A Dreamer Walking

Milt Kahl – Animator – The AristoCats

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on March 30, 2014

Milt Kahl 7I can’t help but wonder how such a wonderfully jolly drawing could have come such a bitter man. “Bitter” might not be the best way to describe Milt Kahl, but it comes pretty close. He is considered the Michelangelo of animation. Great animators such as Ollie Johnston, Frank Thomas, and John Lounsbery went to him for advice on their animation through out their careers. Milt might be more responsible then anyone else for the classical Disney character designs; creating the final design for about eighty percent of the animated characters from Pinocchio (1940) to The Rescuers (1977).

The problem is with such talent comes a tremendous amount of ego. Kahl might be the most egotistical man I have ever studied. He considered himself the best and he said as much. He was never reluctant to give a fellow artist crap if he didn’t think they were carrying their weight. Kahl once said, “I think that the trouble with a group effort is if you work hard enough you find yourself all alone.” He found himself alone quite a lot. He claimed Walt needed him to animate a good two minutes of each one of the Disney characters in order to be given the go ahead on the films he worked on.

When working on a scene Kahl would explore everything. The old Disney veteran Floyd Norman told a story about walking by his office during the production of Sword in the Stone (1963). Kahl kept his office door open and Norman would walk by and see Milt just sitting there not drawing. He would go by a few more times in the next few hours and he would just be sitting there. Norman went on to say Milt would eventually pick up his pencil and start drawing, however the scene was already animated in Milt’s head by then. Kahl also worked out tones of different ways of going about a scene through thumb nails. He would not start actually animating until he figured out the perfect poses and the best way to tell the story. The other thing he prided himself on was not tracing over live action film. The Disney artists filmed live action for many of their scenes starting with the very first full length feature Snow White (1937). Kahl would maybe look at the reference material but never take it with him while he animated. He studied the anatomy of the human figure and animals to their essence. When it came to animating animals Disney artists needed to put personality into the characters. A rabbit like Thumper from Bambi (1942) couldn’t just act like a rabbit you would see in the woods, the rabbit needed to carry human emotions. Kahl animated Thumper the rabbit like a child you would see in your local grocery store.

Milt Kahl could simply do things nobody else could do. His hard edged personality didn’t stop him from creating some of the most loveable characters in Disney animation. The lawyer in Aristocats is one of those memorable characters. His dance with Madame Adelaide is one of the best scenes in the movie. He has the fragile look of a eighty year old yet the vigorous spirit of a man in his prime. Look at the superior draftsmanship. Every line seems to be perfectly placed. There is hardly any clean up needed. Above is a copy of a drawing Kahl did. His assistance made copies before they cleaned up the drawings because Kahl was extremely critical on how his artists “interfered” with his animation. If you erase the wrong line you could lose the essence of the drawing or the pose could become much weaker.

Later on in his career Kahl said, “I got accused over the years of being a fine draftsman. Actually I don’t really draw that well. It’s just I don’t stop trying as quickly. I keep at it. I happen to have high standards and try to meet them. I have to struggle like hell to make a drawing look good.” It is so easy to look at Milt Kahl’s work and not think about the blood, sweat, and tears that went into it. His poses just seem to always be in the right place and there really are few wasted lines. Yet, I can’t help but think Milt Kahl became the best at his art-form because he spent more time doing the research, working on the scene, and thinking about the perfect movement then anyone else. He really is a wonderful artists and his work will last much longer then any ego.

EXTRA:

Here is the animation to the little dance move the lawyer makes. Though it is just a few seconds of animation it takes several days and superb skill to bring this kind of stuff to life. The twist in perspective when the lawyer does his turn is just AMAZING. It is something few artists were capable or cared to do. However, Disney artists like Milt wanted to create depth in their animation so they went the extra mile to animate in tougher perspectives so their animation could pop. Add onto that Kahl’s ability to keep a form grasp on the Lawyer’s personality – even the small moment where it looks like he might not keep his balance – and you have something that just can’t be improved upon. This is an example of someone who has complete control over his art-form.

Adam Kimmel – Cinematographer – Never Let Me Go

Posted in Film and Filmaker Studies, Scene Analysis, Screenshot Series by Jacob on March 24, 2014

Never Let Me Go 1:4

Here are a series of shots from a scene in the movie Never Let Me Go (2010) I wanted to critique. Kathy, our protagonist, just over-heard her closest friend, Ruth, and the boy she loves, Tommy, having sex and and chose to listen to a piece of music to take her mind off of what what is going on. The thing is she is listening to music Tommy gave her so we know her mind is still on Tommy. Her body language says a lot as well. She is almost hugging the tape recorder as if she wishes the take she is playing was Tommy himself. Notice how cinematographer Adam Kimmel and director Mark Romanek frame Kathy. They are using the rule of thirds, placing her eye line just at the top left third of the frame. This is known as an effective harmonizing way to frame a character. Usually the face is the center focus of a picture. If Kathy’s head was too high or there was a lot of empty space at the top of the frame the audience would be thrown off because the image wouldn’t feel balanced. Her face is lit with a nice warm light from the right. Though it is a dark scene we get the sense of peace and calmness Kathy must feel listening to Tommy’s song. Kathy opens her eyes and we cut to this next image.

Never Let Me Go 2:4

Talk about a haunting image. This is Kathy’s friend Ruth standing in the doorway. Right away the eyes is thrown off because the director and cinematographer go against the rule of thirds and place Ruth’s head at the very top and too far toward the middle of frame. Yet the eyes do instantly go to Ruth. The doorway is a great framing device and the top of the dresser and the wall frames direct our eyes to her position. The filmmakers hide Ruth’s face which throws us off even more because we can’t get a good read on her emotions. The wallpaper to the right and shambled looking robe Ruth is wearing only adds to the dark mood. From this image we can tell Ruth isn’t here to befriend Kathy. She is like a dark spirit from nightmare. Lets fast forward a few shots.

Never Let Me Go 3:4

Ruth has begun to talk to Kathy about how she will never be with Tommy. She is hurting Kathy at her core and the imagery reflects as much. Again the filmmakers put Kathy’s face in a much more balanced place then Ruth’s. Ruth’s face is completely in shadow and her head partly cut off at the top of the frame. The filmmakers are not afraid to work with darkness. The focus point of the image is Kathy’s eye. The light hits it just right. The eyes are the mirrors of the soul and we sense the effect Ruth’s cruel words have on Kathy emotionally. The only real color shown in the frame comes from the green wallpaper. The green compliments the toxic words spouting from Ruth’s mouth.

Never Let Me Go 4:4

The filmmakers cut to this shot while Ruth is still in frame. They get closer and closer as Ruth’s words become more and more painful. But we linger on Kathy after Ruth leaves. The darkness surrounds Kathy more then ever now. We can see the effect Ruth has had on her. Again Kathy’s eyes are able to say so much. She has been completely destroyed with Ruth’s monologue.

These represent a very effective set of imagery and the music and dialogue only enhance the scene. It is a good study on the effectiveness of limiting the lighting in the scene. As good as the production might have been we don’t need to see all of it. Our eyes are allowed to focus on the important parts because the other areas are shaded. This is the darkest scene dramatically in the movie. Kimmel and Romanek want to express the darkness visually and in every shot they do so.

(Visiuals courtesy of EVEN E RICHARDS)

Anthony Dod Mantle – Cinematographer – Slumdog Millionaire

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on March 17, 2014

Slumdog Millionair Title shot

Slumdog Millionaire is completely full of fantastic imagery. However, I thought I would concentrate on this one because it is quite literally the only time Danny Boyle chooses to dwell on a moment and freeze the frame.

There are a few things about the Cinematographer, Anthony Dod Mantle, you might find interesting. First off Mantle was one of the first to start experimenting with digital filmmaking in Hollywood. He took on digital filmmaking in the 1990’s, far before it was a popular choice. He even said he resided himself to never get nominated or win an award for cinematography because the media industry was so against digital filmmaking at the time. Some big Hollywood names still refuse to got to digital (Steven Spielberg, Christopher Nolan, and Joe Wright to name a few).

Lucky for Mantle there were two filmmakers who jumped the boat quickly in terms of digital filmmaking; one was Lars von Trier and the other Danny Boyle. After his huge flop, The Beach (2001), Boyle was looking for something to reinvigorate him in terms of filmmaking. He began to look into digital film. He sought out Mantle and they have since become one of the greatest collaborators in the film industry. The point and shoot quality that comes with digital filmmaking was perfect for Boyle’s loose ‘shoot on the go’ style of storytelling. Slumdog Millionaire (2008) was the perfect kind of subject matter for both Boyle and Mantle to exhibit their skills they had been developing since they first shot together on the movie 28 Days Later (2002).

With this shot particularly we see how the quality of digital film has advanced since the 1990’s. There is no grain in the picture and the colors are extremely vibrant. The title is introducing us to the world of the movie. Even though the boy you see is not the main character Jamal, he is representing him symbolically. Jamal is in fact the “Slumdog Millionaire”. However not everything in the frame is supposed to represent Jamal. The yellow you see actually represents Latika, the girl Jamal falls in love with. I think the yellow sun represents her spirit and the yellow font suggests she will end up falling in love with the “Slumdog”. If you don’t believe me in terms of the color, just look at the color of Latika’s dress when Jamal has his flash backs of her at the train station. Or look at the scarf she is wearing at the very end of the movie. Already the two characters are being connected symbolically. The last thing I want to highlight is the action. Even though this is actually a still image in the movie, it does imply action by having the boy be in the process of throwing the ball. This is an action film in the purest sense of the word. Almost all the narrative and characters emotions are communicated through their actions rather then duologue. From here on Boyle will be going a hundred miles an hour and rely on the audience to keep up. It is one wonderful ride.

Oh ya, I almost forgot. One of the greatest trivia facts about Slumdog Millionaire is it was the first time a digital film won best Cinematography at the Academy Awards. Congrats Anthony Dod Mantle!

An Animation Lesson from a Non-Animator

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on March 10, 2014

I must say I do not like using long titles. But this title I believe is very much needed to let you know what this post is about. The reality is I am not an animator. I really don’t plan on becoming one. Even though I am one of animations greatest fans I just don’t think I have the talent to bring drawings or models in a computer to life. Animating is truly one of the greatest magic tricks out there. To fool someone into thinking several drawings flashed in-front of you can create the illusion of movement, and at times life, leaves me speechless. I truly have no words for the wonder it creates in me. As the great animator Richard Williams once said, “I picked the most expensive medium that takes the longest time that you [could pick]. And the reward is you can play God. You can do anything you like with it. You have total control of all the elements.”. This is what makes animation so intoxicating. The medium’s only limits are of ones imagination.

The lesson I wanted to give is really only a retelling of a lesson I heard from an artist who actually did animation. I was listening to The iAnimate Podcast – A podcast that interviews animation artists who work in the film industry – and they were interviewing the Dreamworks animator Tal Shwarzman (check out his blog here). He brought up a frustration he had with the animation he is seeing from many of the young animators today. He claimed young animators are becoming really good at moving stuff around but are not putting any personality or uniqueness into their work. He said, “Everything kind of looks the same”, which I would say is the ultimate slight an animator could give to his peers. The problem is I agree with Shwarzman. I have not seen anywhere close to as many animation show reels as Shwarzman but in the animation on TV and in many feature films I see less individuality. With the development of technology animation is able to do more then ever before, yet rarely do you see a scene that rivals the works of great animators of the past, like Bill Tyltla or Milt Kahl.

What is the special ingredient so many animators seem to be missing today? Honestly there is no one answer. But the interviewers from iAnimate brought up the story of Ollie Johnston telling his pupil Glen Keane a piece of Rapunzel animation he showed him looked well processed but didn’t really entertain him. Now you should know Ollie Johnston was an animator from the 1930’s and worked characters such as Pinocchio, Thumper, and Baloo. Glen Keane had been the lead animator for characters such as Ariel and The Beast. However, the interviewers sort of left the story there. I don’t know if they knew about what Ollie Johnston really told Glen Kean. However, I know what he said and believe it is one of the greatest pieces of  advice an animator could be given.

During the production of Tangled Ollie Johnston was in his nineties. He was not in good health and his best friend, Frank Thomas, who had worked with him through out his long forty plus year career at Disney had already passed away. Glen Keane was mentored by Ollie Johnston when he first joined the studio in the late 1970’s. Now in the mid 2000’s he had been developing the movie Rapunzel (which would eventually be changed to Tangled). At this time Ollie was in very frail condition. He could no longer walk and had lost his ability to draw. His old apprentice needed to take him in a wheelchair back to the animation studios. Keane showed some of the things they had been developing to his old mentor. He talked about how excited he was with the benefits of working with computer generated animation. He pointed out the way the computer calculated Rapunzel’s freckles so they would stay on her face no matter where she was moved. He showed Ollie how well the animation worked in three dimensions and showed him how the computer could capture the smallest details in movement and texture. He showed Ollie Johnston several well executed pieces of animation and was excited about seeing his old mentor’s reaction. You can only imagine Keane’s surprise when he looked over and Ollie didn’t seem to be entertained by what he was shown. Maybe it was because Ollie was old and senile. Maybe it was because Ollie wasn’t up with the times. Eventually Keane asked what was wrong. The old animator whispered, “What is she thinking?”

Of course with all the excitement for this new form of animation Glen Keane forgot one of his teacher’s greatest lessons. He was so entranced by what was possible on the outside he forgot to care about what was happening on the inside. The illusion of life is only created in a piece of animation if you believe the character can think and feel. The beauty of the movement or the clarity of the world means nothing if the characters don’t have any inner life. Go back and watch the animation of Thumper repeating the lessons he was given from his farther, Pinocchio trying to explain how he got into Stromboli’s cage to the Blue Fairy, or when Baloo realizes he needs to take Mowgli back to the man village. The movements in those scenes are usually subtle yet speak volumes about the characters. When listening to animators like Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston talk about the characters they animated in the past they don’t describe them as drawings. They describe them as children who took on a life of their own when the animator finished animating them.  As important as squash and stretch, timing, staging, anticipation, overlap action, and the other principles of animation are, what is most important in creating the ultimate illusion of life is the belief your character is alive.

Ken Anderson – Art Director – 101 Dalmatians

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on March 6, 2014

Ken Anderson 101 DalmationsThis drawing comes from the artist Ken Anderson, one of Walt’s most loyal artists. He worked for Walt from the 1934 short Goddess of the Spring all the way to the day Walt died just before the release of The Jungle Book (1967). It really is amazing seeing Ken talk about Walt, the devotion he had to that man was just astonishing. He said, “I wanted to be close to Walt, because Walt was where things started”. Walt drove creativity and thus many people were driven to work along side him and get involved with his passions, even if this meant coming in on weekends or working to the late hours of the night.

Anderson came to Disney as a student of architecture. Walt called him a man of all trades. Indeed, through out his career Anderson worked as a writer, architect, animator, character designer, and art director for Disney. Anderson was one of the first people to help Walt plan out Disneyland and work on some of the attractions, far before anyone thought Disneyland could be made. Anderson said he did not just want to work in animation. His contributions are seen everywhere in Disney’s history – live action film, animation, Disneyland, and Walt Disney World – however, the place he was given the most responsibility in was 1961’s 101 Dalmations.

Anderson was both the art director and production designer for 101 Dalmations. The movie represented the first time Disney Animation used what was called a Xerox process. This allowed the artists to bypass inking and painting the animation cells for the final picture. What this meant is you would see the actual line drawings projected on the screen rather then drawings painted over. The main reason for this change was to bring down the budget. And though there were a lot of people who lost their jobs because of it Ken Anderson tried very hard to embrace the new style. The new style of animation actually went well with Ken’s style of drawings. There is a sketch quality to almost all of Ken’s art. In the drawing above he embraces the business of the line and throws us into an extremely lush detailed world.

Walt did not like Anderson’s design of 101 Dalmatians however. The fact Walt didn’t like it greatly distressed Anderson. In fact soon after Anderson suffered a severe stroke. When listening to Anderson talk about Walt’s disapproval you don’t get a sense he thought Walt just didn’t understand, you get the sense Anderson felt like he failed Walt. I don’t know if I should be in aw of or concerned with someone who has such power over a follower. Yet, this is the very power Walt held over many of his artists through out his career. Anderson did talk about seeing Walt during the making of The Jungle Book. He along with many other artists remember that last day Walt came to visit the studio. They remember it because Walt wasn’t interested in talking about any projects with the boys. All he seemed to do was look around a little bit and see how the artists were doing. Anderson said when he met Walt that day, two weeks before he passed away, Walt brought up 101 Dalmatians. He said, “You know that thing you did on Dalmatians”. And that’s all he said, but Anderson felt like Walt forgave him right then and there and Walt thought maybe Dalmatians wasn’t that bad of a movie.

Well of course 101 Dalmatians wasn’t a bad movie. Sometimes even Walt Disney had a hard time understanding or accepting good art. Look at the atmosphere Anderson is able to create with the design of the apartment. He happens to be a talented character designer as well so Pongo and Roger are well characterized; Pongo with his restless pose climbing the chair and Roger with the posture of a man deep in thought. Instead of the busyness detracting us I believe it allows the eye to drift toward the center part of the picture and concentrate on the characters. However, this is not an art piece meant for the public to see. Anderson probably never thought any of his art was going to be acknowledged thirty plus years after he died. What he is doing here is exploring. He wants to see how much detail will add to the scene and how much is too much. This I believe is a little too much. But it sure is rich with interesting stuff; like the music notes tied to the center light, the stacked dishes on top of stacked books, or the clock being caricatured like a human head because of the hat. This drawing really just shows a portion of Ken Anderson’s talent and hopefully I will be able to post more of his stuff in the future.

Emmanuel Lubezki – Cinematographer – Gravity

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on March 2, 2014

Gravity #1

Whether you were put off by the less then par writing or didn’t really like the oversimplified plot, it is undeniable Gravity was one of the best looking movies to come out last year. Every frame is beautiful and even 3D haters needed to say the movie worked well in the questionable format. Gravity represents the continueation of the collabortation between Emmanuel Lubezki and Alfonso Cuarón who have been working together since collage. Indeed, Gravity represents the third time Lubezki has been nominated for best cinematography for a Cuarón picture (the other two being A Little Princess (1995) and Children of Men (2006)).

After the critical and personal failure of their movie Great Expectations (1998) Cuarón and Lubezki chose to go with a new more gritty style of filmmaking for their next film, Y Tu Mamá También, and have stayed with that style ever since. The signature piece of this new style is the long shot. For this movie and Children of Men Lubezki and Cuarón have gone minutes at a time without any clear cuts. Cuarón has said he does this because he wants to have the audience inhabit the world and get lost in it. The cut has the tendency to release tension and distance the audience from the action of the movie. So with Gravity Cuarón chose to start the movie out with a twelve minute opening shot. In this shot we are sucked into Cuarón’s world and even at one time given the main character Ryan Stone’s point of view. These long shots were never meant to be showy. Lubezki said he didn’t want to do them in order for people to be impressed. In fact, if they were doing their job right nobody would know how long the shots were they would just be completely consumed in the story.

The shot you see above represents the key theme of Gravity, rebirth. In the movie Ryan is forced to learn how to let go of her past so she can embrace her future. This shot is made during the transition into the second part of the second act of the story and represents exactly where Ryan is at. She is in the process of being reborn. She has been forced to literally let go of her securities and take on the rest of her journey by herself. There is a lot of journey still to go and a lot of growth she needs to go through. I love every aspect of this shot. Lubezki and Cuarón center Ryan in the middle of the frame. She takes on the fetal position and you even have the tubes representing the umbilical cord. The ship represents the womb and you can see the outside world eliminating the heart of the frame and directing the eye to it’s center. The round door frames Ryan’s character and creates a sense of harmony. This shot allows for a the audience to have a short rest before we are thrown into the next part of the story.

Gravity is a truly explosive film made to be experienced in the theater. If you watch it on DVD or blu-ray I suggest you find as good of a viewing experience as possible. I also believe after six nominations this will be the movie that gives Lubezki his first Oscar for best cinematography.