"What's New" Archives: June 2006
June 29, 2006:
DVD WATCH: I've previously recommended, sight unseen, the
DVD issued by the Center for Visual Music. My copy arrived earlier
this month, and I've been contentedly roaming around in it since
The strongest single film on the DVDstrong enough to warrant
purchase for that film aloneis Motion
Painting No. 1, but some of Fischinger's other abstract
films are highly attractive, too. What makes Fischinger's best films
so appealing to me, I've realized in watching the DVD, is their
fundamentally cinematic nature; no matter how many times I've seen
a film like Motion Painting No. 1, I can't help but fall
into wondering, as I watch it, what's going to happen next. Abstract
films tend to be static and monotonoustwitching easel paintingsbut
just when Fischinger seems about to surrender to such dullness,
he'll surprise you by taking his film down some unexpected path.
You're not supposed to think about Fischinger's films as providing
such elemental pleasure, of course; the approved academic mode is
to talk about animation of all kinds, but avant-garde animation
especially, in terms that have no obvious connection with how we
respond to a film when we're watching it. But I'm sorry, I can't
help myselfFischinger's best films are simply fun to watch.
Speaking of DVDs, I finally got around to watching the
two-disc set of Lady and the Tramp the other evening,
and I was pleasantly surprised by the "extras." The reverential
tone so common in studio-blessed "making of" documentaries
is less evident here; we're even invited to consider whether Walt
Disney unfairly denied Joe Grant credit for the idea behind the
film (probably so, although the story as it reached the screen is
much stronger than the one Grant had in mind). Because most of the
people who worked on the film are dead, some of their children speak
for themand, remarkably, what those children (all now middle-aged
or older, of course) say is often of considerable interest.
WALT'S PEOPLE UPDATE: The third volume of Didier Ghez's
invaluable series devoted to interviews with veteran Disney employees
is now available
through amazon.com. Highly recommended.
ADVICE: I've been dipping into David B. Levy's new book, Your
Career in Animation: How to Survive and Thrive, since it
arrived a few days ago, and I'm impressed. The chapter titles alone
speak of a bracingly realistic point of view, as in these examples:
"How to Get the Most of Long Periods of Employment"; "Surviving
Unemployment"; "The Horror! Pitching and Selling a Pilot
or Series." I don't sense any cynicism, though. Levy seems
to be one of those peopleI know quite a few of them, and they
have my great admirationwho cultivates a realistic view of
the animation business so as not to let its cruel and nasty side
surprise him and rob him of the pleasure he takes in the work.
Levy lives and works in New York, an animation environment that
has always differed significantly from that in Los Angeles and other
places, but my sense so far is that his description of the business,
and his advice to aspiring animation artists, is not geographically
constrained. I'm going to spend considerable time with this book
over the next few weeks, and I'll write more about it after I do.
MORE CARS: In the opening paragraphs of my review
of that film, I speak of a "sweeping desert landscape"
as "computer-generated." A visitor to the site questions
that statement; he says he sees a matte painting, there and in other
parts of the film. One question, I suppose, is how you define "computer-generated"does
artwork scanned into a computer and output as part of a scene qualify?but
I can't believe that any of those desert landscapes are matte paintings
in the traditional sense. I'm embarrased to make such a lazy request,
but can anyone point me toward a readily available source that will
explain just how such landscapes reach the screen, and especially
how they're combined with elements that are unquestionably computer-generated,
like the cars themselves?
June 27, 2006:
OVER THE HEDGE: I finally saw it last weekend, and the phrase
that leaps to mind is "misplaced effort." The people at
DreamWorks Animation have, in their usual manner, gone to a great
deal of trouble to get surfaces right. The animals look like the
real thing, which is exactly the problem. Combine all the uncannily
realistic fur and skin and teeth with puppet-like movement (DreamWorks
still lags far behind Pixar in that respect) and with voices that,
however well-cast, are insistently those of humans, and the result
is to open up distance between audience and characters. I couldn't
shake the feeling that the animals had been cast from the stock
of a taxidermy shop; they are simply too strange. The story is perfectly
serviceable and could have been more than that with just a little
work, but it called for a cast of cartoon animals like those that
worked so well in Madagascar.
BUGS: An image of the Bunny of that name appeared twice in last
Friday's Wall Street Journal, once with a teaser headline
("What's Up Doc? Not Time Warner") on the front page above
the masthead, and again, much larger, on the front page of the Money
& Investing section, with a story headlined "Time Warner's
Malaise Persists." Bugs was identified as one of Time Warner's
"key characters." It's too bad that the suits at Time
Warner seem not to agree with the Journal that Bugs is "key."
Perhaps that's one small reason, among many, that the company's
stock has slid about 10 percent since early this year.
MARBLES: In case you missed it, an interview
with John Lasseter appeared in last Friday's USA Today. Here's
a particularly revealing quote from that story:
"Many racing-related films in the past weren't authentic enough,
he says. 'They didn't do their homework. I wanted to make sure the
racing scenes were authentic and that they had the energy that you
feel at a race live. I was dedicated to that.'
"For instance, in a real race, as cars speed around the track,
they literally burn rubber. 'Their tires get hot, and they spin
off little bits of rubber they call 'marbles,' 'Lasseter says. 'These
things collect along the track. You will see that (in the movie).'"
Ah, the marbles. I knew that was why I found those races, and the
film as a whole, so, uh, compelling. Computer-animation people really
do seem to become easily obsessed with minutiae, a sign, I suspect,
that the medium is entering a decadent phase when audiences will
start turning away.
June 22, 2006:
CLARIFICATION: This from Eddie Fitzgerald, whose blog
I recommended the other day: "I have to tell you tell you that
your comments made it appear that I'm crazy. I don't think that
was your intention and I still consider you a friend. In a friendly
spirit I offer this observation: While it's true that the net favors
casual writing you still have to edit what you say. Sit on the provocative
stuff for a night and see if it still looks right the next morning."
I thought it would be obvious that my posting was tongue-in-cheek
and intended to tie in with Eddie's hilarious story about being
punched by Paul Fennell. But I guess not. So, to set the record
straight, Eddie is a funny guy, but not crazy. And I do recommend
June 20, 2006:
CARS TALK: Andrew Osmond wrote about my review
of the new Pixar feature, questioning specifically my remark
that John Lasseter "let himself be trapped inside what amounts
to a live-action script. Neither Lightning nor any of the other
characters need be automobiles; they could just as well be people,
and all of the story's events could easily have been translated
into live action." Andrew writes: "Its true the
Cars characters need not have been automobiles. [But] in
what sense does Cars have more of a 'live-action script'than
your own favourite Pixar film, The Incredibles? I can imagine
a live-action (albeit effects-heavy) 'translation'of that film with
"Effects-heavy" is surely the critical phrase. So many
films are so heavy with CGI effects that the boundary between live
action and computer animation is now very blurry, and in its last
half even The Incredibles comes dangerously close at times
to simply duplicating what we've already seen in live-action thrillers.
But what happens on the screen is almost always caricatured in a
way that distinguishes it clearly from live action, and caricature
is absolutely central to the identity of the characters. You're
not going to find any actors who resemble Mr. and Mrs. Incredible,
and those characters wind up seeming all the more real for that
Which reminds me: When I suggested in my review that the animation
in Cars was "flawless," I should have added, "on
its own photo-realistic terms," and I've now done so. But flawless
photo-realism doesn't seem to me much to get excited about it, and
some of my correspondents have complained of flaws in both animation
and design. Michael Sporn remarked that he "was never able
to get past the eyes of the characters (they didn't work as eyes
and kept distracting [me] with that little chip in the eyelids)."
On his excellent "Splog,"
Michael remarked on another aspect of Cars: "The paint
job of newer cars has a flecking/speckling of glitter within the
paint. In the right light, the main character, Lightning McQueen,
had this paint job. Everytime I saw it, I was distracted and pulled
out of the film. Like the real paint on a real car, that flecking
was embedded within the paint, itself. It didnt feel like
the byproduct of a human hand; it felt like a computer trick."
I noticed that speckling. After I realized it wasn't a mistake
but was supposed to be there, I wondered how much effort had gone
into achieving that effect. More than went into coming up with a
coherent story, I'm sure.
Pixarat least in its Lasseter-dominated filmsmay have
reached a tipping point. As an anonymous correspondent writes: "I'm
not sure if I'm just noticing more of Pixar's house style with each
film or their formula is getting balder and balder with each repetition.
It is the case that they, like NASCAR, are trying to keep the audience
they have and grow new audience members: the problem is the dollars
are so big that it's more and more difficult to veer off the formula
with each success." What may turn out to be decisive, in a
negative sense, is that Lasseter has applied the Pixar formula to
material so uncongenial to that formula as stock-car racing.
And then there's the next Pixar feature, with those damned rats.
As Andrew Osmond reminds me, we're in for a spate of rat-populated
films, including not just Ratatouille but Aardman's Flushed
Away. My anonymous correspondent writes: "One small addition/correction
on your comments about Ratatouille: the advisor rat suggests
'muscling' past the gag reflex, not just suppressing it. This may
indeed be a job for John K. and not Brad Bird! I'm also glad you
didn't mention the rats' somewhat matted/greasy/wet fur...ugh."
FAST EDDIE: Eddie Fitzgerald told me some time ago that he was
starting a blog, but he didn't give me the URL for it even after
I asked. That Eddie, he's a caution. Anyway, by clicking here
you can learn how Eddie got punched out by an old guy who animated
for Walt Disney in the early thirties. (Actually, Eddie is one of
those guys who seems to invite a punch in the face by his very existence,
so we're probably in for a lot more stories like this one.)
COAL BLACK: That Bob Clampett cartoon has been the subject
of several postings here recently, and so perhaps it's worth noting
that in an Annecy Festival poll of "30 specialists" to
Films for a Century of Animation," Coal Black and de
Sebben Dwarfs finished at No. 40, higher than all but nine other
American cartoons. It's the only Clampett cartoon on the list, and
one of only three Warner cartoons (the other two being Chuck Jones
standbys). I noticed only four Disney shorts, a couple of Averys,
three Fleischers, and a couple of UPAs, along with a number of independent
films, some of them highly questionable choices (Frank Film?
You've got to be kidding). The National Film Board of Canada seems
to have produced more important cartoons than anyone else, if you
believe the "30 specialists."
For me, this list is even stranger than the strange list of the
50 greatest cartoons in Jerry Beck's book of that title. I wasn't
invited to participate in either selection process, so you can write
off my skepticism as sour grapes or tip your hat to my disinterestedness,
as you see fit.
INDEXING: I'm pleasantly surprised sometimes when I happen
to go into old "What's New" postings and I discover how
substantial they arenot just some of my own comments but those
of many of my visitors. I've created a rough index to those earlier
postings at the bottom of this page, so that it's easier to locate
a topic of interest.
June 18, 2006:
CLAMPETT: William Griffin wrote in response to Milt Gray's essay
on Bob Clampett's Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs; you can
read his comments, and Milt's response, by going to this Feedback
KIMBALL CLIP: Timothy Clarke, a visitor to the site, was annoyed
by the poor quality of the one-minute audio clip accompanying the
Kimball interview, and he has generously provided me with a
greatly improved version.
June 17, 2006:
CARS: As you may have gathered from the posting below, I
didn't like it much. To read why, click here.
June 12, 2006:
CARS: I saw it the day it opened, while I was on vacation,
and I'll a post a review of it later this week. In the meantime,
1. Steve Jobs is truly a business genius, if we define genius as
knowing exactly the right moment to sell.
2. Michael Eisner evidently understood something that Robert Iger
3. Walt Disney knew what he was doing when he made Susie the
Little Blue Coupe as a seven-minute short instead of
a two-hour feature.
4. There should bebut won't bean instant moratorium
on proclamations that John Lasseter is the second coming of Walt.
June 1, 2006:
GUEST ESSAYS: I'll be away for the next couple of weeks,
so in my absence I'm posting a couple of essays, on Bob
Clampett and Coal
Black and de Sebben Dwarfs, perhaps Clampett's greatest
film, from Milt Gray, my indispensable collaborator in the research
for Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age.
Milt's pieces appeared originally a few years ago, in slightly different
form, in one of animation's hidden treasures, the bi-monthly gathering
of private newsletters called APAtoons. You can read about
APAtoons, and find out what's involved in joining the group,
by clicking here.