.

"Relating" may be the "cake" on the stage, but that doesn't mean that it has to be the same in animation, or, perhaps more to the point, that the "cake" has to be baked in the same way. "Relating" may be present in how the second animator of a shared scene responds to the first animator's work; it may be present in how a director calls for adjustments in what he sees. But "relating" has to originate mainly in animation's capacity to give concrete embodiment to thought and emotion—to caricature those mental states—in a way that live action cannot. We don't depend on Snow White to let us know what Grumpy is thinking, or vice versa; the "relating" originates in the juxtaposition of those two characters, in what we can see for ourselves.

January 3, 2006:

MULTIPLE PERSONALITY DISORDER, CONT'D: Jenny Lerew, whose blog I've recommended before, posted some much appreciated words about my work the other day. I particularly liked this paragraph: "His particular Grail (which he writes about frequently) is that of true animation performance; a living, breathing being brought to life via the pencil...the same thing that's brought 99% of animation artists to the trade...and what all animators strive for."

Certainly that's a good summary of my own "Grail." I'm not in the least sure, however, that it's what "all animators strive for."

Let me explain what I mean by referring to some earlier postings that bore a heading like today's. I was writing about what I saw as the perils that accompany the casting of animators for any animated film with even modest ambitions. The point I was trying to make was that if a half dozen different people animate what is supposed to be the same character, in the same film, then at some level, in some sense, that film is going to contain not six slightly different versions of the same character, but six different characters who look and sound a lot alike. Such variations undermine an audience's acceptance of the reality of a film's characters—subtly in some cases, more directly in others.

However common such an outcome may be in animated films—and it's common indeed—I didn't think that it was ordinarily desirable for an audience to come away from an animated film having been mocked, in effect, for its willingness to suspend disbelief. As an alternative, I endorsed full identification between animator and actor: one character, one animator, real casting by character. Only through such casting, I believed (and still do), was "true animation performance," real animated acting, possible.

What I didn't take fully into account, I think now, is that the benefits of such casting come at a price. Not only can casting by character be logistically difficult, but its rigorous application may also mean that we lose the special brilliance that great animators bring to certain kinds of scenes.

To take the most extreme example I can think of, should we care at all if the characters in James Tyer's scenes in a Terrytoon like Miami Maniacs look and behave nothing like what are supposed to be the same characters in other scenes? Likewise, should we care if Manny Gould's scenes stick out like gaudy mini-carnivals in Bob McKimson's Warner cartoons of the late forties? If Frank Thomas had animated all of Captain Hook in Disney's Peter Pan, the nagging inconsistencies between his conception of the character and Woolie Reitherman's would have disappeared—but could Thomas have handled the more broadly comic scenes nearly as effectively as Reitherman did, even if those scenes had been reconceived and refined to take advantage of Thomas's abilities, or would a significant loss of comic power have been inevitable?

In almost all such cases, I have no doubt about where most animators and their more sophisticated fans would come down, and it would not be on the side of "true animation performance." I think that at bottom we are suckers for the keen scene, the virtuoso display, the high-wire act in which a great animator once again emerges unscathed. We may make a perfunctory bow toward "personality animation" of the clichéd Disney kind, but we are reluctant to give up any bits of derring-do for the sake of films in which the animated actors on screen are as compelling—as real—as the actors in the best live-action films.

The price of such artistic integrity seems too high, and sometimes it is. Sometimes the Miami Maniacs model is the right one—let Tyer be Tyer!—and sometimes, too, a film's greatest strengths clearly lie outside its animation, so that the question of animated acting becomes largely irrevelant. (I find Michael Sporn's The Man Who Walked Between the Towers an exceptionally moving and poetic film, but when I see it I never think much about its animation. Hayao Miyazaki's features also invite judgments on such terms, although I think they suffer from his typically Japanese reliance on stock gestures and expressions.)

So it's certainly possible to defend the almost uniform reluctance of the animation community to pursue the implications of real animated acting, "true animation performance," as it was first practiced in just a few Disney features almost seventy years ago. But what I've tried to say, here and elsewhere, is that retreating from "true animation performance" has exacted a price of its own. That price is evident in animation's lowly status in the film world, and perhaps most of all in the pervasive superficiality of animated films, the ambitious as well as the mundane, and the shallowness and immaturity of many of the people who make them.

Perhaps that price is worth paying, too; but no one should pretend that it isn't being paid, every day.

THE CUTE FACTOR: Fascinating piece in the New York Times this morning about cuteness—what it is and why we're hard-wired to respond to it. The relevance to animation is obvious.

MIYAZAKI ON TCM: Surely everyone is aware by now that Turner Classic Movies will be showing nine of Miyazaki's features on Thursdays this month, in both subtitled and dubbed versions. But if you didn't know, here's where to go to learn more. As this series proves anew, TCM is really a miracle, one of those things (like the 24-hour, commercial-free classical-music radio station here in my smallish Southern city) that would seem too good to be true if it didn't already exist.

January 2, 2006:

JUST TO BE CLEAR...: Something one of my correspondents said the other day made me think that maybe I should state what I thought would be obvious. When I post stuff like the endearingly clumsy Looney Tunes comic-book cover below, or that lame 1974 Disney Christmas card, I'm offering them as historical curios, and not as examples of good cartoon art.

STOP THE MOTION, CONT'D: Gene Schiller wrote in response to my December 16 and 17 postings about stop-motion animation, the Aardman variety in particular:

"Your 'blind spot' concerning stop-motion continues to bemuse and mystify. The goal here, after all, is not the fluidity of 2D or the hyper-reality of CG, but to animate the inanimate, using any and all means possible. In Disney’s Noah’s Ark for instance, creatures are cobbled together from pencils, paper clips & erasers; in The Daydreamer (Rankin/Bass), water is created from cellophane. No attempt is made to disguise the artifice, and that is part of its charm. The medium is the message.

"It’s a different genre, childlike in its appeal, and somewhat limited, perhaps, but who’s to say such works as Tulips Shall Grow or Dojoji Temple don’t adhere to the highest ideals of animated art?"

Gene also wrote about the complaints surrounding the image quality of the latest wave of Disney Treasures DVDs: "The Disney Rarities look splendid, for the most part, while some of the Donalds do appear lackluster—but aren’t most of these (circa ’42-’44) kind of dullish anyway? Short on interesting detail, with drab, simplified backgrounds (e.g., Donald’s Tire Trouble). It’s one thing to blame shoddy transfers, but it seems Disney himself may have dropped the ball here, perhaps cutting corners on wartime production."

I may have more to say on both matters after I've spent more time with both new Disney sets.

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