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.

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.

 

Fred Moore – Animator – Snow White

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on April 17, 2014

Fred Moore 1You can’t get much more appealing then this. In fact, appeal was Fred Moore’s signature trait. Ollie Johnston, one of his pupils, claimed beautiful stuff flowed out of Moore’s pencil like water. Those working under him claimed, “He couldn’t do a drawing without appeal”. He was a young prodigy responsible for Mickey Mouse’s classic design. He went on to define nearly all the characters we think of as Disney classics from the 30’s and early 40’s. He was responsible for the final look of all seven of the dwarfs in Snow White (1937). Both Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas studied under him during the feature’s production.

As talented as Moore was his actual life story had a bit of a tragic ending. Some claim his decline was due to the fact Moore was untrained and bloomed so young. He was in his mid twenties when he was assigned to be the lead for the Seven Dwarfs in Snow White. Disney hired him at age 19 with no formal training. It is said he submitted drawings drawn on paper grocery bags. At the beginning animation just seemed to come naturally to Moore. Every one of his animations had a charm to them. As you can see in this drawing there is nothing unattractive about it. The arcs are perfect and the situation humorous.

Moore needed to be inspired in order to animate and at times he had difficulty finding inspiration. Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas talked about him sitting at his office unable to draw for hours. They needed to prompt him and trying to get him excited about a piece of animation before he would start to animate. However, when he began to animate he wouldn’t stop. He could produce several feet of animation in a single day and each drawing flowed together to create beautiful motion.

With every new film Walt Disney demanded his artists to push the medium of animation. Walt began to lean towards more realism and designs that required a greater deal of draftsmanship. Fred Moore wasn’t able to keep up with the new Disney look. Legendary animator Marc Davis said, “In the early days Fred Moore was Disney Drawing”. However, with movies such as Bambi (1942) and much later films such as Sleeping Beauty (1959) and The Jungle Book (1967) Fred did not have the ability to keep up with Disney style. Moore also had problems with alcoholism and it was one of the reasons he was laid off in 1946 with a group of other artists.

Fred Moore going over Ollie Johnston's drawing.

Fred Moore going over his then Pupil Ollie Johnston’s drawing.

Ollie Johnston and a few other animators were able to hire Fred Moore again in 1948 with Walt’s blessing. Moore brought appeal to some animation in the 1950’s, most notably the mermaids in Peter Pan (1953). However, he went from Walt’s top animator to working under his one time pupil, Ollie Johnston. In 1952 Moore was involved in a tragic freak accident when his wife, who was driving, ran into another car while trying to make a U turn. Moore died the next day in the very hospital Walt would pass away in a decade and a half later.

Ollie Johnston kept a pencil of Fred’s taped to his window. In his 1995 documentary Ollie said he kept it there to, “remind me of how great the guy was and how much he meant to me”. He found there was a little lead left in the pencil and Ollie said he was going to save it for something special.