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"What's New" Archives: July 2011


July 27, 2011:

One Mystery Solved


July 16, 2011:

Mystery Men

The Illusionist, Finally

Adios Amazon


July 4, 2011:

Happy Independence Day!


July 27, 2011

Don Christensen at Hyperion

One Mystery Solved

In my July 16 item, titled "Mystery Men," I speculated about where the photo in that item was taken, at the old Disney studio on Hyperion Avenue or at the new Burbank studio. David Lesjak, to whom I recently provided scans of a number of photos for his forthcoming book on the Hyperion studio, has pointed out the resemblances between the July 16 photo and one of the scans, this one of Don Christensen, then a very young member of the Disney staff, at an animation desk very similar to the one in the July 16 photo. Don lent me that photo for copying many years ago, and my notation on the back, which reflects what Don told me, identifies it as having been taken at Hyperion. Case closed.

And while I'm at it, here's another Hyperion photo that originated with Don Christensen; thanks to Gunnar Andreassen for reminding me of it. Don thought it was taken in 1938 during story work on Pinocchio, but it must have been taken a year or so later, since that's an unpainted maquette of Bacchus that Joe Sabo is holding. Probably an almost-exact date could be determined if we knew the start and end dates for all of these people. These are the people in the photo, left to right: front row, Don Christensen, David Rose, Joe Rinaldi, Ernie Terrazas; second row, Joe Sabo, Tony Rivera, Bill Peet; Third row, Phil Eastman, Gordon Legg, Otto Englander (head of this story crew); back row, Walt Scott, Herb Ryman, Webb Smith, Ed Penner (who evidently didn't notice the "no smoking" sign).

Hyperion story crew


From Michael Sporn: I enjoyed the two mysteries posts on your site.

It gave me a first look at the desks. Comparing the Hyperion desks you show on the two pictures with my own desk (which came from UPA— I assume the NY studio), I find it interesting that they're very similar in design. The only three differences I can see are:

1. I have two shelves compared with 4 and 3 on the the desks pictured.

2. The angled wood top of the desk takes up about 3/4 of the pictured desks and the complete top of my desk. I have no flat surface to the right.

3. The stand under the two drawers (on the right) is shorter on mine.

This makes me wonder if somehow the UPA desks were modeled after the Hyperion desk. The similarities are too striking to be coincidence. This desk, in no way matches the later Disney desk. I presume there were some from Hyperion that ended up at the early UPA. Or perhaps even Columbia. Or maybe it was the Signal Corps that built these UPA designs?

Somehow I think I've stumbled onto some trivia to study in animation. Kinda like how many lines on the back of Bugs Bunny's glove from picture to picture? I may give it a look, though. Gotta keep filling my meat eating blog.

MB replies: Actually, the really critical question is how many whiskers Bugs Bunny has in each scene, and whether the variations in their number, when subjected to numerological analysis, confirm the prophecies of Nostradamus.

[Posted August 2, 2011]

From Peter Hale: Just one question (not being familiar with the layouts and fittings of either locale): is it possible that this is a story room rather than an animation room? That way Hannah would be sitting at his own desk—the guy sketching, likewise—and the others would be the visitors, in on a story discussion? Just a thought—I have the feeling that animation desks were ubiquitous in the early days, since most staff had animation experience and might be called on to handle production tasks when extra hands were needed.

MB replies: I think not; I think now that those are the desks of assistants/inbetweeners, and that Hannah, still animating at the time, was talking with one of them about an animation issue, maybe something tricky he wanted handled properly. But it's hard to be sure.

[Posted August 3, 2011]

From Stephen Perry: The animation building was moved from the old Hyperion lot to the new Burbank lot and turned into the shorts building. Did the shorts building get the new desks, or did they have all the old equipment? I've never seen any pictures of animators working at their desks in the shorts building at Burbank, unless these pictures are taken at the Burbank studio and would prove they still had the old Hyperion desks to start with. Might explain why Jack Hannah is in the photo....

MB replies: An interesting point—I've been in that building on the Burbank lot—but I'm not sure which building(s) we're seeing in this post and the one from July 16, and I don't know how much of the Hyperion studio's equipment migrated to Burbank. Not a lot, presumably; but what happened to the old equipment if it wasn't recycled? Michael Sporn has suggested some possibilities above, but I don't have a ready answer.

[Posted August 14, 2011]

July 16, 2011:

Mystery Men

Jack Hannah et al.

I've spared myself the time (and expense, not to mention the mental distress) of seeing any CGI movies in recent months, so it's a little surprising to me that I haven't been able to squeeze out more time for this website; blame it on my next book. Writing about old comic books has been much more alluring than writing about contemporary animation. My plan has been to plug part of the content gap by posting some of the many photos I've accumulated in work on my other books, but even that plan is not without pitfalls.

Take the photo above. When I interviewed the Disney animator Jerry Hathcock in 1986, he lent me that photo so that I could make a copy negative. That's obviously Jack Hannah—animator, story man who teamed with Carl Barks, and finally director of Donald Duck shorts—at the left; Jerry told me that two of the other three men were Nicholas George and Ted Bonnicksen, but he wasn't sure which was which, and neither am I.

My first thought was that this photo, with its crowding and informality, was surely taken at the Hyperion studio, but then I looked at Jerry's interview again, and I realized that he said he didn't start work at Disney until February 1940, months after the move from Hyperion to Burbank got under way. I neglected to ask him at which Disney plant he started, but most likely it was at Burbank (he was inbetweening in Norm Ferguson's unit). So, is that where the photo was taken? Does that furniture look like Burbank furniture? Who took the photo, anyway? It's presumably not a publicity shot, not with those feet on the desk and no identifying number; or is it? And what's Jack Hannah doing there? By 1940 he was a story man, not an animator.

All questions I should have asked; or maybe I did ask them, but Jerry understandably couldn't answer them after a lapse of almost fifty years. More research is thus in order, when I can bring myself to do it.

I enjoyed re-reading the Hathcock interview. Like the Fred Kopietz interview I posted recently, and like the John Freeman interview I've been working on, it has a real-life flavor. There's a sense that this is what working life was like for many talented people in the animation business when Jerry was active in it, from the 1930s through the 1970s. Not a Fantasyland, for sure, however rewarding the work was in many respects.

I got highly favorable feedback about the Kopietz interview from people who took the time to read it, but as best I can tell, from Google Analytics and otherwise, there were very few such people. I suspect that it's precisely the real-life flavor of the Kopietz interview that has led many animation fans—including, and perhaps especially, fans who work in the business—to shun it, in favor of romances about the glorious heroes of the Golden Age and their successors in today's studios. I get almost no web traffic, for the interviews or otherwise, that originates in the big animation studios, and on the rare occasions when I cross paths with someone who works at such places, electronically or in person, their hostility is palpable. All of which suggests to me, I'm afraid, that I must be doing at least a few things exactly right.

Let me qualify the preceding paragraph. I did hear a few months ago from a Recognizable Name at Pixar, who wanted me to send him a copy of a document, one more than a hundred pages long, that I'd cited in an essay. There was not a hint of reciprocity, and he was most anxious that I not mention here that he'd condescended to write to me. The clear implication, as far as I was concerned, was that as a simple peasant—I mean fan—I should be humbly grateful for the attention from someone so illustrious and should expect nothing in return. With as much politeness as I could muster, I told him to shove it.


From Darrell Van Citters: That photo looks like Hyperion to me—the desks, the windows, even the storyboards. The new boards had those telltale hooks on the back top and on the frontside bottom, for hanging. Even the desk chairs look out of place for the new furniture—and those desks aren’t new. The easy chair in the FG looks like the woven chairs at Hyperion, too. I know they brought some old stuff over to Burbank, I remember seeing old furniture in the downstairs hallway between Animation and Camera/Ink and Paint, most of which they sold off shortly after Eisner took over. If Hathcock isn’t in the photo, then it wouldn’t have to have been taken after he started—is he in the photo, it isn’t identified that way?

By the way, I enjoyed the Kopietz interview—I find these fascinating not just for the Golden Age reminiscences but also for their later careers in TV or comics or whatever. Thanks for posting them.

MB replies: Jerry Hathcock didn't mention being in the photo, so I assume he isn't one of the three unidentified men.

From Frank Flood: My guess is that some number of people did what I did: read the Kopietz interview, thought it was great, appreciated both that you had taken the time to post it and that you had interviewed him when he was still here, and then moved on with life. So, let me correct the oversight of not commenting. I loved the post, and would like to read any interviews of Jerry Hathcock or other professionals that worked during the industry's golden years.

[Posted July 19, 2011]

From David Lesjak: Regarding that new image you've posted, I'm leaning towards Hyperion. I guess we'd have to find out the start dates for everyone in the photo, but aside from that, the desks are very cluttered with "stuff." Not sure how long it takes to create a messy looking work environment, but it looks like those piles of paper and such on the desks have been around for quite a long time.

[Posted July 21, 2011]

From David Nethery: I'm another regular reader of your blog who probably should have made the effort to tell you how much I appreciated the Fred Kopietz interview (along with the Lynn Karp interview and the Roger Armstrong remembers Lantz interview, etc.) I'm disappointed to read that you didn't get more traffic on the blog after Cartoon Brew mentioned the Kopietz interview. I can tell you that I for one was enthusiastically touting the interview to everyone I know who has the least interest in animation.

And I want you to know that I will absolutely insist that my History of Animation students read it when class reconvenes in the Fall semester (your blog is one of my * HIGHLY RECOMMENDED * resources for students).

I never knew or worked with Fred Kopietz, but he presents a view of life in the animation biz that rings true to many of us who have lived it , and I would say that his memories of that "Golden Age" are very similar to the memories of some of the Golden Age vets I was fortunate to know at the end of their careers (start of mine) in the early–to–late 1980s. Kopietz's memories lift a curtain on the real day-to-day studio life of the journeyman animator or assistant animator, not necessarily one of the "stars" like the ''Nine Old Men" or the Big Guns from Warners or MGM like Ken Harris or Irv Spence, but talented, dependable team players who contributed so much to the classic animated films. (I'm hoping you have some yet-to-be-published interviews in your files with the likes of a Hal King.)

By the way, I should mention that I think if your blog had a comment system it would probably garner more regular comments.

Anyway, I wanted to let you know that there are those of us out here who eagerly devour a substantial interview like the one with Fred Kopietz and sincerely appreciate your efforts to have conducted the original interview and to transcribe and post it on your blog.

MB replies: Actually, I do have a comment system, as explained in the right-hand column on my home page. It's not a standard blog comment system, though, because this isn't a standard blog, and I don't want it to become one.

I hope it didn't seem that I was whining about a lack of attention for the Kopietz interview. Certainly I didn't mean to suggest that I was disappointed in the comments posted here or on Cartoon Brew, all of them very generous and appreciative. What disappointed me was that so few people in today's industry seem to have any interest in conscientious journeymen like Fred Kopietz. Milt Gray and I talked to dozens of people like Fred, who were never stars but who found the work (and the people around them) consistently stimulating and mostly enjoyable. It's the kind of career most people hope for, in whatever field, but maybe it seems either hopelessly mundane or hopelessly unattainable in today's CGI animation studios.

Neither Milt nor I interviewed Hal King, unfortunately. Identifying and then locating the people we wanted to talk to was an arduous process, especially thirty years ago, when so many veterans of the Golden Age studios were still alive and alert and we had no choice but to pick and choose. Who worked at the studios whose cartoons are of the greatest interest? Who is willing to talk? Who has the best memory? Who knows a lot but will probably clam up when the tape is running because he's afraid he'll offend a potential employer? Who is a notorious gasser? Who has already been the subject of a good published interview, so that we can safely move them down the list?

I can't remember how or whether Hal King's name came up, but there were a lot of people we had no choice but to put on the back burner. Fortunately, there were a lot of others of the same caliber who sat for interviews.

[Posted July 24, 2011]

The Illusionist, Finally

The Illusionist

I finally saw The Illusionist, on Blu-ray. I was looking forward to it, because I very much enjoyed Sylvain Chomet's previous feature, The Triplets of Belleville. The Illusionist is in many respects a lovely film; I haven't been to Scotland since 1999, but the backgrounds of Edinburgh and the Hebrides in the 1950s instantly evoked that country for me. I was, however, ultimately disappointed in the film as a whole.

Chomet based The Illusionist on a Jacques Tati script for an unmade film that would have starred Tati as Tatischeff (Tati's real name), the stage magician of the title and a version of the ungainly character Tati played in such live-action features as M. Hulot's Holiday and Mon Oncle. It had been years since I'd seen a Tati movie, but by happy chance Turner Classic Movies showed M. Hulot's Holiday a few days after I'd watched the animated version of the Tati character.

M. Hulot's Holiday was for me on this viewing like a feature-length short cartoon, one that had to stand or fall on the strength of its individual gags. Although it had its bright moments—I smile at the thought of the deflated tire that becomes a funeral wreath—there weren't nearly enough. Neither could I warm up to the Tati character, whose accoutrements—the ridiculous little car, the omnipresent pipe—finally seemed like placeholders for more ingratiating attributes.

Tati became for me an oppressive presence in his own film, and I felt very much the same about the animated version of the character in The Illusionist. But there's an even larger problem. Even more than Tati's live-action features, The Illusionist is essentially a pantomime film, but it lacks the precise exaggeration of expression that could compensate for the absence of dialogue. All the characters, especially Tatischeff and Alice, the young girl who tags along with him from the Hebrides to Edinburgh, are finally too opaque, and simply not very interesting. There's a failure not of execution, but of conception. I still look forward to Chomet's next film.

For a more sympathetic response to The Illusionist, let me refer you to the entry for that film in Andrew Osmond's stimulating new book 100 Animated Feature Films, which I've recommended previously. Andrew has made me aware of a controversy centered on The Illusionist, a controversy that seems all the stranger because the film was so conspicuously unsuccessful at the box office. Let me quote Andrew:

Anyone who writes about The Illusionist, especially online, is subject to getting blitzed by...well, let's say passionate activists who argue that the flm does a grave injustice to Jacques Tati's illegitimate daughter. You may know the story already. If not, the case is presented in (very) great detail on Roger Ebert's website in a letter from Tati's grandson. There is also a rejoinder from the producer of The Illusionist. My own feeling was that the case is very inconclusive, and I left out any mention of it when I wrote up the film [in 100 Animated Feature Films]. (It was the last entry I wrote.) Later, however, I got impatient with some of the "activists" who take the side of Tati's grandson (in extremely dogmatic terms), and I made the mistake of arguing with them on the Cartoon Brew forum. The surreal result—which almost made the argument worthwhile!—was I was accused of being a malign mouthpiece for the British Film Institute, trying to suppress criticism of The Illusionist! Ah, the joys of the net...

On a happier note, I can recommend wholeheartedly a recent live-action film, Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, whose caricatural evocations of 1920s Paris are so clever and subtle as to make even Brad Bird's Ratatouille seem a shade heavy-handed. I can't remember when I last sat through a film with a smile on my face the whole time—that is,until some moron's cell phone went off, about an hour into Midnight, and rang incessantly for close to a minute. At least I didn't notice any teenagers texting, as was true when I saw The King's Speech. Even such "adult" films aren't refuges from adolescent boors, unfortunately. When I encounter moaning and groaning about the decline of moviegoing as a communal theatrical experience—there was whimpering of that kind in the New York Times recently—I think about such disagreeable episodes, and more often than not I say to myself, "I'll wait until it's out on Blu-ray."


From Reg Hartt: Nothing speaks to how subjective our reactions are than your piece on Mr. Hulot's Holiday re: The Illusionist.

That is a film I have projected more times than I can count to audiences reduced to fits of convulsive laughter by it.

Then there is the friend who asked if he could borrow my 16mm print to show his mother for her birthday.

Said his mother, "I only walked out on one film in my life and I'll be damned before I watch it on my birthday."

From Thad Komorowski: I haven't seen The Illusionist yet, damn it all, but I smiled at your dismissal of M. Hulot's Holiday. I first saw it last year at Cornell, and am still scratching my head at all the critical adulation it's received. It was essentially a retarded version of Chaplin; an extended short film that moves at an unbearably slow pace with too few laughs to save it. Midnight in Paris on the other hand is proof that Woody Allen can still surprise you even when you think he's had it. I can't think of a voice in all of animation that's ever achieved that...

[Posted July 18, 2011]

From Peter Emslie: I pretty much agree with your assessment of The Illusionist. I went to see the film with my friend Josh, who is more critical than I, and he astutely pointed out that while the design of the characters is caricatured, their animation is not. He was right, and that was a missed opportunity in my opinion. Only the acrobats moved in a completely fanciful way, well suited to animation, but the rest of the cast might as well have been rotoscoped.

As it is, I feel that The Illusionist succeeds more as a new Jacques Tati film than it does as an animated film. I still enjoyed it though, and I'm hoping that Chomet will persevere in creating traditionally animated films for those of us who still far prefer the magic of a drawing seemingly come to life. Overall, I appreciate his sense of artistry in both The Illusionist and his previous film, The Triplets of Belleville.

On the subject of Jacques Tati, I suppose his films are an acquired taste. I happen to love the Mr. Hulot films, with Playtime being my personal favourite. I think in order to appreciate them, you have to get into what he was trying to do: see the humour in the situations around you as if you were a casual observer on the street corner. Tati always used long shots with a just a few medium shots for variety, but he always kept an impartial detachment from the proceedings. Perhaps that's why some find his films funny and others don't, as he is essentially allowing the viewer, as casual observer, to decide for himself whether a situation is amusing or not.

The fact that Tati's style was to keep everything mainly in long shots may be why it doesn't translate well to Chomet's animated equivalent. I believe that the best animated features work well because of a certain intimacy you have with the characters—small scenes with two or three characters in medium close-up work better than crowds of people in long shots. Traditional hand-drawn animation seems to work better with small stories, and was never well suited to epics. Perhaps that's why I tend to be left cold by all of these contemporary CG animated films, with their obligatory manic chases and flying scenes with tons of stuff happening all over the screen, coming out at you in 3D!

In closing, I'm glad you also enjoyed Woody Allen's latest film, Midnight in Paris. For me it was the most satisfying film I've seen in years—completely charming, poignant and genuinely funny.

MB replies: What I really like about Pete Emslie's comment is that he makes me want to see the Tati films again, and to watch them from that casual-observer-on-the-street-corner perspective. So often, I'll see a film I like (Midnight in Paris being a perfect recent example) and it'll then be fun figuring out just what it was about that film that made me like it; or I'll see a film I don't like, and the reasons for my dislike will seem pretty obvious. But it's exciting to think that a film I haven't cared for might open up for me if I watch it in the right way. I doubt seeing The Illusionist again would make me like it any better, but the next time I see a true Tati film I'll be approaching it in that casual-observer spirit. I'll be delighted if my opinion of Tati soars.

[Posted July 24, 2011]

Adios Amazon

I've been signed up for a long time with an amazon.com program that gives me a (very) small slice of the income when orders are placed through links on this site. I've never reaped much money from the program, usually just enough to cover my internet service provider's annual fee, but that little bit has been most welcome. Now amazon.com is cutting loose many of its "associates," so as to have no physical presence in states like mine, which are attempting to collect sales taxes from online retailers. As of July 24 I'll no longer benefit from orders through links to amazon.com web pages. So, if you've contemplated ordering something from amazon through a link on this site, now is the time to do it.

July 4, 2011:

Happy Independence Day!

Tom and Jerry Fourth

An MGM publicity photo of uncertain date.