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.

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.

Andreas Deja- Deja View Site

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on June 12, 2011

I wanted to show you a new site that has just come up. It is called Deja View and is written by Andreas Deja, a animator who has worked at Disney for thirty years. Andreas was the lead animator for characters such as Jafar from Aladdin (1992), Scar from The Lion King (1994), and Lilo from Lilo and Stitch (2002). He has also spent his whole professional career collecting old animation, particularly from the legendary Nine Old Men.

The Nine Old Men are nine animators who were responsible for bringing many of the Disney characters, from the late 1930’s to the beginning of the 1980’s, to life. The Nine Old Men are some of the greatest influences for the medium of animation and are responsible for creating many of the foundations most animators these days stand on. All the Nine Old Men have passed away, the last being Ollie Johnson in 2008. Luckily many of the Nine Old Men were mentors to Andreas. I know he stayed friends with Ollie Johnson, Frank Thomas, and Eric Larson to the end of their lives. So far his blog seems to be devoted to talking about these great animators.

I recommended the blog to anyone looking to go into animation. Unlike historians who talk about these great men from mostly an outsiders perspective, Deja has personal experience with many of these people and the ability to express who these animators were from a animators perspective. Deja is a animation legend himself. He was a key figure in the rise of Disney animation in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. Deja is also a huge advocate for keeping 2D animation alive, rather then having all studios converting completely to CG animation. Deja was known for his ability to animate the villain. He was the lead in bringing to life characters like Gaston, Scar, and Jafar. Yet he showed himself a good lead animator for the hero as well with characters such as Lilo,  Mama Odie from Princess and the Frog, and just recently Tigger in the new Winnie the Pooh movie coming out this July.

If you want to hear from Andreas I would recommend you listen to these podcasts from The Animation Podcast: part 1, part 2, and part 3. I am sure you will find Andreas’ story on how he became an animator inspiring and he gives great insight on the medium of animation at Disney in 2005, when this interview was taken.

Without any further to do I give you the Link to Andreas site Deja View:

Click on picture to go to the site.