A Dreamer Walking

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.