A Dreamer Walking

An Industry Without a Soul

Posted in Personal Philosophy by Jacob on April 17, 2019

Example picI’m in a dark mood right now, I apologize.

The trailer for the “live action” Lion King came out the other day. The film is just one in a long line of remakes that Disney is producing. Then there are the franchises, connected Universes, the sequels, prequels, and more sequels. Of course, scattered about is some original storytelling. These original films are mostly safe and used as a sort of reward to the artists who are being pressured through money and enticed by state of the art technical developments to make assembly line films.

The reason I say “assembly line films” is because the stories have literally already been done. The most clear examples are the remakes. Look at the trailers for Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King. The trailers reek nostalgia with no soul.  We are expected to get excited because the images we fell in love with as kids are being brought to us in a “live action form”. Instead of the cartoony reality we had before, we are now being given a photo realistic example of the story. The greatest sin is the comment Disney Corporation makes about their understanding of the medium of animation.

The key difference with the remakes, that are desperately trying to stick to the original film’s successful formulas, is the transition from something that was stylized to something that has the look of realism. Understand, to call most of these Disney remakes “live action” is utterly inaccurate. The Lion King film will not hold a single frame of live action footage. They simply want to take a Picasso painting and render it so it looks realistic. In most cases they completely destroy what made the original films the magnificent pieces of art they were in the first place.

And here I get to the core of my rant. Disney Corporation has rendered the soul out of these great pieces of art by turning its back on its heritage. The goal of Walt was never to render things realistically, rather his efforts constantly strove toward creating something real inside the imagination.  I can say from years of studying and being influenced by the man’s films, Walt Disney would be ashamed of what the company he, his brother, and Ub Iwerks, originated. The lack of originality and innovation is staggering in today’s Disney.

The Disney Corporation still has creativity. The artists are simply too talented to not allow for some wonderful entertainment and provide great character work in this constant bombardment of remakes, prequels, and sequels. Yet, when the financiers are calling all the shots, as they are so clearly doing for Disney, a decline in innovation is inevitable. The great irony is eventually it will lead to great financial loss as well. The reason? Because money men can not spark audience’s imagination. The pattern has already shown itself in the history of Hollywood.  The financiers didn’t know how to deal with sound, they let artist call the shots and we received one of the greatest five years in the history of Hollywood from 1937-1942. Then slowly the money people took over. It took awhile but by the 1970’s the old Hollywood Moguls had all but given up. Thus the artists rose and began the greatest decade in cinema. The eighties showed some financial success but lacked innovation and thus we saw the rise of independent cinema in the 1990’s. Disney even has example of this. The reason the origins of Disney are so strong, where classics like Snow White, Pinocchio, and Bambi were created, was due to the vision Walt Disney cast, leading the charge. After his death in 1966 we witnessed one of the most lack luster periods in animation, all the way up to the 1980’s.  From the late 80’s through the mid 90’s the CEOs of Disney had no idea how animation worked, thus they allowed the artists to take center stage which produced the second golden age of Disney animation. Though the money men at Disney thought they could control 2D animation in the late 90’s and 2000’s, a small computer company arose, driven by artists, to produced one of the strongest start-ups in animation history. Pixar’s first 10 films are considered unmatched in their consistent excellence and innovation by critics and historians. Yet from the late 2000’s to the present Disney financiers took more and more control, Disney bought Pixar, Marvel, Lucas film, and now Fox. With all this has come unbelievable financial success.

I’ve been bothered about the length of success Disney has had with such little innovation and original storytelling. I’ve studied their changes carefully. Walt Disney is my greatest inspiration as a filmmaker and I had once dreamed of working at the company. However, the Disney corporation looks so little like the place I fell in love with. The reason for the length of their success I believe is due to the strong foundations originally established. There is so much love for the magic of Disney animation. Each remake holds a piece of that magic. Those who love the original Lion King can’t watch the recent trailer and not feel a strong emotional tug when they hear the great music and Mufasa say, “You must take your place in the circle of life”. However, just like a photocopied painting, magic is lost is lost in the duplication. Where we once saw vibrant brush strokes, nuanced lines, and bold texture, we now see a muted, over sharpened, and flat reproduction.

Disney’s actions right now are very similar to former Disney CEO Michael Eisner’s decision to produce dozens of “direct to video” sequels of all the Disney animated classics in the mid 90’s through the mid 2000’s. The only real difference is the current CEO, Bob Iger, has thrown far more money at these remakes. He has also been able to hire more creative filmmakers. Still the problem remains, below the surface of these multiple hundred million dollar remakes is a hollow shell of what was before. The greatest missing link in the remakes is the very thing that put Disney on the map in the first place, character animation. 

The more realistically you are required to render characters, especially the ones that are not human, the less personality animators can infuse into them. In the 1993 animated version of Timon and Pumbaa we saw a lively impression of a meerkat and warthog. They were also given many human characteristics. The four legged Pumbaa had extremely expressive eyebrows, larger than life proportions, and could hold poses in order to hit emotional beats. The 2019 version hardly has any visible personality. He can’t. He needs to look “real”.

EXAMPLE

 

Before the release of the first Hollywood feature animated film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was released, the Disney artists were terrified. They simply didn’t know if a feature “cartoon” could hold the audience’s attention. The one person they trusted with their countless hours of backbreaking work was Walt Disney. See, he had this crazy idea. He thought the world could love his simple cartoons, with ill proportioned bodies and exaggerated actions, as long as his artist could capture one thing, their souls. He spent all sorts of time and bundles of money, he did not have, so his artists could bring characters like Grumpy, The Queen, and even Snow White to life. They spend days talking about the characters fears, joys, and loves. They developed every aspect of their design and motion to capture the essence who who these characters were. And yet, they still didn’t know for sure if the audience would understand.

Legendary animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston once spoke about the moment they realized what they had accomplished. It was during the premiere of the film. Snow White had already thrilled the audience. The human characters were believable, the dwarfs completely entertaining in their antics, and even the animals gave the audience some laughs. But the time Thomas and Ollie knew they had done the impossible was when the dwarfs mourned for Snow White as she lay on the bed motionless, thinking she was lost. Frank Thomas animated the simple shot of Dopey turning into Doc’s arms, overcome with sadness. There they witnessed a whole theater tearing up. They had done it. They had created life inside the imagination of their audience. A life so precious the audience mourned over Dopey’s loss.

Again and again I witnessed simple drawings rendered to life inside the animation of Disney studios. I would not be who I am today without this wonderful life I experienced. The good news is the Disney corporation can not destroy the life Walt Disney protected so dearly. The films he championed will always be there for me to see. But more importantly Walt’s influence is not lost. His spirit has arisen in other artists. The great tragedy is the corporation holding his name is no longer a refuge for those artists. The magic is all but gone. What is left are people at the top who prove through these remakes and franchises and sequels, they never knew the magic of Disney in the first place. The real magic of Walt wasn’t his films, it was the belief in the power of the imagination becoming real.

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.

Brad Bird – An Observation – Character Animation

Posted in Film and Filmaker Studies, Observation Series by Jacob on September 1, 2011

Brad BirdAll the Pixar films have moments of brilliant animation. However, I am always blown away by the animation I see in Brad Bird’s films. Bird’s films have an appeal and timing that gives the old silent greats, such as Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, a run for their money. Because of his animation background Brad tries to create scenes for his films he would like to animate himself. The legendary Disney animator Milt Kahl mentored Brad Bird. Bird was also lucky enough to work at Disney when Ollie Johnson and Frank Thomas were there. These great animators helped develop Bird’s eye for quality animation. I believe Bird is the best animator out of all the Pixar directors, and because of this most animators love to work for him. Bird pushes his animators to think outside the box and he knows the techniques of animation so well he is able to give his animators the kind of criticism that allows for them to create their best possible work.

Bird’s first project for Pixar was his original story The Incredibles. The Incredibles was a risky story to tell for multiple reasons. The movie required the Pixar artists to dive into an extremely challenging type of animation, human animation. Humans have always been some of the hardest things to animate. We observe how humans move constantly in everyday life so if the animator makes a mistake with animating a human character the audience will know. Yet, Bird felt the Pixar artists were up to the task and he gave them colorful characters to enhance their animation.

The Incredibles is about an over the hill superhero in Mr. Incredible who wants to relive the glory days. There are five Incredibles total and the whole family has superpowers. Bird’s genius was making the superpower for each Incredible directly reflect who the characters were on the inside. Mr. Incredible is the man of the and feels he has the responsibility to provide for the family, so Bird gave him super strength. Mrs. Incredible main purpose is to keep the peace and she feels stretched through trying to satisfy all the members of the family, so she is given the ability to be super flexible. The Incredibles oldest child Violet represents the “unconfident teen” who does not want to be noticed and creates barriers so she won’t get hurt by what someone says or does, so she has the ability to disappear and create force fields. Dash, the Incredibles middle child, is a ball of energy who is set on being the best in whatever he competes in, so what better superpower to represent him then super speed. And finally we have the baby Jack. Jack is a big “?”, he is too young for us to know what he will end up being. His powers reflect who he is by being miscellaneous. He can turn into metal, burst into fire, or transform into a demon, all depending on his mood at the time.

The next film Brad Bird directed and wrote for Pixar happens to be one of my favorite animated films of all time, Ratatouille. The animation in Ratatouille is phenomenal. The whole premise of the movie relied on getting the audience to believe a rat could cook. This was no easy task yet Bird executed the idea perfectly. Here is a great example of Bird’s brilliant direction in the movie:

Understand first the animation is all being driven by the personalities of the characters. This is actually the main reason the scene is so wonderful to watch. We have the human character Linquini who does not have a clue what is going on. You can see it through his facial expressions when Colette is reading off the ingredients and even more so when she leaves frame to set the dish up. We are also given a shot of Remy thinking about the ingredients Colette is reading off. These are very subtle pieces of animation but they are setting up the cooking scene. When the cooking starts Remy takes charge and the music begins. Notice how well the music blends with the animation. Each movement seems to hit curtain beats – Linquini reaching for the first spices, Remy bending Linquini to smell the sauce, Linquini going to get more ingredients. The more involved Linquini and Remy get with cooking the more expressive the music gets. There is a delicate balance between us realizing Remy is the one making Linquini cook and Linquini trying to maintain some kind of control. The humor actually comes from the battle for this balance. All the efforts Linquini makes – saying “thank you” to the cooks, telling them he needs some of their material, and trying to explain himself to Colette – make the scene all the more entertaining. Follow Linquini’s facial expressions while he is controlled by Remy. The animation is all about action and reaction on Linquini’s end. Also, notice how Bird and his animators do not hesitate in getting Linquini physically involved with the things around him. One of the hardest things to do in computer animation is have characters interact with other objects or people. Yet, Linquini is grabbing and moving objects around and he is reaching through a cooks arm to grab some things behind him. Linquini also hits some brilliant extreme poses in the scene. Animation is all about extreme poses and exaggerating movements not possible to do with live action acting. The animators need to make sure Linquini moves like a human, but they also have the responsibility to exaggerate his poses so they are easy for us to read. Linquini reaching for the spices, lifting his leg to start his walk around the kitchen, and reaching his arm out to stop Collete, are all examples of great poses where the animators are pushing their animation to the limit in order to communicate to the highest potential the action and essence of the character.

Brad Bird has never shied away from risky storytelling. He believes in the characters he creates and the animators who bring them to life enough to push the storytelling to the limit. It was no easy task to make a film about rats cooking. Before Bird came onto the project the artists shortened the rats’ tails and made them walk and act far more like humans. The Pixar artists did this because they were afraid an audience would be too appalled with more realistic rats. However Bird believed the idea of rats cooking would only be believable if the rats looked realistic. So he made the artist lengthen the tails, study the anatomy and the rats’ movements so they looked and acted in a more realistic way. Realize Bird did not make them look completely realistic, they do have a much softer design and more colorful look then real rats, but they were changed enough for the audience to buy into the illusion. The result was a movie that on paper looked like it could never work (I mean who in their right mind would like to see a rat in the kitchen, let alone cooking?) yet through brilliant character animation and subtle design changes we not only become okay with Remy the rat cooking, we ended up rooting for him to succeed.

Bird’s films make me realize how phenomenal the medium of animation really is. The characters Bird creates could not possibly be expressed in as complete a way in any other medium. How the animation reflects the character within is what is most important. Bird’s animation sticks out because the animators are on top of their game when working with him. Bird is a very enthusiastic and dedicated man. One of his sayings is, “Film is forever; Pain is temporary”. Bird is not the easiest director to work with. He will ask for a lot. But I believe most of his artists see the results are well worth it. I believe the artists working with Bird know he has conviction in the characters he creates. They are real to him and he will not stop pushing his artists until he sees the heart and souls of his characters come alive on screen.

 

Wall-E: Andrew Stanton Interview

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on January 18, 2011

I stumbled upon this very informative interview with director Andrew Stanton talking about some of his thought process behind the movie Wall-E.

Wall-E is not my favorite Pixar movie but I think the movie’s storytelling is superb. We are introduced to the robot Wall-E and find out exactly what kind of character he is and what he is longing for in life within the first seven minutes of the film. The first twenty to thirty minutes of Wall-E consist of some of the greatest animation I have ever seen. The Pixar guys had guts. They trusted that the audience would not loose interest, even though there was little action and hardly any duologue at the beginning of the film.

Wall-E also represents a break away from the typical Pixar visual style. Andrew used lenses and brought in a color schemes that were different from movies like Cars, Finding Nemo, and Monsters Inc. He shot for a more realistic look. The movement of Wall-E was very limited compared to most of the Pixar characters. This allowed for the animators to stretch their skills and learn how to communicate a lot with a little.

Anyway, here are the video’s. Enjoy!

(Go to the site beta adikted or their youtube page for more interviews of popular filmmakers)