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Processed Storytelling

March 14th, 2013 · Directing, Screenwriting

Toy Story

Richard Brody has an interesting, if somewhat discursive blog posting at The New Yorker on “The Problem with Processed Storytelling,” which begins with a discussion of Pixar’s “22 Rules of Storytelling.” Brady says, “Pixar films make me feel as if I were watching the cinematic equivalent of irresistibly processed food, with a ramped-up and carefully calibrated dosing of the emotional versions of salt, sugar, and fat.” However, this is not a rant against all things Pixar, but rather an interesting, if not fully thought through, discussion of the problems of directors who write their own scripts versus collaborative efforts (he sort of opts for the latter).

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My Cinema Studies 101 Search Engine

March 9th, 2013 · Animation history and criticism, Film history and criticism, History and criticism, Television history and criticism

As some visitors to this blog may have noticed over the past few days, I have put up a custom search engine designed to search English-language websites for material suitable for students doing research in the moving image arts — specifically film, TV, animation and visual effects. My Cinema Studies 101 Search Engine had its origins several years ago using the Rollyo site as a way to help students get around the very real problems of finding suitable materials on the Internet for their term papers. When Rollyo stopped functioning, I discovered I could provide a much better service using Google. So, after a not very rigorous beta testing by my students, I have finally decided to go public.

While the search engine  itself is working, I have not yet finished adding all the supporting material I wanted to post. So far, I have put up a page About the Search Engine, while  a list of all the sites the search engines uses will, I assure you, be forthcoming.

Anyway, I trust the search engine will be of some use to some of you.

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Charles daCosta on Racial Stereotyping in Media

March 6th, 2013 · Animation history and criticism, History and criticism, Media theory, Politics

Racial Stereotypes in Media from Ogre on Vimeo.

My friend and former Savannah College of Art and Design colleague, Charles daCosta, who now teaches at  Swinburne University of Technology, in Melbourne, recently made an appearance on Africa Amara, a TV show broadcast on C31, where he talked about racial stereotyping in media. Along the way, he discusses his book, Framing Invisibility: Racial Stereotyping and Selective Positioning in Contemporary British Animation, though his discussion is broader than that title implies.

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Jerry Beck’s Cartoon Research Blog

March 5th, 2013 · History and criticism

Technicolor Refreshment Trailer No. 1 (Let’s All Go to the Lobby)

Last month, ace animation historian Jerry Beck left the popular Cartoon Brew blog he created and co-edited with Amid Amidi. However, he didn’t stop blogging, but rather revived his semi-dormant Cartoon Research blog with a vengeance. Right now, it seems devoted to (mainly) American animation history, and also includes some occasional guest postings (e.g., Keith Scott on “The Origin of Foghorn Leghorn”). So far, it’s a delightful blend of animation history and news, which I find a must read. (For instance, check out his piece on “What Dave Fleischer did after “Mr. Bug,” where there is strong hint that Fleischer may have had something to do with the classic Let’s All Go to the Lobby trailer.)

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Animationstudies 2.0

March 4th, 2013 · History and criticism

Today, the Society for Animation Studies  has inaugurated a new blog, animationstudies 2.01, which is being edited by Nichola Dobson, and devoted to issues in animation scholarship. As Dobson points out,

The pace of published research has often lagged behind the vast technological developments in the animation industry and as such there is often seen to be gaps in the discourse.  This blog intends to attempt to fill some of these gaps by providing scholars (and fans) a more immediate place to engage with current research.

Initially, the plan is to have one post per week and a new theme each month. Forthcoming themes include: “Technological developments in animation” and “Sound and music.” The opening theme is not specified, but the first post, by yours truly, is “Writing Animation History.” (It’s all about my three books in progress, which I hope to write more about here.)

Needless to say, it’s one blog I will be checking in on a regular basis!

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SAS 2013 — Redefining Animation

March 4th, 2013 · Animation conferences This year’s Society for Animation Studies conference will be held at the University of Southern California (one of my alma maters), June 23-27,  under the theme of “Redefining Animation.” It is being held under the auspices of The John C Hench Division of Animation and Digital Arts of USC’s School of Cinematic Art.

There is a bevy of keynote speakers plus a talk by DreamWorks Animation’s CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg at the opening reception. The keynoters include : story artist and animator Tom Sito (“Moving Innovation, A History of Computer Animation"), visual effects supervisor Mike Fink (“Visual Effects Paridiso”), video installation artist Davide Quayola who will talk about his work, game designer Tracy Fullerton (“Dream Worlds: Imagining the Worlds of Walden and The Night Journey”) and robotics designer David Hanson (“Intelligent, Embodied Animation—when art comes to life, literally).

More important are the usual wide range of papers being given by scholars and filmmakers from around the world. I am delighted to be co-presenting a paper with my wife, Victoria, on “Rethinking the Metanarrative of Character Animation.” I am also proud that two of my students,  Maureen Monaghan and John-Michael Kirkconnell, will also be there as well. Some presentations that also caught my fancy include:

  • Rose Bond, “Poetics & Public Projection: Layered History – Redrawn Memory”
  • Donald Crafton, “Inside and Outside the Toon Body: Somatic Integrity Throughout Animation History”
  • Charles daCosta, “Cracking the frame: Oral Tradition as a reflection of non-cinematic animation in sub-Saharan West-Africa”
  • Ruth Hayes, “Quantifying and Visualizing Animators’ Styles of Motion: an analytical and pedagogical tool”
  • Susan Ohmer, “Mass-Production and High Art: Disney and the Courvoisier Gallery c. 1940”
  • Caress Reeves, “Animation as Political Radicalism: Black Animators in the Field”
  • Gunnar Strom, “Industrial Animation: Boring Information or Communication Art?”
  • Reza Yousefzadeh, “Inter-cultural Communication and Subversive Realism:Iranian socially?engaged animation”

Full information on the conference and schedule of events and presenters is found here. For information on the Society for Animation Studies, including membership, go here.

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Annie Awards Make History

February 12th, 2013 · Animation history and criticism, Filmmakers, Producers

Jerry Beck, John Canemaker and friend at 2005 Ottawa Animation Festival picnic.

Perhaps historical would be a better word. I’m not talking about the winners in the competitive voting for ASIFA-Hollywood‘s Annie Awards proper (listed here), but rather for the juried awards, including the June Foray and Winsor McCay Awards. What was startling was the fact that three of these honors went to animation historians: Jerry Beck (Foray), John Canemaker (McCay) and John Kricfalusi(McCay). (The other McCay Award went to Glen Keane.) I don’t know of any other time so many animation historians have been honored at the same time outside of the Society for Animation Studies.

The Foray Award, given for “significant and benevolent or charitable impact on the art and industry of animation,” has been given to important animation historians before, including Leonard Maltin and the late Bill Moritz; so the selection of Beck, who also was a pioneer in the distribution of Japanese theatrical animation in the United States, was really no surprise. What is unusual is the fact that two of the McCay recipients, who are honored for “career contributions to the art of animation,” are also important historians: John Canemaker and John Kricfalusi. (My reaction might be compared to Robert Sherwood’s delight, when he was a film critic for Life in 1926, on discovering that the hero of D.W. Griffith’s The Sorrows of Satan was a critic.)

John Kricfalusi photo. While Beck’s and Canemaker’s bona fides as historians are rather obvious (one only has to look up their names on Amazon or WorldCat), but one does not usually think of John K. as other than an innovative and opiniated filmmaker. But behind those opinions is a well-thought out approach to animation and animation history. While I don’t always agree with his views, I do think he has provided a salutatory challenge to much conventional wisdom, including that surrounding of Walt Disney. In a way, his thinking on animation and animation history (which can seen on his blog or in his online exchange with Michael Barrier) harkens back to the development of the auteur theory at Cahiers du cinéma in the 1950s by the likes of François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, who later abandoned criticism to help create the French New Wave.

So, congratulations to Beck, Canemaker and Kricfalusi for all their work, including their contributions to animation history and criticism.

Images: Top: Jerry Beck, John Canemaker and Amid Amidi at the 2005 Ottawa International Animation Festival picnic. Left above: John Kricfalusi photo found on his page.

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International Animation Day 2012 in Atlanta

October 25th, 2012 · Screenings, Short films

International Animation Day Atlanta 2012 poster

This year’s celebration by ASIFA-Atlanta of International Animation Day, held in conjunction with Atlanta Film Festival 365 ,will be held this Sunday at the Plaza Theatre, at 7:30 pm.  As usual, the screening will feature films selected from films shared by other ASIFA chapters around the world. If that’s not enough, ASIFA-Atlanta will also present two other screenings earlier that day — animation for kids 6+ at 2:00 pm and “Blowin’ Smoke, industry animation from local studios” — plus a panel previewing the evening screening at 5:30 pm. 

ASIFA-Atlanta members get in free, while a day pass is $12.00, $6.00 for general admission and $3.00 for kids under 12, students and ATLFF365 members.

This year’s poster is by Italian animation filmmaker Gianluigi Toccafondo.

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Lee and Turner’s 1899 Color Process

September 18th, 2012 · Color films, Technology

Britain’s National Media Museum has posted the results of their restoration of what they claim to be the world first color moving pictures, which were patented by photographer Edward Turner and his financial backer Frederick Marshall Lee in 1899, which is embedded above. The details are briefly explained here.

The process, which seems to anticipate the original three-color Technicolor process — in particular the successive exposure method used for animated films — seemed to have been unworkable. The Museum’s restoration really doesn’t prove otherwise, and I suspect that George Albert Smith, who was asked by Charles Urban to perfect the process, was right to suggest abandoning it in favor of his simpler two-color Kinemacolor system, which had some popularity. Nevertheless, the results of the restoration are fascinating to say the least.

(Thanks to Paul Fierlinger via Karl Cohen.)

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David Hand Collection to Animation Hall of Fame

August 28th, 2012 · Animators, Film and television archives, Filmmakers, Producers

Publicity photo of David Hand at Gaumont British AnimationFor my undergraduate History of Animation class, I’m obliged to give a pretest to judge my student’s knowledge of the topic. A favorite question is, “Who was the director of Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Bambi?” Alas, no one has a clue, even though almost every student has seen these films and director David Hand gets prominent screen credit on both films.  My query is meant to be a teaching moment, rather than a trick question, as it brings up a name that tends to be forgotten in animation history.

Now, the Savannah-based Animation Hall of Fame (I’m on their Advisory Board) has announced that David Dodd Hand’s son, David Hale Hand, has donated a collection of “art and artifacts” representing his father’s life’s work.  The announcement gives a quick rundown of his career:

First working for Bray Studios; then Fleischer Studios in New York City, [Hand] quickly rose through the ranks at the Disney Studios to become the Supervising Director of White and the Seven Dwarfs and Bambi, and Production Supervisor, answering only to Walt, a stellar achievement. He had his hand in the development of all films at Disney from 1930–1944. Then he impacted Europe by heading the GB Animation Studio with J. Arthur Rank, the major British animation studio and school of the time. Before he retired, he went on to producing and directing for the Alexander Film Company in Colorado.

For more information on Hand, see  Bob Egby’s David Hand the Moor Hall Collection website (where I got the photo above), the Disney Studio bio here, and Michael Barrier’s wonderful interview here.

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The Case of Brenda Chapman

August 22nd, 2012 · Directors, Feature films, Women Filmmakers

Director Brenda Chapman has her photo taken on April 1, 2008 at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, Calif., when she was directing Brave.

Photo by Deborah Coleman/Pixar.

On August 14th, Brenda Chapman wrote an op-ed piece for The New York Times,  “Stand Up for Yourself, and Mentor Others,” which starts off by asking, “How can we get more women in positions of power in Hollywood?” The piece was the result of Chapman being fired during the production of Brave, certainly the best film from Pixar in some time.

Needless to say, there’s something very wrong with the whole situation. Maybe I’m being a bit naïve, but here we are in the second decade of the 21st century and women still have to fight for recognition in what still remains an male-dominated industry?

Let’s see, in 1926 Lotte Reiniger finished The Adventures of Prince Achmed, a feature-length film which still inspires filmmakers around the world (including Michel Ocelet), that was certainly more sophisticated than what the Disney Studio was doing at the time. In the  mid-1930s, Mary Ellen Bute began making her pioneering abstract shorts. In 1933, Lillian Friedman became the first woman animator at Fleischer Studios, until she was forced out of the business in 1939 because of her sex and pro-union views (Hicks Lokey called her a “crackerjack animator,” and Harry Lampert, who would go on to help create The Flash for DC Comics, said, “she was such a talent, you know! She was really excellent!”).

When I asked Dori Littell Herrick about her memories of working in an animator  before becoming an academic, she pointed out that she and other women were essentially invisible.

Which brings me to the time I was an Annie Awards juror back in the 1990s.  One of the categories I was to judge was that of animated TV show. The committee was ushered into a room piled high with VHS tapes for our consideration. There simply was no way any of the committee was going to be able to go through all these tapes in time and make anything like a reasoned judgment. Then fellow juror Becky Bristow came to the rescue. (At the time, I believe she was Acting Chair of CalArts’ Character Animation Program.) She insisted that we pick one or more episodes with a woman director. In going through the list of entries, she spotted what may have been an episode of Animaniacs, looked at the opening which featured an hilarious parody of the The Lion King opening, and it became one of the nominees. That clip was screened at the Annie Awards ceremony and was a big hit. I don’t recall whether it won an Annie that night, but it doesn’t really matter. Obviously, what we need today is to put someone like Becky Bristow in charge of a major feature animation studio with instructions to use women directors; I suspect we would be at least no worse off than we are now, and perhaps we might even be a bit better off.

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ASIFA-Atlanta’s 10th Annual Roll Yer Own

June 30th, 2012 · American cinema, Animation Festivals, Screenings

ASIFA-Atlanta 10th Roll Yer Own Poster

ASIFA-Atlanta is celebrating 10 years of Roll Yer Own, perhaps its signature event, on July 16th, at the Plaza Theatre. A festival of locally-produced animated shorts this year also  joining forces for the decade celebration of Roll Yer Own, an independent “includes ASIFA-Atlanta’s favorites from the 2012 Atlanta Film Festival.”  The screening will be followed by an afterparty at the historic Manuel’s Tavern.

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Brad Bird: Animation is Not a Genre

June 12th, 2012 · Uncategorized

The following phone interview with Brad Bird at Warner Bros. Feature Animation on Monday, October 27, 1997. It was one of a series of brief interviews I did for a story for The Hollywood Reporter and/or Animation Magazine. When I talked to Bird, The Iron Giant was just getting into animation and there was considerable buzz about the project in the animation community. Although The Iron Giant is often seen as his big breakthrough (critically, if not financially), he had already established himself with The Family Dog episode of Steven Spielberg’s Amazing Stories and his work on The Simpsons, and to a lesser extent on other TV shows, such as King of the Hill. His earlier attempt to do an animated feature version of Will Eisner’s The Spirit (detailed here) may have been on his mind when he talked to me. (The transcript has been slightly edited.)

Brad Bird Publicity Photo for The Incredibles

Harvey Deneroff: You’re in animation now, aren’t you?

BB: Yes. We started rough animation. We have a pretty small team at this point, just have a small core group and then we’re expanding month by month. But, yeah, we’re into animation.

Deneroff: You’ve been involved with animation for a number of years. Do you see any trends that seem important?

Bird: Well, I’m hoping that people see that there’s a new audience. Meaning, I have felt that people [in the industry] only see the Disney audience. The problem is that Disney’s, traditionally, has been the only studio that lavished any time on building an animation team, and they were willing to be patient and train people, and get people going.

When Disney started making huge amounts of money, of course, everyone else jumped into the pond. And they’ve just sort of thrown money at it on a sort of a short-term level. And the problem, in the longer view, has been that Disney has only done one kind of film in animation. And then when those kinds of films succeed, it has been taken as a vote for that kind of movie, rather than a vote for Disney’s methods. In other words, Disney’s acting was better, their drawing was more expressive, their balance of color was better, their layouts were better, their backgrounds were better; and yet what people take from it, is the kinds of stories they take.

The Iron Giant

And when people attempted other kinds of stories, they always did it with bad direction, bad writing, bad animation, bad layouts and bad color. Then, when the films tank, they blamed… Well, they went outside of the fairy tale and the public domain [and the] musical. Disney used to do different kinds of films from that. But lately, it’s, you know, find the familiar title and have five Broadway tunes on it.

Whenever anybody’s attempted something different, like Cool World, if it doesn’t succeed, they blame the type of film, rather than the quality of the work. And if anybody bothers to look at it, there’s a lot of really bad animation in Cool World, and it’s pretty obvious.

At the same time, I feel like there’s a big indication that there’s a huge teenage audience for animation. If you look at things like The Simpsons or King of the Hill, that kind of stuff, there’s a large adult audience for it.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that, if you have great quality animation, you usually have very safe, traditional kind of boring stories. If you have exciting stories, or clever writing, you usually have bargain basement animation.

I think the average episode of The Simpsons, and I stress the word “average,” has more great laughs in it than most of these big budget animated features do. More laughs, good laughs in 22 minutes than a lot of these big-ass features do in an hour-and-a-half. Yet, I feel like teenagers love good animation, but they don’t love it so much that they want to see a musical of fluffy bunnies.

Beavis and Butt-Head Do America

Deneroff: Hasn’t something like Beavis and Butt-head Do America prove that?

Bird: Well, no. To Hollywood types, it proves that cheap-ass animation with fart jokes [are] successful. They don’t analyze it any further than that. In other words, they think that in order for it to be profitable that they have to then follow the Beavis and Butt-head formula of spending a dollar ninety-eight on the animation. Because they would whip out their calculators and say, “Well, Beavis and Butt-head made 60 [million] domestically.” Then they would say, “Geez, with the budgets that we’re spending, that would imply that you would have to spend under 20 for it to be a success.” And my point is, who are the people seeing the Star Wars films, or James Cameron’s latest? And why wouldn’t they love seeing something that was both elaborate and outside of animation’s traditional area?

We are attempting this kind of [thing, but], you can only go a step at a time. When the budgets get above a certain point, you have to take smaller steps, and kind of bring the studio along with you. But we’re attempting to take some small steps outside the traditional way of doing it.

I would say, I hope the new trend includes alternatives to musical[s], and that they would also address what I think is a very large, untapped, young adult audience. That would be where I think things are headed. But studios are very conservative and very tentatively making these steps.

By the same token, if Disney starts failing at it, everyone assumes that that means animation is over. I think that there is more misreading of trends in animation than any other of the film community. If Cool World fails, then all adult-themed animation is doomed. And if Disney fails, all of animation is doomed. And it’s not like, “Well, hey, man, you know, maybe people are tired of five songs and a familiar story.” … That’s like if George Lucas hit a rough patch, somebody would suddenly say, “Well, people are tired of science fiction.” It’s ridiculous! It’s the kind of idiotic statement that never seems to go out of style in Hollywood.

Deneroff: George Lucas has made some bombs, but nobody ever thinks of them.

Bird: Yeah. But the point [is], animation is not a genre. It is a method of storytelling. People are constantly analyzing it and misanalysing it as if it is a genre. It isn’t a genre. It can do horror films, it can do adult comedies if it wanted to, it could do fairy tales, it could do science fiction, it could do musicals, it could mystery, it can do anything. Because Disney has been the only one that’s lavished any care on it, people [then] think it’s the only kind that can be told successfully.

It’s as if John Ford were the only guy to do westerns. Then, they just said, “Well, the only way to do a Western and succeed is the John Ford way.” It’s because John Ford, for the sake of this argument, is the only guy who’s carefully composing his shots and having good actors and all of that. You could also make a Sergio Leone western, or as Peckingpah, or a Howard Hawks. The problem is getting somebody to put that kind of effort into building the team and spending what you need to spend, and then pushing them in a slightly different direction.

If those Disney animators, in the past, had done a science fiction film, it would have been a killer. But that’s not what they did with it. It has to do with quality and storytelling. It’s not the limitations of the medium. People have made those misassumptions because anytime somebody goes outside of that area, anytime somebody goes outside of the turf that Disney has traditionally done, they do it without the Disney expertise, without Disney-level artists.

It sounds like I’m plugging Disney, but I’m using Disney as a way to say quality.

If I could sit down and sort of distill this, I could get this in a couple of sentences for you. But I’m giving you the big baggy, sloppy, slabby version of it. …

…. I actually thought that the Fleischer Supermans were very forward looking.

Deneroff: Oh, yes. And I know that Warner Bros. TV, when they set up the Batman series …

Bird: Looked at that stuff.

Deneroff: … they showed all that stuff and said, This is what we want. …

Bird: I’m pretty glad they did, though.

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Remembering John Halas

April 16th, 2012 · Animation studios, British cinema, Documentary films, Filmmakers, Producers

Vivien Halas has posted this filmic remembrance of her father John Halas (1912-1995), who would have been 100 years old today. Halas, whose studio, Halas & Batchelor, made the first British animated feature, Animal Farm (1954), was obviously a seminal figure in British animation and also served as the founding president of ASIFA-International.

The documentary features a number of interviews with friends and people who worked with him at his studio and ASIFA. It also includes some fascinating clips from his films, including a 1970 experiment with 2D computer animation and a 1930 film he made in his native Hungary.

I never really met Halas, though I did correspond with him when I served as editor of the ASIFA-Hollywood’s Graffiti magazine and The Inbetweener newsletter in the mid-1980s. As ASIFA-International President and President Emeritus, he would send out a column which we and other ASIFA chapters would publish.  I still recall a rather prescient piece talking about the growing affinity between visual effects and animation.

Vivien Halas add that, “This short documentary will be available shortly as a bonus on a new DVD specially made for ASIFA of John’s favourite short films from Halas & Batchelor.”

Happy birthday John.

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Adam Abraham’s “When Magoo Flew”

April 2nd, 2012 · American cinema, Animation history and criticism, Animation studios, Books

When Magoo Flew book cover

Adam Abraham’s new book, which has just been published by Wesleyan University Press, is an easy book to recommend to anyone interested in film or animation history. I was one of the anonymous readers Wesleyan engaged to evaluate it. A brief excerpt from my confidential evaluation is used on the back cover as an endorsement; but I would like to say a few more words on why the book is so important. (I did have some reservations, but they did not hesitate me from urging its publications.)

Until now, one of the many glaring gaps in animation, film and TV history has been the lack of an authoritative (or even a superficial) history of UPA, which was the most important American animation studio in the post-World War II period. (I do recall a self-published work issued on ditto whose circulation was obviously limited and lacked the scholarship of Abraham’s book.) The studio’s films, ranging from John Hubley’s Rooty Toot Toot and Ragtime Bear (which introduced Mr. Magoo) to Bobe Cannon’s Gerald McBoing Boing and Ted Parmelee’s The Tell-Tale Heart, were seen in their day as revolutionary and had a profound influence. Their films changed the way animation was designed and set the tone for not only for much of what followed (especially TV programs), but also helped define the field of motion graphics, including the development of the modern title sequence (predating the better known work of Saul Bass).

The studio has been largely neglected, in part, due to the lack of books such as this, as well as the lack of corporate support by the various rights holders (e.g., until recently, the best collection of UPA films on DVD was found as extras on the Hellboy special edition DVDs/Blu-Rays owing to Guillermo del Toro being a UPA fan ). As I noted earlier here, two new DVDs containing the bulk of UPA’s theatrical work are also now available.

Over the years, there has been talk of someone doing a serious study of the studio, a project pushed by the family of UPA-cofounder Steve Bosustow (I recall Charles Solomon once being bandied about as a possible candidate).

My biggest complaint is that the author’s knowledge of animation history pre-UPA seems limited. It’s almost as if he’s channeling the views of Disney animation artists in the 1930s and early 1940s who went on to found UPA, who thought of themselves as the center of the animation universe. This leads to a somewhat parochial view of the film and animation world at the time of UPA’s birth. In his research, Abraham’s also misses some important articles, including Michael Frierson’s  "The Carry Over Dissolve in UPA Animation"in the 2001 issue of Animation Journal. But these are not game changers and this is certainly a book I can easily recommend.

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