A Dreamer Walking

WALL-E – Old Vs. New

Posted in Animation, Film and Filmaker Studies, Personal Philosophy by Jacob on September 16, 2014

Wall-E #2

With Pixar’s WALL-E director Andrew Stanton wanted to create a sort of look that made one think the movie was filmed in the 1970’s.  This honestly was a tough goal to set since animated movies are not “filmed” they are shot in a computer, and to be honest there weren’t very many computers in the 70’s. Film is so loved by so many because of it’s inherent flaws. Things like lens flairs, grain in the image, and scratches on the celluloid are all technically flaws in films yet are now considered some of what makes it so special. It’s loved so much in-fact the leading edge in digital technology tries to reproduce the same kinds of “flaws” in their newest cameras. Stanton had a whole team try to reproduce the filmic look for his movie WALL-E. He even went as far as recreating actual live action footage of scenes they were doing in the computer so the technicians could see the difference between the imagery captured in camera with celluloid and that shot in the computer.

The story of WALL-E lends itself to this idea of bringing a classic look to a new medium. In the movie we fallow a eight hundred year old robot, Wall-E, around his world where his main function is to pick up trash. Everything about Wall-E’s design and texture represents an old fashion look which is directly contrasted with his love interest Eve. As you can see in the image above Eve has a oval design with very few mechanisms. The true magic of this relationship is how well Stanton and his team were able to make the two opposites seem so perfect for each other. You need to go no further then the scene where Wall-E introduces Eve to his home to see just how well these opposites work with each other cinematically.

Some have called WALL-E an anti technology movie with a preachy message about saving the environment.  However, I believe Andrew Stanton when he says he only went the environmental rout because that’s where the story took him. His goal was not to make people hate the new and love the old. His objective was to create a story where two very different perspectives met and found balance. In fact it took something new coming into Wall-E’s life for him to find meaning. But more on that in another post.

Stanton went farther back then just the 1970’s for inspiration for his movie. He and the Pixar artists would watch old silent classics from the early 1930’s and before. They studied old silent comedians such as Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and of course Charlie Chaplin. After studying these great filmmakers Stanton said he realized Pixar didn’t know anything. The idea that some of the best stories in our history were told without sophisticated special effects, flashy cameras, or sound blew the Pixar artists away. They maid it their goal to recreate the magic they saw in the best silent films. For the first act of WALL-E there is hardly a line of dialogue heard. Rather, we discover Wall-E’s soul through a magnificent set of sound effects produced by Ben Burtt, who is best known for his work on the original Star Wars trilogy, and by the masterful work of all the Pixar animators who took the silent movies Stanton showed to heart.

In the end we have a movie in WALL-E that not only makes us laugh but also makes us care. We don’t care about seeing the environment around Wall-E change because of some liberal agenda, we want it to change because we get a glimpse of what “unplugging” and cherishing our world could do for the health of our personal soul. Those who think WALL-E is anti technology seem to forget the movie stars two robots. The best of Pixar is about balancing the new with the old. Pixar is known for being the leading edge in digital technology. They are famous for creating the first computer animated film in history, Toy Story (1995). However, the majority of their films are special because the technology is only there to enhance their stories. And their stories revolve around themes that are as old as time itself.

There is a big debate going on in the film industry today about the transition from film to digital technology. Celluloid is going extinct. There are fewer and fewer companies around who are able to process the film so it could be projected on the big screen. Some, such as famous filmmaker Quentin Tarantino, have threatened to quite the film profession altogether if true “film” is taken away. The bottom line however is filmmaking is bigger then the stuff you use to shoot the picture. And as I said at the beginning of this post the companies making cameras today have not overlooked the public’s love for the look that comes from the old classics of the 1970’s and before. Just like Wall-E and Eve managed to do, eventually the film industry will find a balance.

Christopher Nolan – Director – The Dark Knight

Posted in Film and Filmaker Studies, Screenshot Series by Jacob on September 9, 2014

Chrostopher Nolan

Here we have one of the most iconic images from Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. Each superhero movie needs it’s “hero shot” and this is Christopher Nolan’s version.  Nolan shoots Batman at a lower angle and has him standing on top of the rubble, as a sort of pedestal. Yet, the cold blues devouring most of the shot and the empty space around Batman seems to be saying something more.

It’s obvious Christopher Nolan’s cinematographer Wally Pfister knows how to work with light. The cold and warm colors create a wonderful complementary color scheme. Just enough light hits Batman in order to have him stick out so we understand his emotional state. This shot takes place right after Batman loses someone dear to him and saves someone who he believes is important to the city. Through this shot Nolan is showing the conflict between the two actions. The burning building is being used to reflect the inner battle Batman is going through. We are looking up to Batman in this shot and he is intentionally put on top of the rubble to suggest he is rising above the destruction. Yet, because of the blues, Batman’s stance, and the emptyness around him we do not see this as a triumphant shot. Instead it communicates a deep conflict between the hero Batman is trying to be and the inner conflict going on inside.

The reason Nolan’s Batman series rises above (excuse the pun) other superhero movies for me is because of shots like this one. All superhero movies show physical conflict but rarely do I see the emotional conflict in a superhero movie treated with such potency. For Nolan this movie was all about questioning our views on what makes a hero. And like the shot above Nolan leaves us with a a hero, but not the one we are so used to seeing. Instead, he turns our concept of what makes a true hero on it’s head and goes into a direction that forces us to see the “superhero” as a human being not immune to the evils of the world he fights in.

Art Babbitt – Animator – Goofy

Posted in Animation, Film and Filmaker Studies by Jacob on September 1, 2014

Art Babbitt

Goofy happened to be one of my favorite Disney characters growing up. His easy going attitude and way of getting himself in and out of unbelievably dangerous situations always swept me up and entranced me as a kid. You can only imagine my surprise when I learned of Walt Disney’s distaste for the character. Considering him too dumb and unsophisticated Walt would often threaten to get rid of the character all together. And after the mid 1940’s Goofy did pretty much disappear. Sure, he did surface a few times in the 50’s as the middle class worker, George Geef. However, in the 50’s shorts Goofy’s charm seems to be all but gone; his easy hillbilly attitude replaced with a much more somber modern persona.

There is no doubt Goofy’s golden age was the 1930’s and early 40’s. With his endearing laugh and soft spoken speech Pinto Colvig was able to give Goofy a voice. However, the key author to the character of Goofy is animator Art Babbitt. Babbitt is a pioneer in the medium of animation for being one of the first to go into a deep analysis of each one of the characters he was animating. During the 1920’s and early 30’s most characters were created for the main objective of carrying out funny and abstract gags. Artists began to be attracted to Walt’s studio because he was diving into something more sophisticated, character animation; where the humor had just as much to do with the individual character’s personality as it had to do with action.

Art Babbitt quickly became one of Walt’s top animators in the 1930’s. Babbitt would have life drawing classes in his home and hire nude models. It’s safe to say Babbitt didn’t have a hard time filling up his house with young enthusiastic artists ready to learn more about the human anatomy. Soon enough Walt found out about the classes and called Babbitt in his office. Walt knew if it got out a bunch of Mickey Mouse artists were going to an employees home with nude models the press would have a field day. So Walt opened up the sound stage as a place to hold the drawing sessions and offered to pay for the classes. Though in their future Art Babbitt and Walt Disney would become bitter enemies, the two believed in the importance of education and study. From Babbitt’s suggestion Walt hired Don Graham (Check out my post of Walt’s letter to Graham here) to educate his artists so they could elevate the art of animation to levels no one before new were possible.

One of the techniques Babbitt pioneered was the detailed analysis of the character he was to animate. Babbitt analyzed Goofy intellectually. He wrote a whole outline of the character’s personality. A great amount of time was spent in trying to understand how Babbitt’s character’s thought and moved. When talking about Goofy’s posture Art Babbitt had this to say,

His posture is nil. His back arches the wrong way and his little stomach protrudes. His head, stomach and knees lead his body. His neck is quite long and scrawny. His knees sag and his feet are large and flat. He walks on his heels and his toes turn up. His shoulders are narrow and slope rapidly, giving the upper part of his body a thinness and making his arms seem long and heavy, though actually not drawn that way. His hands are very sensitive and expressive and though his gestures are broad, they should still reflect the gentleman. His shoes and feet are not the traditional cartoon dough feet. His arches collapsed long ago and his shoes should have a very definite character.

This is just a sample of a detailed lecture Art Babbitt gave on “The Goof”, as he refereed to him (check out the full lecture here). You can tell he put a huge amount of thought into the little details that would make Goofy act truly unique.

He has music in his heart even though it be the same tune forever

Babbitt’s quote nails the character of Goofy on the head. To an artist like Babbitt “The Goof” was more then just a cartoon character. Animators have often refereed to their animations as children. Animators spend so much time working with a piece of animation. They contemplate every single move their character makes and try to reach deep into their personal life to inform their choices. With this intimacy an artists develops a curtain amount of ownership over their characters. Yet, in the end they need to let them go. They need to stop animating and send them away for the whole world to see. This sense of intimacy is what attracts so many today to the field of animation. And Art Babbitt is one of the people we can thank for seeing this medium as the intimate art form it now is. A character most felt was just a dumb hick, Babbitt considered worthy of study and development. He was able to make The Goof into someone who had a soul, someone who captured the world’s hearts.

Free Film School!

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on August 4, 2014

I am sad to announce I am taking a blog break. I know it probably looks like I already took a blog break. I mean come on! I was on such a role for a while posting a paper every week or less for several months. But then summer came. The time I was supposed to be the least busy I ended up doing a bunch of things. Only half of the stuff I ended up doing was really productive, but the bottom line is I have really let down the few followers I have for this blog and I do apologize for that.

So I will be taking the rest of the month off and then try to maintain a post a week from the beginning of September to the foreseeable future. I thought I would leave you guys however with a bunch of links to really productive information and study material for those interested in the foundations of film and storytelling.

Filmmaking:

  • Cinephilia and Beyond: This might be the most valuable resource out there for all things film. Cinephilia is on a unstoppable mission to find as many interviews, articles, and documentaries on filmmaking around the internet. If you have a particular filmmaker in mind just do a search on Cinephilia’s site and you will most likely find a huge archive of information. P.S. you should also follow Cinephilia on Twitter!
  • DP/30: My advice is for you go get a pen and paper and start taking notes on interviews. David Poland has been able to accumulate hundreds of hours worth of interviews of some of the biggest names out there. His subjects range from actors, writers, directors, and sometimes a popular Cinematographer or Editor. Because of the length of his interviews (majority of them going 30 min or longer) Poland is able to go into much more depth then an average interview has time for. Poland studied filmmaking in collage and has a deep knowledge of it’s history which only helps raise his interviews to another level.
  • The Treatment: Elvis Mitchell is yet another great interviewer who is determined to go beyond the common insights a writer or director gives in most of their interviews. You can also find Elvis’ more recent interviews free on iTunes.
  • 35 MM: Here is a Vimeo group that collects tones of Vimeo videos dealing with film. These are a little more hit-or-miss but there are certainly some gems worth looking into.
  • Steven Benedict Podcast: How this guy isn’t known by every cinephile out there is beyond me. Though considerably short compared to other material I linked to, Benedict is a true student of film and gives deep insights on each one of the movies he goes into. My suggestion is you download his podcasts on iTunes and listen to them while on your way to work or something.
  • [micro] TUTORIALS: Here you can find a vast archive of film production tutorials. [micro] is determined to provide you with a wealthy amount of free information to get started in digital filmmaking. Their subject matter ranges from pre-production through post-production and will give the beginning film student many hours worth of material to study in order to make his or her first film.

Animation:

  • Deja View: This is the sight of the famous animator Andreas Deja. His knowledge of animation history (especially Disney’s history) is superb. As the lead animator for classic characters like Jafar from Aladdin, Scare from The Lion King, and Lilo from Lilo and Stitch its obvious he has a vast understanding of the principles of animation and with everyone of his posts he goes into more and more detail about those principles and the animators responsible for creating them.
  • Temple of The Seven Golden Camels: The author of this blog, Mark Kennedy, is a storyboard artist for Disney Animation. Unlike most animator blogs I visit, Kennedy is determined to go into detail about the nuances of telling good stories. His focus usually is storyboarding which basically means he goes into all kinds of different principles of animation- staging, costuming, action, design, etc… Though sometimes long winded it’s obvious Kennedy knows his subject matter and he provides valuable insight in each one of his posts.
  • Splog: Sadly this blog hasn’t been updated since February. However, I am sure you will find enough in the archives to keep you busy for several months. Michael Sporn and his artists give a much more well rounded example of the history of Animation and many of the blog’s posts go into great detail about well known and long lost pieces of animation through out it’s rich history.
  • Podcasts: Rather then pick one of these I thought I would just link to several of them. Here are several valuable podcasts on animation I have listened to through out the years. Each one features interviews of people working in the field of animation and are quite valuable for anyone interested in going into the field themselves. I will post the links to their sites but the majority of the podcasts can be found also on iTunes. 1. The Animation Podcast 2. Spline Doctors 3. Speaking of Animation 4. iAnimate.

Writing:

  • Writing Excuses: Each fifteen minute podcast carries a wealth of information about writing and story structure. The podcast is also extremely entertaining and quite humerus. The four hosts are all well known authors and have a great chemistry with each other. They are usually able to cover a lot of ground with the little time they have. The podcast has also been around since 2008 and thus has a huge archive. I suggest you subscribe to their iTunes page; they post a podcast consistently every week.
  • The Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith: Here you will find interviews all kinds of writers across the medium of film. Jeff Goldsmith is a wonderful interviewer with a great upbeat attitude. Best of all is he knows story and the questions he asks are always informative and allow us deeper into the creation process. His lengthy archive can be found on iTunes as well.
  • Scriptnotes: John August and Craig Mazin are two established screenwriters in Hollywood and every week come out with a full hour long podcast covering all things writing. The two personalities work wonderfully with each other and they also at times have guests who share their personal insights on how to be a screenwriter in the daunting world of Hollywood. Not only do these guys have good screenwriting advice they go into the politics of working in Hollywood. Here is the link to their iTunes page.

Film Criticism:

  • The /Filmcast: This is one of the most enjoyable podcasts I listen to weekly. The hosts, David Chen, Devindra Hardawar, and Jeff Cannata are all bonafide film geeks who love talking movies. David Chen is one of the best hosts out there; someone who can just be himself while keeping a strong grasp on the conversation so it doesn’t get out of hand. I listen to these guys more for entertainment, but occasionally they can provide some fantastic insight on the film premiering that week. And due to their “What have you been watching?” segment I occasionally hear about a really interesting film I would never have discovered on my own. The best way to listen to these guys is via iTunes.
  • Filmspotting: This is the modern day version of Siskel and Ebert. Though maybe not quite as oppositional and competitive the two hosts, Adam Kempenaar and Josh Larsen, do a wonderful job expressing their thoughts on the latest movie of the week. Rather then go with the typical blockbuster Adam and Josh usually concentrate on more Independent films. A common visitor of the podcast is the famous critic Michael Phillips who was also a common visitor on Roger Ebert’s Ebert Presents show. The show is now known for ending with their top 5 list which allows the audience in on just how vast these critics knowledge of filmmaking is. This is by far the podcast with the largest archive, just recently celebrating it’s 500th episode. This is also a great podcast to listen to on iTunes.

Well there you have it. These links have turned out to be invaluable in my pursuit to becoming a great storyteller. It’s just a small example of how much you can learn for free outside the realm of a collage. I hope you enjoy and feel free to leave a comment if you have links to more valuable filmmaking resources!

Pixar Was My Dream

Posted in Personal Philosophy by Jacob on July 22, 2014

As soon as I heard John Lasseter, creative head of Pixar Animation Studios, speak these words, “I want someone who has this burning desire to tell a story that they want to tell”, I knew he was talking directly to me. I spent countless hours learning from the heads of Pixar. I took notes on all the Pixar movie commentaries and looked up countless interviews online. I bought books on Pixar and have religiously gone to every one of their movies. The studio sounded like a dream land where artists could ride around on scooters, play volley ball and ping pong, and were given a free breakfast with every brand of cereal imaginable. I had created an image of a studio without flaws. A studio who treated everyone fairly and would do anything for the sake of creating a great story.

Then the ideal image I had of Pixar began to crumble. It’s what every child goes through when they create an idol out of  flawed human beings. Little by little I began to realize the studio I came to love was not the great haven I had dreamed of. In 2006 Pixar was bought by Disney, a company who had shown numerous times they cared about profit more then anything else. The studio who had always claimed to be “director driven” began to replace more and more of their directors. The people who had birthed ideas such as “A rat who wants to cooks” or “A young girl who isn’t interested in conforming to the typical princess mold” were taken off of their projects and replaced with other artists. The main reason given for making these changes was because Pixar was not willing to settle for the mediocre. But then they produced Cars 2 which I and almost every critic out there believed was a full buffet of mediocrity. Key artists began to leave Pixar. Jan Pinkava, Brenda Champman, and Doug Sweetland are a few of the big name artists to go other places with their award winning talents.

Lasseter’s quote keeps flashing in my head, “I want someone who has this burning desire to tell a story that they want to tell”. See, I have a burning desire to tell stories. They are my most valuable possessions. With this quote Lasseter is saying he wants me to share my greatest desires with him. However, in order for me to share these desires with Lasseter, Pixar’s president Ed Catmull, and the rest of the leadership at Pixar I must first trust them.

I know Lasseter understands the power of trust. See, Pixar would not be Pixar if it weren’t for a group of rebellious artists who were willing to go all in with each other. For the first ten years of owning Pixar Steve Jobs lost money, yet he trusted Lasseter and his storytelling abilities to consistently write checks to him so he could continue to make animated shorts, which eventually lead to Lasseter directing Pixar’s first full length feature, Toy Story. John Lasseter trusted two artists with no directing experience, Andrew Stanton and Pete Docter, to helm the first Pixar movies not directed by him, Monsters, Inc. and Finding Nemo. And at the pinnacle of their success the heads of Pixar trusted a director who had just come off of a box office flop, Brad Bird, to completely shake up the studio’s routine and make the first Pixar movie to star humans and earn a PG rating, The Incredibles. Yet, in recent years trust seems to be hard thing for Lasseter to find. The last three Pixar movies had different directors at the beginning of their production. The movies ended up keeping their usual quality look but suffering from unoriginal storytelling.

Though Lasseter and the other creative heads are struggling to trust their artists it’s clear they still want their artists to trust them. The two main leaders of Pixar, John Lasseter and Ed Catmull, have continued to claim the most important thing about their studio is the artists. However, one of the greatest lessons I have learned from Pixar is words are cheap. In his most recent book, Creative Inc., Ed Catmull talked about the illusion of value that comes with curtain sayings. When Pixar began to create numerous successes one of their greatest sayings was, “Story is king”. However, Catmull found Pixar was not the only one saying story was the most important thing. Everyone was saying it. Catmull realized words were cheap when it came to talking about what creates success. What would separate Pixar was the walking out of the things they said.

A few weeks ago a story by the site PandoDaily came out detailing Ed Catmull’s involvement in the illegal activity of trying to fix employees’ wages. People whose net worth are in the hundreds of millions, such as Ed Catmull, John Lasseter, and Steve Jobs, were working to make deals with other studios in order to keep their employees’ wages at a minimum while assuring artists would not jump ship in pursuit of better deals. In a more recent development PandoDaily showed how Ed Catmull was actually a ring leader for this illegal wage-fixing activity. This evidence shown in the article spits in the face of Catmull’s claims to be a studio for the artists. Instead of paying his artists what they were worth he adamantly tried to get as many studios in the region to agree to not pursue each others employees. And when Sony Animation refused to follow the guidelines Catmull was enraged. As soon as Sony began going through a hard time and was selling part of their special effects division Catmull advocated for “aggressively going after Sony people”.

The studio has officially fallen from the great pedestal on which it once comfortably sat. The artist seems to only be as useful as his ideas. The quote that once inspired me, “I want someone who has a burning desire to tell a story they want to tell”, now feels more sinister then encouraging. In the last two weeks there has been no response from Pixar to the PondoDaily articles. All the fan sites who claim to be news sources for the Pixar Studio, such as Pixar Times, Upcoming Pixar, and Pixar Post, have neglected to even mention the controversy; most likely out of fear of repercussions from the company. The truth is this story probably will just go away. The majority of the world will never know about Pixar management’s involvement in these illegal wage-fixing activities.

I am writing this post however to tell Pixar I know. And I am ashamed of you. You were my teachers. You gave me a passion to tell stories and created the foundations of my views on filmmaking. My dream was to tell my stories at Pixar. I didn’t want to tell these stories for the sake of fame, acclaim, or money. What drove me and what drives me still is the same thing that drove Ed Catmull to want to make the first full length computer animated feature 20 years before anyone else thought it was possible. It’s the same thing that drove Lasseter to stay at work and sleep under his desk in order to finish animation for the first full length animated short The Adventures of Andre and Wally B. It’s the same thing that drove the artists working at the studio to create an unbelievable streak of eleven box office and critically acclaimed films in a row. What drives me is this burning desire to tell the stories I want to tell. And I will tell them with or without Pixar. Everything depends on if the studio can regain the thing that drives creative collaboration the most, our trust.

 

 

The Piano – Scene Study – The Beach

Posted in Film and Filmaker Studies, Screenshot Series by Jacob on July 6, 2014

Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993) is a dark and complex tale which had a hard time connecting with a broad audience. I however found the film to be full of interesting dynamics. The film was also beautifully shot. I especially appreciate director/writer Jane Campion’s unwillingness to simplify the narrative in order to be more politically correct. In essence we are given a love story without a prince charming. There are two men who fight for the main character Ada’s affection and both characters are full of flaws and bring to the for front the kind of sexism woman have struggled with since the beginning of humanity.

The Piano was chock full of wonderful scenes where the visuals were constantly used communicate narrative and emotional points. I wanted to concentrate on one of the scenes I believe best expresses just how much meaning Campion was able to imbue into each one of her shots.

This scene takes place during the transition from the first act of the movie to the second. The main character Ada and her daughter are able to convince George Baines to go back to the beach so she can play her piano. George is falling in love with Ada despite her already being married. It’s here where we truly get a feel of George’s affection and begin to understand just how much the piano means to the story.

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We first have this master shot with music playing in the background. The shot starts out with Ada and her daughter Flora walking from screen right to the piano. The emphasis is put on Ada’s need to play the piano. However, a second or two later George walks into frame connecting him to Ada and her piano. I think it would be easy to compare George to the rock on the horizon line; an object that is quite distant from the mind of Ada at the moment.

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The second shot is a pan starting first on the piano and then quickly revealing Ada playing the music we have been hearing in the background. This of course directly links the piano to Ada. Also the close up of the hands is a key element; making a point that the hands are what is making such beautiful music. Ada’s hands become a crucial plot point in the third act of the movie and they already being set up here. By having this be the second shot after the master Campion is communicating Ada’s playing is the focus point of the scene.

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This is part of the same pan shot. Campion is  directly connects George to Ada and her piano playing. This is one of the first shots showing George’s obsession of Ada and the piano. It helps to set up the idea of him wanting her to play for him later in the movie.

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The pan cuts to a close of Ada alone. It is key that the shot starts alone because it gives clarity to exactly what George is looking at. However, shortly after we see Ada’s daughter Flora run into frame and hug her mom. This moment represents Ada at her happiest. A long time goes by before we see her close to as fulfilled as we see her here.

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This cut of the daughter dancing expresses the spiritual connection between Ada’s music to her daughter. Jane Campion holds the shot for a good amount of time, trying to show how in-sink the two are at this point in the story.

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We have this cut to medium close up of George who in his own way is going with the music. The key is to show how Ada’s music is effecting George emotionally.

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This is one of the most interesting shots of the scene. Campion breaks the rule of thirds and frames Ada so the head is in the middle of frame. This is a wonderful example of a closed frame; nothing is important but what we are seeing in frame. The shallow focus stops the background from interfering in the shot; Campion wants us to only be seeing how Ada is reacting to the music. The rest of the world and all other sounds have faded away.

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I show two frames from this shot because the action inside the shot is what is really important. We first get this look from George as if he is entranced with the way Ada is being moved by her music. However, by turning his back George is in a sense denying that allure.

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Yet, in the end he turns back, unable to resist his need to see Ada playing. This is a wonderful foreshadow of what is to come between Ada and George.

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Here is another close up of Ada’s hands. Again, driving home the idea Ada’s hands are what are giving us this powerful music. The other important factor is seeing Flora playing with Ada. Right now in the story the two are working together, both are being physically and emotionally connected to each other with this shot.

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This is from the same shot, Campion goes all the way from the close up of both Ada and Flora playing to this wide where we get a feeling of a sort of distance between the two characters. I feel like Campion is making a comment about things to come.

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This last god’s eye point of view shot might be the most telling of the whole scene. It expresses the journey of the story. We first have Ada walking her own path. Flora quickly fallows and George contemplates for several long seconds before he chooses to follow suit. The shot is communicating whose story this is and the rout of some of the main characters who end up going on the journey with her.

Personality Animation

Posted in Animation, Film and Filmaker Studies, Personal Philosophy by Jacob on June 23, 2014

As early as 1933 Walt Disney was looking into creating a full length animated feature. The story he was most interested in translating to the big screen was Snow White. One of Walt’s first encounters of the story came when he was in Kansas and watched the silent version in the Kansas City Convention Hall in 1917. To be honest the basic outline of Walt’s version of Snow White didn’t change much from this version. What separated his movie was not new plot twists or a heightening of the stakes. The Special ingredient Walt was able to sprinkle through all his movies, from 1937’s Snow White to when he died, was personality animation.

The scene above is a brilliant example of how Walt and his artists harnessed the personalities of their characters to drive the entertainment value of their story. The brilliance of this scene is its simplicity. Considered a throw away scene in most movies (put in only to communicate a narrative point) Walt uses this scene to drive home the dwarf’ personalities and their strong relationship to Snow White. The two narrative points we need to note are Snow White is being left alone and the dwarves are worried about the wicked queen. However, these points are communicated twenty seconds in. Walt makes the sequence memorable by having the essence of this moment be about developing character. Basically we see the same gag happen multiple times. The main entertainment comes from the dwarfs’ reactions after Snow White kisses them. To understand the genius of this scene one needs to understand why the gag doesn’t ever get old. The key is the different way each character reacts.

There were three Legends in the medium of animation assigned to animate the dwarfs. First was Fred Moore who did the animation for Doc, Sneezy, and Dopey. Moore specialized in appeal and you can see a huge amount of polish in the way Doc is animated. Doc communicates mainly through his hands and they are all over the place in this scene. Doc goes through several emotions here. He first shows his concern for Snow White. Staying with his character Doc’s train of thought takes a drastic turn when Snow White kisses him. He finds himself smitten by Snow White and needs to change his attitude once again so he can look like the tough leader of the dwarfs. Humor is sprinkled all the way through his performance and is directly drawn from the specific character of Doc. We find it funny Doc can’t complete a sentence because his mind is occupied by so many things. We also know deep down Doc is a softy even though he tries to act like the tough leader.

Moore has the comedy relief in the scene and he is able to highlight Doc, Sneezy, and Dopey’s personalities through their comedic action. Though the character of Dopey arguably has the most humorous reaction to Snow White’s kiss, he jumps through the window in order to come out and get another kiss from Snow White, I believe animators Frank Thomas and Bill Tytla show the most depth in the performances they pull out of their characters. Disney Legend Frank Thomas was considered a rookie in the realm of animation during the production of Snow White. He had just been promoted from being Fred Moore’s assistant to a full fledged animator and was given the task of bringing Bashful to life in this scene. Though it is a small performance it’s filled with what would become one of Frank Thomas’ signature traits, heart felt emotion. Frank was always looking for the extra little things that would elevate his character’s performances. When Bashful takes off his hat for Snow White he gently steps up to her while he says, “Be awful careful”, as if he is approaching his school sweetheart. And look at the way bashful handles his hat; it is as if he is trying to control all those strong emotions that come with someone who has just fallen in love. Then comes the Kiss and Bashful’s emotions seem to overflow and he lets out an endearing giggle.

After Bashful we get our first look at the tour de force performance of the scene, Grumpy. Walt gave one his best animators at the time, Bill Tytla, the job of animating Grumpy. Tytla was known for his ability to crawl inside his characters’s skin and capture the essence of who they were. Grumpy no doubt is the trickiest character to tackle in this scene because he goes through the greatest range of emotions. From the beginning I believe Walt and his team knew Grumpy would be the most difficult dwarf in Snow White to tackle because he could easily come across as just a mean hearted woman hater. However, because of Tytla’s superior supervision we were able to see the soft side of Grumpy show itself just enough to keep us rooting for him. Though Grumpy acts like he doesn’t care much for Snow White spread through out the film are moments where we see Grumpy’s true affection for this original Disney princess. By showing the little clip of Grumpy preparing his bald head for Snow White’s kiss we can tell he actually is looking forward to his short interaction with her before he goes. Grumpy’s walk away after he gets kissed is considered one of the best pieces of animation out there. He goes from a deep stubbornness to complete infatuation for Snow White within the span of a few seconds. Any aspiring animator should go over this scene frame by frame and see how Tytla communicates the inner emotions of Grumpy through the subtle eye movements and slow translation from the strong walking pose he carries at the beginning of the shot to the lovestruck dazed pose he has right before Snow White blows him a kiss. All the principles of animation Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas highlighted in their book The Illusion of Life are shown in this short clip. Tytla pulls off a stream of gags after Snow White blows Grumpy a kiss and all the gags are magnified by our understanding of the character of Grumpy and how undignified he feels after letting his guard down.

This small scene in Snow White is endearing because of the characters who inhabit it. This is one of the first times the Disney artists realized the simple power that could come from one character touching another. Snow White’s kisses communicated an evolution in the way audiences saw animation. No longer were we seeing cartoons inhabit the screen but rather living breathing characters who all acted uniquely and had engaging personalities. We see depth in the character of Grumpy. He is  a man struggling with his built in prejudices and new found affection for someone who isn’t afraid to show him love. Walt never accepted the idea his artists were making a simple cartoon. Gags that would be forgotten as soon as the audience left the theater weren’t interesting to Walt. He wanted the audience to feel for his characters. In order for us to feel for the character we needed to buy into the ultimate illusion. We needed to believe the characters we were seeing on screen had feelings. They pulled the illusion off because the characters were alive to people like Fred Moore, Frank Thomas, and Bill Tytla. When Walt and his artists argued about a character’s action they were fighting for the integrity of  someone they all saw as real and felt they knew personally.

We keep going back to a movie like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs because it holds characters we all have affection for. I find it interesting how many people love classics because of the actors who star in them. I hear comments like, “Any movie with John Wayne in it is a good movie” or, “Jimmy Stewart is always so relatable”. For animation few people know the artists behind characters like Jiminy Cricket from Pinocchio, Gus Gus from Cinderella, or Grumpy from Snow White. This makes these animators’ performances feel even more unique and special. You will never see a character who looks and acts just like Grumpy in any other movie then Snow White. The same can be said about the hundreds of other Disney animated characters who have inhabited the silver screen and visited our living rooms since 1937’s Snow White. Because of this ability for the animators to truly disappear into their characters the performances they create are timeless and always worth going back to.

 

Milt Kahl – Character Designer – Pinocchio

Posted in Animation, Film and Filmaker Studies by Jacob on June 15, 2014

Milt Kahl 9Walt Disney’s 1941 masterpiece Pinocchio was the film where The Nine Old Men, who would be responsible for forty years Disney Animation success, first began to show their true colors. During the 1930’s and the beginning of the 40’s the main animators leading Disney animation were Bill Tytla, Fred Moore, Hamilton Luske and Norman Ferguson who were responsible for literally defining the foundations of hand drawn animation. Disney’s now legendary Nine Old Men were but young stewards trying to gleam as much as they possibly could from these veterans. In the movie Snow White Ward Kimball was the only one of the Nine Old Men put in charge of a sequence and it ended up being dropped from the final film.

During the production of Pinocchio many of Walt’s young artists saw it as an opportunity to shine. Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas did a tremendous amount of animation on the main character Pinocchio, including much of the sequence where Geppetto is controlling the lifeless Pinocchio on strings and the sequence where Pinocchio finds himself in Stromboli’s cage lying to the Blue Fairy. Since Walt understood Kimball’s devastation after having his sequence cut from Snow White he put him in charge of the character who would become the most memorable character in the movie, Jiminy Cricket.  Another man who really shined during during the production of Pinocchio was Milt Kahl. Now considered maybe the greatest animator of all time, Kahl did many brilliant sequences of animation for the movie; including the little scene where Jiminy Cricket finds he is late on his first day of the job and ends up putting his cloths on while he runs past camera (I know this doesn’t sound like anything special but ask any animator about the shot and they will begin to look faint just thinking about it). However, Kahl’s greatest contribution to the movie was the final design of the title character Pinocchio.

The movie Pinocchio was actually in the works before Snow White was released in 1937. However, Walt and his artists were constantly running into a roadblock. The lead character Pinocchio was just not that likable. In fact, if you go back to the original Carlo Collodi short stories the character of Pinocchio is actually a cruel trouble maker who ends up killing the Cricket that Walt would appoint as Pinocchio’s conscious in his version of the story. Walt was also very put off by the original design of Pinocchio. The problem you ask? He looked too much like a puppet. The Disney artists more then anybody else at the time understood the power of having appealing designs for their main characters. The Seven Dwarfs in Snow White were filled with appealing designs. Even the never happy Grumpy was filled with appealing curved features. Walt understood his characters’ appeal was a huge part of the movie’s success and he was so frustrated about the lack of appeal in Pinocchio’s design he halted the project altogether.

The then nobody Milt Kahl thought he would have a go at the design of Pinocchio. He chose to treat Pinocchio not like a puppet but rather an average eight year old boy, someone would see at the local playground. Kahl came to Walt with the design you see here. The only real sign Pinocchio is a puppet comes with his nob of a nose. The round cheeks and playful looking hat gave the character of Pinocchio a relatable innocent look. This broke through the roadblock Walt and his artists were facing and made them see the character in a completely different light. Walt realized instead of having Pinocchio get in so much trouble because he was a cruel puppet who was drawn away from humanity, he would have Pinocchio’s great flaw be a childlike naivety. Pinocchio has just come to life and thus does not know the difference between right and wrong. He is actually very human in his curiosity and is extremely impressionable. Instead of the audience being repelled by his naughtiness we are attracted by his innocence.

As I said in a prior post on Milt Kahl, 80% of the final designs of Disney characters from Pinocchio (1941) to The Rescuers (1977) were done by Kahl. Kahl wasn’t just good at designing characters because of his knowledge of what makes for an appealing design and his fine draftsmanship. He was great because Walt and the rest of Kahl’s mentors installed the philosophy of creating designs where the true essence of the character could be expressed. Disney Animation has always been defined by character based animation. Through out their golden age (1937-42) and rough periods of animation (1966-82) the thing that always shined through were the memorable characters who occupied the great and not-so-great stories in the Disney films. And this is why the movies are almost all worth going back to. Little did we know at the time but with the movie Pinocchio we were watching some of the greatest actors to ever put pencil to paper come to center stage.

 

Tyrus Wong – Background Artist – Bambi

Posted in Film and Filmaker Studies, Screenshot Series by Jacob on June 8, 2014

Bambi #2

Center frame are two of my favorite characters in all of animation. I grew up with Bambi and Thumper. I watched Bambi (1942) dozens and dozens of times as a child and it moved me every time. This frame comes from near the beginning of the movie when Thumper and his sisters are showing the young prince around the Forrest. Not once during my childhood did I question whether or not the Forrest was real. Yet, if you really look at it the shapes making up most of the backgrounds in Bambi are but simple impressions of the real thing. As you can see in this frame the leaves, grass, and trees are void of much texture and lose almost all their detail at the edges of the frame. I personally consider Bambi to have some of the greatest backgrounds in all of animation because none of the background paintings detract from the characters and action but are able to completely transport you into the movie’s world.

Walt Disney spent a long time trying to figure out the look of the backgrounds in Bambi. With Snow White (1937) And Pinocchio (1940) Walt was much more interested in creating a look you would see in book illustration of the Brother Grimm tales. The movies were influenced by European painters from the 1800s. However, with Bambi Walt was shooting for a realism not seen before in animation. He wanted the animals in the movie to move like real animals you would see in the Forrest and so he had all kinds of Forrest animals brought into the studio to be studied by his artists in order to achieve this goal. Just look at the difference between 1937’s Snow White animals and the ones you see in Bambi, made in 1942. There is a strong attention to the anatomy of the animals in Bambi and there are only a few features exaggerated in order to have them relate more to the audience.

The animator Tyrus Wong said he never met Walt but it is clear Walt resonated with his painting style. Wong was an inbetweener animator responsible for doing the in-between drawings of finished animation in order to create the number of frames needed to have a scene move in a flawless way when played at regular speed. This was tireless and unrewarding work. Thankfully the research artist Maurice Day discovered Wong’s impressionistic paintings he had been doing on the side and brought his illustrations to Walt’s attention. Walt loved them. Not only did his impressionistic style not feel too busy, it seemed to transport Walt and the rest of the artist into the Forrest of Bambi. Wong captured the simplistic shapes within the environment of the Forrest. He also understood how light reflected off and filtered through it’s leaves and rocks. The hand drawn characters who move around in the environment had just enough detail to stick out from the backgrounds while also feeling at home in the frame.

If you look at this background painting without Bambi and the young rabbits inhabiting it, it would feel empty. The environment by itself is easy to overlook. It is made to be inhabited. I believe this should be a key philosophy for all animation backgrounds. Too often we see environments detract from the story taking place. Detail can easily become animation’s greatest enemy. The job of an animated film is not to reproduce reality but rather create just enough in order to make it feel emotionally genuine.

Tyrus Wong is still alive at age 103 and has been recognized by Walt’s daughter Diane Disney Miller and honored with a display of his work at The Walt Disney Family Museum in San Fransisco California in 2013. It is a true shame Tyrus Wong left Disney because of the 1941 strike.

Akira Kurosawa – Director – Kagemusha

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on June 1, 2014

Kurosawa #1

This might be the most beautiful shot I have ever seen of Akira Kurosawa’s. And believe me there have been plenty of beautiful shots in this old legend’s career. Kagemusha (1980), which means “shadow warrior”, is chock full of great shots. The movie is Kurosawa’s third venture into filming with color and I believe his best. It is pretty amazing this is only his third film made in color since it was made in 1980 and Kurosawa had been making movies since the 1940’s. Those who don’t know Akira Kurosawa is a director from Japan and considered one of the greatest filmmakers to grace this earth. His movie Seven Samuri (1954) is hailed by many to be the greatest movie ever made.

With the movie Rashomon (1950) Kurosawa was able to put the cinema of Japan on the map after the movie won Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1951. The movie was one of the first time a filmmaker ever shot with the lens looking directly at the sun. Before this many thought film would burn up if you shot directly at the sun. However, after Rashoman the sun became a big theme in Akira Kurosawa’s work.

Getting Kagemusha made was extremely difficult. Kurosawa painted hundreds and hundreds of storyboards. He knew almost every shot of the movie before he even started shooting. He was just waiting to get backing for the project. Sadly at this time in his career the film industry in Japan was at a all time low and many considered Kurosawa to be passed his prime as a filmmaker. Thankfully however two successful young filmmakers from America, George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola, stepped in and helped finance the picture. This might have suggested to Akira Kurosawa there was some hope for the next generation. Though his industry might have given up on him, there was dedicated group of young filmmakers from the 60’s and 70’s who considered Kurosawa a legend in the realm of filmmaking.

In some ways I feel this shot is melancholy in nature. The troops in shadow look tired and defeated. Where during 1950’s Rushomon Kurosawa shot directly up into the sun that was in the middle of the sky, the sun now is setting representing and end of a way of life. Yet, the picture’s beauty is overpowering and the image of troops marching onto battle is quite inspiring. The deep oranges you see in the picture don’t feel like they represent doom as much as it represents a sort of beautiful momory Kurosawa wants us to keep a hold of.

Akira Kurosawa was a huge admirer of John Ford and Ford was known as the king of the master-shot. Ford told a very young Steven Spielberg that if he could learn why a shot is better when the horizon line is on the top of the screen or at the bottom of the screen instead of in the middle, you might just become a good filmmaker. As you can see Kurosawa places the horizon line at the top of the screen. There is no vast open space in this master shot. The world once full of possibilities is now coming to a close. This is an end of an age. In the movie it represents the ending of the Samurai. However, for Kurosawa I believe it means the moving on of an age in filmmaking. His light is about to go out, there are only a few more movies left in him.

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