Friday, March 26, 2010

Animated Reviews: How To Train Your Dragon

After seeing 'How To Train Your Dragon,' I'm becoming more and more convinced that there are three completely separate teams working on animated films for Dreamworks. I'm not really a fan of anything they've produced other than the first Shrek movie (kind of), Monsters vs. Aliens (sort of), and Kung Fu Panda. Shrek and MvA were cute films, but very flawed--story, over-reliance on pop culture references, unappealing character models, annoying sidekicks, and so on. KFP was by far their best film--one that succeeded on every level: modelling, animation, story, backgrounds, voice acting, music, etc. I left KFP wanting to see more. Rarely do I wish for a sequel, but KFP was one of those films where I wanted another film. When you look at the rest of Dreamworks' animated library (Shark Tale, Antz, Madagascar, Bee Movie, Shrek ad infinitum) you quickly see which films the second stringers are working on and which films they are saving the real talent for!

How To Train Your Dragon is one of those latter films (which only consisted of KFP and maaaaybe the first Madagascar film, in my opinion).

The story is about 'Hiccup' an engineering savvy blacksmith's apprentice who wants to be a great dragon-slaying Viking--but due to his physical shortcomings, he won't even be considered for dragon fighting training. So, he comes up with tools to fight dragons and actually catches one--the black, cat-like dragon 'Toothless', who he befriends and does the whole "discover-your-world-wow-we-now-understand-each-other" thing. I know, I know, a little simplistic, but in this film, it plays out very well and it works!

Okay, so far I haven't told you anything that you didn't see in the trailers. And that's on purpose. This film is chock full of little nuances that really make every scene special--from the little inside jokes that only lifelong Dungeons and Dragons players will catch to the little inside jokes (expressed in Toothless's cat-like movement and emotions) that only lifelong cat-owners will catch.

All in all, this film succeeded on pretty much every level without the usual Dreamworks flaws: over-reliance on pop-culture references, insipid sidekicks, juvenile dick-and-fart jokes, Eddie Murphy*, y'know, the stuff that makes you cringe and wonder if you should go and get a refill on your popcorn as you struggle through a scene where the scriptwriters obviously said "no no, let's leave that in, it'll be funny" and the director got pressured by the mob of executives to do so.

HTTYD told a simple story, and the twist at the end was pretty daring, but it wasn't a kiddie film, per se. This is one of those movies where there was enough complexity to the characters and the plot that most parents won't be squirming in their seats and looking at their watches. I saw this film at midnight with a small crowd of what looked like late teens/early twenties students. Usually, those crowds are filled with talking and annoying flashes of light as they text their friends. There was none of that in this crowd. As soon as the first scene hit the screen, everyone's attention was focussed on the screen and didn't leave it until the credits started to roll!

A lot of animated films have a tendency to throw in tons of sidekicks who are either little more than walking mannequins with no character depth or purpose other than to throw in puns for (supposed) comic relief OR they are obviously just there to reveal some great plot-point that the writers think the audiences are too stupid to figure out on their own. Pretty insulting really. In HTTYD, the secondary characters had enough personality to stand out from the background scenery, but they didn't overwhelm the relationships between the main characters: Hiccup and Toothless, and Hiccup and Viking clan leader Stoick (given a solid performance by Gerard Butler). Most importantly for me, the secondaries provided purpose without being annoying. Their performances weren't overwhelming. When they were there, it was amusing, you got a laugh, but they didn't detract from the foreground story, characters and action. Like the Furious Five in KFP, they weren't very deep, but they didn't need to be--and if they were, it would've been distracting from the primary characters.

The modeling and animation in this film was solid. The characters looked like puppets without being ugly or static (like in Antz or Shrek). The character design in both the vikings and the dragons were pretty inspired--they looked like they jumped off of one of Terry Gilliam's sketchbooks! If you've seen Monty Python and the Holy Grail, then you'll know what I mean! The character animation was very fluid with a lot of subtle acting in the secondary motions. Indeed, it was those secondary motions that really brought out nuances in the characters' personalities and made their performances believable. The backgrounds were beautiful without being overwhelming. Visually, this film succeeded much like Kung Fu Panda did. It created a vivid imaginary world and everything functioned within that world as you expected it to.

If there was any flaw in this film, I would have to say it was the 3d filming process. During some of the night scenes, the screen wasn't as visible as I would've liked it to be. But, I don't blame the filmmakers or set lighting crew for that, as it looked like an artifact of the glasses required for 3d viewing. I'm going to see the 2d version of this film soon and I expect any issues that I saw in the 3d version to be resolved completely.

I wish I could say more about this movie--what I liked and what I loved, but I'm stuck. If I say any more, it'll ruin surprises in the film that are better enjoyed when you discover them yourself. Oh, and I sat through the ending credits all the way to the end--there's no surprise after or during the ending credits, so if you have to go to the bathroom, go, you aren't missing anything (other than seeing the names of a lot of VERY talented individuals).

All-in-all, if you have kids, you'll enjoy this movie. If you don't, you'll probably still enjoy this film in that kind of way that many adults enjoy Bugs Bunny cartoons. Personally, I walked out of the movie kind of wishing that I had kids to share my enthusiasm with.

Lastly, if you have the time, check out this series of How To Train Your Dragon webisodes on Animation World Network's website. They are a series of six cute little short films that describe some of the various dragons found in the film.

* Please note: no, I'm not a big Eddie Murphy fan anymore. Yes, his earlier SNL stuff was pretty good. But it seems that with the more success he had, the more his performances degenerated into a bunch of "hey, look at how cool I am" scenes strung together. Disappointing. One of the few bright spots in his recent career was his role as the dragon 'Mushu' in Disney's Mulan--a film where he seemed to leave the worst 'Eddie Murphy' traits behind and brought enough of his old SNL self to deliver a very solid performance. Mushu was one of those sidekicks who had a real purpose for taking up valuable screen time without being incredibly annoying. And I loved how he actually made a couple comments that poked fun at himself and his career. That's the Eddie Murphy I remember (and miss) from my childhood!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Women in Animation: Stephanie Maxwell

Stephanie Maxwell was born in California. And it was there that she discovered a passion for marine biology while pursuing an undergraduate degree from U.C.L.A. However, she soon caught the filmmaking bug which moved her from L.A. to the San Francisco Art Institute where she earned her Master of Fine Arts in Film. During her career, she has taught film and animation courses in Washington, Florida, California and Vermont, and as far away as New Zealand, Norway, and France. Stephanie is currently a Professor in the Rochester Institute of Technology's School of Film and Animation where she teaches experimental animation, film history, and film/video/animation production. Along the way, she also took the opportunity to spend some time working for George Lucas on the first animated film he ever produced: "Twice Upon a Time".

Stephanie's films have been shown (and won awards) at festivals all around the world. A DVD of her current films (Stephanie Maxwell, Animated Works, 1984-2007), along with selected clips of her films, can be obtained at the iotaCenter website. Also, clips from her full filmography can be viewed on the "works" section of her website. In addition to her teaching and filmmaking endeavors, Stephanie is also the co-founder and co-director of the ImageMovementSound festival which highlights "collaborative multimedia works" combining multiple art forms between students from the Rochester Institute of Technology and the Eastman School of Music.

It was from her early studies in biology that Stephanie developed a unique vision of the microscopic that she carried over to her filmmaking. Stephanie uses a wide range of techniques to produce her films including painting and etching directly on film stock, pixillation, animating objects directly under the camera, and even using copier techniques. In many (if not most) of her films, she calls upon her broad knowledge of the microscopic world in order to accentuate and recreate both the textures and vivid colors found in this tiny realm that we may perceive on some unconscious level, but not perceive directly. This unique vision can be seen in the following two clips.

Clip from Runa's Spell (2007)

Clip from Fragments (2000)

Stephanie was one of my professors at the Rochester Institute of Technology. It was through Stephanie's instruction and films that I developed an appreciation for abstract animations. Before studying under Stephanie,  I had only thought of abstract animations as, at best, screen savers with sound, and at worst, a chance to catch up on sleep at festivals. In her classes, and in subsequent conversations, Stephanie took the time to explain the history, processes, and theories behind abstract animated film. And I think that it was learning that theory coupled with the discovery of how much thought, planning and meticulous execution goes into producing her films that moved me from viewing abstract animation from the realm of 'festival annoyance' to an actual appreciation for a visual art form that melds the kinetic with the auditory into a fusion of form, color, motion and sound. I've highlighted the clips "Runa's Spell" and "Fragments" because, in addition to being two of my favorite films that Stephanie has produced, they're also excellent examples of what I learned about abstract animation from her.

The following two clips are from an interview Stephanie produced for her DVD. On them, she talks about her filmmaking process and collaboration with musical composers.

Interview clip, pt 1

Interview clip, pt 2

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Will the real Saint Patrick please stand up?

As I do my best to avoid the throngs of drunken M.S.U. students today, I'm reminded that this holiday we celebrate nowadays has very little to do with the life and times of Saint Patrick.

Paraphrased from the meticulously researched "Saint Patrick" by William J. Federer:

The boy who would become St. Patrick was born in Britain around 389 A.D. He was captured in his teens by raiders and forced into slavery, tending sheep in the pagan land of Ireland--a period of time where he would turn his heart to God and become a devout Christian. After his miraculous escape from Ireland in his twenties, "St. Patrick" described a vision he received from God telling him to return to Ireland. He did so and preached the gospel of Jesus Christ over the next 40 years. During this time, he was instrumental in converting all of Ireland to Christianity. At the time of his death in 461 A.D., "Patrick had founded 300 churches, baptized 120,000 believers and his followers re-evangelized Europe."

No pinching people who don't wear green. No drunken partying. No leprechauns and their pots-o-gold. Just a humble man of God with a passion for sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ, who would love his enemies regardless of what hardships he had to endure.

I think that instead of going down the pub and having a pint of Guinness, I'm going to watch clips from "Brenden and the Secret of Kells" produced by Ireland's animation studio: Cartoon Saloon. The story tells the tale of a young monk and his struggles to complete the "Book of Kells"--Ireland's greatest national treasure: a lavishly illustrated manuscript containing the four gospels of the New Testament. If you are near a theatre that is showing this film (N.Y.C. and Boston first, then the rest of the U.S. in April), I highly recommend taking your kids to see this Academy Award nominated film.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Women in Animation: Madi Piller

Madi Piller was born in Lima, Peru. She graduated from the University of Lima with a degree in Communication Sciences before spending several years producing television commercials. She traveled to France and Colombia before finally settling in Toronto in 1998. Madi is the current president of the Toronto Animated Image Society (TAIS) and divides her time between mentoring budding filmmakers, organizing events for TAIS and producing her own films. Madi produces her films with a wide variety of techniques and subject matter ranging from the traditional stop-motion fare to abstract experimental slices of life.

Vive Le Film (Long Live Film)
Madi does a fair amount of work using digital rotoscoping. The original rotoscope technique had animators capture a scene in live action on film stock then project the film, one frame at a time, on the backside of a light table. The animator would then draw the character on paper, frame by frame, using the action on the film as a guide for the character's motion. Madi has taken this method of filmmaking a step further by combining both digital and analog techniques to create her films. For example: when creating her 2007 film 'Toro Bravo (Brave Bull)', Madi combined charcoal drawings, sand, cut-outs and photocopies with digital rotoscoping and editing techniques to produce the final film.

However, she is no stranger to traditional analog techniques. In her 2006 film "L'Etranger (the Stranger)", Madi printed each frame using a black-and-white printer before hand painting them and optically printing the finished film on 35mm film.

TAIS Christmas Cookies (animated by Madi Piller & Bryce Hallett)

2008 was the first time I attended the Kalamazoo Animation Festival International and that trip gifted me with several friendships. One of which is Madi Piller. I met Madi at the opening night party and was immediately intrigued with her stories of the Toronto Animated Image Society. Half a year later, I attended my first TAIS workshop (Martine Chartrand's Paint-on-glass). Since then, Madi has been instrumental in my joining TAIS and learning multiple animation techniques as well as encouraging me to participate in their summer screenings by finishing and submitting short films (sometimes you need some accountability to finish that film when you could be watching t.v. or surfing the web). It was due in no small part to Madi's influence that I joined the Toronto Animated Image Society this year. Having become sort of a fixture at many of their workshops and summer screenings, at my last visit to Toronto, Madi extended the offer that if I ever needed to use their equipment, then I was welcome to submit a proposal and they'd work me into the schedule--even though I wasn't a member at the time or even a resident of Canada. It was that welcoming attitude, which Madi consistently displays, that made the decision for me to join TAIS and make the move from being a supporter who attends their events to an actual member with a vested interest in supporting TAIS's (and Madi's) commitment to the art of animated film.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Women in Animation: Martine Chartrand

Martine Chartrand was born in Montreal in 1962. During her college days, she discovered animation while studing fine arts at Concordia University. After working in the television and film industry , she hooked up with the animation co-op "CinĂ©-clic". At CinĂ©-clic, Martine worked on animation projects while teaching workshops in creating backgrounds. She later joined the National Film Board of Canada working as a colour artist and collaborating on films. In the early '90's, Martine directed her first film "T.V. Tango". Also in 1990, Martine first saw "La vache" by Alexander Petrov, which inspired her to travel to Russia for four years as she studied paint-on-glass animation under the Russian master animator. From 1993 to 2000, Martine created her paint-on-glass masterwork "Black Soul", the story of an African-Canadian grandmother telling her grandson the history of the African people in North America. "Black Soul" went on to win twenty-two awards worldwide including Berlin's "Golden Bear" award and Indianapolis' "Crystal Heart" award.

Martine animates her films using a modification of Petrov's paint-on-glass style of animation. While Petrov uses a specific brand of bicycle grease that is very difficult to obtain in the west, Martine found an inexpensive, easy to obtain brand of industrial grease that, when mixed with paint, prevents the paint from hardening and doesn't change the color of the paint. The film is then animated, frame-by-painstaking-frame as she manipulates the paint, effectively destroying the contents of the previous frame to create the next frame.

Black Soul

Martine was part of my first experience at a workshop for the Toronto Animated Image Society. I didn't know what to expect so I went with the most humble attitude I could muster and a willingness to learn anything I could. To say that Martine made learning easy is an understatement of epic proportions. Martine is this little bundle of positive energy who spent Saturday night showing us her and Petrov's films and explaining the paint-on-glass technique. And on Sunday, she ran from workstation to workstation, watching what we'd produced thus far, showing us new techniques and providing encouragement as we struggled through a trial-by-fire with learning this new style of animation. By the time the workshop was over, and Martine was heading out for the train, none of us wanted to see her go back to Montreal. That weekend was my first experience with a TAIS/NFB workshop, but as I drove back to Michigan (invigorated from my experience and ready to animate), I knew it wouldn't be my last one.

During the workshop, I was paired up with this sweet young high-schooler who introduced herself as 'Chevron' (which she pronounced shee-vah-roh). During the next eight-plus hours of the workshop, we created this film by alternating back and forth under the light table where one of us would animate while the other would make thumbnail sketches for the next sequence, and vice-versa. The wave and flowers sequence became the inspiration for one of the films that I'm currently storyboarding.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

And the Oscar goes to...

Well, this year I find myself scratching my head at the Oscars. I find it hard to criticize films that are nominated mainly because I've never produced anything "Oscar-worthy" and as such, have never been nominated for an Academy Award. So, setting aside issues of competent filmmaking (following the rules of film and the principles of animation), I'm stuck just speaking about the films that resonate with me, or more to the point, the films that I would have chosen.

"Up" won Best Animated Feature. Okay. I can see that, decent filmmaking and animation. Felt the story was a touch light, but it was very touching in some parts and exciting in others. A solid, if unspectacular film. Still liked "The Incredibles" better, but that's just me. "Princess and the Frog" was good, but not good enough to win in my opinion. I was really hoping that "Secret of Kells" or "Coraline" would win. Despite the story flaws in "Coraline" and the highly stylized art design in "Kells," I still felt that they were the strongest films in the selection this year. But as I didn't like "Fantastic Mr. Fox" at all, I took a little comfort that at least that one didn't win. It's just my opinion, but I thought it looked like a one semester project from a bunch of second year film students who said "hey, let's make an animated film." Wes Anderson has produced an Oscar nominated, feature-length, stop-motion film. I have not. So, take that assessment for whatever you think it is worth.

"Logorama." Huh. O-kay. Again, not my choice. Don't get me wrong, it was cute, but the story was meandering and, in the end, it was kind of pointless. I'm not a big fan of 'slice of life' films and quite frankly, the vulgarity put me off. "A Matter of Loaf and Death" was very competently produced, but I couldn't shake this feeling of 'been-there-done-that'. The excitement just wasn't there. Eh, I bought the DVD so Mr. Park should be happy. The two films I liked the most out of this year's bunch of Animated Short Films were "Granny O'Grimm" and "the Lady and the Reaper." Yes, a very simple story, but I thought that Granny was funny and I liked the art design in both the 2D and 3D sequences. "French Roast" was okay, but again, the story was just too simplistic and I felt that it was stretched out to fill a span of time that the story just didn't justify having. I liked the character design and thought the animation was solid, but not enough there to get my vote. Having seen all the nominated shorts, "Lady and the Reaper" was by far my favorite. Loved the character design, thought the story was clever, animation was solid. And I just got the most edge-of-your-seat laughs out of it. Antonio Banderas should be proud of his people, they made a really fun film that should've won (in my opinion).

Overall, though I think last year's entries were stronger films with a much greater diversity of story and artistic styles, but there were still some solid performers in this year's batch.

Sigh. I'm glad I'm not betting money on which films win and which ones lose...

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Women in Animation: Lynn Smith

I first met Lynn Smith last year (2009) at a workshop presented by the Toronto Animated Image Society and the National Film Board of Canada. Lynn's career as an animator started in 1968 when she lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In 1975, Lynn moved to Montreal to work for the National Film Board of Canada and became, in her terms, a 'resident alien' of Canada. Lynn is currently on the part-time faculty at Concordia University in Montreal teaching animation and cinema.

Lynn was at the workshop to teach us her own brand of paint-on-glass animation. Unlike Petrov's method, which used bicycle grease to prevent the paint from drying, Lynn uses a small amount of glycerine. Lynn also adds a collage element to her films by cutting out objects in magazines (or creating her own) and duplicating them using a color copier. She then laminates the objects (like eyes, mouths, etc) and animates them under the camera frame-by-frame along with the paint and ink.

The following is one of the films she produced for the National Film Board of Canada. It's called "the Sound Collector" and was created in 1982.

This next film is callled "This is Your Museum Speaking" which Lynn created in 1979. It's about a night watchman and his dog who discover the link between the past and the present as he travels through the museum.

During the workshop, Lynn and I had a wonderful time discussing our respective animation backgrounds. As I am a forensic animator and both Lynn's father and mine worked in the legal arena, we had a fair amount of shared history.

Of course, while Lynn and I were chatting, my friend Jon was at the workstation, creating the following animation:

Monday, March 1, 2010

Women in Animation: 2010

Given that International Women's Day falls in the month of March, I will be starting a regular yearly series of posts dealing with Women animators who I have met or whose work I find inspiring. This year, I'll just be showcasing some animators, however in the future, it is my goal to add interviews with women animators with the purpose of turning people on to their work, providing biographical information, as well as listing out any advice these accomplished animators wish to share with the community.

By starting this series, it is my hope that not only will people have the opportunity to get to know animated films that they might not have discovered otherwise, but also that girls will be encouraged to consider the field of animation for their career. Animation has traditionally been a male-dominated field since its inception, with women playing supporting roles (like the ink and paint girls of Walt Disney Studios). However, with the cost of tools decreasing, the proliferation of schools teaching animation skills and software, and the opportunity to reach a world-wide audience for pennies via the Internet, there's never been a better time for women to create animated films and share with the world their unique voice, stories, and perspectives.

Simply put, the animation community needs more women animators, scriptwriters, and directors in order for it to progress forward and fulfill its potential. Be encouraged by the stories and advice from those who have gone before you.