Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Animated Thoughts: Fear of Missing Out...

The 2022 Ottawa International Animation Festival is next week and their schedule of events, talks, screenings, and retrospectives went live on their website in August.

This year's screening and event schedule had I been there.

Part of the fun for me is looking through all the events and screenings then putting together my personal OIAF schedule--taking care to ensure that I get to see and do everything on the list but still setting aside time to eat and sleep.

While there are always a lot of good films to watch, my favorite events have to be the four panorama screenings: Canadian, World, Canadian Student and World Student. It's those screenings that seem closest to my tastes and still have a wide variety of techniques and narrative structures.

However, given that Canada is still restricting who can enter their country, 2022 will be the second Ottawa International Animation Festival that I've missed in the past twenty-eight years. My first OIAF was in 1994 when I was a newly minted grad student at R.I.T., but the first one I didn't attend was in 2005. That was the year that the OIAF went to a yearly format. For several years before that, they had been running their Student Animation Festival in the off-years between their traditional biyearly Ottawa Festival.

This has turned out to be a similar situation to my Gen Con experience. As we've been travel restricted for the past two years, I've been attending the virtual events: Ottawa's online festival and Gen Con Online. Even though we couldn't be there in person, people didn't miss out as everything went virtual through streaming services and third-party websites. This year however, I attended Gen Con Online because even though the convention was held in-person in 2022, there were restrictions imposed by the convention that prevented a lot of us from attending. But, at least they still had online options. Ottawa is now going back to their fully in-person format. And as I can't cross the border into Canada, I won't be there.

It wouldn't be an issue if they still had an online offering of screenings and presentations like they did over the past two years. But, for whatever reason, the OIAF won't be doing a split-format this year. And I'm not getting down on them. Festival Artistic Director Chris Robinson and I have spoken in the past about how an online festival is far more work to pull off than you'd expect. Given what hoops we had to run through to move our ASIFA Central yearly retreats online, I don't doubt the fact that the Ottawa festival's efforts are exponentially greater. Personally, I think that they're making the right call doing either one or the other. It's been a tough two years and they need to make the best decisions possible for the long-term viability of the festival. I'd honestly rather miss out for a year than see an attempt at a hybrid online and in-person event with limited resources and end up losing the festival entirely.

But it still aches. I look forward to visiting Canada every year. Throughout the year, I'd work extra jobs and save money so I could spend a couple days relaxing in Toronto, visiting with friends, and soaking up the culture. Some years I'd search through the used book stores for those rare, out-of-print treasures. Other years, I'd visit multiple cultural and artistic centers, like the various museums and the zoo where I'd take lots of photographs and videos for reference material all while doing some sketching in my sketchbooks. And then there was meeting up with friends in town and discovering some new restaurants as well as enjoying others from trips past. And there were always opportunities for personal growth. During my last trip to Canada in 2019, I confronted my fear of heights and did the CN Tower Edgewalk. After being energized by the short respite, I'd drive the remaining five hours to Ottawa and spend the next five days watching some of the best animated films the world has to offer all while talking to colleagues and enjoying the rich culture of Canada's capital city.

For Gen Con this year, since I couldn't be there in person, I attended their Online events but also made my own convention experience by playing some games with friends at my local game store and rebuilding a portion of my vintage gaming collection that was lost to the sands of time. This year, I plan to do something similar for Ottawa.

Instead of spending money on food, travel, hotels and the occasional souvenir in Canada, I'm going to save money for next year by doing things in the area that are relatively inexpensive.

I still plan on following the Festival on social media and watching the trailers and bumpers that they post on YouTube. But I'll be putting together my own schedule of films to watch during that week's vacation--I'm looking at you Evangelion:3.0+1.01 (Thrice Upon A Time) and Witcher: Nightmare of the Wolf. Then there's the Netflix relaunch of Bee and Puppycat which went live on September 6--which I've been saving for a binge-watching session. And the latest episodes from season 6 of Rick and Morty... I'm definitely going to get my money's worth out of those streaming services. I'll also be ordering a couple program guides and t-shirts from the festival for my collection, just like I did in 2005. So I'll still have an unbroken series of program guides and festival readers running back to 1994. If I'm feeling up to it, I might even make a batch of "OIAF 2022" cupcakes for my "evening screenings". And since I'll still be in Michigan, there's no reason to take a vacation day from teaching at CMU. Nothing says "animation" like spending a day instructing students about the rich history of animated film and watching some cartoons with them.

Will also have to fit in a trip down to the Detroit Institute of Arts to soak up a little culture (I already have a yearly membership). And a visit to the zoo should be in order (I really need to dust off those sketchbooks and get some drawing time in). I've also got a copy of one of the last books Bendazzi wrote before he passed away, called 'Twice the First: Quirino Cristiani and the Animated Feature Film' which I'd like to read. And Chris Robinson has an article on the state of Canadian animation which he published in August that I need to review. Should be a full week.

Interestingly enough, Fathom Events is bringing back Studio Ghibli's Howl's Moving Castle for a limited three-night screening during my vacation--starting on the last day of vacation. 'Howl' is one of the few Ghibli movies that I don't like. However, last semester, a student of mine wrote a term paper talking about 'Howl' and I have to admit that her paper was so well researched, so engaging, so interesting that it has awakened the desire to take another look at this movie with new eyes. Would be a nice endcap to the week off of work. So, all things considered, my vacation time can be enjoyed for very little in the way of out-of-pocket expenses.

I think though, one of the better uses of my vacation time will be to take a second look at a film that I've been trying to work on for a couple years now. The first step will be a quick viability study -- making sure that I have the time and the resources to complete it before next June. Then I'll do some quick thumbnail storyboards and see if the story still holds up. After that... who knows. Maybe I'll have an entry for 2023's festival.

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Howl's Moving Castle image from GKIDS Presskit and is © 2004 Studio Ghibli - NDDMT

Tuesday, August 23, 2022

Animated Thoughts: Back to class...

Max Fleischer's "Rotoscoping" patent

Well, Fall semester begins next week and I'm currently wrapping up preparations for my class. This year, I've added an assignment that had me delving into the history of animation patents. What started out as a plan whereby the students read five patents and answered a ten question assignment quickly got scaled down to three patents. Since they're already reading two chapters per week, I figured giving them three weeks to read three patents and do the assignment was probably the better choice--those patents can get pretty dry.

I'm having them review the following from Earl Hurd, Max Fleischer, and Frank Lyle Goldman (in order):

  • 1,143,542: Process and Apparatus for Producing Moving Pictures (cel animation)
  • 1,242,674: Method of Producing Moving-Picture Cartoons (rotoscoping)
  • 1,715,127: Means for Producing Animated Pictures (three-hole registration)

I've actually wanted to include this information for quite a while, ever since I read the about Bray-Hurd patents when I was writing this course. So, it feels good to finally have added this assignment. Hopefully, it hits that sweet spot of useful historical information yet not overwhelming.

There's so much to the history of animation, you just can't fit it all into a semester.

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Tuesday, July 26, 2022

Animated Thoughts: It never hurts to ask...

So last fall, the Ottawa International Animation Festival changed the format for their Festival program book. In the past, they offered print versions for the in-person event, and some years even had PDF versions on Issuu.com so you could download and read them after the fest. Since 1994, I've been maintaining an archive of these program books. Some have had additional material, like interviews and articles, but all have had listings of the films in the competition and retrospective screenings--along with their creators' names and companies.

In 2020, since we were in lockdown, the OIAF uploaded a PDF version of the program book for the online festival--which I immediately downloaded, printed, and had coil bound. This was mainly for my archive but also so I could peruse it during the online screenings and write down the names of my favorite films, or the ones that I wanted to see again, or make a list of animators whose work I wanted to explore in greater depth.

Unfortunately, last year's online festival saw them move to a different website format and they didn't issue a program book. All the screenings and festival information was on the website but the site itself was pretty clunky with regards to locating the film and animator information. After the festival I had planned on making my own program book. Unfortunately, it would've required a lot of copy-and-pasting. But, it would've been worth it just to have that information.

Well, time dragged on and I got busy, so by the time I was ready to commit to the task, the festival had migrated to their new website and a lot of the information simply wasn't available anymore.

However, having attended the OIAF for twenty-eight years, I've gotten to know festival Artistic Director Chris Robinson. So I shot him a quick e-mail asking if this information would be archived and presented anywhere in the future. Within a couple hours, Chris e-mailed me a link to the Festival's public final report for 2021. And while it wasn't a program book as I had seen them in the past, it had all the information that I was hoping for!

As it's now been printed, coil-bound, and inserted into my archive, clearly, it was well worth taking the time to ask.

Thank you, Chris.

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Thursday, June 30, 2022

Animated Thoughts: Erik Timmerman

As I've probably stated before, Erik didn't shy away from teaching me life lessons apart from what we learned in classes. And he was pretty honest about his mistakes, especially the occasional unintentional gaffe. One lesson that he spoke of, I really took to heart.

Erik was friends with one of the Computer Science professors who taught computer graphics. Although I don't remember her name at this point, she was the person whom I had met online back in the day and had introduced me to Erik. I had made an inquiry on a CGI BBS about furthering my studies in computer animation and she was the one who responded. After I replied to her e-mail, she said that Erik's program would be a better fit for what I wanted to do since her program was more geared to the hard-core programming end of computer graphic imagery--basically people who would end up becoming Technical Directors in the programming department of animation studios or doing scientific visualization, things of that nature.

Well, Erik mentioned that during a jovial conversation they once had, he made an off-the-cuff joke about having a crush on her. This was after it was made clear from the conversation that their senses of humor were pretty similar. As she was married, and he didn't have a thing for her anyways, it was obviously a joke. However, he felt that she kind of ghosted him after that. Erik stated how he wished he hadn't said that to her. And it wasn't a 'being unprofessional' thing, after all it was just a humorous remark told during a friendly conversation between two colleagues who were kidding around at the time. But he still felt pain over missing out on a good friendship because of how his remark may have given her the wrong impression.

Simply put: it was a moment of light-hearted humor that unfortunately cost him a friendship with a respected colleague.

I had a similar situation with an associate about a year later while I was still working at the R.I.T. Research Corporation. We were all joking around over lunch and she said something that set the table alight with laughter, something that showed how in tune our senses of humor were. I chuckled and said "if you weren't married I'd be chasing after you something fierce." She laughed, I laughed, and the conversations at the table moved on. However, remembering Erik's story, I went to her later that day just to set the record straight--that I wasn't hitting on her, I just appreciated how in-sync our senses of humor happened to be. She laughed it off and said it was okay, she knew exactly what I meant. And I believe her as we remained friends/professional acquaintances throughout the rest of my time at the RITRC.

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Tuesday, June 14, 2022

Animated Thoughts: Miku Expo 2022 Rewind

Had another unexpected animation event occur this month. I loaded up Facebook to see what my friends were up to and was presented with an advertisement for another online Mike Expo concert for the following week.

Well, far be it from me to miss out on some Vocaloid action -- especially from the comfort of my own home theater!

This concert was to be a little different from prior ventures. Instead of broadcasting a show (pre-recorded or otherwise), they did a 'greatest hits' screening that included live-action footage from in-person concerts along with footage from the pre-recorded Miku Expo 2021 show that was streamed on the internet.

All I can say is: you know that it's going to be a good show when the first four songs they play were some of your favorite Hatsune Miku songs of all time.

In order, the set list was:

Sharing the World - BIGHEAD
Glass Wall - GuitarHeroPlanoZero
Ten Thousand Stars - CircusP
Blue Star - Hachioji P
12funclub - mikito P
Venus di Ujung Jarl - mohax
Music Like Magic! - OSTER project
Decade - Dixie Flatline
Miku - Anamanaguchi
Buraikku Jikorizer - Jizasu-P(WONDERFUL*OPPORTUNITY!)
ungray days - tsumiki
Inappropriate Lady - OSTER project
Reload Words - sat(Katakuna-P)
Highway Lover - mikito P
Highlight - KIRA
Thousand Little Voices - Vault Kid & Flanger Moose
Lucky*Orb - emon(Tes.)

Out of respect for the content creators, I won't post any of the video recordings that people have made of the event, rather the trailer for Miku Expo 2022 is below. With the song listing above, it should be pretty easy for anyone to jump on YouTube and explore the songs that were played during this concert.

One of the real interesting things that they did for this event was host a virtual museum of artwork and videos from prior concerts and a timeline of Miku Expo, but in a VR style setting. As of this writing, the MIKU EXPO Rewind Gallery is still live and accessible through the following link (https://paint.mikuexpo.com/rwgallery/), but I have no idea how long it'll be around. I found the navigation to be rather clunky but the overall experience was a fun one and brought back some great memories from Detroit, Toronto, and my own home theater.

I actually had an idea for something similar like this back in the mid-90's using VRML, the Virtual Reality Markup Language, but never had the opportunity to explore it. I'm rather excited seeing how others have had the same idea and run with it. I can't wait to see how Miku evolves as time progresses, the technology evolves, and people explore their creativity using the Vocaloids.

Yay!! Miku!!

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Sunday, May 29, 2022

Animated Thoughts: Unexpected Treasures

I like to go to conventions, even if they're not specifically about animation.

Having collected comic books since the mid-70's and having been a gamer for almost as long, every time I see a comic book convention or a gaming convention or an anime convention, I usually take time to look at the line-up on their website or social media page. Even though I rarely attend most cons and festivals (gotta stick to that monthly budget), I find it worthwhile to keep an eye on the events just in case that rare opportunity rears its head--like the time I learned that Natasha Allegri was attending the Midwest Media Expo and giving presentations on her animated show Bee and Puppycat. Or the time that Youmacon had a panel discussing the byzantine copyright and trademark status of the King Kong intellectual property. Or when I learned that Bobby Chiu's Schoolism.com enterprise was bringing Brenda Chapman and Kevin Lima to Toronto in order to talk about their careers.

Well one of the additional benefits of attending conventions is having the opportunity to meet some vendors that specialize in animation art. After a multi-year hiatus, I finally made it back to the Motor City Comic Con in Novi, Michigan (just outside of Detroit). And who should be there with their booth of animation production drawings and cels? Art-Toons!

I first met Daniel and Mary Anne Ergezi years ago at the Grand Rapids Comic Con and spent way too much time hanging around their booth perusing their selection. I didn't have the cash on me at the time to pick out some of the original painted animation cels from their Heavy Metal collection, but I did find a bunch of Giant Robo cels and drawings closer to my budget that made it into my personal collection of animation art.

There are other vendors out there at the cons and on eBay, but I keep coming back to Art-Toons primarily because of the breadth and the quality of their selection. On any given visit to their eBay store or their vendor's booth, I'll find cels and production drawings from both classic and more recent anime shows, American animation from movies, television, and commercials, and especially those hard-to-find animation cels from animated films geared towards adults--like Heavy Metal and Cool World. In my experience, these are some of the more difficult ones to find for an affordable price. Ralph Bakshi has his own eBay store and is selling the cels and drawings from his movies for a premium price (assuming they're from his private collection). Not that they're not worth it, mind you, but they are rather expensive. And much like Bakshi's films Cool World, Fire and Ice, and Wizards, decent production cels and production drawings from the Ivan Reitman produced film Heavy Metal are becoming harder and harder to find.

As time moved on and a lot of these older drawings and cels got bought up by private collectors, I rapidly found myself in a situation where if I really, really wanted to have an original Heavy Metal cel or drawing in my collection, I had to make a move sooner rather than later. So, when this production drawing of Taarna showed up in their selection, I nabbed it. Given that she's this strong, sexy swordswoman, Taarna is one of the more difficult characters from the movie to find in original cels or drawings. Now, don't get me wrong, you "can" find them from time to time, but they are often prohibitively expensive given her popularity and based upon the quality of the cel/drawing. And they are often smaller renderings of her--like when she's in a walk cycle scene and they're simulating a long shot through a movie camera. This makes her only two or two-and-a-half inches tall. Not a big deal if it's a painted cel against a background. Less impressive if it's just a production drawing or cel with a lot of empty space around her. As I write this, there's actually a pretty good production drawing of Taarna on eBay for $250 plus shipping and a painted cel of her for $400. But most others I've seen are in the $500 to $1500 range, especially if they have a certificate of authenticity. Ah, if money were no object. As you can see from the picture below, the production drawing of Taarna that I got was one of the better ones out there!

TAARNA production drawing
Re-grouped after her savage treatment, she is about to re-dress.
Strong lines with red wound lines, blue underlying pencil, shading.

Well anyways, while I love the visual quality of the painted cels (especially when they have backgrounds--original or reproduction), I honestly like the production drawings better. These are the items that I'm really drawn to (no pun intended). This is mainly due to the fact that through the progression of several drawings in a shot or through the production notes scribbled in the margins, you gain valuable insight into the production process that you don't get through books or videos. 'How-to' books and 'Making-of' videos rarely provide a lot of the nuances in the production process that may seem mundane to most people but in actuality convey some snippet of very important information that the animators need to see or instruct the people in the next step of production. For example, if you look at the images below (which can be viewed on the eBay auction by vendor "collect_this") you can see what I'm talking about. 

On this production drawing, Taarna is attacking with her sword. In the first image, you can see that there are good solid pencil lines defining her form as well as internal details. Additionally, we see some blue shading on the part of her hair that's going to end up being painted a bluish-gray as opposed to the rest of her hair which will be painted white. Could've been a note to the artist painting the cel. Perhaps it was the animator reminding themselves of that little detail as they worked on other frames. Now, one reason a light blue pencil was used is because when the xerography machine duplicates the drawing from paper onto a clear acetate cel, the xerography process won't pick up the blue color. So only the dark lines show up on the cel. We also see light red pencils used from time-to-time as well. Okay, back to our example: in the upper right corner, you see that the animator has redrawn Taarna's mouth at a much larger scale with instructions that there should be a gap between her upper and lower set of teeth (see enlarged photo below). That one is far more likely be a note from the animator to the cel painter or whoever was drawing the inbetweens--a good reminder to maintain consistency between frames on a small detail that could get overlooked.

As stated, these are the details in the production process that you rarely ever see in "Making of" videos or instructional books or even "Art of the movie" books. And Daniel and Mary Anne, when possible, offer packages of these production drawings grouped together when they're in the same sequence. Take a look at this series of five drawings from Giant Robo where one of the villains, Shocking Alberto, has one of the heroes, Taisou, in his grasp and is about to channel an energy blast through him.

You can clearly see on the upper right side of frame two, the animator has written a small timing chart for himself and the inbetweener to follow as this scene is drawn (it's right above the "A2").

Another good example is this series of layout drawings that I purchased from them at Motor City. These drawings illustrate a scene where Giant Robo has been damaged during an attack on the Eye of Fogler warship/mecha and the Experts of Justice don't know if they can reactivate him before he's crushed by the rapidly approaching Eye of Fogler. In the drawings, you can see the mechanized warship "Eye of Fogler" in the background (the sphere) and in the midground is Giant Robo's outstretched arm as he lays there in the rubble. The three drawings progress from rough sketch to a more refined layout to a production drawing of the Giant Robo character.

There's a lot of interesting information you can derive from these drawings, but just a few are:

  1. If you look at the top of the page, you can see holes for the registration pegs. While it varies from studio to studio, a lot of American animators are trained to load their paper where the registration pegs are at the bottom of the page, not the top. One of the reasons Jack Slutzky taught us this at R.I.T. is that when multiple pages are stacked on each other, it allows you to flip more pages with your hand and it makes the flipping easier (one point of flipping through the pages is to see the progression of motion between the keyframes and inbetweens so you get the motion right).
  2. Another interesting note is that most American animation bond is 12.5 inches by 10.5 inches. Most of the Japanese animation production drawings and cels I have seen are approximately 10.5 inches by 9.5 inches. I don't know why this is. The only other size of animation bond I've seen for sale here in the States is the standard letter size (8.5"x11"). Something to ponder. Is it a filming process issue with the cameras they use? Is it something that just became a standard from those days of animation shortly after the end of WWII when resources were scarce--they used a smaller page because it would be less resource-intensive to produce than a larger page? I think I'll ask Sami, she does a lot of work in the anime industry. If you haven't read my interview with her, I highly recommend looking it up. You can find it at: Samantha Inoue-Harte pt 1 and pt 2.
  3. I'm going to put up another video. In it, you can see some of the special effects for this episode. This is another 'oddity' as I see a lot of characters and some backgrounds for sale by vendors, but rarely do I see special effects work for sale! It's only a couple drawings but would love to take some time and examine these with my copy of Tezuka Productions' animation book where they cover hand drawn special effects ('Effects - Lightning', page 100 of Tezuka School of Animation Vol. 1 Learning the Basics).

Okay, just heard back from Sami. She's at a convention this weekend but was kind enough to take a moment to answer my question. Turns out I was close, but not enough to get the proverbial cigar. According to her, it's a fiscal decision based upon the smaller budgets that Japanese productions have when compared to American productions. Apparently the larger-sized cels "are" available in Japan, however, the smaller cels allow the studios to save a couple pennies per cel when compared to the larger sized ones--meaning, when you're buying hundreds of cels, the smaller, less expensive cels would be a better fit within some production studios' budgets. And the money saved could be allocated somewhere else on the production. Hrm. Makes sense.

To work out a hypothetical example: CartoonSupplies.com has a 100 sheet pack of blank 12f (10.5"x12.5") clear cels for sale at $99.99. Considering that an average feature-length animated film could end up using tens of thousands of cels, that number clearly adds up quickly. Now, obviously, a production studio is going to be buying in bulk so the price per 100 cels is going to be lower--volume pricing and all that--but we'll keep it as simple as possible. Consider the following example:

You're making a short 2d hand drawn animated film of five minutes in duration.
  • There are 60 seconds per minute (5 minutes x 60 seconds = 300 seconds).
  • You're filming at 24 frames-per-second (24 fps x 300 seconds = 7200 frames).
  • If you're shooting your animation on 3's--meaning every drawing is filmed three times. That's eight individual drawings per second or a total of 2400 drawings (7200 frames / 3 = 2400 drawings).

Now, you've decided to draw the characters for each scene on one production drawing, therefore you're using one page of animation bond. And you're going to use one animation cel placed over a single background painting when you film each frame. You're going to need 2400 clear acetate animation cels (assuming no mistakes were made requiring the cel to be thrown out). If you buy your cels at $99.99 per 100 cels, it's going to cost you $2,399.76 (plus tax and shipping). That's a good chunk of your budget for ink-and-paint. And we haven't even gotten into the costs of paint, paintbrushes, xerography transfer from the production drawing to the cel, and the cost of labor to do both xerography and cel painting.

If we extrapolate using the example above from a five-minute short film to a 75-minute animated feature (using the same specs just to keep the math simple), you're looking at $35,996.40 just to cover the costs of the animation cels. And that doesn't factor in mistakes during production or the fact that many features have multiple layers of characters and props and foreground elements all layered one-on-top of each other per shot! So, as the numbers add up for the cost of production materials, you can see how a couple pennies saved per cel, by using a smaller cel according to Sami, could help keep a film within budget. And you can see why some American studios in the past used to hire people to wash the acetate cels clean so they could be reused for other animated films.

Well, before I go any further down the rabbit hole of animation production minutiae, let's get back to the point of all this: that I encourage people to build professional relationships with vendors--especially if you're an animator (or future animator) who is serious about your craft. Even if you don't buy something every time you see them, it really pays dividends to maintain those relationships. I like to buy from Daniel and Mary Anne. They sell a quality product, they're very knowledgeable about their product line, and I feel very comfortable purchasing animation memorabilia from them--knowing that I'm getting an original product, not a knock-off. I'm not sure how prevalent counterfeit items are in the "animation art" industry, but on more than one occasion I've backed off from an eBay sale when I read the fine print and saw the words "serigraph" or "reproduction" in the description when the image and title were billed as if it were an animation production cel. And don't get me started about counterfeit products in the Japanese animation scene! One of the things that the now defunct ShutoCon did right was that they wouldn't allow vendors to sell counterfeit merch at their convention and they had presentations that taught fans how to recognize a counterfeit product. Now, let's be clear: I'm not knocking actual promotional art items, like serigraphs and lithographs--I actually have a couple in my collection from movie premieres and animation festivals. But it you're looking for an "actual" production drawing or cel that was used in the film, it pays to keep your eyes open so you know exactly what you're buying. Working with people who have a proven track record of trustworthiness makes this easier. 

Disney was giving out these lithographs at the OIAF one year

Another bonus is that when they know your buying habits, they'll keep an eye out for some of the more unique items -- like the set of layout designs from the Giant Robo OVA series (shown previously). Even though I only see them every couple of years, Daniel knows what I like and is able to guide me to the latest Giant Robo or Ghost in the Shell product that he's added to his store as well as to more mature animation production drawings and cels--what I mean is, animation that's geared to a more mature, adult audience (stuff in the PG-13 to R range), shows with more mature stories and storytelling, like the SimpsonsAeon FluxGhost in the Shell or the various films of Ralph Bakshi.

As the industry continues to move away from a physical media "drawing and ink-and-paint" model to mostly digital, you're just not going to see much of this kind of animation memorabilia with newer productions. A lot of the "hand-drawn" animation here in the States is done digitally using software like ToonBoom or OpenToonz or something programmed in-house. In Japan, Retas Pro and OpenToonz are two of the programs used by studios. TVPaint is used all around the world. And then there are those studios and independents who use Adobe Creative Cloud. 

The water spirit from Rocks in my Pockets

Still, there are people working in the realm of 2d hand drawn animation with paper and pencil: like indie animators Bill Plympton and Signe Baumane. However, with their more recent feature films, they've been moving to a digital ink-and-paint model. Bill's 2013 film Cheatin' was the first feature where he used a digital ink-and-paint system to support his hand-drawn animation. And on her first feature film, Rocks in my Pockets, Signe also drew her characters by hand, then scanned them into Photoshop for digital clean-up and coloring before digitally compositing them with photos of her live model 3d set backgrounds.

Is the day approaching where the only animation memorabilia worth framing that we'll be able to purchase from newer films are these mass-produced serigraphs or lithographs printed from a specific shot in the movie? I would argue that if we're not already there, then the day isn't too far off in the future. And given how physical media deteriorates over time, it becomes more important to preserve these animation treasures from days long gone. For a reasonable price, I can own and preserve one of those rare moments of animation history where almost everything was done by hand using physical media. Unless they create a film by themselves, drawn, inked and painted by hand, most of the kids who are studying to be animators today will never know this experience: one where the film is in the can and there's a box of drawings and cels in the closet and they are secure in the knowledge that if the hard drive got corrupted or a software upgrade was incompatible with their old files, they could still recreate their entire film if they had to. Or maybe just make a couple bucks on the side from selling a part of their film in order to fund the next.

Single hand-drawn and colored frame from Joanna Priestley

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NOTE: While the cels, lithographs, and production drawings displayed in this blog post are my personal property (unless where otherwise noted), the images and animations are being provided here for informational and educational purposes. Any intellectual property, copyrights, and/or trademarks remain with their respective owners.

NOTE #2: The production drawing of Taarna charging forward with her sword drawn... the one being sold by eBay vendor "collect_this"? Yeah, I was the one who bought that drawing after this blog entry was posted. I'm now looking at having both Taarna production drawings framed. Editor's note 06/13/2022

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Animated Thoughts: Moments of Serendipity

I needed more space in the bookshelves for my gaming collection. The plan was to buy a half-sized bookshelf and move my Dungeons & Dragons collection over to the other wall. Thus, I'd have almost an entire bookshelf where my BattleTech collection could expand instead of being split between two walls. Well, on Sunday, I purchased what I thought was a workable solution: a bookshelf with the correct height and width and more importantly a number of adjustable shelves. Only when I got it home and unpacked it, the shelving unit turned out to be scaled for DVDs or CDs.

Now normally that wouldn't be an issue since the bookshelves were adjustable. However, when I got it out of the box, both the sides of the unit and the shelves were only about six inches in depth. Therefore, my full-sized D&D books would stick out and would probably fall onto the floor.

Manga and Memories from R.I.T.
After thinking about it for a while, I realized that the bottom shelf would work for the full-sized books in my bedroom's bookcase and the upper shelves would fit my manga/light-novel collection perfectly (I'm keeping up with Arpeggio of Blue Steel, Delicious in Dungeon, and Restaurant to Another World). All I had to do was swap out the two bookshelves and I was back in business! Or so I thought.

Assembling the new shelving unit was an exercise in frustration as it broke several times during the whole process. However, it was corner clamps and Gorilla Glue to the rescue! And within two-hours, I had the display all put together and ready to accept books. 

Here's where the moment of serendipity occurred. Despite the disappointments and frustrations of the previous two hours, I soldiered on. And while the glue was setting on the new shelving unit, I removed all the books from the old bookshelf so I could move it to my gaming room. And there it was. On the bottom shelf, wedged between the inside of the bookcase and my oversized copy of the Red Cross First Aid/CPR handbook was my original copy of Jack Slutzky's book Mindscapes.

The cover showed no signs of wear or fading. It was as pristine and crisp as the day I had bought it, minus a little bending at the binding from its first reading. It now rests on the shelf in my office, with the rest of my textbooks from R.I.T.--right next to the autographed copy of Mindscapes which I bought as a replacement last December.

If I had taken the new shelving unit back to the store or if I had tried to use the new shelves for my D&D books, it might have been years before I found my copy of Mindscapes. If I hadn't misplaced it in the first place, I wouldn't have bought a replacement copy -- which turned out to be signed by Jack himself.


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Tuesday, March 15, 2022

Annies and Oscars, 2022 edition

It was a good day for animation.

This weekend was the 49th annual Annie Awards, a celebration of animation's highest honors presented by ASIFA Hollywood. And it was also the day that animation luminary Ron Diamond hosted a private screening of the Oscar nominated animated short films -- and members of ASIFA were invited!

Given the restrictions that the DIA's Detroit Film Theater were still imposing on those of us who couldn't safely get the jab or had natural immunity, making my yearly trip to the DFT to spend a day appreciating some art before watching the Academy Award nominated short animated film program, well, it wasn't going to happen.

Fortunately, it was Ron Diamond to the rescue! Ron runs the Animation Show of Shows, a yearly curated program of animated short films that gets shown at arthouse theaters and colleges all across the country. So, this year he had a program dedicated entirely to the Oscar animated shorts. And as a member of ASIFA Central, I was sent a code to their website where Ron opened with a discussion about the awards and the films we'd be watching, followed by the program, and bookended with live interviews with some of the filmmakers. It was a good start to the day!

Later that evening, the Annies were streamed on their website. Everything was pretty much pre-recorded since they wouldn't be live streaming from the Royce Theater again this year. But, it is what it is. At least we were able to enjoy the show online rather than not at all. If you didn't get the chance to watch the show during the first broadcast(?), it can be viewed on the online in its entirety at: Annie Awards - Watch It Live and you can also download this year's program book on the same page.

And, thus, my yearly 'random thoughts I had while watching the show':

  • Still loving that zoetrope animation that opens the ceremony!
  • Best Short Subject: Night Bus had my vote to win. Saw it at the Ottawa fest... really quirky film that I found myself getting into for both the technical production and the story.
  • "2021 was a continuation of the ongoing pandemic stress, yet animation continued striving and successfully leading the entertainment industry. More animation is being produced today than ever before and that bodes well for all of us." Very encouraging words from ASIFA Hollywood President Sue Shakespeare.
  • June Foray Award: Was very pleased to see Renzo and Sayoko Kinoshita get some recognition for all their work in the field of animation.
  • Best Production Design in an Animated TV/Media Production:  Arcane!!!!! A good start for one of the best animated series I've ever seen.
  • Best production Design in an Animated Feature Production: Y'know, I was really hoping for Belle.
  • I like how the awards are moving at more of a steady clip since we don't have to watch people walk down to the front of the Royce theater and accept their award--and give an extended speech before being played off by music--but the virtual format does seem to lack a little luster and the pomp & circumstance of the live awards ceremony.
  • Character Design in an Animated TV/Media Production: Arcane again! So happy to see them pull this award. So rarely do the films I love get recognition, I'm gonna start crying any minute now. :)
  • Glenn Vlippu received the Special Achievement award--and is very well deserved.
  • Really liked how Dina Sherman was in a different location every time when she announced the next award and its presenters. Seemed a little odd at first, but it really grows on you.
  • Character Animation in an Animated Television/Media Production: goes to Arcane!!!!! Wow. Just... wow! Wouldn't it be awesome if Arcane took home every award in all nine categories it was nominated in?
  • Hrm. Didn't realize that the Annies started back in '72. Knew June Foray was the driving force behind the awards, but 1972? Hrm. I'm sure I'd heard that before, it just never registered with me.
  • Animated Effects in an Animated Television/Media Production... Arcane wins again. My jaw is on the floor!
  • Yeah, I really need to watch the Witcher: Nightmare of the Wolf animated feature and the Castlevania series this year... :o
  • Animated Effects in an Animated Feature Production... Please oh please let it be Belle... aaaand... nope. :(
  • Editing in an Animated TV/Media Production: What If...Ultron Won... My favorite episode from my favorite show in the Marvel Cinematic Universe -- So freaking awesome!!!
  • One of the Winsor McKay Awards goes to Lillian Schwartz -- Wow. So many years later, so many advances in computer imagery, and her work still holds up. The mark of a master filmmaker.
  • Another to Toshio Suzuki. Ah, the Annie Awards, one of the few awards shows where Anime actually gets some of the respect they deserve for their contributions to the art form. Toshio Suzuki. A titan in the industry but, like Isao Takahata before him, spends more time recognizing the people who work for and with him at Studio Ghibli. Man, such a class act.
  • And the third to Ruben Akino whose body of work embodies so many of the pivotal films from those years when I was studying to become an animator. Watching those clips, it was like I was sitting in the theater just off campus during college and grad school all over again.
  • Voice Acting in an Animated Television/Media Production: goes to Ella Purnell - HELL YES!!!!! Let's hear it for Jinx! Arcane is set to sweep the awards after all! Gonna have to watch the whole series again while I still have a little time before the Spring season of Anime is here.
  • Voice Acting in an Animated Feature Production: was really hoping for a win for John Leguizamo, easily one of the best character actors of our generation. I can't think of a single film of his that I've seen, live action or animated, where he didn't bring his 'A' game and produced a stellar performance.
  • Writing in an Animated Television/Media Production: Another well deserved award for Arcane!!!
  • Writing in an Animated Feature Production: Nope. Still hoping that Belle would get 'some' love during the ceremony. But, there's still the best Indie Feature.
  • In Memoriam... always a tough segment to watch. Brenda Banks, Giannalberto Bendazzi, Jacques Drouin, we lost some real heavy hitters this past year and the community is diminished because of it.
  • Wow!! They got Momoro Hosoda (the director of Belle) to present an awards category. Very cool. Not "Belle wins some awards" cool, but still, a nice consolation.
  • Best General Audience Animated Television/Media Production: Hell yes!!! Another richly deserved award for Arcane!!!
  • Tomm Moore is presenting for the Annies. Very cool. I still have my drawing/watercolor of Pangur Bán that he sent me back when I purchased the PAL version of Brendan and the Secret of Kells and had it shipped in from Ireland (this was before GKIDS picked it up for North American distribution). Think I'll get it framed this year.
  • Storyboarding in an Animated Television/Media Production: Goes to Arcane! One more award and Arcane sweeps the Annies!!!!
  • Directing in an Animated Television/Media Production: AND ARCANE SWEEPS EVERY CATEGORY THAT THEY'RE IN!!! Would've also been cool to see Love Death + Robots or Invincible get some love, but I'm so blown away about all the accolades for Arcane. It's so well deserved. And so refreshing to see it happen.
  • So great to see John Leguizamo back at the Annies.
  • Best Indie Feature: And no love for Belle. What a disappointment. A somber reminder that my tastes are usually way different than most of the viewing public and that we've got a long way to go before Japanese animation fully receives the recognition that it rightfully deserves. At least the DVD comes out in May. I'll get to watch it again and again in the privacy of my home theater.
My 'Pangur Bán' watercolor by
Tomm More of Cartoon Saloon

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Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Animated Thoughts: Musing about organization (or: getting the most use out of that OCD)

I like things organized. Doesn't matter what system is used or what is being organized, I just like being able to walk into a room and going to exactly where the thing I want is stored. DVDs, art supplies, paperwork, books, tools, anything. So long as I don't have to hunt for it, we're good. It wasn't always that way. I was a very messy child. My room, my clothes, my schoolwork, it was always a mess. 

Something happened when I hit my late teens and then went off to college that caused me to become a neat-freak. I think it was learning that rooms don't magically clean themselves... and perhaps some latent OCD on my part. Over the following years, I developed a habit of pruning my possessions. I'd look at something and if I couldn't see myself using it in the next year (and hadn't used it in previous years), I'd get rid of it. Some things I kept due to the nostalgia value. Only once or twice has it bitten me in the ass when I got rid of something and within a year I realized that I needed it. But for the most part, the system worked. As I was moving in and out of dorms twice a year and travelling between states, it helped to keep my load light.

Then I bought a house.

The Struggle is real!
The first thing that started to pile up in my storage closet was old, outdated computer equipment and boxes of software. Then my collections started to grow: gaming systems, DVDs and VHS tapes, books, and lots of hand-me-down kitchen supplies and appliances. Some of this stuff made sense--when I rebuilt my archive of animations and classwork from grad school, having computers that could run the software I used at R.I.T. was invaluable since many of those files couldn't be opened or read using current software. Backwards compatibility apparently only goes so far.

So, I've slowly but surely been inching forward, building order out of the chaos. All my art and animation supplies are organized (mostly) in my studio. All my gaming material is now in a series of bookshelves (yes, I still play Battletech and Dungeons and Dragons, though not as much as I would like to nowadays). The DVD collection spans a couple bookshelves, however they are all alphabetized and are slowly being digitized as I'm building a home media server--don't want to spend time hunting for something when I want it, remember?

This weekend, the organizational bug bit me and my comic book collection was the target.

Comic books, RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons, and the miniature wargame Battletech were a tremendous help in navigating an unhappy childhood. Being a geeky introvert, I didn't have many friends growing up and was often the focus of bullies. But even though I've always been a solitary person, having something that I could escape to did wonders for my mental health. Having learned how to read at the age of two, I had already read many of the great works of Western literature by the time I was in middle school and that was when I started seriously exploring other avenues of American literature and art: namely comic books. I remember that the Marvel comics were much more relatable to me as a person as their characters seemed to have real-life(ish) problems, compared to DC comics  heroes--which seemed stuck in the realm of the idealized modern "god" who stood above the mortals and had little if any real-world difficulties. Seriously, has there ever been an issue where Batman is grousing over being stuck in traffic? No, Spider Man was always behind on his rent and struggled at his job. The X-Men were feared and persecuted for being different from the rest of society. Captain America was a transient superhero but he still had to support himself by drawing the "Captain America" comic book. Iron Man struggled with alcoholism (okay, maybe that wasn't relatable to me, but it is a real human problem). During those days, it became easy to escape into books and their world of fantasy after a difficult day, enjoying the fantastical adventures of a life I could never have (as far as I know, humans can't teleport or fly), and then reemerge when my emotions were on a more even keel and I could deal with my problems in small, manageable chunks.

As time moved on, I kept reading comics, though my tastes matured and changed. I followed several Marvel and DC creators to Image Comics when Marc Silvestri (along with brother Eric) started Cyberforce and Codename: Stryke Force. I was also drawn into new stories when Whilce Portacio started his horror/sci-fi comic Wetworks. And I enjoyed the artwork and the stories that J. Scott Campbell was creating through his comics Gen 13 and Danger Girl. But my interest in comic book series waxed and waned over the years. Around the end of grad school, I lost interest in the direction that the X-Men storyline was progressing. New releases of Wetworks became sporadic as Whilce Portacio was helping his sister battle cancer and he put the series on hold after issue #43. It seemed like most of the Image (and their subsidiaries) crew moved on to other projects with other companies. No worries. Life is full of changes.

When I moved back to Michigan and bought a house, I finally had a place to store my old comics and had lots of room for new ones. I got back into reading some of the more mature stories of Heavy Metal magazine. IDW and Dynamite Entertainment both got their shot at the license to produce several runs of Red Sonja comic books. And most enjoyably for me, Marvel recently brought back a number of the old writers and artists for the X-Men (and spinoffs) and started publishing one-off side stories that took place during the 1990's run of X-Men and Uncanny X-Men--in my opinion, the period of time where the X-Men stories hit their peak. Unfortunately though, most of the series that I really got into over the past twenty-or-so years weren't popular enough to keep them going or were designed to be limited series. The issues I was able to find of Nick Schley's comic Abiding Perdition were enjoyable as was Humbertos Ramos' modern-day vampire/monster hunter series Crimson. And IDW's Transformers: Windblade and Transformers: Combiner Hunters have to be my favorite stories out of the Transformers franchise.

So, my collection continues to grow, albeit at a snail's pace. Dynamite's relaunch of Sheena Queen of the Jungle didn't do it for me and I stopped buying issues after reading #3. I'm still following a couple of Dynamite's Red Sonja titles (could use a little more 'Conan' in them, but Marvel's got that license at the moment--that and I wish Dynamite would do another run of 'Steampunk Red Sonja' like they did in the Legenderry series). I still peruse the shelves at Summit Comics and Games every Wednesday night to see if there's a title that catches my eye (Frank Cho's Fight Girls was entertaining, as was the D&D comic Mindbreaker).  And I'm using sites like MyComicShop.com and MileHighComics.com to fill gaps in some of the more obscure series--like First Adventures #1 which has a side story featuring the giant robot adventures of Dynamo Joe.

But how do you keep track of everything you've bought and read over 45 years (and stuffed into almost twenty boxes)? Well, I played with different apps and spreadsheets over the years. None really worked for me. That was until I created an account on the LeagueOfComicGeeks.com website. I was previously using their site to learn what comics I could expect to see in the stores that month (helps to budget out that entertainment dollar). So I decided to take the plunge and explore some of their other options, like managing my pull list with Summit Comics and Games. Then I decided to take their iOS app for a spin. I had tried to use another app to index my collections, and while it worked great for DVDs, it wasn't robust enough to handle my comic book collection. That's not to say that the LoCG app/website is perfect, it isn't. But it works well enough for me to have processed five boxes containing 850 comics over three days. Clearly, I have a long way to go before my entire collection is indexed. But I have to say that I'm really enjoying the walk down memory lane as I process each series and enter them into the database.

The thing I like the most about the app? It's that my comics are no longer sitting in boxes, languishing in that 'out of sight, out of mind' headspace. At a moment's notice, I can pull out my smartphone, load up the app, and browse through forty-five years of collecting comic books, having a smile as I reflect on a story that touched my heart or a panel of artwork that made my jaw drop at its beauty or a great character that inspired me to be a better person.

Someday, I will die. I've already made provisions to leave my comic collection to a library. So hopefully, years from now (well, hopefully many, many, many years from now), someone will sit down at a table with a stack of comic books from my collection and enjoy reading them as much as I have.

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Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Animated Reviews: Mamoru Hosoda's "Belle"

I need to qualify some things up front before I get into the review. 

For starters, music in film can be a difficult thing to get right, be it background music, a musical number inserted to denote the passage of time, or a full-blown musical. 

Personally, I don't like musicals. Never have. Not saying there aren't good musicals out there, like the Broadway performances of Cats or Chess. But in animated films, after thirty-plus years since Disney adopted the 'Rogers and Hammerstein' song-and-dance formula for the Little Mermaid (and every studio out there tried to attain success by copying Disney's model), it just feels so played out. More often than not, when I'm watching a movie and they break into song, my heart just sinks in my chest and I start counting the minutes until the sequence is over.

My opinions are based partially on the belief that I think music can often be used as a cheap tool to engender an emotional connection within your audience when you should've done it through careful character development within the script. Not saying that music cannot be skillfully used to enhance the experience (see Disney's Bolt or Nina Paley's Sita Sings the Blues), but would a film like Guardians of the Galaxy be as popular as it was without using music from the 1960's and 70's that was already heavily ingrained in the collective consciousness of an American audience? Not knocking the film, I loved it and its sequel, but the music had to have been carefully selected and weaved into the film causing it to become a character in and of itself. I suspect it was done so because the 'Guardians' weren't as well-known as characters like Iron Man, Captain America, and Spider-Man, so they needed that extra 'oomph' to build a connection with the audience and make people care about the characters.

In many cases though, especially in musicals, the music just falls flat and seems out of place. It reminds me of that comedy routine you see at Renaissance Festivals where the singers keep purposefully stepping in front of each other as they try to upstage each other's performances. It's a comedic bit and it's funny at Ren Fests. But in so many musicals, it's like the acting is competing with the story which is competing with the song-and-dance numbers and so on. It abruptly pulls you out of the experience. And consider cringeworthy sequences like the "No Fear" song in the Swan Princess--"No Fear" being a popular modern marketing catchphrase at the time which in the film was placed smack-dab in the middle of a medieval fairy-tale world. The sequence ended up marring an otherwise decent and enjoyable movie that had a great message for kids.

To be fair, there are some musicals where the song-and-dance number (or the musical sequence in films) doesn't seem out of place and is completely in tune with the emotional tone of the story and the characters. I offer as evidence: the 'Son of Man' sequence in Disney's Tarzan, 'Once Upon a December' from Anastasia, the 'Hellfire' sequence from Hunchback of Notre Dame, 'Deliver Us' from Prince of Egypt, or the entire film: Mary Poppins

Another example is Disney's Enchanted. It's a musical that parodies Disney musicals (both animated and live action), expertly directed by Kevin Lima. There are so many ways that movie could've gone wrong. Disney definitely chose the right director, the right songwriters & composers, and the right actors & actresses to bring the right script to life. The song-and-dance numbers make perfect sense both in the context of the film's internal world AND in the context of filmmaking overall. Honestly, it's a movie that I'm happy to see sitting on the shelf in my DVD collection.

Speaking of Enchanted, I have very fond memories of being in Toronto, sitting in a Schoolism.com presentation and watching Kevin Lima state that he loves musicals. Seated right next to him was his wife, director/scriptwriter Brenda Chapman who immediately rolled her eyes and gave an exasperated "Oi!". I knew right then and there that I had found a kindred spirit as it turned out that Brenda was very much not a fan of musicals. The irony of her working years later on the film Strange Magic is delightful. I know there's got to be a story behind it and I'd love to hear her tell it.

So. I'm not opposed to musicals, per se, or the skillful use of music in films, it's just that when they get it wrong, they pull me out of that delightful headspace, that flow state where nothing exists but the film you're watching. You're sitting there slowly getting drawn into a movie with beautiful cinematography, engaging characters, and an interesting story... then they break into a song-and-dance number for no apparent reason other than to have a song-and-dance number. It's honestly why I haven't had any desire to watch any of the recent Disney films. And there "is" obviously a market for such films, as evidenced by the varying degrees of success that Disney musicals continue to have in the box office, especially compared to far superior films like Atlantis: the Lost Empire

I guess I'm probably at that stage of life where I'm looking for something with more substance--like the Summit of the Gods or Arcane, both of which premiered on Netflix.

To summarize my rant and get to the review: when music is done poorly, or treated as an afterthought, it sticks out like a sore thumb. But when done skillfully, purposefully, it can elevate a film to an almost spiritual experience.

Belle was so much more the latter than the former. During the opening sequence where we see Belle singing the song 'U' while riding atop a skywhale loaded down with speakers, it gave me chills! And the 'Gales of Song' sequence was achingly beautiful as you realize what she's singing about. You can see parts of this in the Belle medley video that was released on the Official Belle Channel on YouTube. Go ahead and watch it now, I'll wait.

Mamoru Hosoda and Studio Chizu did a wonderful job filling this film with interesting characters that were easy to care about. And the backgrounds were as picture perfect as I've ever seen in an animated feature. The virtual world of U was a visual feast of characters and settings without ever making you feel overwhelmed or confused about what was happening on the screen. And Cartoon Saloon's background work is sublime (executed by Tomm Moore & Ross Stewart). In the end, my only real regrets were that a. I didn't have time that weekend to go back and watch the English dub version, and b. that I didn't watch the film in the large-scale IMAX format.

Now the movie isn't without its flaws. I wouldn't say it's Mamoru Hosoda's best. I reserve that title for his film Wolf Children, but it was easily the second best Hosoda film I've seen--though tied for second place with Summer Wars. Full disclosure: I haven't seen The Girl Who Leapt Through Time or Boy and the Beast... yet. So, I reserve the right to adjust my numbers. No, I had two problems with Belle. One was that they reused a number of character designs from earlier Hosoda films which pulled me out of the experience. The Dragon/Beast avatar? He looked like Ōkami Otoko's werewolf form from Wolf Children. The Dragon/Beast's human character? Ame from Wolf Children. Suzu Naitou (Bell's human character)? Hana from Wolf Children. This was a similar complaint that I had with Studio Trigger's film Promare--and what ruined that movie for me. I'm not opposed to reusing designs to a point--I assume it develops from a common visual style that identifies a particular studio or director's work (compare Mei Kusakabe from My Neighbor Totoro and Ponyo from... well, Ponyo. Unquestionably Studio Ghibli). But it can still be jarring when you see characters from a previous film in a current film acting and speaking outside of the context that has already been set for them in the film where they first appeared.
And while they packed a lot of story into Belle's two hours, I felt that the whole Dragon/Beast subplot ended up being kind of unnecessary. Though it did introduce an interesting conflict and an element of mystery into the story. And the subject matter behind it was a difficult and challenging topic that was competently executed by Hosoda and Studio Chizu, however the time it took to play out the events related to the Dragon/Beast subplot took time away from the Bell main plot: namely that of a girl who loses her singing voice due to a childhood tragedy and finding it by experiencing the virtual world that her avatar (Bell) exists in. You could have made the entire film just about Suzu/Bell finding her voice and dealing with her emotional scars as she explores the world of U, completely without the Dragon/Beast subplot, and it would've worked perfectly. The main themes brought forth by Suzu/Bell in the virtual world of U were so interesting, so engaging in and of themselves that when the Dragon/Beast shows up, it's like... "Huh? Oh yeah, he's in this film too."

But in the end, I'd definitely put this film on the "must watch" list, especially in a large format theater if possible. I'm looking forward to watching this movie again and adding Belle to the Mamoru Hosoda section of my film collection once GKIDS releases it on DVD. And if you're on the fence, watch the first three minutes of Belle on YouTube that GKIDS released to promote the film. Or listen to the full soundtrack on Spotify (available in both Japanese and English). I'm pretty sure you'll come away with the same opinion that I did: Belle is two hours well spent.

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* All video/images used are © 2021 STUDIO CHIZU.