A Dreamer Walking

Ollie Johnston – Animator – Penny

Posted in Animation, Film and Filmaker Studies by Jacob on December 17, 2014

Johnston #1

Ollie Johnston happens to be my favorite animator of all time. His drawings seem to flow like water and they all come from the heart. He started working for Walt Disney in the mid 1930’s and quickly became one of Walt’s greatest animators. Johnston saved one of his greatest performances for his last.  The last character Johnston was lead animator on from start to finish was Penny from the The Rescuers (1977).  What is truly amazing is how Johnston was able to climb into the skin of  a character of the opposite sex who was about sixty years his junior.

The true beauty of animation is you can animate anything. I have consistently maintained the animators at Disney were some of the greatest actors to ever live. Even Marlon Brando had his limits yet the actors at Disney could portray anything from little wooden puppets to fire breathing dragons with just the use of a few pieces of paper and a pencil. In reality human characters were some of the hardest characters to animate. The reason being everyone knows how humans move and act, thus one wrong line with the pencil might ruin a performance and stop making the character believable to the audience.

These drawings are an example of Ollie Johnston exploring the character of Penny and her cat Rufus. Johnston wasn’t the best draftsman at the studio, but each drawing expresses an emotion which shows the essence of who Penny is. In most of the poses Johnston seems to be intentionally turning Penny away from the audience. He expresses an extremely shy young girl which makes the audience want to love her all the more. When Walt was alive he communicated to all his artists the most important thing in animating a character were the eyes. By this time in his career Johnston has become a master at expressing emotion through his character’s eyes. With the drawings where we see her eyes they become the center piece of the pose, our eyes are drawn toward her’s and it’s clear Johnston builds the rest of the pose around them.

One of the coolest things about my studies of the animators at Disney is the discovery of the different styles they brought to their animation. One of the true beauties of hand drawn animation is the ability for the artist to use the pencil in different ways in order to bring to life a unified performance. Ollie Johnston was not the only animator of Penny. Animation is long and tedious medium. In today’s studios there are literally hundreds of animators working on a film and it takes them weeks in order to get just a few seconds of animation finished. In the 1970’s there were far less animators working on a project. However, it still took a whole team of animators to bring to life most of the key characters. As the lead animator Johnston needed to figure out a way to get his crew on the same page with the character Penny. Drawing sheets like this were priceless samples for other animators to study so they could keep in mind who the character was both in terms of design and emotion.

Johnston had a very soft style of animating compared to his peers. He was known to barely “kiss” the page with his pencil. First you didn’t even know what it was he was drawing and then a beautiful creature would start to come to life. You can see the soft lines in the drawings of Penny. The only thick areas are places where Johnston is trying to find the right shape or communicate weight. There is a flow to his drawings; no harsh angles and extremely pleasing curves. Glen Kean, one of Johnston’s pupils and a great animator in his own right, said Ollie treated the pencil like it was a living thing and let it guide his hand in order to find the pose.

The reason I consider Ollie the greatest animators wasn’t because of his draftsmanship or even his mastery of the principle of animation. I consider him the best because he made me feel for his characters. His animation made me completely buy into the illusion of a life. His drawings disappeared and beautiful characters emerged. I saw characters I could laugh with, be frustrated at, and cry for. One of the most potent scenes Ollie did was with Penny. Johnston animated the performance of Penny and Rufus in the clip below. In it you see Ollie’s mastery of the medium. The performance is full of restraint. He holds poses and communicates mountains of emotion through small subtle movements. I consider it one of the best pieces of animation I have ever seen. And the magic of it all is it’s done through a few pieces of paper and a pencil.

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.

 

 

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 1940 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. These were the men 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 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 curved features and a smooth movement highlighted by the great Bill Tytla. 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 above. 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 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 superior knowledge of autonomy, what makes for an appealing design, and 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.

Toy Story 3 – Film Study – Color and Lighting

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on May 25, 2014

Toy Story 3 #1

Many call it the last great Pixar movie. I personally think Toy Story 3 is a fantastic completion of a wonderful trilogy. And, though you could make an argument Toy Story 3 is a little repetitive and less original then the first two movies, I think the film stands out as the most visually bold film of the trilogy. Simply put, Pixar was running on all cylinders when they made this film. From the refined Pixar storytelling skills to the huge advancements in technology Toy Story 3 was able to expand its universe while keeping a firm grasp on what made the first two films so loved by the first generation of Toy Story fans.

Let’s talk about the color pallet used to tell the story of Toy Story 3. Toy Story has had a  distinct pallet from the beginning. The colors are usually extremely saturated and there are few scenes where you see the whole gambit of the color wheel. Instead, each scene usually consists of one to three key colors to establish an atmosphere. The goal isn’t to be subtle with the colors, but rather use color to drive the emotional arc of the movie. With Toy Story 3 the brilliant art director Dice Tsutsumi took the helms of this beloved franchise and gave us a pallet of colors unmatched in animation. He was in charge of creating the color script for the movie, which consists of dozens of impressionistic paintings plotting out the general emotional arc of the movie through the use of color and lighting (check out part of his color script here). Dice Tsutsumi said, “The color script sets the tone of the film: how color and atmosphere and lighting will carry the story and the characters throughout the film”. The color script is started towards the very beginning of pre-production and isn’t finished until lighting for the movie is finalized. I believe Toy Story 3 is the best example I have ever seen of the emotional impact color and lighting has on a film. The actual images you will see here comes from the final film. The director of photography for Toy Story 3 was Kim White and she and her team were responsible for bringing Dice’s paintings to life. Animation is the ultimate collaborative medium. The sad part is though most of the artists go unnoticed. So, though I will mostly reference Dice Tsutsumi and Kim White in this post the results you see are made possible by the whole Toy Story 3 team. I am using eleven images from the film. As Dice said in an interview, “One of the things Ralph (the original Toy Story art director) said was to pick ten or fifteen key moments and see if you can describe the color flow of the movie with just those images”. This is my attempt to describe the color flow of the movie with just a few handfuls of images.

Toy Story 3 #3

Most will recognize this shot from the intro of the film. As you can see there is a complementary color scheme at work here, blue and deep orange/brown. Not only does this really make things stick out, it establishes Woody and his owner Andy’s relationship. Andy has always been represented with blue in the Toy Story movies. Woody is dressed in mostly worm colors and is a cowboy which makes this terrain fit perfectly with his character. He also has blue jeans which connects him visually to Andy. The shot here comes from a high stakes adventure taking place in Andy’s imagination. There is a tremendous amount of open space. The creators want to create a world here where you believe anything is possible (I mean come on, there is a huge Pig Ship taking up a chunk of the screen). We are at the height of Andy and Woody’s relationship reflected vividly through the deep saturated blues and oranges. Through out the film you see Art Director Dice Tsutsumi save deep colors for solid emotional connections.

Toy Story 3 #5

This is defiantly Andy’s room, reflected by the overwhelming amounts of blue in the image. The moment takes place after Andy has grown up and is about to go to college. The colors are less rich then the last frame and Woody doesn’t seem to belong as much. Woody and the rest of the toys’ marginalization is seen in specific and broad strokes. The Buzz Lightyear poster is mostly covered up in the corner. Woody is the only toy in sight. And, the stars representing Andy’s childhood are almost completely covered by posters and other “grown up stuff”. One other thing I want to point out in this image is the outside colors. The bright green colors you see from the outside actually look much more inviting then anything we see inside. This green actually represents someone we will meet later on in the film.

Toy Story 3 #9

Wow look at the difference here. This looks like a place where toys belong. Here is the first of several images I will post of the Nursery, where most of the movie takes place. The next few images will express just how much control the Pixar artist have over the power of lighting and creating atmosphere for a scene. Andy’s toys left Andy’s house and found themselves here in Sunnyside Daycare. This is the first time the toys are introduced to this nursery where in just a few minutes kids will come and play with them. Andy’s toys are excited because this will be the first time in years they are played with. You can’t get much more inviting then this. It’s clear the artists want to create an attractive environment for audience as well as  the toys. Look at the designs of the objects you see in frame. I guarantee you the nice comfy chair and beanbag were strategically placed to help soften the imagery. Round designs are always more inviting then designs with sharp angles. We also see Director of Photography Kim White use soft lights to create an inviting environment. There are no harsh shadows and the nursery almost seems to glow. An analogous color scheme is at work here, ranging from light red to light green. There are no deep colors either, which might be a sign from the creators that though this is an inviting environment it has little depth to it. Unlike with Andy there are no owners in a nursery. As inviting as this might be within minutes the nursery seems to be transformed into a completely different environment.

Toy Story 3 #12

Yes this is the very same place you saw in the last frame. Look, you can see the nice soft chair and beanbag at the top of the frame. However, they don’t look as inviting now for some reason. This moment in the film takes place after the toys have been brutally played with by toddlers who Andy’s toys quickly realize are not old enough to handle them properly. The environment goes from a paradise to a foreign wasteland. The feeling of uneasiness is only enhanced by the extreme angle director Lee Unkrich’s uses. He places the camera so it looks directly down at the setting. We are not used to seeing images from this kind of position and it helps to established the discomfort of the situation. The toys are meant to look pathetic from way up here; as if the environment has completely overpowered them. Also, check out the lighting. There are no more soft lights in this image. Harsh shadows stream across the frame making for a much more menacing composition. And finally, we get to the color. The shades of red do more then anything in terms of changing the environment to a uninviting place. Red has always been used to represent danger and destruction and we are only getting a taste of it compared to what we see at the climax of the film.

Toy Story 3 #15

The nursery has gone from an unfriendly environment to an out-and-out prison. This shot is from the same environment as the last two yet looks like a completely different location. This is an example of the power animation has to push lighting to extremes in order to enhance the emotional impact of a scene. The character Andy’s toys once thought was good, Lotso, has shown his true colors and locked Andy’s toys up. Look at the light source here. The shadows are extremely defined and most of the color is actually sucked out of the picture. There are no round objects in sight and the picture is framed from a straight on angle which helps create a formal mood. It’s as if all the humanity has been sucked out of the Toy Story world and all we have left is a evil pink teddy bear who is determined to stay on top. So where is our hero? Where is WOODY?!

Toy Story 3 #11

There he is! Woody was picked up by a girl from the nursery named Bonnie. Just like the original nursery image, this feels like a inviting environment. Again Kim White uses soft lights to take away the shadows. Here we see a pretty broad analogous color scheme at work with a good amount of green. Wait, didn’t I talk about the color green before? That’s right! This is the character I was talking about earlier. Through out the movie Bonnie is represented by the color green and her room reflects this. However, Woody can’t stay in a wonderful place like this when his friends are stuck in a daycare prison. He returns to the daycare and helps break Andy’s toys out of Sunnyside. The problem is he doesn’t find himself in any better of a place.

Toy Story 3 #20

Well shoot! This takes place toward the climax of the film and art director Dice Tsutsumi begins to use monochromatic color schemes. Doing this he is able to overwhelm the image with a singular mood. Woody and the rest of Andy’s toys find themselves at the dump and director Lee Unkrich pushes the imagery to the max in this sequence. The lights shoot directly into the face of the audience. Unlike in Sunnyside we no longer have the claustrophobic feel of a prison, rather we get a wide angle shot of trash as far as the eye can see. It’s a different kind of hell we find ourselves in. The yellow green gives the environment a sickly look and we are deeply worried for Woody and the rest of the toy’s well-being.

Toy Story 3 #22

Well, things haven’t seemed to get any better. Woody and the rest of the gang are looking into an inferno and there seems to be no way of escape. The screen is completely devoured by red. In fact, the red light source is so strong it has seemingly changed the toys colors to shads of red. This shot represents the most dyer situation in the movie. Director Unkrich doesn’t want anything to get in the way of our connection with the toys here. He uses a shallow focus and makes sure there are no distractions in the background. There is only one light source in this shot and it is completely overpowering. The creators want us to think this might be it for the toys. The sequence is sort of a rebirth for Woody and the rest of the toys. In this moment all of them embrace each other and are ready for the next chapter in their lives.

Toy Story 3 #24

Lets just thank the gods the next step wasn’t incineration. Woody and the rest of Andy’s toys survive and are taken by Andy to Bonnie’s house. Here we see Andy giving Bonnie his toys. Andy is in his classic blue clothing and the rest of the frame is consumed by Bonnie’s green. We can see the storytellers are embracing Bonnie here by using deep green colors. We see just as vivid of greens as we did blue at the beginning of the movie. The visuals are supporting the idea of the passing of the torch. Andy’s story is done but we have new adventures to look forward to with Bonnie. This is beautiful imagery. It almost feels as if we have been transported into a wonderful memory. For the last time Andy plays with Bonnie and his toys before he leaves. His blue fits wonderfully with Bonnie’s green.

Toy Story 3 #26

The movie ends with this shot. I think it is a wonderful salute to Andy’s story. A blue sky filled with clouds is what the very first Toy Story movie opens with and it’s only fitting we end with it as well.

Pete Docter – Director – Up

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on May 20, 2014

Up #3

Few companies can tell their stories better visually then Pixar. Specifically director Pete Docter puts a huge amount of time towards figuring out how to tell his stories in visually rich ways. Animation is a unique medium in terms of visuals because it is less bound by reality. In fact, it’s when trying to make an animated movie look like live action film when filmmakers get into a lot of trouble (just look up the term the uncanny valley or read about director Robert Zemeckis’ misfires in motion capture). Pete Docter maybe more then any other director I know has embraced the power of animation. Each one of the characters in his movies are designed not based on realism but emotion. He wants the audience to understand who his characters are just by looking at them. Docter then creates a world that supports the inner conflicts of his characters. He uses design, music, and color schemes to say something about the story he is telling.

Lets take a look at this shot from Pete Docter’s Up. This is the beginning of the first act of the film. We had a very touching prelude where we watch Carl and his wife Ellie grow old together. This moment is about life after Ellie, yet we can still very much feel her presence. Docter and the other Pixar artists used simple shapes to represent both Ellie and Carl. With Ellie the circular shapes were used and with Carl the shapes are rectangular. The creators also used violet purple to represent the presence of Ellie. In the scenes we see her in she is usually wearing some kind of violet clothing. The badge she gives Carl as a kid is also made from a bright purple bottle cap. The color lingers through out the film including in this shot. You can see light shines on half of the bed Ellie used to sleep on. There are just the smallest hints of violet in the light, cast on the bed and wall behind. Notice the table and lamp on Ellie’s side of the bed, they both have a circular design. There is also Ellie’s picture bordered by a round frame.

This is a wonderful introduction to the post-Ellie Carl. We are introduced to him in a very unglamorous way. I mean you usually are not shown characters just waking up from sleep. Docter wants to hit the audience with a hard dose of reality after the touching marriage montage in the last sequence. We immediately feel restricted with this shot. If you watched the movie in 3D you would notice the extra dimension just added to the feeling of being confined. Notice how none of the light touches Carl. The little touch from the sunlight outside is not meant for Carl. Rather it’s a reminder of Ellie’s absence. It is kind of tough to have the marriage montage just before and then be introduced to an empty half of a bed. From here and through out most of the rest of the film Carl will wear very subdued clothing. However, what really adds to Carl’s closed-off demeanor is his shape. Quite literally everything about him is square. From his unrealistically large square head, to the rest of his body, and the objects surrounding his side of the bed; everything has a rectangular design to it representing Carl’s fatal flaw of being disconnected with the rest of the world. Heck, his bed cover even has a square design. The bottom line is Pixar’s Up will be studied for years to come because the creators made sure every composition spoke to the meaning of the story. This is the only time we see Carl’s bedroom in the movie, yet the artists took the time to deliberate over every detail you see. I guarantee you even the fact that the picture of Carl is slightly tilted was intentional and done to contribute to the story. Now that is what I call dedication.

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.