Brian Henson on Digital Puppetry

Brian Henson at the Center for Puppetry ArtsSid the Science Kid Brian Henson, Jim Henson’s son and co-chair of The Jim Henson Company, showed up today at Atlanta’s Center for Puppetry Arts to give a fascinating presentation about his company’s use of “digital puppetry” in their new PBS preschool series, Sid the Science Kid. The talk coincided with the Center’s new “Jim Henson: Wonders From His Workshop” exhibition.  Yesterday, he gave a similar talk at the American Film Institute Theater in Washington, DC.

Henson explained how the company’s approach to puppetry, which has always been designed with television in mind, has evolved over the years; starting with the hand puppets of shows like Sesame Street to the animatronics in films like Dark Crystal and Labyrinth to the real-time motion capture of Sid the Science Kid. For Henson, the evolution seemed natural, as he and his father have always looked to the latest technology to make their work more effective.

The Jim Henson Company's Frances Sid the Science Kid is not the first Henson project to use motion capture, but it was the first to be released. (The first was Frances, another preschool series, based on the Russell Hoban books.) One of the attractions for the company, according to Henson, was the fact that the process enabled them to show their characters from head to toe for the first time, something not really possible with their usual puppetry methods. Both puppeteers and puppets are used as motion capture actors, rather than using actor actors. Henson claims that shooting for each episode takes about two-and-a-half days, which, of course, does not include postproduction process. As the show is being done on a low budget, one can expect that the economics of the process factored into their decision.

To judge from the clips shown (on a big screen), the resulting animation is a mixed bag: while the general look is good, the characters tended to lack weight. I remember this being a problem with such early mocap shows as Nelvana’s Donkey Kong Country; the problem here is not as acute as the earlier show, but it is nevertheless still annoying. It is also interesting since Henson made a point, in demonstrating how he manipulated a Muppet for the TV camera, to give a sense of weight. (There is also a problem with lip synch, though this not really a significant issue.)

The fact that The Jim Henson Company has given its imprimatur to motion capture is certainly important for proponents of this technology. However, those who see mocap as something akin to the bubonic plague, are more likely to feel a growing sense of unease.

By the way, a few days ago, The Jim Henson company announced, “two all-new innovative CGI-animated series, Dinosaur Train and The Skrumps, at MIPCOM Jr.” However, there was no indication whether or not they will be using mocap.

September 30th Update: Alan Louis, the Center for Puppetry Arts’ Director of Museum & Education Programs, sent over the following image of Brian Henson after his presentation when he was signing autographs. (By the way, the top image is from the reception held before the event.)

Brian Henson at Center for Puppetry Arts

Bill Melendez

Bill Melendez Animation icon Bill Melendez, best known for producing the ever popular Charlie Brown TV specials, died Tuesday, September 2nd, in Santa Monica, at age 91. Charles Solomon wrote a nice obituary in the Los Angeles Times, which gives a good outline of his long career. I thought I would take this opportunity to reprint an interview I did with him for The 1993 Screen Cartoonist Annual, published by the Motion Picture Screen Cartoonists, (now The Animation Guild); it was the second and, unfortunately, the last edition of this publication. It was published under the title, “Bill Melendez: it’s just not Peanuts,” but I have restored my original title.

Good Grief, Charlie Brown,
It’s Bill Melendez
by Harvey Deneroff

Bill Melendez “I’m not a hog,” Bill Melendez claims. “I can make almost any feature for around $5 million and make a good picture. Nowadays, everybody is being spoiled by all this God damn stupid computer-generated [animation]. But all they are trying to do is to make animation as close to live-action as possible. To me, that contradicts the whole idea of this being a hand drawn art. So, I still like the idea of just drawing a good picture.

“What makes it good, after all, is the story anyhow. You got to have a good story! I have a couple of good stories, but I can’t seem to sell them to people, because they say [they are] not for children.”

Bill Melendez, ace curmudgeon, is not afraid to speak his mind, not only about the state of animation, but about unions. Thus, the 55-year Hollywood veteran, says, “I’m infuriated what’s happened to labor and the wishy washiness of the people. I don’t know why they just don’t stand up and fight and raise hell all the time. I hate to think that American labor is so slavish and cowed and bovine. They just don’t seem to have any pride or any spunk. For Christ sake, don’t they read history? Don’t they read their own stinking Constitution. Don’t they read their own Bill of Rights? Don’t they know anything about their own labor history? ”

These comments may seem at odds with Melendez’ public image as producer and director of TV specials and commercials featuring the Peanuts characters created by Charles Schulz. But it is not so strange given his role in the old Screen Cartoonists Guild, where he once served as president.

José Cuanhtemoc Melendez was born in Hermosillo, Sonora, Mexico, educated in Douglas, Arizona and Los Angeles, where he attended Los Angeles City College and Chouinard Art Institute. Melendez started in animation at Disney in 1937. He had no particular interest in animation, per se, but notes that, “It was during the Depression and the only job for an artist was at Disney.” There, he worked as an assistant animator on such films as Pinocchio, Fantasia and Dumbo.

Melendez was happy at Disney, very much enjoying the classes the studio offered and proud of the films he worked on. “To me,” he says, “Disney will never again make a film like Pinocchio. I think Pinocchio was the best animated film ever made. You had a great story. It was so well done, with all its flaws. God, what a great animated film! And it was done right there in the old Hyperion studio. A bunch of good artists, that’s all.”

It was also a period of labor unrest, which would eventually culminate in the great Disney strike of 1941. However, Melendez had no interest in unions.

“I didn’t know anything at about unions. Also, I come from a family that’s very conservative and anti-union. To them, unions meant you were a Communist or something like that. They didn’t know. That too I learned at Disney.”

Thus, despite all the unrest that occurred leading up to the strike, he says, “I don’t know how the union was formed and who really was the [organizer]. I know that it came up to the time when some day there was going to be a strike. And I was very surprised. A strike here! That was incredible! And I certainly was not a party to it. I said, `You guys put up a picket line up there and I’ll stomp right through you.’

“So, they did put a picket line. I came to work one day, I stopped my car, [because] there’s this line of people there. They said, `Hey, Bill. Come on, come on!’ I went out to talk to them. `What the hell is going on here.’ Well, old Walt will not sign a contract or will not recognize us. And it’s time to get some redress.’

“I didn’t know what the hell they were talking about. But they were all my friends, see. And so, the next thing you know, I was walking around with that God damn union sign!

“But that was a start of an education about the union movement in general and the meaning of artists uniting to protect themselves.”

Gerald McBoing BoingMelendez was laid off following the strike. “I was recalled a month later,” he recalls. “However, by this time, I discovered Warner Bros., so I stayed there.” At Warner’s, he he became an animator and worked under such people as Bob Clampett. (“Clampett was completely disorganized and scatterbrained and it was a different, joyous experience.”) After a stint in the army during the war, he returned to Warner’s and subsequently went to UPA, animating under the direction of Bobe Cannon on such classic shorts as Madeline and Gerald McBoing Boing. Cannon’s penchant for combining gentle stories with bold graphics would have a profound influence of Melendez’ own approach to animation—especially in the many Peanuts specials.

It was during this period that he became Screen Cartoonists Guild President. Hollywood was in the midst of a monumental struggle between the IATSE and unions organized under the banner of the Conference of Studio Unions (CSU). The latter was led by Herb Sorrell, the dynamic business agent for the Painters & Paperhangers, under whose aegis the Guild operated. The IA, accusing the CSU of being dominated by Communists, eventually prevailed, with Sorrell being driven out of Hollywood along with the Painters.

Melendez recalls that, “Somebody put this bug in my ear that the IA was going to make a deal with the Painters—they would give them something and they would trade us. I thought, `We don’t want to be traded.’ So, I pushed for an independent union,” which the membership eventually went along with.

However, as soon as the Guild lost the protection of the Painters International, the IA established the Motion Picture Screen Cartoonists, Local 839, which soon took over representation of the major studios. This was soon followed by the defection of the Guild’s New York local to the IA. (The Guild continued on as an independent union, but eventually became part of Teamsters Local 986. Its only remaining contract studio is Bill Melendez Productions.)

Although Melendez takes the blame for starting off this whole chain of events, there were certainly other factors at work. The demise of Herb Sorrell from the Painters seemed to leave the Guild stranded. The New York local especially felt abandoned after the Painters were unable to provide any help during the almost eight month Terrytoons strike in 1947.

Veterans of the Disney strike, like Melendez, remember when the IATSE was controlled by the Chicago mob. After all, Willie Bioff, the mob’s man in Hollywood had intervened on Disney’s side during the walkout. Bioff was subsequently tried and convicted on extortion charges, but Melendez feels the IA never cleaned up its act.

Melendez was at UPA when the IA came in, but continued to work there, despite the fact that he refused to join Local 839. Later on, he went over to John Sutherland (a Guild shop) to direct industrial films, where he worked under George Gordon; Melendez recalls Gordon “controlled the picture very minutely,” an approach that subsequently became the hallmark of his own management style.

Charlie Brown Christmas cover At Playhouse Pictures, Melendez produced and directed over 1,000 TV spots. Some these included commercials featured Charles Schulz’ Peanuts characters. And when he started Bill Melendez Productions in 1964, he kept the association with Schulz. This gave him the opportunity to make the first Peanuts special, A Charlie Brown Christmas the following year. Made under considerable financial and time constraints, the show was a big hit, going on to win the first Emmy and Peabody Awards for an animated show; it has now become the longest-running special in American television history, having been shown on CBS every year since its premiere. In turn, it has spawned some 36 Peanuts specials, a Saturday morning TV series, the first animated TV mini-series and 4 theatrical features—all based on the Schulz characters.

Model sheet from You're in the Super Bowl, Charlie Brown TV specialThis success also established the studio as one of Hollywood’s leading producers of animated TV specials and commercials. Among its other projects has been the first Garfield specials and several based on Cathy Guisewite’s comic strip, Cathy. It has recently finished production on two specials, It’s Spring Training, Charlie Brown and Frosty Returns (featuring Frosty the Snowman), and is in production on You’re in the Super Bowl, Charlie Brown (see model sheet above). In all, the studio’s shows have won 12 Emmy Awards and were nominated for many more.

In 1970, the company established Bill Melendez Productions, Ltd., in London, which is run by Bill’s son, Steven. The studio, now called Melendez Films, Ltd., has done commercials, TV specials (including the two-part The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, based on C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia) and the theatrical feature, Dick Deadeye, or Duty Done, a rock and roll pastiche of Gilbert & Sullivan operettas designed by Ronald Searle.

Melendez says that, “The reason for starting [the London studio] was that it would be a safety valve for me, where I could get help. That was before China and Japan became so important.” Melendez Films, Ltd., however, being a union shop, is not a typical runaway operation.

Despite the geographic distance between the two operations, Bill Melendez exercises rather tight supervision over both. “I’m an animator,” he states, “therefore, I get involved in animation and with the animators in a very controlled sense. And I communicate with my animators by making drawings.

Generally, Melendez likes “to be involved in the picture minutely,” from storyboard and character design to final animation. This desire to closely supervise and interact with his staff has always made Melendez wary of sending work overseas, except to his London studio.

This tight management serves several purposes, the most obvious of which is artistic control. It also helps keep costs in check and productions on schedule. Animators tend to appreciate this approach, as it gives them a sense of clarity and clear parameters in which to work.

It also helps that many artists have worked for Melendez a long time, with many having been there for 20 years or more. As such, the staff tends to be very familiar with what he wants. Melendez adds that, “I’ve always worked with people that think like I do.”

“It’s a great advantage, really. I’ve been lucky all these years, that I do have continuity with people. I think that’s what makes a real studio, an atelier, where people work together, and people get out things. That social aspect of working together on a film, to me, is great. We have all these people who can bounce ideas off each other.

Melendez’ staff these days includes directors Evert Brown and Sam Jaimes, designer Leo Moran, background artists Dean Spille and Joanne Lansing, as well as animators Larry Leichliter, Al Pabian and Bill Littlejohn, as well as Dick Horn, animation director for the London studio.

Unlike many other companies, production is usually all done locally, including ink and paint. Last year, though, for the first time it went overseas for animation through camera on its It’s Christmas Time Again, Charlie Brown special. Melendez says that, “The only reason for going to Taiwan was the fact that we just didn’t have time to do it here, without paying a lot of overtime.” Nevertheless, Melendez was less than happy with the decision and feels that it represents the exception rather than the rule.

The company’s productions very much reflect Melendez’ creative vision. Its long association with the Charles Schulz Peanuts characters, tends to project an image of a studio for hire. But the Charlie Brown specials and features (as well as many of their other shows) also reflect an artistic sensibility first nurtured when Melendez was at UPA working under Bobe Cannon.

UPA was a studio which emphasized strong design elements and tended to utilize simpler, more limited forms of animation. It is an approach which enabled Melendez to adapt especially well to television, artistically and economically.

The association with Schulz and the Peanuts characters also tends to obscure much of the studio’s track record. This includes specials featuring such well-known characters as Garfield, Babar and Betty Boop.

Ronald Searle drawing for Dick Deadeye, or Duty DoneThe Dick Deadeye film, designed by noted illustrator Ronald Searle, with its sharp political satire and its sometimes bawdy humor, would seem to be the studio’s most radical departure from its usual bill of fare. However, aside from its more adult sensibility, the film’s gentle humor, strong graphic sense and limited animation techniques is actually quite typical of its productions.

Melendez laments that, “I feel a lot of resistance to Charlie Brown. People are sick and tired of this, nicey, nice, do gooding, gentle humor. They want to see some raunchy characters like Ren & Stimpy.” However, as shown in Dick Deadeye and especially in his proposed feature, The Boots of the Virgin, he is certainly capable of making films that belies the “do gooding” image associated with the Peanuts specials.

Boots is based on a novel by Earl Shorris that first read after picking it up at an airport. “It’s a wildly funny, crazy story,” he says. “The trouble with it is that it’s not children’s programming.”

The story tells of Sol Feldman, from Saginaw, Michigan, whose grandfather “had been a wealthy merchant … prior to the his attempt to corner the market on Tucker Automobile stock.” On the eve of his Bar Mitzvah, he becomes “obsessed with the idea of fame” and decides to become a bullfighter in Mexico, where he adopts the nom de guerre of “El Sol de Michigan.”

“That book,” Melendez exclaims, “has got to be a wide-screen feature: 70 minutes of old-fashioned animation, with bulls and cockroaches and all kinds of things!”Detail of Boots of the Virgin model sheet by Allan Sheean The Boots of the Virgin is a project Melendez has been pushing for several years, but he has been turned down as being too racy; this is so despite a projected budget of about $5 million. Ralph Bakshi notwithstanding, Hollywood executives remain uncomfortable an animated film aimed at adults.

In the meantime, Melendez continues to toil away at doing Charlie Brown specials and commercials. “But there’s never any stack of films facing me that I have to do as I get to them. We do one at a time as it comes up.”