Monday, December 31, 2012

Animated Thoughts: The Year in Review - 2012

As the saying goes, we learn more from our failures than from our successes. 2012 was a mixed bag of successes and failures for me.

To recap, what were my goals for 2012?

1. Get Certified
I didn't do it. After figuring out the price of upgrading my computer and then migrating to Adobe CS6, I put this goal on the back burner as it was going to take longer than I had originally estimated. Stage one was upgrade my computer. This was accomplished when my old computer's motherboard shorted out and one of my friends helped me build a new computer beefy enough to run CS6. Next is to either save up enough cash to upgrade to CS6 or make the jump to the Creative Cloud--though while Adobe's Creative Cloud affords me the fastest route to CS6, I'm not thrilled with using software that I don't own free-and-clear.

2. Get Animated
I didn't accomplish this goal either--other than organize and review my previous workshop material (and pick up supplies, like blank flipbooks). This goal was a victim of time, not money. I did offer to teach kids how to animate at the Grand Rapids Children's Museum during their open house, but I was one of the artists who didn't make the cut. Not a big deal, I'll apply for it next year. I've streamlined my animation setup to be a lot more portable so that should help me out in the future. In the end, billable, freelance work 'in the now' won out over possible revenue from teaching workshops in the future.

3. Produce a film
Here's where most of my free time was spent. At Ottawa 2011, I was inspired by NFB Animation Producer Michael Fukishima's words during a roundtable discussion. Michael said, make a 30 second film. Then, once it's done, make a one minute film. Then a five minute film, and so on. So, that's what I did... sort of. I started with a 10 second film for the TAIS Summer screenings. After that was done, I made a one-minute and 38 second film, which was submitted to Ottawa--hey, if you're going to dream, dream big! And while it didn't make the festival, it was included in ASIFA's International Animation Day screening. Both films can be viewed under my "Selected Filmography" page.

In the end, 2012 left me with one and two-half goals accomplished out of three. I can say that I overestimated the amount of time and resources that accomplishing these three goals would take--especially in light of my current workload of day-job, freelancing, and my duties as ASIFA/Central's Membership Coordinator. I can point towards emergencies with my house and financial setbacks with my car. And while those would all be valid explanations as to why I didn't accomplish more in 2012, the fact is that I didn't manage my time as wisely as I could nor did I use the tools learned during grad school as well as I could have. My biggest mistake was that, while I wrote down my goals, I didn't break them down into sub-tasks. Nor did I schedule realistic deadlines for each sub-task.

I'm a list-maker. I carry a spiral-bound memopad and a fountain pen with me whereever I go. Whenever a task comes to mind, I write it down so it's not forgotten. Then I try to assign a date when I'm going to do the work. During graduate school, I discovered early on that keeping track of my deadlines wasn't enough--I needed to schedule out what sub-tasks were necessary to accomplish the goal and enter them into my calendar. It's a system that I wish I had discovered during undergrad--I probably would've done better. Unfortunately, while the notepad system works, it does have some significant flaws--most notably, it doesn't lend itself to long-term goals that consist of multiple sub-tasks.

Another issue is accountability. Since I work on my projects alone, it's easy to slack off or let the urgent short-term tasks preempt the longer term goals. Needless to say, I need to find a peer who can keep me accountable. But, until then, I'll be sticking with my task scheduling system.

So, what did I learn from 2012? That setting goals is useless unless you are diligent in scheduling your tasks and tracking your progress. And that's the next step for this coming year. I'm going to stick with the same goals as 2012, with minor modifications.

My goals for 2013?

1. Produce one animated film for for the 2014 festival circuit. This time I'm going to submit my film to more than just Ottawa. And I still plan to produce one short ten-second film for the TAIS annual Summer screening--once they tell us what the topic is.
2. Get Certified: I'm still going to chip away at this one. Now that the computer is upgraded, it's time to save enough cash to purchase CS6. I just have to put together a dollar amount and a deadline, then break it down on how much to save each month--unless I bite the bullet and jump onto the Creative Cloud.
3. Get Animated - Now that my previous workshop material has been reviewed, it's time to start writing a new workshop.

And those are my stated goals. There are a couple other irons that I have in the fire at the moment, but best to keep quiet about them until they are more than just ideas floating around in the ether.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Animated Inspiration: "Una Furtiva Lagrima"

Saw "Una Furtiva Lagrima" by Carlo Vogele at the Ottawa-International Animation-Festival this year. Was easily one of my favorite films of the fest!

Una Furtiva Lagrima from Carlo Vogele on Vimeo.

Yep, Carlo animated a dead fish for this film. You can read all about it on his production blog.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Animated Inspiration: Simon's Cat - "Nut Again"

Since it's the Christmas season, here's an additional animation that I find inspiring: Simon's Cat in "Nut Again".

One of Preston Blair's famous examples of secondary action, found in his books on animation, is the squirrel as he picks up a nut and flips his tail. While this animation has the usual mixture of dry wit and slapstick comedy, it's the timing, weight, and motion of the squirrel's tail that I find most interesting and worthy of further study.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Animated Inspiration: Havana Heat

Since we're rapidly approaching the end of the year, I'm burning through as many animated short films that inspire me as possible. It's been a good year for animated shorts! This one is an advertisement for "Good Books" and is a touch NSFW, but has really good character design, perspective, and storytelling.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Animated Inspiration: Moleskine

Here's a cool stop motion animation produced by Stop Motion Portugal for the favored notebook of Hemmingway and Picasso: the Moleskine.

Worthy of note, the animators have followed the welcome trend of producing a "Making of" video and posting it online.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Animated Thoughts: The Annie Awards

Well, the nominations have been announced for the 40th annual Annie Awards. Hosted by ASIFA Hollywood.

While there are many other categories (which can be viewed on Jerry Beck's Cartoon Brew website), these are the entries for three main categories that I follow:

Best Animated Feature
Brave — Disney
Frankenweenie – Disney
Hotel Transylvania — Sony Animation
ParaNorman — Laika
The Pirates: Band of Misfits — Aardman Animation/Sony Animation
The Rabbi’s Cat — Autochenille Production/GKids
Rise of The Guardians — DreamWorks Animation
Wreck-It Ralph — Disney

Annie Award for Best Animated Special Production
Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1 – Warner Bros. Animation
Before Orel – Trust – Starburns Industries, Inc.
Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem – Illumination Entertainment
Disney Tron: Uprising – Beck’s Beginning – Disney TV Animation
Dragons: Gift of the Night Fury – DreamWorks Animation
Justice League: Doom – Warner Bros. Animation

Best Animated Short Subject
Brad and Gary (Illumination/Universal)
Bydlo (NFB)
Eyes On The Stars (StoryCorps)
Goodnight Mr Foot (Sony Animation)
Kali The Little Vampire (NFB)
Paperman (Disney)
Maggie Simpson in The Longest Daycare (20th Century-Fox)
The Simpsons – Bill Plympton Couch Gag (20th Century-Fox)

Something that I encourage all ASIFA members to participate in is the "Member's Choice Award". This award allows for all ASIFA members in-good-standing to vote on their favorite nominated feature-length animated film. The winner is then presented a special award at the Annies.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Animated Quotes: George Elliot

"It's never too late to be who you might have been."
~ George Elliot (1819-1880)

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Animated Thoughts: Waterloo Festival for Animated Cinema 2012

New butterfly
It was November, the weekend before Thanksgiving, so that meant my final vacation of the year was here: the Waterloo Festival for Animated Cinema.

I left Lansing later than I had planned due to my mother's car being down for repairs. Instead of leaving at my usual 9 a.m. for Waterloo, I stuck around until noon-ish, chauffering Mom around town so she could finish her errands. But, despite the late start, I still made it to the Cambridge Butterfly Conservatory about an hour-and-a-half before closing. It worked to my advantage as there was only one other person walking around the Conservatory.

The butterflies were pretty much grouped into two major categories: those who were hanging from the underside of branches, getting ready to sleep for the night, or those who were swarming the feeding stations, looking for that last minute snack before going to sleep. As it was, I got some pretty unique shots and even found a butterfly that I hadn't seen in previous trips (and wasn't listed in their guide).

Butterfly Bowl
My first WFAC ritual completed, I trekked over to Kitchner and checked into the Walper Hotel. Old and creaky, the Walper is a maze of twists and turns that would make any Minotaur proud. Though the rooms are a touch on the cold side, and I was never able to get the room's heater to go beyond 64 degrees F, the Walper is still the easiest hotel to stay at since it's a short five minute walk right up the street to the theatre. After settling into my room, I quickly found a faster route from the elevators and my suite. Then it was off to the Chrysalids Theatre.

For those who are interested in more detailed information about the films that festival curator Joe Chen showed over the festival, their trailers and synopses can be read on the WFAC website. I strongly encourage readers to check out the trailers, then jump over to the WFAC website for more info, and then tracking down these films.

I picked up my festival pass and immediately noted Joe Chen racing around as he performed video and sound checks for the first film. A quick 'hello' was all he had time for before moving onto the next task as time rapidly ran out before the first screening and the theatre lobby filled with festival attendees.

The first film of the screening was "Wolf Children". It was not what I expected. This film was a very touching story about the relationship between a mother and her children--and the sacrifices that she willingly made for her children. I'm not sure that I'd categorize it as slice-of-life, but it came pretty close. The story was about a woman who falls in love with a man who is--for all intents and purposes--a werewolf. They marry, have kids, and then he tragically dies, leaving her to raise two children who are werewolves themselves--with no guidance for raising two kids who can shift between wolves and humans at a moment's notice. This film was an excellent opening to the festival and really hit home. While driving to Waterloo was a nervous rush to see if I could make the Butterfly Conservatory in time, after watching "Wolf Children", I was thankful that I had the morning to spend with my mother and do something special for her.

Directed by Hosoda Mamoru, whose second film was Summer Wars, you can read WFAC's background and director bio here. This is definitely one of those sleeper hits that needs to be in your DVD collection.

The second film of the night "Hells" was... interesting. Honestly, I thought more about the visual style than I did the story. Hand drawn in a 'sketchy style', I wish I had something to compare it to other than one of the films I saw years ago in the "Genius Party" compilation. But the motion was fluid and the characters both interesting and engaging. Personally, I didn't care for their mangling of Christian theology and merging it with Buddhist and Shinto concepts, but, it was written and produced in Japan as a work of fiction. So...

"Hells" went on for a little too long with one 'ending' after another during the climax of the film. But the sketchy drawing style really breathes new life into hand drawn animation coming out of Japan and successfully broke from the traditional anime mold. Given that it was produced by the same studio that created "Redline", I really expected nothing less.

Read WFAC's background and director bio here.

That night, I was pleased to see that fellow TAIS member Grayden Laing made it out to WFAC. After "Hells" was over we had a great conversation with Joe Chen that insured I wouldn't get back to the hotel until well after 1 a.m. as Joe graciously talked about the current state of the festival and its future direction.

The next morning began with "Babeldom". I initially skipped this film in Ottawa because I didn't find the trailer interesting. Just goes to show you that you can't judge a movie by its trailer. Am glad I saw it at WFAC -- I REALLY liked this film! "Babeldom" was a lot better than I expected. It had this "Waking Life" quality to it but less stream-of-consciousness. There were only two narrators/main characters and virtually no people in any of the shots. Personally, I thought the lack of people and the juxtaposition of live-action shots of architecture with the scientific visualization animations was an interesting choice. As I've been thinking about archeology a lot over the past few months, the concept of future cities built upon past cities drew me in from the start. As the film progressed, I was left wondering if the gulf that separated the two lovers wasn't distance but rather time. I like that. it makes the film more sci-fi. I think it also ties the concepts together a little more tightly as the two lovers from opposite ends of the city (topside and downside) communicated over the gulf that separated them. "Babeldom's" visuals evoked some fond memories of trips taken to unfamiliar cities and museums of science and industry--the architecture flowed from one scene to the next, evoking one memory after another. While a few elements seemed a little out of place, as a whole, I enjoyed this film and put it on my list of films to watch again.

Read WFAC's background and director bio here.

Next came "Tibetan Dog" a thinly veiled political statement on China's annexing of Tibet and their low-intensity war against the people of Tibet all couched in an Ol'Yeller style story. On its surface, the film is a story about this boy whose mother dies and he goes to live with his father, a doctor, who lives in Tibet. The boy is soon adopted by a golden Tibetan Mastiff who is on a mission of vengeance against the "monster" who is terrorizing the valley. Under the surface though, the story explores the situation between China and Tibet. Interestingly enough, this joint Japanese and Chinese film was produced in both countries in part to skirt the restrictive Chinese laws regarding importing and screening foreign films. I have to wonder if the Chinese censors will recognize the symbolism in the film and if they'll still allow it to be shown in China.

Read WFAC's background and director bio here.

Afterwards, Joe showed "Arrugas" and it was just as good as I remember from Ottawa. I was very happy to get the chance to see it again.

Read WFAC's background and director bio here.

The last film of the night was "Blood-C: The Last Dark" by Production I.G. Not bad, but it didn't thrill me too much. Course, I've only seen the original 40 minute "Blood: the Last Vampire" so there were little gaps and scenes that would've made sense if I'd seen the television series. In reality, the only thing that bugged me was the 3d rendering in the final battle sequence. While it was a decent climax to the film, the 2d cel shading just didn't mesh well with the actual 2d hand-drawn characters.

Read WFAC's background and director bio here.

Saturday's "Anime Mirai" was a four-film compilation showcasing some new directors as Japan searches for the next wave of talent for the anime industry. All-in-all, there was some impressive work there. All four films were decent. The first story "Juju the Weightless Dugong" was about a little girl who wants to play in the ocean with her father, but is repeatedly rebuffed by his job and his fear of swimming.

By far the strongest film out of the four was the second: "Pretending not to see". This was a must-see film about bullying from the perspective of a boy who witnesses a classmate being bullied but is afraid to speak out for fear of reprisals by the bully and his friends.

The third was "Li'l Spider Girl", the story of an antiquarian who inadvertantly unleashes a little girl who is also a half-spider monster. A fun little jaunt with some unexpected little twists, turns, and laughs along the way.

The fourth and final film was 'Buta'. It was okay. A story about an anthropomorphic pig who happens to be a traveling samurai that is afraid of cats. Nothing spectacular, but entertaining for a half-hour. It didn't break any new ground. Just your typical Saturday morning cartoon fare for kids.

Read WFAC's background and director bio here.

"Marco Macaco" was a cute film. Definitely for the kids. Not my taste, but it did hold my attention. While the character designs, modelling, and sets were basic, the animation was solid, consistent, and unique to each character.

Read WFAC's background and director bio here.

Unfortunately, "Day of the Crows" wasn't shown due to technical difficulties. So I made my first return visit to Niko Niko instead.

Afterwards, I ended up skipping "Jensen and Jensen" to take a nap as the drafty room at the hotel had left me with the beginnings of a head cold on Friday morning. Though hearing about its simplistic story and level of vulgarity from people who sat through "Jensen and Jensen", I think I probably made the right choice. But since that wasn't the case for "Babeldom", I might track this film down in the future and see for myself whether or not I should've watched it on the big screen at WFAC.

Refreshed and ready for the rest of the evening, I returned just in time to catch 'A Letter to Momo'. The story about a girl who loses her father--whose work took him away from the family for months at a time. This film is about the three bumbling spirits who try to protect Momo and her mother as her father makes the transition from the spirit of the deceased into the family's guardian spirit. "A Letter to Momo" is Production I.G. doing a Miyazaki film and doing it very well. Though thinking about the films I've seen so far, I'm starting to think that the Japanese have serious absent daddy issues!

Read WFAC's background and director bio here.

"Library War: The Wings of Revolution" was one of the films I was really looking forward to watching. It was a decent enough film. A little too light-hearted and slow paced for my tastes given the subject matter. I got the feeling that this was meant to be a Patlabor-esque series. The film was taken from a series of light novels,  but I think that there was a lot of information left out. I was expecting a lot more "Ghost in the Shell" and although it didn't deliver on that level of action, the story was interesting enough. Basically, you have two factions in the Japanese government: one that censors media 'in the interest of the public good' and one that protects the lives of authors, librarians, bookstore owners, pretty much anyone who deals with the uncensored sharing of books. All I can say is that this film really needed to be a 13 to 24 episode television series in order to tell the entire story.

Read WFAC's background and director bio here.

The final film of the night was "Heart String Marionette". Joe made the interesting decision to leave the dialogue turned off and bring in two of the composer/musicians to play the soundtrack live during the movie. I left thirty minutes into the show since I was feeling ill. I hadn't planned on watching this film as the trailers shown on M-dot-Strange's confusing website didn't appeal to me, but I have to say that I'd like to see this film again with the dialogue. While the picture was dark, I found the characters to be expertly animated and liked the masks that they wore. Personally, I think the whole experience would've worked if they had shown the subtitles. On the bright side, for those of us who saw the film at WFAC, M.Dot.Strange provided a code which allowed us to buy the film (and the soundtrack) as a digital download for $5.00. While I've purchased and downloaded the film, it's now on my list of features that I'm going to watch before the year is out. Would be nice to see if "Babledom" is available for purchase, I'd like to do a double-feature.

Read WFAC's background and director bio here.

I slept in on Sunday morning. Still felt sick, but checked out of the hotel, had breakfast, packed the car and then it was off to "Asura". What a heartbreaking movie to watch. "Asura" takes place during a famine and tells the story of a feral child who commits one of the most heinous sins in Buddhism to survive: he becomes a cannibal. Your heart really goes out this kid though, and even though it is a tragic story, it does have a somewhat happy ending. With great storytelling and solid animation, they used a hybrid 2d/3d cel shading technique that allowed for a 2d look that matched the oriental watercolor backgrounds. The whole technique reminded me of what Disney is doing with 'Paperman'.

Read WFAC's background and director bio here.

The next film in the lineup was "The Tragedy of Man". Honestly, I'm amazed that I sat through the entire three hour film. It wasn't bad, but was very philosophical... and subtitled. The story was an animated version of Hungary's most famous play which tells the story of Satan and Adam as the devil walks the first man throughout the future history and shows him the consequences of his original sin (all in fifteen minute vignettes). Personally, I liked how the time periods were animated in a visual style appropriate to the particular time period, and that was the greatest appeal of the story for me. While I drifted in and out with the philosophy, I was intrigued with the artistic direction of this film and how it was used to enhance the story and hold the viewer's attention.

Read WFAC's background and director bio here.

After a quick lunch/supper, it was back to the theatre for "Strange Frame"--a digital cut-out animation that was animated using Photoshop and After Effects, with some 3d animation thrown in where appropriate (like a hilarious robotic cockroach in one of those classic, blink and you'll miss it scenes). The story was pretty simplistic and really didn't do anything for me. I got the impression that the director was attempting a 'Heavy Metal' or 'Metal Hurlant' type of story. It did have very interesting visuals, so I expect to see it, or something like it, on the SciFi channel in the not too distant future.

Read WFAC's background and director bio here.

Sadly, I skipped the final show of the night: "Rainbow Fireflies". Didn't want to, but as I was sick and had to be at work the next morning, I figured I was better off getting home at 9 p.m. and getting a good night's rest than rolling in at 1 a.m. and having to be at work eight hours later.

Read WFAC's background and director bio here.

As it's now four days later and this head cold is retreating rapidly--and not as bad as they've been in the past--I think the choice to skip a couple shows and get more sleep was a good one. But next WFAC, I'll probably take the following Monday off of work and stay the night just so I won't have to shortchange myself and can see all the films.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Animated Inspiration: Mayfly Justice

Here's a classic example of Bill Plympton's principles of animation by Jimmy Egeland: "Keep it short, keep it simple, keep it funny."

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Animated Quotes: Walt Disney

“I can never stand still. I must explore and experiment. I am never satisfied with my work. I resent the limitations of my own imagination.”
~ Walt Disney

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Animated Thoughts: An Animated October, Part Three

Several days after arriving home from Toronto, I was on the road again--this time to Grand Rapids and ASIFA/Central's International Animation Day screening. Fellow ASIFA/Central member Brad Yarhouse spent months sifting through the films that ASIFA members from all around the world submitted for our branches to select from and organize our own local screenings.

There were some really enjoyable films there including "History of the Olympic Games" from ASIFA/Atlanta and "Brave Adventure" from ASIFA/China, both of which unfortunately haven't been posted online yet (to my knowledge). However, three of my favorites were:

"A Common Place"
Representing ASIFA/Brazil, this film was very touching and melancholy. During the entire film, I wasn't sure if it was about a friendship between two people or a tale of love lost.
A common place / Um lugar comum from Split Filmes on Vimeo.

"Little Kalari Warriors"
Representing ASIFA/India, this one had a very nice "Samurai Jack" feel to it in the animation, art direction, and narration.

"Kung Fu Cooking Girls"
Representing ASIFA/China, a battle between the traditional and the modern, told in classic Kung Fu style--though visually, very Japanese animation.
Original Animation film Kung Fu Cooking Girls from WOLF SMOKE STUDIO on Vimeo.

Also worthy of note is that one of the films submitted from ASIFA/China is currently in the running for an academy award: "I saw mice burying a cat", directed by Dmitry Geller.

I looked at my calendar as I arrived home that night and realized that the Waterloo Festival for Animated Cinema was just three short weeks away. Time to recover before four days packed with animated feature films!

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Animated Thoughts: An Animated October, Part Two

So, the weekend of October 20th found me back in Canada as TAIS had brought Signe Baumane to Toronto for an evening screening where she discussed her filmmaking history as well as her current project: a feature length film called "Rocks in my Pockets". As Signe's previous work (seen on the "Ten Animated Films" and the "Avoid Eye Contact" DVDs I'd purchased years ago) had been a little hit-or-miss for me, I had not planned on attending this screening. Eh, some films run closer to your tastes, some don't. I admit it, I just don't understand a good chunk of her work. But, as fate would have it, I had dinner with Madi Piller at the Ottawa Fest and she convinced me that a weekend in Toronto would be a good investment of my time--and was she right!

Early in the evening, Signe graciously had dinner with a group of us and spent no small amount of time answering our questions and discussing her filmmaking process--both over dinner and after her screening. It was an experience you can't get from reading an article on the Internet. Unless you are fortunate enough to arrange a skype meeting, experiences like these can only be had at society screenings and festivals. Then it was off to the Cinecycle. With the NFB closing their location on John Street, the Cinecycle opened their doors to the TAIS events. I wasn't complaining, the Cinecycle is closer to my usual hotel anyways.

As Signe introduced her films, she took the time to discuss her filmmaking history, her inspirations, and her process. Hearing why she made the filmmaking decisions she did and what inspires her to make the films she does added a new depth to her work and allowed me to appreciate it on a level I hadn't before. Two of her films had nuances that I've missed in the past but came alive with the addition of the knowledge of what was going on in her life at the time she produced them: 'The Dentist' was created as she dealt with having a root canal--which led to her making the decision to completely remove refined sugar products from her diet. And 'Birth' dealt with her hopes, and more importantly her fears, while being pregnant with her first child. Throughout all of her work, Signe's early experiences of being mentored by Bill Plympton shone through.

An unexpected treat was how Signe presented her filmmaking history leading up to her feature film. You could see how she was growing and maturing as an artist, both in style and content, as she worked toward developing a visual style of her own. Of particular note was how Signe showed several of the films from her 'Teat Beat of Sex' series which discusses various aspects of the sexual experience from a woman's perspective. Laughingly, she admitted how she discovered that sex sells, unless you're being honest about the experience--the good, the bad, and the awkward.

The high point for me though was towards the end when Signe showed two seven minute clips from her upcoming feature: "Rocks in my Pockets", due to be finished in March 2013. With just those two clips, I was hooked on her film. Signe narrated two stories from her family history--both about relatives who had epiphanies about suicide in relation to the situations they were in, and all against the backdrop of the Russian revolution and World War II. Signe's feature film has her narrating the history of mental illness and episodes of suicide found in her family history doing so with her Lativan accent that lends an air of authenticity to the stories as they unfold.

Honestly I was transfixed by the stark honesty that she was presenting on the screen and wanted to see the entire film just based upon those fourteen minutes. Adding to the fascination with her story, her hand drawn characters were seamlessly composited with three dimensional, papier mache backgrounds, giving the film a quality that sets itself apart from both the realm of classic 2d cel animaton and the polished 3d computer animation that we see so often in the theaters. When asked by one of the attendees, Signe replied that her papier mache backgrounds are almost life sized so that she can show more detail and perform more complex camera movements without specialized equipment. When reviewing photographs of the camera rigging and sets built for films like Paranorman, her decision makes perfect sense--especially if you don't want to contort yourself into a pretzel in order to animate that one character or spend your entire budget on camera equipment.

Signe Baumane & Chuck Wilson
Later that night, as I sat in my hotel room and feverishly copied down notes from Signe's screening, I looked up at the television and was greeted with a pleasant surprise: Jerry Beck looking back at me. I had expected to miss his presentation of classic animated films on TCM since I don't have the expanded cable t.v. channels back at home. However, I was fortunate enough to stay at a hotel in Toronto that did. While I didn't see the entire program, I saw a couple hours worth--enough to know that Jerry really put a lot of effort into gathering a fantastic selection of film.

The next day, my roommate and I walked around Toronto, visiting old haunts and enjoying one of the last warm and sunny days of Fall before arriving at the ROM about 90 minutes before close. Given the time, they were kind enough to comp our tickets and we enjoyed a late afternoon, taking photographs, and discovering parts of the museum that we had only breezed by during our last visit years ago.

All-in-all, a wonderful end to a weekend experience that I almost didn't have.

End Part Two

Monday, October 29, 2012

Animated Thoughts: An Animated October, Part One

October was a busy month for animation.

I had barely recovered from the Ottawa International Animation Festival, when a rather timely article was posted on Cartoon Brew by animation historian Jerry Beck regarding the current state (and a possible future) of classic animated film.

It turns out that the Turner Classic Movie channel had decided to broadcast six hours of vintage animation with the added bonus of having Jerry introduce each segment with historical information about the films being produced during that time period. It immediately made me wish that I had more than just the basic cable package that Comcast provides for people with high-speed internet. Once again, I found myself wishing for a-la-carte packaging of cable channels.

Given the difficulties involved in watching classic animated film--that from the late 1800's even up to the 1950's--it makes me appreciate the efforts of Joe Chen, Chris Robinson, Madi Piller, and ASIFA/Central's own Brad Yarhouse even more as most of the films that I've seen at the Waterloo Festival for Animated Cinema, the Ottawa International Animation Festival, the TAIS screenings & workshops, and ASIFA's International Animation Day have never seen much distribution here in the States outside of the festival circuit or on the Internet. While not the purpose of Jerry's article, it does highlight why venues like these are so important to the animation community.

'Technotise, Edit y Ja', 'Fedot the Hunter', 'Chico and Rita'--these are just a few of the feature-length animated films that have been shown at the Waterloo Festival for Animated Cinema in recent years. And none of them received any serious distribution in the United States--leaving people like me to travel anywhere from one to ten hours, and usually to venues in Canada, in order to watch these films. And that doesn't even begin to cover the more fringe films and topics like the Russian animation retrospectives shown at the Ottawa and Waterloo festivals. These two retrospectives alone introduced many to the films produced by Russia's Soyuzmultfilm during the years of the Cold War.

While the Internet has done an excellent job at making more animated films available to a wider audience (especially many of the short films that up until now were only available on the festival circuit or through traveling programs like the Tournee of Animation or the Animation Show) it has made the signal-to-noise-ratio problem worse as we are continually bombarded by hours and hours of internet memes and so-called "animated" video mash-ups. One is only left hoping that the cream will eventually rise to the top--as in the case of Simon's Cat and Dick Figures. But while we won't always appreciate every film that makes it into a festival, the odds of seeing a film that is closer to our tastes is much more likely if one can just tap into the festival scene. There may be far more festivals out there than just Ottawa, Waterloo, the TAIS summer screening, and ASIFA's IAD, but these are the ones I've personally gravitated to--partly due to proximity, partially due to content, and partially due to community. The point being: at a festival or society screening, you already have someone that has sifted through the films and selected those that, at least in their opinion, are worthy of your time.

Personally, I have experienced a side-benefit from my festival attendance. Over the years, I developed a change in my own tastes. When I was in grad school, I couldn't stand abstract, experimental animated films--I always dismissed them as nothing more than computer screen savers. For me, it was narrative short films or I wasn't interested. However, through attending festivals and screenings where I could meet and talk to their creators, I started to see the artistic merit in such work. And I even started to see their influence on more commercial work, such as the flavor/taste sequence in Pixar's film 'Ratatouille' where Remy tries to explain food combinations to his brother.

Had I not been forced to sit through the occasional abstract animated film at festivals--films selected by people who understood the merits of such work--I would have never had the opportunity to expand my horizons and learn to appreciate these films. An appreciation which has recently led me to learn more about the films of Norman McLaren, Ishu Patel, the National Film Board of Canada, and the rich history of Canadian animation. Had I stuck with just watching films on the internet, I very likely would not have ventured beyond the confines of of my little box (which is filled with the usual narrative short films that I so love) and I would have missed out on the wider world of animated film.

I'm very encouraged by Turner Classic Movies' decision to show films that, up until recently, were the purview of only a select group of die-hard enthusiasts, like myself, and students who sat through History of Animation courses at college. TCM should also receive credit for making the controversial decision to show the films of James Stuart Blackton unedited--those which have racist and anti-semetic imagery. These films were discussed by the hosts beforehand, along with a warning to the audience of what they were about to see, and were presented in their proper context: the world as it existed when they were created.

End part one.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Animated Events: International Animation Day

Just a reminder that October 28th is International Animation Day--the day that ASIFA chapters all around the world commemorate "the first public performance of Emile Reynaud’s Theatre Optique at the Grevin Museum in Paris in 1892."

You can read about the history of International Animation Day on the ASIFA International website.

Here in ASIFA/Central, we will be holding our IAD screening on Wednesday, October 24th. at the Wealthy Theatre in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

From the ASIFA/Central announcement:

"The Central U.S.A. chapter of the Association Internationale du Film d’Animation (ASIFA) presents a celebration of current animation from around the world at the Wealthy Theatre in Grand Rapids, Michigan on Oct. 24th.

Doors open at 6:15p.m. with the premiere at 6:30p.m. of the Grand Rapids Community Media Center and GVSU's Animation camp film "Sculpture Garden".

Followed by shorts by international, national and local animators from 7:00p.m.-9:00p.m. in the Koning Microcinema.

The event is FREE!"

The Wealthy Theatre is located at: 1130 Wealthy St SE, Grand Rapids, MI 49506 and you can get directions to the theatre from your location here.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Animated Inspiration: In Between

Y'know, every so often you find a film that resonates with issues you've dealt with in your life. In my case, it's no small measure of social anxiety. The following film from Gobelins l’école de l’image represents a young woman's trials with shyness as a very real struggle with a crocodile. I love how the mischevious actions of the crocodile isn't played just for laughs, but the string of gags showcase the woman's attempts to overcome her struggles.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Animated Quotes: Marcus King

"Success is simple:
A. If you are not getting the results you want, work 10 more hours per week for a month.
B. At the end of the month, if you are still not getting the results you want, work ANOTHER 10 more hours per week for the next month (cumulative). Repeat until you reach success.
C. When you get the success you want, figure out a way to get the same amount of work done in less time.
D. If you start to be unsuccessful, see A.
Failure is simple too. How to fail: See the problem, identify the solution, and then wait for things to get better instead of solving the issue."
~ Marcus King July 24, 2012

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Animated Thoughts: Ottawa International Animation Festival 2012

I love Fall.

Maybe it's because I'm still on the academic schedule but around September, just when the temperatures start to drop in the evenings, I get this feeling of renewed hope and excitement. I remember getting this feeling every year when I was a kid and also when I was in college. It was like all the mistakes and failures of the previous school year were magically washed away and I was being given an new opportunity to get it right.

Well, other than the occasional night course, I'm not in school anymore, but something else has risen up to take its place: the Ottawa International Animation Festival. Every Fall, Ottawa becomes this grand nexus of animation as it hosts the second largest animation festival in the world (and the largest in the Western Hemisphere).

I left on time from Michigan: 8 a.m.--which left me time to divert to Hamilton and pick up my Thanksgiving bottle of cranberry wine at Puddicombe Farms. Unfortunately, the weather prevented me from visiting the Toronto Zoo -- it was overcast and drizzly. Looks like I'm going to have to wait until October to see the new Asian environment section of the Zoo. So, had lunch instead and hightailed it to Ottawa. For once, my timing worked out to be perfect as I arrived at 6:35 p.m. and missed all the rush hour traffic. After getting settled in, it was time to make a run to one of my favorite haunts -- "Marroush Shawarma." Unfortunately, Marroush is no more. It's now "Three Brothers Shawarma." I ate there anyways. Wasn't bad, but there's a certain something that Marroush had that isn't there anymore. I knew that the previous owner, Mostafa, got bought out a couple years back, but last time I was there, the food was still just as good.

Woke up at 3:15 a.m. feeling like I had the flu. Not the best way to start a festival! Walked to the Arts Court Centre and picked up my pass--regretting not bringing activated charcoal with me the entire way. But, I did make the welcome discovery that the OIAF was selling all their t-shirts from previous festivals for $5 each and they had my all-time favorite shirt in my size! I picked up two. Then it was back to the hotel where I slept for the rest of the day. Having attended the Ottawa festival since 1994, I've seen enough of Ottawa to know that the city can handle me not wandering around before the screenings begin.

A couple hours later and I woke up feeling much better. And then the text messages started arriving around 5:40 p.m. Turns out that a client in Boston had some urgent website design requests. After buying a $2 FTP Client and getting access to the server through the hotel's WiFi, I was able to make the changes on my iPad. It kind of justified bringing it with me where ever I went all week.

The crisis averted, I walked across the street to the Bytowne theatre for my first screening of the festival. "Arrugas (Wrinkles)" turned out to be a simply delightful film--though a bit melancholy for me as it dealt with a group of senior citizens in a rest home who work together to prevent the doctors and staff from discovering that one of their friends is slipping further and further into Alzeimers. As my Grandmother died earlier this year from a series of micro-strokes that left her with dementia, watching Arrugas was a sad yet fascinating look into the world of a person who is losing their grip on reality as the present and past start to merge together.

After Arrugas was over, they emptied out the theatre and I bumped into fellow R.I.T. Alum Glenn Ehlers. A short conversation about the film later and we were ushered back into the theatre for the first Short Competition screening.

Funny Story #1: I'm walking into the screening and see J.J. Sedelmaier waiting for someone at the door. I say "Hi Mr. Sedelmaier", he looks over, and says "Hey... didn't I meet you here a couple years ago?" When the titans of the industry remember who you are from a chance meeting four years ago, you know that it's time to really step up your game!

Funny Story #2: Car Crash Opera, by my professor Skip Battaglia was shown during the Shorts Competition 1. So after the screening was over, Skip walks over to me and Glenn and thanks us for letting him know that his film was going to be screened at Ottawa. Apparently, he was out hiking in the mountains somewhere and didn't know his film was accepted until he saw my and Glenn's Facebook posts congratulating him!

Well, there were so many excellent films during this evening's screening -- I've never had so much trouble deciding who to vote for. Usually, I can point my finger at one film and say "that's my favorite", but this screening was pretty hard to decide. My four favorite films from this year's festival were all in Competition One. Including Skip's "Car Crash Opera" there were:

Pythagasaurus by Aardman Animation

The People Who Never Stop by Florian Piento.

and "Una Furtiva Lagrima" by Carlo Vogele. If you get a chance, I recommend the following article on Cartoon Brew regarding Mr. Vogele's animation process using real frozen fish!

Afterwards, we were again ushered out of the theatre and I talked to Gary Schwartz about his trip to England and a new discovery regarding the first color film ever made before roughly sixteen of us all walked en-masse to the opening night party.

Funny story #3: So I'm with this mass of veteran animators, including Gary Schwartz, Linda Siemenski, and Brooke Keesling and we're all walking towards the party, when most of them peel off at an intersection leaving four of us standing there. Turns out they all decided to beg off the opening night party in favor of getting some sleep! That left me, Glenn, Carol Beecher, and Thomas Reinholder to make our way to the Hard Rock Cafe. After an hours worth of shop talk about ASIFA and the New York animation industry in general with Dayna Gonzales, Nick Fox-Geig and Glenn, it was back to the hotel around 1 a.m.

The opening night was everything I had hoped for. "Wrinkles" was superb, I saw some amazing short films, and I met up with lots of friends and colleagues from R.I.T., TAIS, ASIFA, and past festivals. We talked, went to the party, and talked some more. The feeling of community here was overwhelming.

Yet again, my TAIS and ASIFA memberships pay dividends beyond the local meetings and workshops.

I woke up with the realization that I'm sleeping better here than at home. After making a mental note to look into buying a new mattress when I get back to Michigan, I walked to the Arts Court. While waiting in line, more text requests for website changes came in. Fortunately, the Arts Court Theatre had Wi-Fi set up for festival attendees and I split my time trying to be polite to people I knew, while scrambling to make website updates before Madi Pilar's presentation on experimental animation in commercial work ("Whoa! What? Experimental Influesnce in the Commercial Realm").

While the other two presenters were entertaining, I personally thought Nick Fox-Geig's presentation was the most interesting of the three as it dealt with the nuts & bolts of animation, not just the artistic side of things. Turns out that the reason Nick has been in New York for the better part of a year is that he's part of a program working on creating software plug-ins that will allow motion capture using a Kinect device interfaced with Adobe After Effects.

Then it was across the street and into the mall to the Empire Theatres for the "YouTubular" screening-- animation on the internet... on the big screen. Man, was that a disappointing hour! With all the good Internet animation out there--Simon's Cat, Dick Figures, Akumi the Hunter, BiteyCastle--the lineup choices simply baffled me. Maybe I'm getting old but I just don't find crude, ADD-inspired, drunk-fratboy humor appealing. I definitely should've gone to the 'Experimental Animation in the Third Dimension' screening instead. But, fortunately the International Showcase made up for it with their first film: Disney's "Paperman" ... more on that later.

After few more website updates over dinner at Don Cherry's, my being 'johnny-on-the-spot' with the website maintenance was immediately rewarded by a very positive e-mail update on some museum work that I'm lining up for next Spring. The updates made, I parked my iDevices in the hotel room and it was off to the "Hotel Transylvania" screening. Turns out that all cell phones were being checked in without exception so people couldn't record "Hotel Transylvania" and post it on the internet. Eh, we got a private screening a week before the film opened in theatres so I didn't care.

"Hotel Transylvania" was funny. The story was a little on the light and fluffy side, but as it was geared for kids, I didn't mind. I loved the character designs and motion and their exaggerated poses. As a special treat, they even brought out director Genndy Tartakovski for some Q & A. After hearing about all the thought that he put into the production, and based upon what I had just seen, I decided that this film might be worth seeing again in 3D.

I had a really nice time talking to Nick before the evening's screenings--and getting a little more info on the Kinect project he's been working on. Hearing about his jumping back and forth between work in Toronto and New York kind of makes me jealous of those people with dual Canadian/American citizenship.

Afterwards, it was off to the Salon des Refuses party where I handed over my rejection letter, sat down with some ginger-ale/rum concoction, and settled in to watch films that didn't quite make the cut. It didn't take long before, I was amazed at how a lot of the films were rejected. Ended up thinking that many of them were better than some of the competition films I'd seen thus far.

Funny Story #4: During the course of the festival, I played 'text message tag' with Anne Beal, a RISD grad and animator in Chicago who's interested in joining ASIFA/Central. Turns out that she had a film in the Salon des Refuses screening so we made plans to meet up and say 'hi'. Well, after her film was over, everyone applauds and this guy sitting at the table in front of me pointed to a girl at the table and said 'the filmmaker is right here!' Shortly thereafter, she walked out of the screening to chat with other filmmakers. I was pretty engrossed with the films at that point, so by the time I left, she was surrounded by people and talking about her film. So, I missed my chance to say 'hi' to her at the party. But, she was there with lots of friends so it didn't bother me. I spent so many years going to Ottawa festivals by myself, drifting from screening to screening and not talking to anyone due to my social anxiety. It did my heart good to see her there with her friends and students from RISD. The festival is so much better when you can experience it with others.

Met up with Barry Sanders at the morning competition screening where I was able to see stop-motion master Barry Purves' film "Plume". I wish I had been able to fit the Barry Purves Retrospective into my schedule, but since I've seen all the films they were going to show, save "Gilbert and Sullivan", I had to skip his screening this year in favor of films that I hadn't seen yet.

The OIAF Picnic, brought to you by Cartoon Network!
After some polite conversation about "Hotel Transylvania", Barry convinced me to go the picnic--an event I usually skip due to my hearing difficulties and lingering social anxiety. But, Barry's advice was well worth it. I got to spend some quality time with Glenn, Madi, the TAIS and NFB crew, Mark Simon, and even got to say thanks to Michael Fukishima for his inspiring words at last year's Ottawa Festival but, as the tent was getting crowded and they needed the seats, I shuffled off to the Canadian Showcase so I could watch Martine Chartrand's new paint-on-glass film "Macpherson" and Madi Pilar's "Animated Self Portraits".

And then another shawarma before meeting up with Glenn and watching Le Tableau at the National Arts Centre. What a beautiful little film! "Le Tableau" was kind of stereotypically French in story--it was all about class struggle and the search for the creator--but the story was entertaining and I loved how the entire film was animated in 3d but was rendered with this two-dimensional, oil paint quality.

Funny Story #5: After I had made it back to Michigan, I sent a message to Joe Chen--the curator of the Waterloo Festival for Animated Cinema--regarding these two delightful films. He immediately responded that both were in the running for being screened at November's WFAC! I hope at least one gets accepted, I'd love to see either film again.

Watched the Shorts Competition Three with Skip Battaglia, his wife Ginny, and Carol Beecher--who graciously agreed to let me interview her for next year's Women in Animation month. I wish I could find a copy or at least a trailer of "The Bean" by South Korea's Hae Jin Jung. It was cute little story about a girl who doesn't want to eat her vegetables. What got me was the story was cut-out animation where all the visuals fit the Japanese anime asthetic. Think Pokemon if it was filmed with all the characters made out of colored construction paper. I was very pleased to hear that "The Bean" won the Adobe Prize for Best High School Animation. In my opinion, it was well deserved. It was also the film that I voted for.

That night, I skipped the eleven o'clock 'Comedians in Animation' screening to spend the next two hours having cocktails at the Chateau Laurier's cozy little lounge with Ellen Besen. Talking with Ellen is always well worth the time invested as she lent me her insights into how to encourage women to get into animation, why KAFI is no more, how to get a new animation festival going in East Lansing, and how to set up an 'old school' internship for students who want to work in the field of animation but need experience to do so. Ideas that are definitely worth looking into. Well, we closed out the lounge, then bumped into friends on the way out of the Chateau Laurier. After escorting her back to her hotel, then making the hike back to mine, I didn't get to bed until 3:00 a.m.

Saturday meant spending the entire day at the Professional Development lectures. As much as I love the screenings and parties, I live for the industry specific information that is provided at these sessions. While they don't always exactly cover what is stated in the session descriptions, there's always gold there that can be mined out of the discussions if you're paying attention and taking good notes. As entertaining as the "Boxhead and Roundhead" session was, my favorite session had to be fellow Michigander Butch Hartmann's writing masterclass. One part director and one part inspirational speaker, he did his best to drive home the point that if he could be successful in this industry than so could we. I left feeling very encouraged about producing another film.

Had a nice lunch that day with Barry, Dominic, Esteban & friends at Dunn's. The discussion meandered from what we were working on to what U.S. and Canadian animation studios failed in the past couple years and why. I've said it before ad nauseum. but living and working where I do, I really miss out on being a part of the animation community. There's a lot of shop talk and camaradie that I just don't get unless I'm at an ASIFA event, a TAIS event or at Ottawa. Well, almost as an answer to my earlier thoughts, later that night, I was back at the NAC for the evening screening when I bumped into another Michigander: Steve Stanchfield of Thunderbean Animation. Had a great conversation with him about what's going on at ASIFA/Central as well as the 2012 TAIS workshop and visiting animator series. Hope to see him at upcoming ASIFA/Central events as he seemed really excited about what we're up to.

Once again, I skipped the evening party and I stumbled into something better: dinner with Madi, Craig, and Martine Chartrand. Funny thing was that it was at the same restaurant where I had lunch earlier that day with Barry--and Skip was at the table behind us having a late-night dinner with friends! Well sketchbooks were passed around between the four of us and we doodled while waiting for our food to arrive. It was then that Madi sold me on attending the Signe Baumane lecture at TAIS in October. Don't want to miss the opportunity to hear her discuss her efforts to produce a feature-length film while dealing with depression--a subject a little too close to my heart for comfort.

Sunday found me at the ParaNorman discussion. Chris Butler gave a presentation with lots of video clips and he discussed the various aspects of the story, characters, and filmmaking process. There was a lot of good information about the color 3d printing/prototyping process--just what I had hoped for--but I was let down by his disparaging remark towards Christians who didn't like aspects of his film. Struck me as unprofessional and a touch hypocritical from a director who made a movie that, at it's core, was about tolerance.

Was hoping to leave Ottawa on a high note, so I walked across the street and had lunch at an old haunt: D'arcy McGees Pub. Shepherd's Pie and friendly waitresses wearing kilts--what's not to like! If I didn't have to drive that afternoon, I would've lifted a pint with the other patrons. Then it was back to the final event of the festival before I left town: the annual Disney/Pixar shorts. Given that it stars my least favorite Pixar/Toy Story character, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed "Partysaurus Rex". There didn't seem to be any new and exciting tech there, it was just a very fun little film.

On the other hand, "Paperman" was simply breathtaking. In order to preserve the visual '2d drawing' style of Disney's former films, they created new software routines that map vector lines in three dimensions. So, the 3d character can be animated as normal, then inserted into the production pipeline appears to be an extra step where the animators add pencil-like vector lines--and the lines will warp themselves as well as hide themselves based upon the position of the 3d character! What I would've given to have had access to that software sixteen years ago when I was working on my M.F.A. thesis! But based soley on the story itself, the spirit of Walt Disney is alive and well! I can't wait for "Wreck-it-Ralph" to hit theatres so I can see "Paperman" again!

Well, after hanging out with Glenn at the Disney/Pixar discussion, it was time to say my goodbyes, drive home, and reflect on my thoughts from this year's festival. While my thoughts were all across the board, the top three were:

1. As Michael suggested, I need to produce another film and enter it into festivals.
2. As Madi suggested, I need to go to the TAIS/Signe Baumane event in October.
3. I need to take a 'back-to-basics' approach and work on my drawing skills.

Once again, it's time to step up my game. While I've accomplished some of my goals for this year, others have floundered miserably for a variety of reasons. Despite my hectic work schedule for the past three years--and the even crazier year that is coming in 2013, I still would like to accomplish more before next year's OIAF -- which I'm planning to attend!

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Animated Inspiration: Skhizein

One of the smarter animations I've seen at the festivals, French animator Jérémy Clapin has graciously posted his animated film 'Skhizein' on Vimeo. Though his website is in French, the following description is paraphrased from Bing's English translation: 'the main character is struck by a meteorite and, as a result, is dimensionally shifted 91 centimeters off center.'

This is one of those films that you want to bring home from the festivals just so you can share it with all your friends. 'Skhizein' blurs the lines between fantasy and reality and leaves you wondering if what the character experiences is real (in the context of the world he lives in) or if it's just a metaphor for some mental illness or life changing experience he's trying to deal with.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Animated Quotes: Sophia Loren

"Getting ahead in a difficult profession requires avid faith in yourself. That is why some people with mediocre talent, but with great inner drive, go much further than people with vastly superior talent."
~ Sophia Loren

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Animated Thoughts: Brave, Cars 2, character growth, and the 'moral message'

'Brave': Proof that Pixar can do princesses just as well as Disney can!
 I've seen 'Brave' twice now and while I enjoyed the film (even moreso the second time than the first since I caught more of the dialogue and visuals), I'm still left with some uneasy feelings about this movie.

Let me start by saying, I'm a serious fan of Pixar's work--have been ever since I saw a small computer generated tablelamp playing with a ball while sitting with my sister in a small theatre in Ann Arbor. With only one exception, every year I gladly shell out cash to see their movies several times in the theatres and I buy their movies on DVD when released (and sometimes on iTunes as well).1 Like their previous films, I loved the voice acting, the character design, the animation, the setting and the soundtrack. But the one thing that I thought was lacking was traditionally Pixar's greatest strength: the story.

On his Scribble Junkies blog, Bill Plympton--the Godfather of American independant animation who has several feature film credits to his name--stated in his review of 'Brave' that the story was lacking when compared to Pixar's earlier films. One of my female friends, who is not involved in the animation industry in any way shape or form, after seeing 'Brave' for the second time said: "I still don't know what the message that they're trying to get across is."

I wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Plympton that, up until now, the Pixar films have been emotional rollercoaster rides where you reach a satisfying conclusion to the story and then they grab you and propel you along into an even greater conclusion to the story--think the airport scene in 'Toy Story 3' or the ending scene in 'Monsters, Inc.' as Sully opens the door into Boo's room right after the big chase scene through the warehouse of doors. However, the last two films that Pixar produced: 'Brave' and 'Cars 2' left me with the feeling that Pixar may be sending mixed messages to their audience.

One of the great things about Pixar's earlier films, and something that resonated with the midwestern, family-oriented audience (of which I am a part), was that there was a clearly defined moral message at the heart of each film. The message that I walked away with when I saw 'Cars 2' was: "Be yourself. It doesn't matter who gets hurt or who you screw over, if they can't handle you being you, that's their problem." It's a pretty selfish way of looking at life and not the kind of message I would want my kids to emulate.

In 'Cars 2', the person who should've grown and learned the moral lesson was Tow Mater, not Lightning McQueen. After having an adventure without even realizing it, Mater appears to have had the epiphany that he had been acting like an ass in Japan and had embarassed his friend in a professional setting by blundering through situations he had no experience in or knowledge of. A true gentleman in his situation would've been polite, showed restraint, held himself in reserve and followed his friend's lead. Decidely not Mater's behavior in the Japan sequence of 'Cars 2'--which set up the conflict for the moral message. Pixar set the story walking towards this moral message by the letter that Mater had left for McQueen before leaving Japan (even though the letter seemed more self-serving and less apologetic than it could have been). If Mater had shown real growth, during the revelatory scene at the movie's climax, he would've politely corrected Lightning--admitting that he, Mater, was at fault, and apologized for the trouble he caused McQueen, both personally and professionally. That he, Mater, needed to learn how to tone it down so that he wouldn't hurt people's feelings or embarrass them.

That is not what happened in 'Cars 2'.

Pixar led us right up to that point... and then they blew it. In the climax of the film, Mater has a crisis of faith and admits that everyone has been laughing at him his entire life. That's his big revelation. Instead of apologizing to McQueen for how he behaved in Japan, Mater sits there and listens as McQueen gives Mater the "it's not you, it's them" speech. And the moral message of the film was lost, along with a teachable moment between parents and children. The class clown who jumps up and down screaming 'look at me' was funny when we were five years old. He's decidedly less so in college, in church, or at someone's wedding--ask any parent. Mater may have experienced some change in his journey, but he didn't grow as a character.

Which brings us to 'Brave.'

I think that the message of the film was something about a mother and daughter getting to see each other's perspective and accepting responsibility for the consequences of their actions, but I'm not sure. At this point, I've watched 'Brave' twice now and I'm still not sure what Merida is supposed to be "brave" about.

If the message is to be brave enough to admit that you made a mistake, accept the consequences for said mistake, and try to make it right, then yes, I agree, 'Brave' sends the correct moral message to their audience.

If the message is to challenge a tradition that forces you to marry someone you don't know or love when you're clearly not mature enough to be married, then again, yes, I agree, 'Brave' sends the correct moral message to their audience--though a clearly outdated one since arranged marriages have been out of vogue for centuries in the western world--though they still go on in other countries like India. But, it fits within the context of the story. Having personally witnessed several catastrophic marriages where one of the people was forced into it by their parents, I can get behind this message.

However, if the message is to be brave enough to rebel against your parents' authority and do whatever you want no matter what the consequences, then I'd have to say that, like 'Cars 2', the moral message is getting lost in the character's struggle for independance. When I was a child, I didn't understand a lot of what my parents were trying to teach me: wash your hands after using the toilet, don't leave your dirty/sweaty clothes piled on the floor, and the ever present: any job worth doing is worth doing well... even if it's a job you'd rather not do. When I got older, I learned about the dangers of bacterial infections, the smelly annoyance of mildew, and the benefits of being a reliable worker (and that rooms don't magically clean themselves).

Yes, in a movie, characters are supposed to be exaggerated in their actions, motives, and behaviors. However, there still has to be an element of believability to the motiviation behind their actions. What I saw in 'Brave' started out being pretty clear: two headstrong, stubborn women who refuse to consider each other's perspective--one who feels bound by tradtion, the other who wants to be free to choose her own path in life. It was clear up to that point. It wasn't until the second act, where Merida flees the castle and heads out into the woods, that the story seemed to struggle. I believe that was where the story started to meander and prevented Pixar from presenting a clear, believable message at the film's climax. In the end, I just didn't believe that being turned into a bear would cause Merida's mother to turn her back on centuries of tradition or completely backpedal on her position regarding how a lady should behave.

Or maybe it's just because the emotional ending of the film was too similar to the one in 'The Emperor's New Groove.'

In 'How To Train Your Dragon', the lead character and his dragon were crippled for life by the end of the movie. In 'Cars', Lightning McQueen sacrifices his chances for glory and a place in history in order to do right by an older race car. In 'Up', Carl Fredrickson sacrifices his home and his belongings to save Russell. In 'Tangled' Rapunzel sacrifices her freedom (but ends up loses her healing power, her blonde hair and her lover until, in the typical Disney ending, he's brought back to life 2). In 'Mulan', Mulan posed as a man and joined the army to save her father's life--fully accepting that her fate would be death, by war or by the letter of the law should she be discovered. In 'Brave', there just didn't seem to be any lasting consequences to Merida's actions. What did she lose? What did she sacrifice to gain what she wanted? The story seemed a little vague on this point. Pride, maybe? Like Kusko, she may have had a journey that changed her internally, but I just didn't feel that the climax of the film displayed enough character growth to justify her receiving everything that she wanted with no lasting consequences to her earlier actions--by the end of the film, she got her family back and she was released from her fate of an arranged marriage.

In his writing lectures, bestselling author Michael Stackpole states that characters must grow, not change. Change is temporary and external -- it doesn't last. Growth is permanent and internal -- a conscious decision to change behavior due to external stimuli. No matter how enjoyable I found 'Brave' to be, I just didn't buy Merida's change of heart at the end of the film. Throughout the film, her actions struck me more as those of a petulant child who was trying to avoid punishment after misbehaving, rather than someone who was accepting responsibility for a mistake that she had made. The final narration about being "brave enough to challenge your fate" simply rang hollow with the story that 'Brave' presented me with. From what I saw, Merida only changed as a result of her journey, she didn't grow as a character.

1. Full disclosure: I didn't see Cars 2 in the theatre, but I did buy the movie on DVD when it was released in stores.
2. And I'm not complaining, I loved the ending in 'Tangled.' I thought it was a great homage to some of the classic Disney films like 'Sleeping Beauty', 'Snow White', and 'Beauty and the Beast'.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Animated Inspiration: The Saga of Rex

Michel Gagné, who's work never ceases to impress me, has released a 30 second animation to promote his previously published graphic novel "The Saga of Rex" published by Image Comics. According to animation historian Jerry Beck, Gagné created this film "single-handedly in 3 weeks" when learning how to use Toon Boom software.

Thanks to Jerry Beck over on Cartoon Brew for posting this film from Gagné.

Next, you can view a beautifully remastered in HD version of my favorite Gagné film: "Prelude to Eden". According to Gagné, he created 'Eden' during the development of the Animo software package which would go on to become the 2d software of choice at DreamWorks and Warner Bros. Feature Animation.1


Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Animated Inspiration: Gobelins L'ecole de L'image

Here's a pair of fun little promo films.

The first is called "Holy Sheep", produced by the students at Gobelins L'ecole de L'image  for the 2012 Annecy animation festival.

The second was produced for Annecy 2011 and is titled "Lights Out", also produced at Gobelins.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Animated Quotes: Theodore Roosevelt

"It is hard to fail, but it is worse never to have tried to succeed."
~ Theodore Roosevelt

Friday, July 27, 2012

Animated Reviews: A Cat in Paris

Riviera Theatre - Three Rivers, Michigan
This past weekend, I decided take to the entire weekend off after working a little extra during the week. The plan was to do the 'weekend vacation in my own State' thing. Turns out, I was only partially successful. The 'weekend vacation' turned out to be a working vacation as I drove all over the West side of Michigan conducting animation-related business.

Saturday, I made the two hour drive down to the Rivera Theatre in Three Rivers, Michigan just so I could see the Academy Award nominated film: "A Cat in Paris." Only a two-hour drive from Lansing, the Riveria was my only "local" choice to see this movie. The other two locations closest to me were Huntington, Indiana and Chicago, Illinois. Since GenCon is coming up in August and I need to drive down to Indianapolis and schmooze with clients while druming up some more business, a four-plus hour drive to Indiana or Illinois wasn't very high on my list. Fortunately, before I had to make a final decision on which four hour drive to make, the Riveria Theatre swept in with a better alternative. So off I went, across the State and South of Kalamazoo towards one of those small cities with a main street that looks like a slice of Americana reminiscent of the stories my parents tell me about growing up in the 1950's.

When I entered the Riveria, I was immediately struck by the ornate molding... and the pub right off to the left of the entrance. You know you're in the right place to see a movie when the theatre has a pub with Strongbow on tap. Reminds me of the Odeon--except no pub... and at the Odeon the alcohol was usually brought in by the patrons. You wouldn't notice it until halfway through the movie when a bottle would rattle its way down towards the screen. The screen may have been small and the sound system needed some tweaking, but I still left Three Rivers wishing that we had something like the Riveria Theater in Lansing! I'd watch a lot more indy film if we did... or at least I'd pester them to bring in a lot more animated feature films.

Which brings us to the reason I drove down to Three Rivers in the first place: "A Cat in Paris".

This was a really cute film. The character design has that Eastern European feel that I normally only see in Clasky-Csupo shorts from the 90's. The characters moved with a level of fluidity that appeared to be based more on their personality and the requirements of their profession than on the perceived mass or volume of their bodies. But, as the entire film was stylized, it worked--especially when you see the cat burglar jumping around from roof to windowsill as effortlessly as Dino the cat does.

The backgrounds were lush and beautiful. I found myself more drawn to the color than the structure as everything was painted with a backdrop texture suggesting that the entire film had been colored using colored pencils. This color/texture combination introduced a vibrancy into the film that meshed well with the fluid of motion without being distracting.

I'm honestly surprised that it was called "A Cat in Paris." Dino the cat turned out to be more of a background character. In most scenes, he's relegated to the role of a MacGuffin used to bring the humans together. In the end though, it was the humans who drove the plot forward, not the cat. I suppose that there's only so much the cat could do in the span of sixty-nine minutes to hold our attention, so the presence of humans "was" required. While there were little jokes here and there for the adults in the crowd, this was definitely a film written for a childrens' audience--despite a turn towards the surreal at the climax of the film. But all-in-all, it was a fun little film that I look forward to adding to my DVD collection should GKIDS decide to release it in the States.

Cow-nosed Stingrays
Sunday saw me driving up to Grand Rapids so I could spend the day doing some sketching and collecting photo references with fellow animator and ASIFA/Central member David Van Tuyle at the John Ball Zoo. I have to give bonus points to the Zoo for having a tank filled with stingrays.

The rays were very friendly and comfortable being around people--although as we approached lunchtime, they started sucking at our hands emparting a rather creepy sensation. Turns out that having been in captivity for so long, the rays associate human hands with food and they were expecting to be fed at the time that we were there.

But still tired from yesterday's drive to Three Rivers, I didn't do as much drawing as I had hoped. However, I did get a lot of photo and video references of animals that we don't have down at Lansing's Potter Park Zoo--including Bears, flamingos, and monarch butterflies. I think that the reference I liked the most though was this clip of the stingrays which I filmed to show how they glide effortlessly through the water.

As I watch this little video, I'm thankful for what technology has brought us. I can review this video over and over on my computer as I animate with my 3d programs, or watch the video downstairs on my iPad as it perches on the corner of my drawing table, should I decide to animate traditionally using the Mark I pencil.

At times like these, it's hard to tell students not to get too attached to the digital tools that we use when many of them make it so convenient to study motion and anatomy. Even I have to admit that tweeners make it so easy to cheat when you're animating against a deadline. But when I hear horror stories about schools that only teach students the latest software instead of building a firm foundation based upon the principles of animation and the rules of filmmaking, I have to remind myself that in the end, whether your work is created with pencil or stylus, it's the animator and not the tool that breathes life into the subject matter--no matter how useful the tool may be.